Cuatro: The Ukulele’s Venezuelan Cousin

I’m always keen to check out what musicians are doing on their instruments to see what I can incorporate into my uke playing.

It’s easiest to integrate techniques used on instruments similar to the ukulele such as the ukulele’s Madeiran forebears and, the subject of this post, the Venezuelan cuatro.

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The Venezuelan cuatro – not to be confused with the Puerto Rican cuatro – has four string, is usually tuned ADF#B (like a D-tuned ukulele) and appears to have been strung by an idiot. It is re-entrant like the uke but re-entrant the other way round. The outside strings (A and B) are both an octave lower than they are on the uke. So the outside strings are lower than the inside strings.

That means both instruments use the same chord shapes. It also makes for an interesting duet with the ukulele. In the Penguin Cafe Orchestra clip the ukulele and the cuatro are both playing exactly the same thing. But the difference in tuning makes it much more interesting.

The current kings of the cuatro are the C4 Trio who are as spectacularly explosive as their name would suggest. They demonstrate the riotous strumming that is a feature of cuatro playing (if you thought Jake had a great right hand check out Danny Orduño Barines). The clip I’ve included is long but there’s always something interesting and entertaining happening.

Before the C4 trio, the master of the cuatro was Fredy Reyna. He took up the cuatro in the 40s when his guitar was stolen and went on to play, teach and popularise the instrument and give it a new respectability.

The popularity of the cuatro spread to nearby Trinidad and Tobago (turns out it is way closer to Venezuela than I realised). Which saw a blend of the Venezuelan style (more heavy in the Robert Munro clip) with Carribbean influence (Busta Theodore) creating a genre known as parang. Parang is particularly associated with Christmas – hence the last clip.

I hope watching these gives you a few ideas and plenty of inspiration.

Thanks to Gerardo Gouveia for suggesting many of these videos and inspiring me to write this post.

C4 Trio – Periquera con seis por Derecho

Georgina Hassan – Espiral

Penguin Cafe Orchestra – Paul’s Dance

Fredy Reyna – Virtuosos

Danny Orduño Barines – Solo Cuatro

Antonio Leon – El Cruzao

Grupo Cimarrón – El Guate

Busta Theodore

Robert Munro and Ron Metivier – Parang Lime

Third Bass – Par-Hang

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40 Comments

  1. guiie July 4th, 2012 7:27 pm

    What about the Cavaquinho?

  2. Woodshed July 4th, 2012 10:04 pm

    guiie: What about your mum?

  3. Brent July 5th, 2012 7:34 am

    C4 Trio are phenomenal. Amazing musicians.

  4. Tom C July 5th, 2012 8:08 am

    Its kind of scary to see how good some of these players are on what is a fairly bizarre instrument. The quality of players of ethnic music never ceases to amaze me.

  5. ukuhippo July 5th, 2012 9:05 am

    Wow, and I thought my strumminghand was fast in my early teens.

  6. Ian Andrews July 5th, 2012 9:40 am

    The Cuatro pre-dates the Uke by some 350 years, having travelled (as the Renaissance Guitar) with the Conquistadors to Venezuela some 500 years ago and developing from there. The tuning is known as Low Re-entrant (as opposed to the Uke being High Re-entrant).
    They are typically much lighter built than a ukulele, with a lightweight fan style bracing not unlike a classical guitar.

  7. mander mae July 5th, 2012 5:07 pm

    Um. Wow. C4 trio especially.

  8. ukuleletim July 5th, 2012 5:48 pm

    Nice article and compilation. It was my failed hunt for a Venezuelan Cuatro that led me to the ukulele. I wanted that sound and to play that type of music and the uke satisfied me back then. The rest is history as far as my love for the ukulele goes.

    I have since acquired a few Venezuelan Cuatros, one not playable, but haven’t put the same dedication into becoming a real player.

    It’s very inspiring and entertaining to watch masters get after it.

