Let me introduce you to my cuatro

“What is that?” people often ask when I take it out of its case. The cuatro’s doubled set of steel strings sound somewhere between a mandolin and a twelve-string guitar. When I stumbled into one in a cluttered music shop on a grim Chicago afternoon, I was still reeling from the heavy anaesthetic of a root canal. I was smitten the moment I laid eyes upon its violin-like profile, imagining I might be able to make some pretty sounds were I to take it in my arms.

Having played mostly on nylon string classical or flamenco guitars for several years, the bright joy and assertiveness of its strummed chords were sheer delight. It reminded me of the richness of the steel-stringed Guild I had played as a young teenager, learning folk and pop guitar in the bucolic fields of Appel Farm from Joe Crookston. Playing steel with a pick was wonderfully familiar, and I realised how much I missed it. Yet the cuatro was also different: even though a guitarist could find her way on it pretty quickly, its quality of sound and its beautiful shape were like nothing I had heard or seen before. Emboldened by my anesthetized stupor and possession of a credit card (my father’s), I declared that cuatro mine. I took her home.

My technique on the instrument differs significantly from how it is normally played. The national instrument of Puerto Rico, its mandolin-like upper registers usually sing twinkling melodies which shimmer above the mix.

Go seven minutes and thirty-two seconds into this interview with a child prodigy on Puerto Rican television to see what I mean:

Fabiola Mendez went on to become the first cuatro player to study at the Berklee College of Music in Boston–although it was she who taught the cuatro to her teacher, a guitarist. Listen to her all grown up:

This is wonderful stuff. But I am only now discovering it, though I’ve been playing my cuatro for a decade and a half.

My cuatro is a petite, harmony-laden rhythmic powerhouse. It’s not a top-of-the-line model. In fact, it took me a little while to conclude that the distance from the nut to the first fret is just a shade off, meaning that I get better intonation if I keep a capo on the first fret (or above). At the very top of the neck, again, the intonation gets a bit inconsistent.

I do my best to work around its idiosyncrasies, as I hope others would do for me. I know full well that I stumbled upon this strange treasure and fell in love, without research or deliberation. I even entertained the notion of a cosmic connection between my dental work and the molar-like profile of its tuning pegs. Far-fetched as that might be, I am glad I impulsively clung to this (un)familiar instrument. It has illuminated both my joys and my sorrows with a strength I have come to depend upon.

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