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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