It's perhaps easy to accept the proposition that Puerto Rican stringed instruments were descendants of ancient Spanish stringed instruments. But it may be harder to accept the concept that one of them was born in modern times with the sole purpose of playing Cuban music. But that's how it was with the Puerto Rican tres.
On the other hand, the idea of a Puerto Rican Cuban instrument is not so strange if you consider that during the last two centuries, Cuban and Puerto Rican cultures have frequently and intimately intertwined.
One of the consequences of this cultural proximity was that the Cuban three-course instrument, created to provide the rhythmic ostinato passages for the Cuban son and changui, was adopted in Puerto Rico, but adapted with a different and distinctive shape and stringing, while keeping the original modal tuning: thus was born the instrument that has become known as the Puerto Rican tres.
Listen to the Puerto Rican tres:
Carreteros(requires Real Player) Cuarteto Marcano. The tresista could be one of the following: Luis "Lija" Ortiz or Sarraíl Archilla (c.1945-46) Alma Borincana(requires Real Player) Guaracha by the Quinteto La Plata, c. 1937, thel tresista probably is Cándido Vicenti
Starting from the time that U.S. citizenship was imposed on Puerto Ricans at the start of the First World War in 1917, boricuas travelled to New York to better their living conditions. Musicians were no exception. From the beginnings of the 1920s to the end of the 1940s, Puerto Rican musicians recorded music that was in vogue for American recording companies. Most of it was music with Cuban roots designed for the North American market, the Latino market and above all for the Latin American market. At the time it was a very concentrated and controlled industry with musical styles and fads dictated by the entrepreneurs rather than by the musicians, and it was more economical to hire local artists in New York than to carry portable recording equipment to Cuba, Santo Domingo or Puerto Rico. This is why so many ancient son and guaracha recordings exist, predominantly performed by Puerto Rican musicians. Later, native recording industries arose in each of the Latin American countries.
It is within this context, one where Puerto Ricans were obliged to adopt the tres as an instrument in their repertory. Composers like Rafael Hernández, Pedro Flores, Plácido Acevedo, Pedro "Piquito" Marcano, among others, found themselves composing music within this commercial mold, one which permitted them to express their patrotic sentiments, their pain, their feelings of love--but within a musical base that was essential Cuban. That generation of musicians principally composed guarachas, sones, rumbas, congas-all sharing Cuban roots--rather than seises, villaranes, danzas or plenas: Puerto Rican genres. Given this context, it is quite easy to understand the proficiency that many Puerto Ricans reached with the tres and their role with the music. What we have not been able to ascertain what happened first--Did Puerto Ricans develop and use the distinctive Puerto Rican tres for the first time in the great city? There is evidence for this, as well as persuasive evidence that the instrument was first created in Puerto Rico first and later it was exported to New York; So which one was it? Evidence for both possibilities is offered here.
The Puerto Rican tresistas
More or less in chronological order, the Puerto Rican musicians that have stood out on the Puerto Rican tres have been:
"Piliche" (Guillermo Ayala) 1906-1993, supposedly the first Puerto Rican tresista, originally mentored by the Cuban tresero Isaac Oviedo who first arrived in Puerto Rico on tour with the Septeto Matancero headed by Graciano Gómez
Yayito Maldonado - Quinteto La Plata; Sexteto de Pedro Flores; Canario y su grupo
Oscar Ríos - Borincuba Oscar Ríos wrote us to add that he also played with Pete "El Conde" Rodríguez, Conjunto Clásico de NY, El Sabor de Nacho, Mickey Cora y la Orquesta Cabala, Conjunto Caney, Pacheco y su Tumbao, y Cachao.
Louis García - Conjunto Canallón, Cheo Feliciano
The marvelous and hard working Puerto Rican tresista Nelson González prefers to play a Cuban tres signed by Cachao. Nelson has won three Grammys and often plays with Marc Anthony. Nelson wrote a great new Tres method.
Puerto Rican tres made by the luthier William Cumpiano, co-founder
of the Cuatro Project, for the Japanese tres player Takashi Shimazaki. Photo by William Cumpiano
The Cuarteto Tropical photo taken February 17, 1935
Left to right (standing), Fernando "Nando" Lao (second voice); Antonio Marrero (second guitar); Félix Castrillón (first voice); Adolfo "Biriquin" Rivera (tres); Seated: Axel Rivera (singer and group owner)
Conjunto de Claudio Ferrer photo taken in 1934
Seated in front, left to right, Claudio Ferrer, guitar; ? Rovira, Puerto Rican tres; Oscar Aponte, bongo. Standing: Ernesto Mantilla, maracas; Benito Rullan, bass; Antonio Nieves, wind instruments; Vitin Mercado, trumpet
The group's tresista, Rovira (see above)
El Septeto Puerto Rico Photo taken circa 1930 Standing, left to right: at the bass: Fernando Pizarro "Nandí", Pompilio Gutierrez "Pompo": singer and maracas, Roberto Maunez; Leocadio Vizcarrondo: secong voice and guitar; Guillermo Ayala "Piliche," Puerto Rican tres: . Seateds: on the trumpet, Juanchín Ramirez; Emilio "Yiyo" Fuentes: bongo.
Guillermo "Piliche" Ayala Tresista of the Septeto Puerto Rico (see photo above)
Supposedly, "Piliche" was the first Puerto Rican tresista. But, was he? See the evidence here
Mario Hernández The best known, perhaps the greatest Puerto Rican tresista that ever lived.
Mario Hernández during a concert in Old San Juan with the Sonora Borinquen,
The Puerto Rican tres has three courses (groups) of three strings each for a total of nine strings.
From the low pitch to the highest, the principal tuning is in
C Major: G, C, E
but often a capo is placed on the second fret, changing the tuning to:
D Major: A, D, F#
The individual strings in each course are tuned in unison or are tuned an octave apart (in this case the higher-octave string has to be a monofilament (plain or unwound string) and the lower octave string has to be a wound string, in order to keep both strings at a similar tension even though one is tuned higher than the other.
However, the precise way the octaves are arranged in each course, or even which courses are in octaves, depends on the custom of the player. The most common arrangement of octaves and unisons within the three courses of the Puerto Rican Tres are: (The capital letters denote the lower octave-and thus the wound--string)
The following alternate Puerto Rican tres tunings were given to us by the expert Brooklyn maker/player Tito Báez:
1- gGg ccc eEe
2. Ggg ccc eeE
3. ggG ccc Eee
The author has also seen the following tuning
4. Ggg ccc Eee
The strings used on the Puerto Rican tres can be purchased in sets from La Bella (#L-730, incorrectly labeled Tres Cubano strings) or selected from boxes of individual steel-string guitar strings available in most music stores in different gauges. The plain or unwound strings are usually high tensile steel monofilament strings, and the wound strings are usually nickel-wound, but can be also bronze wound or silk and steel. A typical set of gauges would be:
High octave g: .011" monofilament
Low octave G: .024" wound
C string: .015" monofilament
High octave e: .011" monofilament
Low octave E: .024" wound