Central America ATLAS of Plucked Instruments

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Central America / Caribbean

This page is about some countries in the Caribbean and Central America :
Cuba, Puerto Rico, Panama.


For the other countries of America see :




top Cuba
example : Lonestar,
bought via internet 2001
L=870 B=340 H=90mm
scale 550mm
You Tube
You Tube

In Cuba they use (besides the string instruments guitar, laud and standing bass), a typical plucked instrument : the tres or tres cubano. In Mexico it is called tresillo. In the Dominican Republic you can find a similar instrument, also called tres and often used for merengue music.

The tres is made like a guitar. Formerly the shape was like a normal spanish guitar, but nowadays the shape is often more tapering to the top, and especially the cut-out takes a typical shape (however I have seen lots of tres on Cuba and none looked the same). The bridge, soundhole, frets and tuning head are all similar to the normal spanish guitar.

However the main difference with a normal 6-string guitar is that there are only 3 courses of metal strings, and as the fingerboard has the normal width, there is a wide gap between the courses.
Tuning is usually : g'g c'c' e'e, but other tunings are used.

Playing is with a plectrum, usually playing the chords arpeggio style, with solos to fill in between the vocal lines.

See for more information TresinCuba .

A tres I did not buy on Cuba, 2004
example :
bought via eBay 2011
L=730 B=330 H=85mm
scale 395mm
You Tube
laud cubano

In Cuba they often use (besides the guitar and the standing bass), the (Spanish) laud in their dance orchestras. Usually this is the same instrument type of laud as used in Spain (and elsewhere in South America), so with the wavy body outline and the two f-holes with a central teardrop as soundhole (see EuropeWest). However the typical Cuban version of the laud has no wavy outline, but on both sides of the body a rather sharp point. It is also a bit smaller. This type is called : laud cubano.

The laud cubano is made like a guitar - or maybe better : just like a Spanish laud. The size is between a laud and a bandurria. It usually will also have the soundholes like that laud (two f-holes with a central teardrop), but nowadays (as with the laud in Spain) you can also find lauds with a large round soundhole.

The 12 metal strings in 6 double courses run via a guitar-like bridge to a stringholder at the edge of the body.
Tuning is a bit higher than the Spanish laud : dd f#f# bb e'e' a'a' d"d".

Playing is with a plectrum, usually playing chords, with solos to fill in between the vocal lines.


top Puerto Rico
example : Lonestar,
bought via internet 2001
L=860 B=280 H=75mm
scale 515mm
You Tube

In Puerto Rico quite a few typical plucked instruments have developed : the cuatro, the tiple and the bordonúa. The national instrument is the cuatro (note that the same name is used for a small guitar in Venezuela - see South America).

The cuatro can be made from separate pieces of wood (like a guitar), but it is still often made entirely (body, neck and tuning head) from one piece of wood, hollowed out. A front of thin wood (often yagrumo) is added, with a fingerboard on the neck and veneer for the tuning head. The body shape resembles a bit a violin.

The tuning of the cuatro, with 10 metal strings in 5 courses is like a Spanish bandurria, so in 5-5-5-5 (half tones) or : bB e'e aa d'd' g'g'.

The cuatro is played with a plectrum, and usually the melody lines in a small group.


A cuatro with 6 courses would be called a seiz.

For more information about the Puerto Rican instruments see Cuatro-PR .

tiple doliente
example : bought via internet friend from
Puerto Rico, 2006
L=590 B=160 H=60mm
scale about 365mm
You Tube

The tiple (pronounced "tea-play") from Puerto Rico is different from the tiple in South America. Here it is a small kind of cuatro, with a different shape. There are different types, sizes and names, and number of strings.
Like the Tiple Requinto de la Montaña (3 strings, scale ~300mm), Tiple Requinto Costero (3 strings, scale ~380mm), Tiple Doliente (4 or 5 strings, ~380mm) and Tiple Grande (also called Tiplón con Macho) with 5 strings (one from halfway the neck) and a scale of 530mm.
Another large one is the Tiple Grande de Ponce (also with 5 strings, all of about 530mm), which is the link between Tiples and Bordonuas (see under). Sometimes it is called "Bordonua Chiquita" (small Bordonua). A tiple with 3 double strings would be called a tres.