  9. JoeyJoeJoseph July 5th, 2012 9:49 pm

    Wow I think I have one of those and have been playing it tuned D G B E. I’m not fluent enough in musicality to know the difference between low or high re entrant or even post present or future entrant. I call my quatrolele Mr. Snuffulupugus because it’s big and brown. (insert innuendo here)

  10. Kyle Frazer July 8th, 2012 9:56 am

    I put Cuatro strings on my Mahala LP-style, didn’t like it at all.

  11. Woodshed July 9th, 2012 10:30 pm

    Brent and mander mae: Absolutely. Those guys blew me away.

    Tom C: The ukulele is fairly bizarre too!

    ukuhippo: They’ve obviously been getting some serious bedroom practice in!

    Ian: Thanks for the info.

    ukuleletim: I fancy giving one a go myself.

    JoeyJoeJoseph: It’s as good a name as any!

    Kyle: The uke didn’t like it or you didn’t like it?

  12. Kyle Frazer July 10th, 2012 5:28 pm

    Both, I think! It didn’t sound nice at all. I was attracted to it by Show of Hands using a Cuatro built by David Oddy, there’s is obviously a much finer crafted instrument, probably with much better strings on it!

  13. Alex July 15th, 2012 2:17 am

    Woodshed: Why did you answered Guii like this?
    I wasn’t expecting that from you…

    Cavaquinho has steel snares and it has an different tuning it may be quite beautiful.

  14. Woodshed July 15th, 2012 1:18 pm

    Alex: Because his comment annoyed me.

  15. TheHighlandCal July 16th, 2012 12:31 pm

    I became inspired to find out more about and to learn to play the Cuatro when you first posted the video of PCO playing Paul’s Dance. I did a load of research finally found out what it was, then eventually bought a vintage 1950’s one, in a BAD state, for about 20 pounds and now I am currently repairing it. All this because of you (and PCO)!
    I am glad you have done an article on it as it really is an amazing instrument.
    Thanks,
    TheHighlandCal

  16. Woodshed July 17th, 2012 10:15 am

    TheHighlandCal: Glad to hear it inspired you. I hope you get it in playable shape.

  17. dp July 19th, 2012 3:34 am

    Have you heard a bandola llanera? Another cool four string instrument.

  18. Woodshed July 19th, 2012 10:45 am

    dp: Yeah, they’re really cool instruments. I’ve featured a couple of bandola videos before. I might well do a post like this about them.

  19. todd July 29th, 2012 10:33 am

    super enjoyed the Busta THeodore vid.

  20. Woodshed July 29th, 2012 7:01 pm

    todd: He seems like one hell of a guy!

  21. Mulong August 3rd, 2012 11:50 pm

    It is a pleasure seeing this article/postings on the Venezuelan Cuatro; I have been interest in this particular instrument for years, but sadly finding one of a quality hasn’t been easy; a few I have come across on the net are made in Bolivia and the quality was a bit off. However, a few months ago I came across a Cordoba so-called Venezuelan Cuatro. I stated it as so-called, because it looks like one (lovely looking), but its dimensions are totally off, because in actuality it is a baritone ukulele and obviously tuned to the key of G.

    At this point I start to hunt down some strings for it, and first choice was Aquila; thanks goodness I was able to get a set of them for the Cuatro; however, I had problems, why trying to tune it up I broke one of the strings and substitute it with the baritone string. Ah, then I realize that my A and B string were an octave higher then they are suppose to be and that dimension of instrument played a factor in that.

    Yeah, it has been a journey with my so-called Venezuelan Cuatro. At the moment, I’m awaiting a set of Aquila baritone strings for the key of C and the new Red low D string to get the right setup; crossing my fingers.

    Hopefully discussion like this help promote the instrument and hopefully we can get real Cuatro in the states or at least on the web.

