Puerto Rican cuatros are one of the most sensitive instruments out there in terms of the ways in which their performance can be impeded. They are also one of the most lovely of all instruments. They are beautiful to look at, and they are wonderful to listen to and play. When assessing the quality of a cuatro, however, it pays to carefully examine it to ensure it will perform as it is designed to. This is particularly true when you are examining a used cuatro. These instruments can be easily damaged. If they aren't properly maintained by their previous owners, these could be instruments that are difficult or possibly even impossible to play. Keep reading for tips as to what to look for when assessing one of these enduringly popular instruments.
Strings instruments depend on the ability of their body to resonate to produce sound. When you pluck the strings they vibrate, and this vibration extends into the body of the cuatro. A roughly made cuatro will not have the resonance quality that is characteristic of a more refined instrument. The sound will be impeded.
Carefully examine the cuatro to ensure that it is well-constructed. The wood should be smooth with no deep scratches or scars. The neck should be straight and the frets smooth. Look at the strings as they lie along the neck of the cuatro. Is there the same distance between the strings and the fretboard at the top fret as there is the bottom fret? Is the neck of the cuatro perfectly straight, or does it sway out in one direction? Is the joint between the neck of the cuatro and the body solid? Is the bridge securely in place? All of these types of issues could severely impact your ability to get acceptable music out of the instrument.
Also check for corrosion on the cuatro's metal strings or on the gears attached to the tuning keys. Any corrosion is a sign of poor maintenance. The cuatro has likely been stored in a climate that hasn't been good for it. If corrosion is present on the metal parts, the wood of the instrument may likely have been impacted as well.
One very common problem in poorly constructed or poorly maintained cuatro is that the tuning pegs won't hold the strings in position. As soon as you tune the cuatro, the string loosens and you have to retune. This is unacceptable and if you are thinking of buying this instrument will present lots of future frustration if you overlook this fault.
The final step in assessing an cuatro is checking out its general feel and sound. Does the instrument feel comfortable in your hands? Can you easily get your fingers in position? How does the cuatro sound? If you can't play well, take along a more experienced friend and ask his or her opinion on the cuatro. Remember, even a poor example of an instrument can sound pretty good in an expert's hands! That doesn't mean, however, that you should make a concession and be accepting of an instrument with flaws. By being familiar with what to look for in the build quality of an cuatro, if you do decide to buy one for yourself or as a gift, using the tips outlined above should ensure you get a good deal.