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Vihuelas

1) The Musée Jacquemart-Andrée 'Guadalupe’ vihuela. A very ornamented instrument probably made during the XVI Century with a string length of about 80mm judging by the marks of the missing bridge on the soundboard.

2) The so-called “Marianita” or “Quito” vihuela. This instrument is preserved at the “Iglesia de la Compañía de Jesús” in Quito (Ecuador) and belonged to Saint Mariana de Paredes (1618-1645). There are many accounts the saint accompanying herself on this instrument and for that reason, it is considered a relic. In spite of having six courses, its outline is very much similar to a typical XVII Century baroque guitar. It was built in Sou of th America (some of the timbers used for its construction are native) most likely in the early XVII Century. Its string length is 727mm.

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 were many examples of different periods exist and we can reproduce with confidence. Furthermore, the exemplars depicted in the ample surviving iconography are quite heterogeneous in shape and characteristics.


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


3) The so-called "Chambure” instrument (E.0748) at the “Cité de la Musique”, Paris. It has a string length of 64 cm. A very interesting instrument with a back made with seven fluted, double-curved ribs and original soundboard.

Alongside the three remaining "vihuelas", only two “guitars” from the sixteen century survive (when I refer to guitar I mean an instrument with less 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 them was made by the Portuguese luthier Belchior Dias in Lisbon in the year 1581. This instrument is commonly referred as the “Dias guitar” and it is presently kept at the Royal College of Music Museum in London. It is a fairly small five-course instrument with a string length of 55,4 cm. It has a vaulted back made with seven fluted ribs in the same style as the "Chambure" vihuela mentioned earlier. Its soundboard is not original.

The other example is a much larger instrument on the private collection of the guitarist Franck Koonce and it has a string length of 70 cm. The maker is unknown, but many characteristics of its construction and ornamentation make it very similar to the instrument described above and therefore it is very likely that it was also built by Belchior Dias or one of his apprentices. Few details are known about this guitar, and only a handful of pictures in low resolution are available so making a working drawing out of them is quite an impossible task. As far I know, its soundboard is not original and was added sometime in the XX Century.


All these instruments provide quite some information about early Iberian plucked instrument morphology and construction. Their many shared features can provide numerous clues for reconstructing a historical vihuela. These are:


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


- Neck, headplate, heel and (interior) block made from one piece of wood.


- Only two bars at each side of the rose.


- Quite a thick soundboard at the centre that gets thinner to the sides. This is necessary in order to withstand the tension of the strings on a soundboard with only two bars (lutes have much thinner soundboards but have many more bars to strengthen it).


-A bridge with rectangular cuts to accommodate the strings instead of the holes found on lutes and other string instruments of the time. This allows for certain freedom to accommodate the distances of the strings between the two strings of a course. These "windows" also have an acoustical effect since they reduce the mass of the bridge substantially.

These characteristics, when applied with understanding and experience, will produce a unique sound, quite different from the typical lute. Unfortunately, only a few luthiers are implementing these features with the majority still using much thinner soundboards with several bars. The resulting sound is very similar to lutes, lacking the characteristic dark tone of more historically informed instruments. Logically this practice, besides going against the evidence, does not have much sense since, if a vihuela sounds like a lute, what would then be the meaning of it?

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

-The iconography of the time where many vihuelas of different sizes and types are depicted is also a great source of information and should be studied with interest but also with caution.

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


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


- Certificates of examination of novice luthiers.


- Licenses for opening instrument making workshops.


- Inventories and valuations of the content of workshops after the death of the makers.


- Testaments of 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, contrary to what would be logically expected, I eventually decided to design my own model from scratch benefitting from my research and study of the information available, the experience gained by making literal copies of these 3 instruments and the sound I considered appropriate for the interpretation of the vihuela repertoire that I studied and performed for many years prior to becoming an instrument maker.


The reasons for not literally copying any of the existing instruments are complex and plentiful and to explain them in detail would require a very extensive clarification that would be beyond the scope of this website. In spite of that here are the principal reasons  briefly explained:


1) 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 on them even for performers with very large hands. The “Chambure” is shorter but still too large for most of the repertoire. I am persuaded to think that these were mostly used as accompanying instruments. Evidence of this comes from the historical records that account for Saint Mariana de Jesús accompanying herself on the vihuela while singing.  


2) Shape

The "Marianita" or Quito instrument has traditionally been considered a vihuela. This is true merely for the fact that it has six courses although its shape and morphology is that of a typical 5-course Spanish or Italian “baroque guitar” of the XVII Century. Consequently, I consider it to be more 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 of my current catalogue.


3) 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. This assertion is advocated not only by me but by all but one of the major established contemporary lutemakers. Furthermore, I have made a copy of this instrument as a six-course vihuela and, in spite of having a lovely sound, the bass response was quite unbalanced and consequently inadequate. The small soundbox and short string are, under my opinion, not appropriate for the necessary bass response that the repertoire requires.


4) The “Chambure” vihuela is a different matter. It is not excessively large but still far from the string length that we nowadays consider standard for an instrument in G. Moreover, a string length o 645 mm does not help to perform most of the repertoire easily for average sized left hands.


5) All but the “Guadalupe” vihuela seem to have been made either in the last quarter of the XVI or the beginning of the XVII centuries whereas the majority of the repertoire was published in the 2nd and 3rd quarters of the XVI century. Since my aim was to recreate an earlier instrument, these late examples were not entirely suitable for my purposes.

The basic model I currently offer is mostly based on the overall shape of the 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 vihuela. I have perfected this design over the years until attaining a very successful model that produces an elegant overall dark sound with well-defined trebles and a rich medium and low registers.


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

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

€3100


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-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.

€3150

The two models include the following features as standard:


- A parchment 3 layered rose.


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


- An inlaid soundboard.


- A (book-matched) veneered head plate.


The following options are offered at extra charge:


- A vaulted back made of many stripes of similar or contrasting woods: €385 over the basic listed price.

- A wooden-parchment rose: €50 over the parchment one.

- Fingerboard edges: €50.

- Back and sides made with rare tropical timbers such as:

     

               African blackwood: €125

               Cocobolo: €150

               Ebony: €80

               Highly figured mahogany: €75

Ebony vihuela. 63.5 cm string length.

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Figured pear vihuela. String length 63,5 cm.


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Figured maple and walnut vihuela. 63.5 cm string length.





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

€3180


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-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.

€3250

Models

Introduction

My approach to vihuela making

Some recently made vihuelas

Highly figured mahogany vihuela. String length 58 cm.