tres cubano

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Title: Boleros - Armando Garzon with the Quinteto Oriente--Sublime Ilusion; Alejendro Enis Almenares, tres. Label: Corason. Format: CD. Catalogue#: CORA 131. Track: 3.

Contextual Associations

The tres cubano is a plucked box-lute chordophone of Cuba that is derived from the European guitar. Similar guitars are found elsewhere in the Caribbean, especially in the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico, differing somewhat from the tres cubano in their tuning and resonator shape. Primarily an ensemble rather than solo instrument, it is found in groups accompanying Cuban popular dance styles, most notably the son, and regional song forms (punto cubano).


The resonator of this tres cubano is constructed from thinly-shaven boards of wood--mahogany for the sides and back, and western red cedar for the soundboard. On the interior sides of the back and soundboard a number of wooden struts are glued before the boards themselves are glued to the side. These strengthen the boards structurally and enhance their resonance. The flat soundboard has a circular soundhole cut in it near the center of its top half, and a wooden pressure bridge with a bone saddle is glued to the soundboard approximately in the middle of its lower half. The neck and peg block are fabricated from a single block of mahogany. The neck and resonator are securely joined in the Spanish style, which basically involves conjoining the resonator sides with the foot of the neck and then gluing the foot to the inside faces of the soundboard and back. The topside of the neck is laminated with a flat fingerboard of rosewood that has 18 metal frets inserted into grooves cut across it. The top end of the fingerboard terminates at a nut (a raised ridge) made of bone, but the first fret, located just a fraction of an inch below it, actually functions as the nut, leaving 17 frets for stopping the strings. The fingerboard overlaps the soundboard at the eleventh fret and continues up to the edge of the soundhole. The pegblock is slotted and has two sets of three lateral-mounted metal machine heads with back-facing knobs. Three double courses of wire strings (the second from the left in the image being the only wound one), are tied to the edge of a metal tailpiece, make contact with the bone saddle on the bridge, then run over and slightly above the soundboard and the fretted fingerboard before making contact with the top-most fret and the nut and being wound around the tuning peg capstans. The strings all have the same vibrating length of 21 inches as measured from the bridge saddle to the first fret.

Player - Instrument Interface and Sound Production

The tres cubano can be played either by a seated of standing performer (in the latter manner with the aid of a shoulder strap) and held horizontally or with its pegbox end raised up to about a 45-degree angle, the soundboard facing outwards. The player usually strums and picks the strings with a pick held in the right hand, stopping the strings against the fretted fingerboard with the fingertips of the left hand. Parts produced on it fit into the dense rhythmic and harmonic texture of the Cuban son, a tresano (tres player) paying repeated riffs (guajeos) and short melodic responses to the singers’ melodies. The standard tuning for the tres cubano is: G4-G3 - C4-C4 - E4-E4 (the strings in the middle and top course are tuned to unison, the bottom course strings are tuned to an octave). The basic range of the tres cubano is from G3 - A5, and the instrument is fully chromatic over this span. Notation is generally not used for the instrument. It is a fairly loud instrument for an acoustic chordophone thanks to the use of wire strings under high tension arranged in double courses.


The early history of the tres cubano is linked to the creation of the Cuban son tradition in rural areas of eastern Cuba in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Acoustic Spanish guitars were certainly known and available at that time and place, but no single maker or musician seems to be credited with modifying this Spanish model into a three double-course stringed lute.

Bibliographic Citations

Manuel, Peter. 2006. Caribbean Currents. rev. ed. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Moore, Robin. 2012. “Cuba and the Spanish Caribbean.” In Musics of Latin America. Robin Moore, ed. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, pp. 176-222.

Roriguez, Olavo Alen. 1998. "Cuba." In The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music v.2. ed. Dale A. Olsen and Daniel E. Sheehy. New York: Garland Publishing, pp. 116-133.

Saenz Coopat, Carmen Maria, and Maria Elena Vinueza. 2007. “Oral Traditions of Cuba.” In Music in Latin America and the Caribbean, v.2: Performing the Caribbean Experience. Malena Kuss, ed. Austin: University of Texas Press, pp. 29-53.

Schechter, John N. 1984. “Tres.” NGDMI v.3: 623.


Instrument Information


Continent: Americas

Region: Caribbean

Nation: Cuba

Formation: Afro-Cuban

Classification (Sachs-Von Hornbostel revised by MIMO)

321.322 chordophone--necked box lute or necked guitar: the handle is attached to or carved from the resonator, like a neck

Design and Playing Features

Category: chordophone

String carrier design: lute - joined

Resonator design, chordophone: box with wood soundboard

String courses: double at unison, double at octave

Vibrational length: pressure bridge to ridge-nut

String tension control: machine head

Method of sounding: plucking (direct) and strumming

Pitches per string course: multiple (by pressure stopping against fretted fingerboard)


35.1 in. length 13.1 in. greatest width 4 in. depth of resonator

Primary Materials

string - wire
metal machine heads


Esteve Guitars

Entry Author

Roger Vetter