8/14/2014

c.1975 Puerto Rican-style Cuatro




Rather than being what one might expect (a 4-string gut/nylon instrument), the modern-style Puerto Rican cuatro is a 10-string, 5-course, steel-strung affair. This one probably dates to the 70s or 80s and has an atypical classical guitar-inspired body shape rather than the traditional violin/gamba shape.

I spent this dreary Wednesday working on customer consignment gear and this was one that got finished in that batch. It needed a new nut, fret level/dress, much cleaning, and new saddle placement (it had been installed in two places which were both wrong for meaningful intonation purposes).


It came out just as I expected: the neck is nice and straight and now the zero fret is at the same level as the rest of the frets so it's doing its proper job as a stand-in for a nut. The new saddle placement meant better intonation but my setup, of course, drifted after tuning up and without major redesign of the bridge (not going to happen) the action will remain at 3/32" at the 12th fret.

I normally try to setup an instrument like this (tenor guitar scale -- 20 3/4") with 1/16" action at the 12th fret but that's not often possible on Latin American instruments because of the nature of the builds (in this case the top bellies and pulls slightly up at the bridge as one would expect for a 10-string pin-bridge type instrument with ladder bracing). There's no more room for dialing down the saddle so I left it as-is. 3/32" is actually pretty low (and quite playable) for these instruments which tend to be really funky even when they're first made.


Right now it's strung with doubled 36w, 26w, 20w, 14, 10 gauges and I have it tuned to a modal G chord for the sound clip: GDGDG low to high. Traditional tuning puts octaves on the first two courses and tunes in 4ths BEADG which these strings can do. From a guitarist's point of view you may want to just tune ADGBE like a guitar minus the low E. This sort of scale length and stringing setup allows for all sorts of ideas... the previous owner was trying to use it like a 5-course octave mandolin (GDAEB low to high) but personally I never find that sound satisfying on instruments from this part of the world as their build is geared towards ramping up overtones and a zingy bite on the treble rather than a strong mid and bass sound.

Both the new nut and saddle are bone.


The wood is all laminate which is probably why this instrument is still surviving today.


That sort of white discoloration was all over the top and I managed to remove a lot of it. The bridge appears to be bolted as well as glued and is good to go. The block-loading design means that it's impossible to get usable back-angle over the saddle if I lower the action farther. I'd need to take off the "tie block" and convert to a pin-bridge setup instead which is more labor and time than, unfortunately, this instrument is worth and every time you remove material from the bridge the top is less reinforced in the same area as the bridge becomes less stiff.

Note the top-layer chip-out of the laminate top near the bridge: I'm assuming this bridge was reglued in the past. On a laminate-top instrument this is not worrying as it has 3 more layers of wood and the topmost is basically just a veneer.


Who knows what the back and sides are...?



These tuners look almost Italian in origin.



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