The long-hitting veteran from Argentina reeled off four successive birdies around the turn to end the day one stroke in front of Americans Phil Mickelson and Martin Flores.
German Martin Kaymer, Northern Irishman Rory McIlroy and Englishman Justin Rose are among a group of nine players a further two shots back on an impressive leaderboard.
Cabrera, 44, has made few headlines since losing a play-off to Adam Scott at last year's Masters but he is still capable of matching it with the game's best on any given day.
"I played very well on the greens and saved myself on the holes that I didn't play so well," said Cabrera, whose only two US PGA Tour victories came at the highest level with the 2007 US Open and the 2009 Masters.
He had two birdies and one bogey in the first five holes at Quail Hollow before kickstarting his move up the leaderboard with a five-foot birdie putt at the par-five seventh.
Cabrera then recorded four consecutive birdies from the ninth, three of them from close range, along with a monster 42-foot putt from the fringe at the 11th.
Kaymer, who had consecutive eagles in his round, was unable to remember even having previously notched the rare feat.
"I don't think I've ever done that before," said Kaymer, who sank a 15-footer at the seventh hole and then holed out from 65 yards from the rough at the par-four eighth.
He considered his two eagles, which were bookended with bogeys, just reward for an otherwise frustrating day on the greens.
"I missed a lot of short putts today," he said. "I stayed in the tournament but overall it would have been nice to get a couple more shots here and there."
Kaymer was ranked number one in the world barely three years ago, but has since slipped to 63rd.
He has not been playing badly, missing only two cuts worldwide since this event last year, but has not often contended for victory.
McIlroy, returning after a two-week post-Masters break, looked sharp apart from a couple of wayward drives.
"I gave myself chances for birdies and putted a little better than I have in the last few weeks, so that's a positive," said the 2010 champion, who birdied three of the four par-fives.
"I played the par fives well, which I wanted to do (because) at Augusta I didn't."
This week's event has attracted a high-quality field, although not quite as strong as it did in its first few years at Quail Hollow.
The course received rave reviews when the event was first held in 2003, but the greens were in poor condition last year which perhaps scared off a few players from returning.
The greens were subsequently dug up and replanted and early reports by the players suggest they are in better condition this year.
- Sports & Recreation
- Martin Kaymer
- Martin Flores
- Rory McIlroy