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The Tres in Cuba

A contemporary Cuban tres with a cutaway

In Cuba, among the Creole class, the Son arose as a song and salon dance genre featuring the persistent sounds of a plucked string instrument alternatively playing the melodic lead and a four-bar ostinato passage called montuno. This repeating phrase forms a rhythmic foundation for the music. Originally, a guitar, tiple or bandola, played rhythm and lead in the son, but later these were replaced by a native-born instrument, a fusion of the three: the Cuban tres.

The original Son form consisted of melodies derived from the ancient sung coplas of Spain, accompanied by a guitar and an ingenious bass apparatus called marímbola (a hollow box about the size of a television set with an array of attached lengths of clock spring straps that were plucked by a player seated on the box, producing bass tones) or a botija (a large ceramic bottle with a hole in it which is blown like a rum jug). Some experts, however, understand that the direct historic antecedent to the son was a genre called "changúí," still played by some folkloric groups in Cuba.

The son ensemble evolved by growing in size until it included up to six or seven musicians (known correspondingly as sexteto or septeto): guitar, tres, maracas, claves (in the hands of the lead singer) and bongos; variously, one or more trumpets, a second guitarist, and a mar'mbola or botija would complete the grouping. The bass line was provided by the marímbola or the botija, but these instruments would disappear, as the groups became louder and rowdier, in favor of the more sonorous bass fiddle.

The Cuban tres itself began as a rustic native adaptation of the Spanish family of wire-strung instruments that were popular in Spain during colonial times: laúd, bandola and bandurria. The seventeenth century historian Bermudo describes a three-course bandurria which may have set the pattern for the first tres. The earliest are said to have been made from codfish boxes, most likely by African-Cuban dock workers. It was usually played with a tortoise-shell pick. Over time, the tres evolved into an object of refined craft, losing its rustic, mandolin-like form and growing in size, but retaining its bandurria-like pear shaped outline. Perhaps looking for greater sonority, Arsenio Rodriguez and Isaac Oviedo often played tres on a Spanish guitar adapted for three doubled up wire-string courses÷and its neck and scale shortened to ten frets to the body. Today, adapted guitars are the most often-seen form of the tres. When the son was eventually absorbed into the cabaret and dance hall, the instrument's job of playing the montuno over and over was largely taken up by the piano. Since then, the importance of the tres has waned in modern popular music, and can be seen today mostly during revivals of traditional forms.

Great Cuban treseros 

Early in this century, several legendary tresistas [tres players] would emerge: Nené Manfugás, Carlos Godines, Arsenio Rodriguez, Isaac Oviedo, and Eliseo Silveira. They are considered to be national treasures of Cuban music. Known as a bohemian and adventurer, Nené Manfugás brought his music from the hinterlands of Baracoa into the great city of Santiago de Cuba in the late 1880s. He played early, primitive sones that were marvelously rich despite the rusticity of his tres, and in the process propelled the son as a national genre.

Arsenio Rodriguez was a great composer and tresero from Matanzas. Blinded at an early age, he nonetheless developed a unique style that became established as a standard form.

Arsenio Rodriguez

 Listen to an audio fragment of Arsenio playing a solo on his tres, in a 1940 recording with Miguelito Valdéz, titled: Se va el caramelero

Arsenio developed the Son's combo structure, which included the tumbadora drum,  and which would become the indispensable characteristic of the Son and all subsequent derivative forms. During the fifties, his music had fallen out of style in his homeland, and like so many traditional Caribbean musicians, he found a new and eager audience among hundreds of thousands of Cuban and Puerto Rican expatriates in New York City. He left behind a treasury of original compositions when he died in Los Angeles, California in 1972 at the age of 61.

Isaac Oviedo, another great Cuban tresero from Matanzas was born in 1902. During the 1920s he formed the Septeto Matancero, and toured the Caribbean and the United States during the twenties and thirties, leaving a craze behind him as he traveled.

Isaac Oviedo

During the twenties, the Septeto Nacional de Ignacio Piñeiro was another musical powerhouse that spread the Son throughout Latin America. Indeed Piñeiro is credited with having established the Son as a ballroom dance form (most other dances of the time were essentially communal or figure-dances) where a couple danced "solitos" or all by themselves. Around 1977 the surviving members of the Septeto Nacional reunited. The event was documented on film as a tribute to Piñeiro by his now octagenarian band associates.

While all the legendary treseros, sadly, have died off, a crop of top treseros still keep the flame of the son and its derivatives still alive: Three highly regarded living treseros are Francisco "Pancho" Amat, a Cuban with the Adalberto Alvarez y su Son group in Cuba, Also, one of the most technically proficient players on the level of Pancho Amat is Juan "Coto" de la Cruz Antomarchi.  He played w/Elio Reve and is now touring with Cubanismo and his own band.

