NEA Arts Magazine

Diomedes Matos

Cuatro (10-string Puerto Rican guitar) maker, Deltona, Florida

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DiomedesMatos (left) shows off one of his handmade cuatros while playing with his son Pucho

DiomedesMatos (left) shows off one of his handmade cuatros while playing with his son Pucho at the 2006 NEA National Heritage Fellows concert. Photo by Tom Pich. A cuatro made by DiomedesMatos. Photo by Robert Stone

Diomedes Matos has been referred to as the "master's master" cuatro maker. The cuatro, a distinctive 10-string guitar known as the national instrument of Puerto Rico, is played by jibaro musicians from the mountainous inner regions of the island. Matos was surrounded by instrument makers where he grew up in the Puerto Rican village of Camuy. He built his first guitar at age 12, later mastering construction techniques for several traditional stringed instruments including cuatros, requintos, classical guitars, and the Puerto Rican tres. His instruments are in great demand; even popular singer Paul Simon asked Matos to build him an instrument and accompany him on the soundtrack for the Broadway show The Capeman.

Matos has passed on his extensive knowledge to future tradition bearers through programs such as the New Jersey Folk Arts Apprentice Program. He said, "I like teaching even more than cuatro-making itself, especially when I see a student's progress and maturity." Matos spoke with the NEA about becoming a cuatro maker and shared his advice for young instrument makers.

A cuatro made by Diomedes Matos.

A cuatro made by Diomedes Matos.
Photo by Robert Stone

NEA: Tell me a little bit about how you were attracted to the tradition of making these instruments?

DIOMEDES MATOS: My younger brother is a luthier [stringed instrument maker], too. On my mother's side of my family there are a lot of musicians -- my uncles and my other brothers play guitar and cuatro and they know how to work with wood. They are craftsmen, too. What really inspired me was a cuatro maker named Roque Navarro. He passed away some years ago. I used to walk from my house to school every day and on the way I'd see Mr. Navarro working on guitars and cuatros in his workshop. One day, when I was about 10 years old, I was watching him from the fence in front of his house and he invited me in and showed me what he was doing. I knew from that first visit that's what I wanted to do.

NEA: What advice do you have for young cuatro makers and players?

MATOS: I always tell them to keep the tradition going, don't lose this knowledge. And try to do what I do -- teach other people. Keep learning and become a teacher, too. I also tell them to try to be as best as possible. The more they learn the better they get. It's a process that requires a lot of patience -- don't stop after making one or two. Keep making cuatro after cuatro because the more experience you have the better you'll become at it and the better the finished products will become as well.