The tiple that is now most often played is the tiple doliente, with a more or less fixed body shape : it narrows at the top and has 5 strings.

The tiple doliente is usually made like the cuatro, so either constructed like a guitar, or from one piece of wood hollowed out. The bottom half of the body is rounded like a guitar, however the top half is square, or triangular.
All other features (like neck and bridge) resemble the construction of a normal spanish guitar. The peghead has tuning machines either from the side or from the back.

The tuning of the most common type of tiple,
the tiple doliente with 5 metal strings is :
e a d' g' c''.

The tiple is played with a plectrum, to play melody lines.


example : from website
L=0 B=0 H=0mm
scale 0mm
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The bordonúa is the biggest plucked instrument of Puerto Rico. The slender long body-shape resembles a bit the mejorana of Panama, but it is much larger.
There is some confusion about its history; some claiming the modern instrument was originally a vihuela, or that the bordonúa was a higher tuned instrument with 6 single strings.

The modern bordonúa is made like the cuatro : so usually the body, neck and tuning head are carved from one (big) piece of wood. A front is added, with a fingerboard and veneer to the tuning head. The other features (neck with frets, bridge and tuning head) are like the normal spanish guitar. However nowadays often the entire instrument is made like a guitar, so from separate bits of wood.

It has 10 metal strings in 5 double courses.
The tuning is : Aa dd' fisfis' bb e'e'.

With its deepest voice of the Puerto Rico stringed instruments the bordonúa is used to play either harmonic or melodic bass lines. But also melodies or even chords can be played on it.


For more information on making one, see Cuatro.PR.


top Panama
example : bought via internet from friendly man from Panama, 2006
L=660 B=230 H=80mm
scale 435mm
You Tube

In Panama two quite similar instruments exist : the mejorana and the socavon. The main difference is the number of strings : 5 on the mejorana and 4 on the socavon. Because "mejorana" is also the name used for a spectacular festival in Guarare, the instrument is usually also called : mejoranera, to avoid confusion.

The mejorana is usually completely (body, neck and tuninghead) made from one piece of wood, hollowed out. Only a thin front is added, with a small round soundhole. The body is quite slender and is regarded as being the shape of a woman. It resembles much the Brazilian viola de cocho.
It has a rope, attached via some holes in the body, to be used as strap around the players' neck.

The neck is short and has only 5 tied-on frets of rope (in one length for all frets). There are 5 wooden friction pegs from the back of the flat tuninghead.

The bridge is quite rounded, and has two feet which are glued to the front, but also secured via internal screws.

The mejorana has 5 nylon (guitar) strings.
The tuning in 4 courses can be : d' a'a b e' ("por 25"),
or : d' g'g b e ("por 6").

The 5 strings seem always evenly devided on the bridge, even though the 3th course is in fact double.

Playing is a mix of picking and strumming.


example :
bought via internet from PanamaTipico.com, 2015

L=650 B=240 H=85mm
scale 380mm
You Tube
with story

The socavon is another, more rare plucked small guitar from Panama. In some areas it might be called : bocona.

The socavon is made like the mejorana : carved from one block of wood, the body hollowed out from the front, with a thin wooden front and a thin fingerboard glued on; the bridge high (on two feet) and fixed to the front.

Although the shape looks quite similar, the top of the body of the socavon is more rounded, and the join with the neck does not curve much towards the tuning head. This shape is regarded as being a man's body.

The main difference is the number of strings and tuning. The socavon has only 4 (all single) nylon strings, with the odd tuning : g d' a' b.

The socavon is rarely used anymore, but it is played strumming like the mejorana.

the difference between the mejorana (top) and the socavon (under)
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