  22. Ian Andrews August 4th, 2012 6:01 pm

    Mulong, watch ‘Paul’s dance’ on Youtube and you will find the answer. :)

  23. Mulong August 5th, 2012 12:27 am

    Thanks Ian, will do… :)

  24. Adriaan October 30th, 2012 10:22 am

    I am learning how to play the Venezuelan Cuatro with http://www.tucuatro.com. They have classes in both Spanish and English with video tutorials and quite a lot of material. It has a cost, but I would say was worth it and have advanced to a point where I can easily jam with my Cuatro. I hope this helps my other fellow students who would like to learn more about the Cuatro.

  25. Woodshed October 30th, 2012 3:48 pm

    Adriaan: Thanks for the link. Looks like a cool site.

  26. steve April 3rd, 2013 2:06 pm

    Does anyone know if a Baritone Uke is similar in size and scale to the Cuatro? I’d like to string up my bari uke and try Cuatro tuning.

  27. Ian Andrews April 3rd, 2013 5:46 pm

    @ Steve,

    Yes, you can string a Baritone with Cuatro strings, although you may need to adjust the nut for the 1st string. Try it first and see if you get any buzzing/jumping, just in case you want to go back. :)

  28. Mulong April 3rd, 2013 5:59 pm

    For example I’m using a Cordoba Cuatro, which is actually a baritone uke. However, I had issues with the strings. I first used Aquila’s string for cuatro, but the b and a string can be tuned so low; therefore, tried the new Aquila’s red, i.e., d & g, but that didn’t work. I ended up using D’Addario G string for classical guitar to be able to get the low b & a.

    Baritone Uke is a bit larger then cuatro; that means it is between the dimension of tenor and baritone uke.

  29. Steve April 4th, 2013 9:07 pm

    Thanks guys! I appreciate the feedback. I ordered some Cuatro strings…wish me luck!

  30. Woodshed April 5th, 2013 11:52 am

    Steve: Good luck!

  31. tony bamforth July 5th, 2014 9:04 am

    Would love to purchase a Venezuelan Cuatro.So who markets or makes the instrument in the U.K.? Little point in wetting the appetite ! I wonder how it would sound with a C G D A tuning ? Perhaps if I could buy one I could find out. HELP.

  32. Chamo July 5th, 2014 1:36 pm

    Hi Tony,

    I know a guy in Tenerife who makes cuatros and have one at home which is superb and I am having an electic one made. I bought them through here: http://info.tucuatro.com/luthier/jose-baritto/

    The page is in Spanish, but I have been writing to them in English and there is no problem. I would recommend doing this cause 2 years ago I had one shipped from Venezuela and the national guards drilled holes in it looking for contraband. Shipments from Spain are much more reliable. Hope this helps!

  33. guest1234 July 26th, 2014 3:31 am

    So if I understand correctly, The Cuatro uses the same chord shapes as the ukulele?

  34. Woodshed July 26th, 2014 6:30 am

    guest1234: That’s my understanding too.

  35. Steven H. August 15th, 2014 1:46 pm

    Do you know of anyone who has tuned a tenor or baritone ukulele like a Cuatro but with GCEA (low G and low A)? If so did it sound good? (Also I got Ukulele for Dummies off Amazon. Pretty dang good. I was surprised.)

  36. Woodshed August 15th, 2014 2:12 pm

    Steven: I don’t, I’m afraid. Thanks for the kind words! I’m glad your expectations were low enough to be pleasantly surprised!

  37. Liz Panton February 18th, 2015 6:40 pm

    Cuatro: Reply Ukulelehunt

    Stephen H. – Southcoast do strings to use a ukulele as a cuatro http://www.southcoastukes.com/cuatro.htm

    I have tried their LC-NW (Light Gauge Cuatro – No Wound) strings on a Lanikai “starter uke” soprano, tuned DgbE (G6) and their LMC-NW (Light Medium Gauge Cuatro – No Wound) on an old Harmony Baritone that was rebuilt by Kevin Parsons with less bracing, so more resonant, and tuned GceA (C6).

    I started off picking and strumming them more in a “ukulele style” rather than “cuatro style”, which uses a loosely closed hand, strumming down with the surface of the finger nails and up with the surface of the thumb nail.

