How to Infuse a Venezuelan Cuatro with the Spirit of Jimi Hendrix

Some musicians want our traditional instruments to become global and technology is the key to that. This is the story of Luis Colmenares, a luthier from Maracay now living in Minnesota

Photo: Luis Colmenares

As told to Rafael Osío Cabrices by Luis Colmenares

I studied classical guitar for many years and I used to play at church. One day, in 2004, the priest found a drum set for the small church band and decided that we needed a bassist: me. But I didn’t have a bass. I asked my mom if she could buy me one, and she said: “You are an electronic engineering student, right? So go to your uncle’s shop and see if you can make one.” My uncle, a carpenter, had all the tools I needed. I researched on the internet how to build a bass, and built it. Mom was right.

Since then, I’ve made more than 30 instruments, and I just published an article explaining how to make an electrical cuatro venezolano in the spring issue of American Lutherie, the journal of the American Luthiers Guild. 

However, I’m unable to build more at this time.

This is my story.

I’m a self-taught luthier. Using my uncle’s tools, watching tutorials online, and listening to advice from some friends in Maracay—musicians like me—I managed to get better with time. The first four instruments didn’t come out so well, but the fifth one, a bass, was pretty usable. 

In the meantime, I graduated as an engineer and started working at a consultancy firm. I studied for a master’s degree and worked at the now-extinct public electricity company EDELCA, constantly moving between my hometown Maracay, Caracas, and Ciudad Guayana. 

By 2010, when I got my master’s degree, EDELCA was already going south and I made a decision. I quit, invested my severance pay in machinery and tools, and installed my own luthier shop at my parents’ garage in Maracay. I devoted myself to this craft as an entrepreneur and made about ten instruments, five of them for me, five of them for musicians in Maracay. 

Here’s Arnoldo Sergas, a great bassist, playing one of my creations:

Arnoldo passed away some months ago, sadly. 

My shop did very well from January 2011 to December 2013. I paid off the machinery and my brand became prestigious. I developed a parallel business of audio equipment that started to make a profit as well, even more than the instruments. 

I didn’t know that all that prosperity we were seeing around 2011 wouldn’t last. When getting U.S. dollars began to be a problem and finding parts for my instruments and equipment turned out to be extremely difficult, my girlfriend and I decided we had to leave the country. 

It was the right moment. We were able to sell things and start with some savings. We chose the U.S. and got student visas. We didn’t want to go to NYC because our savings wouldn’t take us very far living there. We didn’t want to go to Miami because we wouldn’t learn English there. So we decided on Chicago, a city where we could live without a car and speak English all the time. My girlfriend, a doctor, found a specialized course, and I opted to study English.

One morning in January 2014, we boarded a plane in Valencia, at 35 degrees Celsius. By the end of the trip, we landed at O’Hare in the middle of a polar vortex… at minus 35 degrees.

I felt like I couldn’t breathe.

You can’t explain that cold to someone who hasn’t experienced it. In the winter of 2019, our son was a few days old and the power went off in our block, to minus 45 Celsius. It wasn’t funny. As rookie parents, from torrid Maracay, we weren’t sure what to do. When the power came back in less than an hour, the windows had started to freeze. 

During that period in Chicago, we were studying, living off our savings. By 2016, we got work permits and moved to the suburb of Evanston. My wife got a job in a hospital and I started to work at a lamp factory. I had some extra cash and free time and started to think about making instruments again.

Of course, I had no equipment, no uncle’s shop, no garage at my parents’, but I found a fantastic Makerspace in Chicago, and I became a member. When my wife was at the hospital and I wasn’t at the factory, I’d spend long hours designing and making instruments. Eventually, my friends from El Tuyero Ilustrado came for a gig in the area. 

Edward Ramírez, a famous Venezuelan cuatrista, told me he had a problem with an electric cuatro. I had made a couple of cuatros back in Maracay so, with fresh ideas and better tools, I made a new one for him. 

I believe that an electric cuatro is better for a professional musician. An electric instrument is more reliable than an acoustic one if you have to play in different places with different acoustic conditions. It’s also more versatile. That’s what makes electric guitars so successful. In my opinion, only an electric cuatro has expressive opportunities in new textures and audio processing capabilities that could make the instrument escape the academic circles. To make a cuatro attractive enough for today’s market, you need to add that versatility layer that can only come from electrifying the instrument. So luthiers like me, or Roberto Bonaccorso in Seattle, are modifying the traditional instruments in order to adapt them to the market of professional musicians. At the end of the day, this is a business. 

In 2017, Edward went to New York to play a concert with C4 Trío. It was the moment to give him the cuatro I made, which is similar to when a tailor delivers a suit: the luthier must be present when the musician plays the instrument for the first time in case some final adjustments are needed. During that trip, another C4 Trío member, who also had problems with his cuatro, ordered one too, which was ready in 2018. I started another one after that, but I couldn’t finish it because my son was born. 

Now we live in Rochester, Minnesota. Both my wife and I work at the hospital. I have a 9 to 5 job and a kid to care for. I have neither the time nor shop to work as a luthier. 

But I know I’ll make instruments from scratch again, as soon as I can. I don’t depend on making instruments to sustain my household now, so I’m free from making only what musicians order. I can design and make the instruments I want. I can take more risks with all that I have learned these years, and with the resources I have access to by living here. Being a classically trained musician and a self-taught luthier at the same time, I know tradition but I also have an experimental approach to it.

I grew up listening to the traditional sounds of acoustic cuatros in the parties that my family from Apure threw in Maracay, where llanero musicians were often invited to play joropo. But musicians of my generation are more comfortable with the sound of electric instruments. We grew up in cities and we still do, in the cities of migration.

Music and technology have been linked forever; it was the invention of pianoforte that replaced the harpsichord with the modern piano, and Jimi Hendrix wouldn’t have existed without the tubes and the transistors. The change of environment that so many Venezuelan musicians are experiencing by migrating will change Venezuelan music.