When I perform I get a lot of questions about the instrument I’m playing, which is usually the Cuban tres, a cousin of the familiar six-string guitar. Sometimes referred to as the tres guitar or just the tres, it is smaller than a standard classical guitar and is strung with three pairs (or “courses”) of strings. It is tuned to an open triad (gG – CC – Ee) with the outer courses tuned in octaves and the middle course in unison.
Each pair of strings is plucked and fretted as if it were one string, yielding three (“tres”) distinct notes. The doubled metal strings and steel tailpiece give it a twangy country sound, somewhere between a mandolin and a twelve-string guitar.
The tres originated in the eastern Cuban province of Santiago de Cuba and is central to the traditional Cuban son music that also developed there. The earliest son groups were trios and quartets. In the 1940′s the legendary blind tres player Arsenio Rodriguez expanded the role of the tres as a solo instrument and created the 8-12 piece conjunto format.
The tres is easily the most fun instrument I’ve ever played. It’s melodic and percussive at the same time and it sounds either sweet and low or fast and furious. Although I love playing traditional Cuban music, I’m always looking to try new things and push the tres in new directions. I’ve used it in funky Latin covers of the Grateful Dead’s Franklin’s Tower and Mr. Charlie and in non-Latin originals like Free.
There is a veritable trove of resources, recordings and links to more information about this increasingly talked about instrument available on the internet. Like this site. And this one. And this one here. There are also a number of great modern day treseros in New York, Cuba and few other places finding new opportunities to make great music that are worth checking out. Joe “Junior” Rivera rocks the tres salsa style as one of the founders of Brooklyn powerhouse Conjunto Imagen. Ben Lapidus’ group Sonido Isleño brings learned jazz and blues influences to the tres, blending them with the instrument’s familiar Cuban and Puerto Rican flavors. New York-based treseros Pablo Moya and Yuniel Jimenez Valdes play with the authentic syncopated, punchy traditional sound they brought from their native Cuba. And of course, there is Aaron “Flaco” Halva, who for years has been weaving masterful montunos with the long-established son super-group Nu D’Lux (formerly Nu’ Guajiro, even more formerly Mo’ Guajiro).
Until recently, the tres I was playing on gigs was a Lone Star (now called Paracho Elite) instrument made in Mexico, similar to the one in the photo above, which I had fitted with custom hardware. In years past I’ve also played Yamaha and Taylor guitars modified into treses. Although the Lone Star was very good to me, I had been playing it for almost 6 years and it had taken a real beating, being lugged on planes, dropped, dinged, scratched and what-have-you. It has a solid cedar top and so produces a decent sound but I must say it has never been the most comfortable instrument in world to play.
Thanks to the good people at C.F. Martin & Co., and particularly to Dick Boak, Director of Artist Relations, I acquired a brand new Martin LXM Tres and just love it. The guitar sounds and plays absolutely beautifully and I’m looking forward to making great music with it for many years to come. I can’t say enough good things about Dick and the folks at the Martin factory. If you’re ever in Nazareth, PA be sure to stop and and take the fascinating factory tour.