    I have been doing more “cuatro strumming” lately and practicing the “ascending frenado” (I looked up “frenado” and it translates as “brake”, as on a car). It is a great, percussive sound and works well on ukulele tuning too! This is a good slow-motion demonstration of the “ascending frenado” that gives a sharp “click” or “clack” sound – a sort of upstroke alternative to downstroke “ukulele chunking”:

    https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=K-gyiSyrLYs

    Practicing the cuatro way of strumming and the ascending frenado has also improved the way I hold the ukulele generally.

    I had got into the habit of playing with the instrument almost parallel to the floor rather than with the neck angled across my body with the headstock up near my shoulder.

    The cuatro strum and ascending frenado are much easier with the neck at a steep angle across the body and I found that that also makes it easier if I am picking and am leaving my index finger anchored nearer the headstock and reaching for frets closer to the body with my pinkie finger.

    This page on the Southcoast site explains about their recommended tunings for their cuatro strings on different size ukuleles: http://www.southcoastukes.com/007.htm

    The Harmony Baritone (quite a small baritone) sounds better to me than the Lanikai but it is a better instrument anyway so it is not a fair comparison.

    These are not good recordings and I am by NO means a brilliant player, as you will hear, but they might give you some idea of the sound of the Southcoast LMC-NW strings on the Baritone uke tuned GceA.

    This is my first stab at the Intro to a song I am working on (honest, it does sound better than this in real life!) :-) http://youtu.be/uw1WCdziJBk

    This is just messing around with the same set up, straight after I had put the cuatro strings on, with and without a Rhythm Ring (I was sat too close to the mic so some nasty “blurting”): https://soundcloud.com/molegrip-von-mousetrouser/baritone-uke-cuatro-strings-rhythm-ring

    I hope that hasn’t put you off! If you have got a spare uke, I would definitely have a go because you would probably do a lot better than me.

    I think, from Kevin Parsons playing his cuatros and also from my ukes with the cuatro strings, that the flimsier the uke then the better it is likely to sound if it is strung as a cuatro.

    Some things I like about the cuatro strings on the Baritone are the deeper sound of the baritone tuned GceA, without the “baby guitar” sound of the normal Baritone Dgbe tuning, and the fact that in a session it doesn’t cause confusion if people are “watching hands” to follow a song, because I am playing “GCEA chords”.

    I am undecided about the soprano tuned DgbE. I quite like it. I’d like to hear those strings on a better uke to see what they sound like then. Because I would be playing “Baritone chords”on a soprano, I haven’t played it in sessions, due to the confusion it would cause when people are “following hands”. It would certainly mess with the heads of the guitarists in mixed sessions! :-)

    (ps. To try to show how the tuning works I have named the low strings with capital letters. The Southcoast site uses a different way of identifying high and low strings, called “Standard Notation”. I cannot remember setting this anywhere else but does make a lot of sense – once you get your head around it: http://www.southcoastukes.com/017.htm)

  38. Steven H. February 18th, 2015 9:24 pm

    Liz Panton – Thanks for the info. Unfortunately the youtube link you posted for the intro doesn’t work for me. It says the video is private.

    Soundcloud link worked fine. Sounded good to me, like a pro. This may motivate me to restring my baritone, actually practice, and get over the hump (I’m new to ukulele and very unaccomplished).

    Thanks again.

  39. Chris April 9th, 2015 1:17 am

    I have always thought that the traditional DGBE tuning of the baritone sounded like a dead guitar. I have a Pono Mahogany Baritone that I strung with the southcoast ukulele cuatro set which is mentioned above in a previous post and I am amazed by the sound. The sustain and clarity of the notes is great. It leads one to question how or why the “traditional” DGBE tuning ever even came about. Now, this baritone sounds like an extremely well built, solid cuatro. The low re-entrant stringing is practically made for the baritone.

  40. krishna April 19th, 2015 12:06 am

    My Dad built cuatros among other musical instruments, have been playing one since I was 5. Very versatile and beautiful sounding instruments in the hands of an expert I play parang an indigenous music played at christmas time and ole time kaiso..

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