Cuban Guitar - History and Technique

Submitted by tresero on Wed, 07/03/2019 - 09:35
Jon Griffin

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History of the Guitar

Let's begin with a bit of the history of the guitar, how it came to Cuba, and how it developed.

The guitar originated in the southern regions of Spain and France. It became popular through gypsies and troubadours, then called “minstrels,” who went from town to town singing tales. Their music style was a type of recitative melody and the guitar was used as mere accompaniment.

The guitar arrived in Cuba through the Canary Islands, and the through the strong Andalusian presence in Cuba.

It arrives in Cuba and settles on the eastern part of the country, although it was widely played in Havana as well.

The eastern part of the country developed a style that is called the Cuban punto, in which the guitar is the companion for the tres and the lute, accompanying popular songs… (plays the guitar as with a popular song). The guajiros, or peasants, used to sing at night backed up by guitar, tres, güiro, and tiple. These were the first popular guitar styles that started to arise in Cuba

There was a very big troubadour movement in Santiago de Cuba that contributed a lot to Cuban music. Sometimes people had no idea about what they would eat, but they were always singing (with a bottle of rum or moonshine).

As time went by the guitar itself evolved, as well as the way to play it.

Sometimes the lack of instruments gave way to different playing roles. For instance, the guitar was often played as a rhythmic instrument, and different strokes were developed.

Cuban-style guitar is very different than the one in the United States, where the guitar is a very melodic, playing solos and filling in all the parts that the singer leaves open.

In Cuba, those roles are played by tres and the lute.

In the case of Cuban music, the singer interacts with the Cuban tres. This instrument embellishes much more easily since it has a higher register and can be faster at times. The tres was played with a pick before the guitar was, although there are very skilled guitar players, like Paco de Lucía, who can achieve an incredible speed [with their fingers].

The guitar developed as a solo instrument with masters such as Andrés Segovia and Francisco Tárrega, who contributed to guitar literature greatly, even taking it to the orchestral scene.

In Cuba, the guitar is simply used as an accompanying instrument.

The guitar has to adapt to any format, and sometimes it is even used in loud styles such as mambo.

Several instrumental needs have pushed the guitar into Cuban music through fusion styles.

For example, in the case of the Trío Matamoros. Miguel founds the famous Trío Matamoros with Ciro and Cueto.

Cueto was a guitarist that had a peculiar style. Since he did not have percussion instruments to back him up, he had to create a new rhythmic sense. (Note - The first C chords were to show the pattern, then Dayron plays Son de la Loma, in A. Also note: In Cuba, this would be written traditionally in 2/2 time, but I notated it in common time to make it easier for most American players).

Image 1: Guitar strumming in the Style of   Rafael Cueto. This is mimicking the conga pattern.
Image 1: Guitar strumming in the Style of
Rafael Cueto. This is mimicking the conga pattern.

This way of playing replaced the conga stroke.

Image 2: Typical Conga Pattern for Cuban Son. H= palm heel, T=fingertips, S=slap, O = open
Image 2: Typical Conga Pattern for Cuban Son. H= palm heel, T=fingertips, S=slap, O = open
And it would stand alone with a requinto like this:
Image 3: Requinto Part.
Image 3: Requinto Part.

That way, the tumbao would sound a little fuller.

He then had to find a rhythmic substitution, so that it wouldn't sound empty.

Patterns: Matamoros and Arsenio

As for the strumming, there are different kinds of guitar strokes: the trova rayado, the son rayado, or the “plucked” stroke, which is the one where the bass part is syncopated and plays on the last eighth note of the measure. This stroke is the one Cueto invented (similar to pattern 1 above).

The trova stroke is when the bass part is on the downbeat, for example:

Image 4: Trova Style Strumming
Image 4: Trova Style Strumming

You can either play the bass note or let the bass player do it; the rest [of the measure] is filled with guitar strums…

There are styles within the son where the guitar plays according to the particular groove, either plucking the tumbao, or playing right on the beat.

For example, Arsenio’s son is played on the beat because it is a son that needs much more power, is played a little harder (see image 4).

The Matamoros’ son is just like this one (see image 1).

Both Arsenio’s son and Matamoros’ son have their own relevance in the Cuban music. The Matamoros’ son is a little bit more traditional, whereas Arsenio's son is a bit more modern and widely known, since Arsenio was very famous in New York and in the United States…

Role of the Guitar

The guitar is mostly used as an accompanying instrument. For example, when there's a duo of guitar and tres, the guitar fulfills the bass role, for instance in the case of trova.

Image 5: Nueva Trova Strumming Example
Image 5: Nueva Trova Strumming Example

In this case, one has to play the bass with the thumb and fill with the rest of the fingers. When there is a bass player, these movements must be simplified, because otherwise the guitar… clashes with what the bass player does…

It is impossible, unless you previously coordinate an arrangement with the bass player, that both players will do the same part. That's why whenever there is a bass player, it is recommended to not play the bass part.

