The following article is written by Dave Cohen, (with full permission!) who runs the ukulele site at www.ukulelemusicinfo.com
Who would have thought that the ukulele has a cousin in the Caribbean?! You will instantly fall in love with the Venezuelan cuatro as you did with the ukulele. Although it is less popular than the uke, playing it is as much fun and interesting. We believe that years from now, this presently little known instrument will also penetrate the current culture like the ukulele did. It might be a good idea to learn how to play it before it becomes mainstream. Let’s get you acquainted with the Venezuelan cuatro!
Identical in appearance but not in sound
At first glance, you might mistake a Venezuelan cuatro for a baritone ukulele. They both have four nylon strings and the notable shape of a small guitar. The cuatro has an additional wood pick guard on the upper bout of the instrument,which is used for percussive tapping while strumming rhythms. (Similar in sound to flamenco guitars.)
Although both have four strings, and require same chord shapes, you will hear the distinctive sound difference of the two when played simultaneously. This is because the Venezuelan cuatro has its two highest pitched strings on the 3rd & 2nd strings,whereas the Hawaiian uke has it's highest strings on the 4th & 1st. (unless you use low G tuning)
A string instrument with a re-entrant tuning does not have the traditional ascending or descending pitch as you move through the strings. A higher or lower pitch breaks the order. In the Venezuelan cuatro, the tuning is A4 - D5 - F#5 - B4. This is similar to the traditional D tuning of the ukulele but the A and B strings are tuned an octave lower.
This change in octave makes the cuatro an interesting duet partner for the uke. The difference in octave infuses a different personality to the harmonies the two instruments can create.
One of the masters of cuatro is Fredy Reyna. He is known to have elevated the Venezuelan cuatro to the level of a concert instrument. He also is known for altering the tuning of his cuatro, the solista (soloist) to E-A-C#-F# tuning. He is one of Venezuela’s most important cultural figure in the 20th century.
Currently, the C4 Trio is the biggest name in the cuatro scene. Their style predominantly exudes the rustic and exotic sound of the traditional latino music. Their rowdy but masterful strumming of the cuatro contributes to the overall fun of watching them.
Get out of your comfort zone!
If the Venezuelan cuatro has intrigued you enough, it might be the right time to broaden your musical knowledge. It surely is an interesting addition to the list of musical instrument you can play. With its re-entrant tuning, you can produce more colorful, vivid and deeper sounds. Learning to play it is considerably easy if you already rock the ukulele. If you are up for experimenting rarer sounds, you can put your uke to rest a bit and explore this wonderful instrument.