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Vihuelas

1) The vihuela 'Guadalupe' in the Musée Jacquemart-Andrée. A highly decorated instrument, probably made in the XVI century, with a string length of about 80 mm, judging by the traces of the missing bridge on the soundboard.

2) The so-called "Marianita" or "Quito" vihuela. This instrument is preserved in the "Iglesia de la Compañía de Jesús" in Quito (Ecuador) and belonged to Saint Mariana de Paredes (1618-1645). There are many accounts of the saint accompanying herself on this instrument and for this reason it is considered a relic.Although it has six courses, its outline closely resembles a typical XVII baroque guitar of the century. It was built in South America (some of the woods used in its construction are native ), probably in the early XVII century. Its string length is 727 mm.

Attempting to make a historically accurate vihuela is not a straightforward task. We do not have as much information as we do for other instruments of the lute and guitar family, for which many examples exist from different periods and which we can reproduce with confidence. Moreover, the exemplars depicted in the abundant iconography are quite heterogeneous in form and characteristics.


There are only three instruments that most luthiers, organologists, and specialists agree to identify as vihuelas. These are:

3) The so-called "Chambure" instrument (E.0748) in the "Cité de la Musique", Paris. It has a string length of 640 mm. A very interesting instrument with a back of seven fluted, double-curved ribs and an original soundboard.

Alongside the three remaining "vihuelas", only two sixteenth-century "guitars" survive (when I say guitar, I mean an instrument with fewer than six double courses). Both are Iberian and have five courses. These instruments could well be examples of the instrument that Fuenllana calls "vihuela de cinco ordenes" (literally "vihuela of five courses").


One of these instruments was made in Lisbon in 1581 by the Portuguese luthier Belchior Dias. This instrument is commonly referred to as the "Dias guitar" and is now in the Royal College of Music Museum in London. It is a relatively small five-course instrument with a string length of 554 mm. It has a vaulted back made with seven fluted ribs in the same style as the "Chambure" vihuela mentioned earlier. The soundboard is not original.

The other example is a much larger instrument from the private collection of the guitarist Frank Koonce, with a string length of 700 mm. The maker is unknown, but many features of its construction and decoration are very similar to the instrument described above, so it is very likely that it was also made by Belchior Dias or one of his apprentices. Few details are known about this guitar and there are only a handful of low resolution pictures, so it is a fairly impossible task to make a working drawing of it. As far as I know, the soundboard is not original and was added sometime in the XX century.

All of these instruments shed light on the morphology and construction of early Iberian plucked instruments. Their many common features can provide numerous clues for the reconstruction of a historical vihuela. These are:

As we have seen, while the historical evidence is not overwhelming at first glance, a careful, detailed and systematic study of all the sources explained above will provide a much clearer picture of the historical context and morphology of the vihuela, and open up the possibility for fairly accurate modern reproductions.


- Neck, head plate, heel and (inner) block made from one piece of wood.


- Only two bars at each side of the rose.


- Fairly thick soundboard in the middle, getting thinner towards the sides. This is necessary to withstand the tension of the strings on a soundboard with only two bars (lutes have much thinner soundboards, but many more bars to strengthen them).


- A bridge with rectangular incisions to tie the strings instead of the holes found on lutes and other stringed instruments of the period. This allows some freedom in adjusting the spacing between the two strings of a course. These "windows" also have an acoustic effect, as they significantly reduce the mass of the bridge.

When these characteristics are applied with understanding and experience, the result is a unique sound that is very different from that of a typical lute. Unfortunately, few luthiers implement these features, while most still use much thinner soundboards with multiple bars. The result is a  lute-like sound that lacks the characteristic dark tone of more historic instruments. Logically, this practice not only contradicts the evidence, but also does not make much sense, because if a vihuela sounds like a lute, what would be the meaning of it?

Furthermore, we have two other important sources of information that will help us widen our knowledge of these instruments. These are:

-The iconography of the period, on which many vihuelas of various sizes and types are depicted. This is a valuable source of information, and should be studied with interest, but also with caution.

Historical documents from Spain and Portugal relating to instrument making. These are of six different kinds:

- Ordinances or directives regulating the craft and guild of "violeros" (instrument makers).


- Examination certificates for aspiring instrument makers.


- Licences for the opening instrument-making workshops.


- Inventories and appraisals of the contents of workshops after the death of the makers.


- Wills of the makers.


- Inventories of musical instrument owners after their death.