Bordoneo (Fingerpicking)

The bordoneo is very characteristic in the trova. This pattern was common to even the guitarists that had limited academic training. For example, we play the B7 chord like this.

Image 6: Modern B7 chord
Image 6: Modern B7 chord
Back in the day, half of the troubadours who played B7 used to do a simple switch with the fingers, and for them that was the B7 chord, because they used the bordoneo a lot.
Image 7: Old B7 substitute fingering
Image 7: Old B7 substitute fingering

In vocal songs, the bordoneo technique would occur whenever they stopped singing, because it is impossible for someone to sing and do the bordoneo at the same time. When there was a separate singer and a solo guitarist, the song was very colorful, because the guitarist would complement whatever the singer would do.

The same happens when there is no bass player, in the case of the son.

The guitarist must take… must… [assume] the bassist’s role, so that everything sounds a little bit fuller.

When there is a tres player and a singer, the guitarist plays the bass line only.

The guitarist practically becomes the left hand of the piano. The pianist's right hand is playing the tumbao, even though both hands sometimes play the tumbao. There are parts where the piano has to punch the chords, and in those cases, the guitar comes in to play that role and simplify what we do with the piano.

Let’s remember that a peasant is not going to have a piano, so obviously they used the guitar, sometimes a tres and guitar, and in the case of changüí, tres without guitar. Usually the instrumentation would be based on whatever they had at hand. Thus, the guitar played an important role in all different types of instrumental and vocal groups.

The harmonic güiro

Some people call the guitar the harmonic güiro, because it plays the chord but does not go too deep into the harmony, and it is a bit more rhythmic (See Image 4).

For instance, it is the rayado that intertwines with the maraca, the clave, and the güiro, and creates a thick rhythmic base. And because it has the harmonic part, the guitar is practically the belly of a sextet; below is the bass, in the center the guitar, and above, the tres. In the case of peasant music, there is another element above, which is the lute. The laud plays melodies when the singer doesn’t, and then continues back and forth.

There are times in the punto guajiro where there is no double bass. Here the guitar alternates its role between a harmonic and a rhythmic instrument. The guitar is the simplification of all of these elements in the case of a sextet.


As for the rayado, there was a very good guitarist in Cuba that was referred to as “the harmonic güiro” because he played the güiro part in the sextet.

The guitar played a big role in different types of Cuban music, not only in the sextets, but in genres as diverse as the “feeling” style.

Those were a different group of guitarists, and composers.

I stress the composers, because the composers were the ones that implemented the way to play guitar… For me there is no one that plays Contigo en la Distancia "With You in the Distance"better than Cesar Portillo de la Luz. These people were implementing a new type of harmony.

The son has always had melodic and harmonic changes.

The trumpet, as an element in the Cuban sextet, particularly in Havana, was added due to the strong jazz influence. This trend was actually acquired in New Orleans, where people from all over the Caribbean, Mexico, and Cuba gathered and started to blend styles and instrumentation .

From all the trends and influences, Miguel Matamoros from Santiago de Cuba, wrote Juramento.

Cesar Portillo de la Luz wrote (in Contigo en la Distancia): "…even the blood, that runs through my arteries, even the blood, that runs through my arteries…"

Here we already have different influences. For example, from the blues we add a seventh chord, then we go back to Cuban music. These trends started influence the soneros and eventually became part Cuban music. For example (La cleptómana by Manuel Luna and Agustín Acosta).

If we play this as a blues, this (no transcription yet )

It is a blues, but with a Cuban touch, and one starts to recognize the influence of different types of music.

Feeling (filin) and Bolero

The “feeling” guitarists, and the later generations like Nico Rosas, took the guitar to its maximum “feeling” brilliance.

This was a new approach for Cuban music, since it had all these melodic changes, and became much more complex in the use of harmony.

They were not peasants anymore, they were educated people that started to put together, mix, and link all those new harmonies.

For you, that is…

It is different way of playing the guitar…

The “feeling” was a very calm and emotional style, very lyrical and free of tempo.

We can say that the “feeling” is the new troubadour style, for instance… (he sings)

The harmony is relatively simple.

And the bolero is a bit more paced, with a steady rhythm.

In the “feeling,”the beat is given by the voice… when it ends, the guitar plays.

For instance…

In this style, the guitar also takes a leading role. In the case of the current troubadours, like Silvio Rodríguez and Pablo Milanés, the guitar is part of the song.

There are specific instrumental lines played by the instrument.

That is from Silvio.

The guitar starts to use other harmonies, and then becomes the contemporary trova. (We'll discuss that some other time.)

Picks and learning

There are certain structures that are more relevant than scales in order to play son. I don’t accomplish anything teaching you how to use the scales on the guitar, the scales…  These are just the fingerings…thumb, index, middle, thumb, index, middle…

The strokes… Strum down and mute; one, two, three, and mute again…

Let's do it slowly one, mute, one, two, three and mute again. All together now…

This is when playing son, plucked son.

