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The Tres in Puerto Rico and Cuba

by William R. Cumpiano-Puerto Rican Cuatro Project
  and Ramón M. Goméz-Organización Sambumbia

 with the additional contribution of Benjamin Lapidus-ethnomusicologist and director of Sonido Isleño

We wish to also recognize as an important source an article in the Cuban textbook Instrumentos de la Música Folclórico-Popular de Cuba, Volumen 2, [Instruments of Folkloric-Popular Music of Cuba, Volume 2] about the Tres written by the researcher, Carmen María Sáenz Coopat, who is a collaborator to the Cuatro Project, published by the Centro de Investigación y Desarrollo de la Música Cubana [Center for the Research and Development of Cuban Music] 1997, La Habana de Cuba, Editorial de Ciencias Sociales [Social Sciences publishing house],  and which due to the embargo is not available in the United States.
The Tres is generally unknown among many otherwise knowledgeable fans of fretted stringed instruments, yet it is a vital expressive tool that has shaped the sound of Latin American music since the last century.

Note: Cuban tres players often call themselves treseros; while Puerto Ricans playing the tres often call themselves tresistas. We will follow that custom.


 A small offering:

  Here is a wonderful introduction to the Tres: the great singer and arranger for the Los Guaracheros del Oriente and for Arsenio Rodríguez, Israel Berrios, sings for us a medley of his arrangements of the standards Temporal and Qué Bonita Bandera, with Charlie Rodríguez on the Tres.

A gift from the Cuatro Project: Downnload a booklet of tres chords that we have prepared in Acrobat pdf format.

Here we offer a translation of Carmen María Sáenz Coopat's research on the Tres for  Center for Research and Promotion of Cuban Music [Centro de Investigación y desarrolo de la Música Cubana]


Mario Hernández, arguably the greatest Puerto Rican tresista, at the height of his career.
Photo courtesy Ansonia Records


In the early sixteenth century,
the Catholic kings of Spain, Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabelle of Castile, commanded that string instruments be sent in large numbers to their "new" world, along with the Spanish colonists, as tools of religious observation and persuasion. Sailors, besides, must have brought their own tiny guitarillos and tiples, instruments popular among the lower-born in Spain at the time, as valued companions during the long ocean passages.
     The high-born brought their own distinctive instruments: once on land, the conquistadores and missionaries could listen to the familiar melodies of the
stately vihuela and think of their homes far away.
     Later, regional guitar-like instruments sprang up as mixed-race Creoles, native-born whites and African slaves applied their resourcefulness and simple tools to local materials, creating workable replicas of what must have been expensive and scarce originals.

None of these instruments follow a rational artistic pattern in their manner of construction; their low material value results from their being made by the jíbaros themselves, whom most of the time must rely on barely appropriate tools while making them. It would be interesting to point out the process of bifurcation that the previously-mentioned national stringed instruments have followed: within them, the way guitars and bandurrias are made persists, but the lack of tools has influenced their not being able to be made as perfectly as the models that the Spaniards brought from the Metropolis.
                                                                                                                                             Francisco Del Valle Atiles, 1887

In this way, unique native variants of gut and wire string instruments called tiple, bandolina, tres, and cuatro would endure in the Americas long after the Spanish retired back to Europe at the end of the last century.


If you'd like to hear the tres, this discography of selected recordings will help:

  • SEXTETO BORINQUEN: El Auténtico, Vol. 1 (Ansonia 1312)
  • ISAAC OVIEDO: Routes of Rhythm, Vol.3 (Rounder 5055)
  • LUIS LIJA ORTIZ Y SU SEXTETO CARAVAN: No Me Persigas (Ansonia 1601)
  • JOHNNY PACHECO: El Maestro (Fania 485)
  • ARSENIO RODRIGUEZ Y SU CONJUNTO: Montuneando 1946-50 (Tumbao 31)
  • ADALBERTO ALVAREZ Y SU SON: Ay, Que Tu Quieres, Que Te Den? (DM 2002)
  • MARIO HERNANDEZ Y SU SEXTETO BORINQUEN: Para Ti Son Mis Canciones (Artilleria CDC-332)

    Thanks to Eric Guerini, Ramón M. Gómez-Organización Sambumbia,  Juan Sotomayor and the Acoustic Guitar Magazine article: CARIBBEAN MEMORIES by William R. Cumpiano-- for their assitance to this page.