Other important Cuban treseros are

  • Alejandro "Mulato" Rodríguez - Cuarteto Machín
  • Félix Ganuza - Cuarteto Machín
  • Papi Oviedo - Conjunto Familia Oviedo, Orq. Revé
  • Reyes 'Chito' Latamblet es el tresero a quien se le da la mayor responsabilidad por haber implementado el estilo de "changui" de tocar el tres
  • Niño Rivera - Estrellas del Areito
  • Guillermo Pompa Montero
    tocó con Chito Latamblet, Isaac Oviedo, alumno de Niño Rivera
  • Storch - Cuarteto Caney
  • Francisco "Pancho" Amat - Manguaré, Adalberto Alvarez
  • Juan de Marcos González - Sierra Maestra, Afro-Cuban All Stars
  • Guillermo Céspedes - Conjunto Céspedes
  • Juan "Cotó" de la Cruz Antoniomarchi - grupo Ecos del Caribe

Classic shape of the traditional tres cubano diagram: William Cumpiano

The legendary tresero Panchito Solares seated beside the great Ignacio Piñeiro, director of the Septeto Nacion.
Photo circa 1958

Another shot of Panchito Solares and members of thel Septeto Nacional taken in 1962

Tres and tresero from Matanzas, Cuba

Other tres cubano configurations

Vase or tulip-shaped tres

Tresero of the Grupo Típico Oriental
with a tulip-shaped tres

Nine-string Tres Cubano

Left.: Pillo Ortega, director of the grupo Ronda Lirica Oriental,
 tresero of the Septeto Matamoros with treses carrying three triple-string courses (totaling nine strings)
   Photos courtesy of Eric Guerini y Benito González

Puerto Rican Tresero of the Septeto Flores


     In Cuba it is very common to convert a Spanish six-single-nylon-string guitar into a three-double-metal-string tres. They call it guitarra-tres. The great Arsenio Rodríguez, as well as Isaac Oviedo used guitarras-tres. The guitar soundbox is larger than that of the traditional tres, which lends it a somewhat larger sound. Presumably, the preponderance of guitarra-tres over the traditional kind is some places is a regional preference.
     But a problem with these conversions arises: the nylon or gut guitar strings place a far lesser tension stress on the instrument than the metal ones do. The greater stress over time overwhelms the guitar's structure and the structure eventually fails and collapses, and the over-burdened instrument has to be retired.
     The most popular way to account for the extra string tension is to add a "trapeze" (called "baticola" in Cuba) below the bridge, which instead of having the string tension dumped on the yielding soundboard, directs the tension to the rigid tailblock at the base of the soundboard. This frees much of the delicate soundboard from carrying all the force and prolongs the useful life of the instrument. Unfortunately, even with the baticola in place, the stresses eventually flex the instrument away from the strings. That is why some builders are now building treses more like steel-string, rather than nylon-string guitars, whose structure anticipates the increased stress and results in a long-lasting instrument.

Stringing and Tuning

The Cuban tres carries three courses (groups) of two strings each, adding up to six strings.

Starting with the string closest to the player, the modern tuning is in C Major:

G, C, E

Frequently a capo is placed behind the the second fret, changing the tuning to D Major:

A, D, F#

Cuban countryfolk use different tunings when playing the genre called Punto Cubano. These are:

F, C#, F#
(This one is called "transportáo al medio" or transposed to the middle)

Otra es:

F,  D,  G
(called "afinación al dos" or double tuning)

  The strings within each course are tuned in unison or in octaves. Within the octave courses the lowest-pitch string is wound (wrapped with a fine metal wire) and the highest is a mono-filament wire string. The mass difference between the two allows them to stay at the same tension while being tuned an octave apart.

However, the precise ways in which the plain and wound strings are configured within each course, or even which courses are unison or octave courses, varies according to custom. The most common configurations of octave and unison string courses on the Cuban tres are as follows: (Capital letters denote the lower-octave--and thus wound--strings)

1-   g/G    c/c    E/e
2-   g/G   c/c    e/e

There are other configurations but they are not seen very often. Among them: 

3-   G/g   c/c   e/e
4.   G/g   C/c  E/e

Las cuerdas para el tres cubano pueden ser seleccionadas de cajas de cuerdas individuales de acero de guitarra disponibles en distinto calibres de tiendas de música-usualmente las más grandes. Las cuerdas sencillas usualmente son de acero ténsil y las entorchadas son usualmente envueltos en hilo niquelado o bronceado, o a veces son una combinación de seda y metal. Los calibres son típicamente los siguientes:

sol octava aguda: .009" sencilla
SOL octava grave: .022" entorchada
do: .011 sencilla
mi octava aguda: .009"sencilla
MI octava grave: .022" entorchada