In the trova son, as in Arsenio’s son, the guitar has to take a more güiro-like role, like what we were talking about earlier, the harmonic güiro…

It is played stronger, the speed is determined by the conductor, and is a bit muted… especially when playing the bass with the thumb. Some people use picks to play this way.

Elderly players play with picks, since the nails begin to tear. I play it with my fingers, as long as God allows me to do so (See Image 4).

The technique… is one down, one up, one down, the simplest possible, with the thumb or with the index finger, whichever is more comfortable…

The only thing is that it has to sound subtle. The sound can have harmonics…   the difference is… in combining what the accent of the son and the accent… and the subtle stroke…

The same thing happens in the trova. The trova is the same, but without accentuating either one of the strokes…

The most important thing for the left hand is to practice a lot of harmonic progressions. Be able to differentiate the traditional music, where the harmony goes up to the ninth chord, from the more contemporary.

The harmonic concept of up to the ninth is because thirteenth chords sound a little too harsh in a traditional son context. You can use whatever harmony you want in the modern son.

The first thing to know for the left hand is harmony. The second, the basic exercise for the classical guitar: the chromatic scale.

There are some guitarists who have never played a chromatic scale. You should always practice your scales to acquire dexterity in your fingers. This will help you move the fingers around the fretboard with no difficulty.

I am a guitarist with a classical background, which gives me confidence when playing chords. There are chords that seem difficult, for example…

You can master these movements with the help of: chromatic scales, arpeggios…, jumps from different positions, stretches, etc.…

To master all the skills, we would have to have a classical music class to go over all the concepts regarding the speed and technique of the left hand.

Those are the main differences between the left and the right hand.

Each country has their very specific way of playing the guitar. In Cuba, we have a completely different approach to guitar than they have in Spain. Each country has their own particular way of playing the instrument, whether it is blues, flamenco, son, etc. This doesn't mean that one is better than the other. It means that depending on the style and country, the guitar can have different techniques and repertoire, each with its own challenges.

The strokes vary from country to country. According to each country, for instance: Chile, South America… They have different ways of approaching the same instrument, and each guitarist will play according to the resources of the particular region of the world where he was raised.

Americans play blues in a way that Cubans will probably never be able to, and the same is true with son, but the other way around. Each style was developed in its particular country of origin.

I can’t imagine a Chilean playing blues. No, the Chilean plays what he needs to play in order to express himself within the elements of his own music. I can't picture an American playing Andean music. Each country's music was carefully shaped by circumstances and history.

Regardless of the music, the general technique is the same for everyone, and it’s based on classical music: chromatic scales, legato exercises, just to mention some…, arpeggios …

Through technique, you'll realize your strengths and your weaknesses, and thus figure out what you need to work on.


I recommend you to practice with Tárrega's books. Also, check out Isaac Nicola's Cuban book.

Traditional Son Music

In the traditional son music examples played in the ensembles, the guitar plays simple accompaniment, very rhythmic and solid, like the percussive concept we were discussing earlier. This is due to the fact that I didn’t have to play the bordoneo, or the thumb, unless it was very subtle I don't usually do it… because it makes the music sound a bit dirtier.

What I played the most was this subtle and sort of muted strum… This should be played strongly but not distorted. Not like this… That was a hard knuckle, not music, it sounds like an animal started playing the guitar.

Very strong, but subtle, but without mixing them. Try to create a harmonic system with the tres, which is picking somewhere. Try to blend them as much as possible.

The guitar plays strong then it goes slower, softer.

The montuno is the same thing that I was playing.

Other styles and fusion

This is what I said previously, that is, "necessity is the mother of all inventions" as a friend of mine says.

If the guitarist happens to be there, and has to play, he'll look for a way to play something that does not clash with the bass, or the piano, or the tres, or the conga.

I did not play on the cha-cha-chá but…

In the case of the mambo… I don’t recall the exact the harmony of it. (No transcription as of now )

Now remembering a little more of Django Reinhardt style back then… playing a little more fusion…

Different styles were sought…

In the case of the traditional styles, the guitar is a simple filling. If the engineer makes a mistake in the mix and puts the guitar up front, it will ruin the whole song, since it won't sound like a mambo anymore.

Going back to what I explained before, neither mambo nor cha-cha-chá were originally conceived with guitar; these styles were created in big orchestras that had piano.

One has to be very careful when approaching these styles. I remember hearing recordings where the piano clashes with the tres.

This is not the case in this recording, since each one of the colors is well defined, and each player did what they had to…

Let's talk about fusion. The word “fusion” is in vogue, and the term is used broadly. I've seen everything done with Cuban music—from electric guitars in Cuban son, to distortion, etc…

Everybody is going after fusion. It’s a very general term and it pretty much encompasses just about every music combination out there.

Image 8: Classic bordoneo
Image 8: Classic bordoneo