After having made literal copies of the "Chambure," the "Marianita," and the Dias (both with five and six courses) and experimenting with them, I finally decided to design my own model from scratch. In doing so, I relied on my research and study of the available information, the experience I had gained from building copies of these three instruments, and the sound I felt was appropriate for interpreting the vihuela repertoire I had studied and played for many years before becoming an instrument maker.

The reasons for not literally copying any of the existing instruments are complex and numerous. To set them out in detail would require a rather extensive explanation, which would go far beyond the scope of this website. Nevertheless, the most important reasons will be briefly explained here:


1) With the exception of the "Guadalupe", all the existing vihuelas seem to have been made either in the last quarter of the XVI or in the beginning of the XVII century, while most of the repertoire was published in the 2nd and 3rd quarter of the XVI century. Since I wanted to recreate an earlier instrument, these late examples were not quite suitable for my purposes.


2) Size

The "Guadalupe" and the "Marianita" (Quito) vihuelas both have very long string lengths. This makes them unsuitable for playing most of the vihuela repertoire, even for players with very large hands. The "Chambure" is shorter, but still too large for most of the repertoire. I am convinced that these instruments were mainly used as accompaniment instruments. Evidence of this comes from the historical records in which Saint Mariana de Jesús accompanies himself singing on the vihuela.

3) Shape

The "Marianita" or "Quito" instrument is traditionally considered a vihuela. This is true simply due to the fact that it has six courses, although its shape and morphology is that of a typical Spanish or Italian guitar with 5 courses of the XVII century. Consequently, I consider it to be a "baroque guitar" with six courses rather than a true vihuela. In fact, I have successfully built this instrument as a 5 course baroque guitar and it is one of the models in my current catalogue.


4) The "Dias" is obviously a 5 course guitar rather than a vihuela. Although the soundboard is not original, the pegbox ( head plate ) and the holes for the pegs leave little doubt about this fact. Moreover, I made a copy of this instrument as a six-course vihuela, and although it had a beautiful sound, the bass response was rather unbalanced and consequently inadequate. The small soundbox and short string length are, in my opinion, unsuitable for the necessary bass response required by the repertoire.


5) The "Chambure" vihuela is another matter entirely. It is not overly large, but it is still far from the string length we nowadays consider standard for an instrument in G. Also, a string length of 645 mm does not help to easily play most of the repertoire for average sized left hands.

The basic model I currently offer is largely based on the overall contour of the Belchior Dias guitar, combined with some features of the Chambure. The body is wider and deeper than the Dias guitar, but not as large as the Chambure. I refined this design over the years until I achieved a very successful model that produces an elegant, overall dark sound with well defined trebles and a rich mid and low register.


This basic model is offered in the following variations and prices:

The two models have the following features as standard:


- A parchment rose with three layers.


- Any species of plain or figured wood chosen by the customer for the body, fingerboard and neck (except those listed below).


- An inlaid soundboard.


- A (bookmatched) veneered head plate.


The following options are offered at extra cost:


- An vaulted back made of many strips of similar or contrasting woods: €385 above the base price shown.

- A rose wood-parchment rose: €50

- Fingerboard edges: €50.

- Back and sides made of rare tropical woods such as:

     

               African blackwood: €125

               Cocobolo: €150

               Ebony: €80

               Highly figured mahogany: €75

Figured pear vihuela. String length 63,5 cm.


Figured maple and walnut vihuela. 58.5 cm string length.



- Flat  back vihuela in A or G with a string length of 57 to 61cm (depending on tuning)

€3375

•✵•

-Flat or vaulted back vihuela in F or E with a string length of 62 to 65 cm.

This instrument has a slightly bigger body in order to help the bass response of the lower tuning.

€3560

Models

Introduction

My approach to vihuela construction

Some examples of recently made vihuelas

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Pear-ebony vihuela
Pear-ebony vihuela
Pear-ebony vihuela
Pear-ebony vihuela
Pear-ebony vihuela
Pear-ebony vihuela
Pear-ebony vihuela
Pear-ebony vihuela
Pear-ebony vihuela
Pear-ebony vihuela

Figured pear ebony and apple vihuela. 63.5 cm string length.

Click to enlarge

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- Flat  back vihuela in A or G with a string length of 57 to 61cm (depending on tuning)

€3350

•✵•

-Flat or vaulted back vihuela in F or E with a string length of 62 to 65 cm.

This instrument has a slightly bigger body in order to help the bass response of the lower tuning.

€3430

Cherry vihuela. 58cm string length.

Tineo (South American timber) vihuela. String length 58.5 cm.


Highly figured mahogany vihuela. String length 58 cm.


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