Should you Learn the Ukulele or the Cuatro? What are the Differences?

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Picking up a new instrument can be the start of a great hobby. For a more experienced musician, a new instrument may be a way of expanding their knowledge or trying to capture a new sound. 

Not everyone wants to play the guitar or the bass. Although a stringed instrument might still appeal. The ukulele has been growing in popularity in recent times, but then perhaps you would prefer something a little different in your neck of the woods. 

According to WorldData, Puerto Rico received 4 million tourists in 2020, and many of them will have enjoyed seeing and hearing some live music performances. Some of those performances would have included an instrument known as the cuatro. 

The cuatro is sometimes confused for a ukulele, or considered to be similar. But, is it really, and could the cuatro be your new instrument of choice, or should you go for a ukulele instead? 

Where does the cuatro originate from?

It may be no secret to you that the cuatro is the national instrument of Puerto Rico. And if you take time to immerse yourself in the culture of Puerto Rico, and listen to the local music you will no doubt hear the sounds of the cuatro. 

However, the cuatro is not exclusive to Puerto Rico and has its roots elsewhere in some ways. The cuatro is a name given to a group of stringed instruments that originated in Latin America. It could be said that they derive from the Spanish guitar originally. 

Cuatros differ in shape and size, a little like ukuleles are available in a variety of shapes and sizes now. 

Are there similarities with the ukulele?

The similarities between a ukulele and a cuatro will depend on which type you are inspecting. It may depend on which country you are in too. For instance, it is typical to find a four-stringed cuatro in Venezuela and a ten-stringed instrument in Puerto Rico. A ukulele will typically have just 4 strings, though an 8 string version is available. 

The original Puerto Rican cuatro is known as an antigua. This instrument has four strings. The southern cuatro has 4 orders which amount to 8 double strings. The moderno has 10 double strings or 5 orders. 

According to Statista, 1.5 million ukuleles were sold in 2020. Figures for the cuatro are somewhat harder to come by, but as it is the national instrument of Puerto Rico, and played in other Latin American countries, it can be assumed that sales are healthy, if only in that particular region. 

Physically they can be very similar, but there is one distinct difference. 

Are these instruments very different?

The cuatro is rarely known outside of its native home but has a unique sound worth discovering. The ukulele is an instrument that is known for the sweet music that can be made from it. 

Playing chords on the ukulele can bring images of Hawaii and tropical beaches. The cuatro has slightly different tuning to the ukulele, even the four-stringed version. While they can be tuned the same way, ie GCEA, the A string will be tuned an octave lower on the cuatro, while the C will be tuned an octave lower on the ukulele. 

You can play the cuatro as a ukulele though. But to do this, the strings must be switched for proper ukulele strings. 

Are the cuatro and the ukulele instruments easy to learn?

One reason that the ukulele is such a popular instrument is that it is easier to learn than some other instruments, such as the guitar. Learning some ukulele chords can be as simple as copying an online tutorial, or watching a YouTube video. 

Other reasons that ukuleles are popular is because they are inexpensive, accessible, and lightweight. They can be carried around easily. 

It is said that to get to a comfortable beginner’s level on the ukulele would take between 3 and 6 months. The cuatro is said to take a similar length of time to get to grips with. As with any instrument, the amount of practice you put in will determine your progression. 

Which instrument should you choose?

There is no definitive answer that would suit every musician here. You would have to go with your heart as you should when choosing any new instrument. What you could consider is whether you want to take on the unique sound of the cuatro, and learn an instrument that is rarely seen outside of Latin America? Or do you want to play the sweet sound of the ukulele? 

Summary

If you are headed here on vacation, then you should try to see live music at one of the many events that Puerto Rico has to offer. If you manage to do this then you may get to see a cuatro being played live and up-close. 

Once you have witnessed the sound of the national instrument of Puerto Rico, the argument may be settled for you.

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