Vihuela is a name given to two different guitar-like string instruments: one from 15th and 16th century Spain, usually with 12 paired strings, and the other, the Mexican vihuela, from 20th century Mexico with five strings and typically played in Mariachi bands.

panish vihuela

The vihuela is considered by some to be the (more ancient) precursor to the modern classical guitar. In Italy and Portugal this same instrument was known as "viola da mano".ref|1 The two names are functionally synonymous and interchangeable. In its most developed form, the vihuela was a guitar-like instrument with six double-strings (paired courses) made of gut. Vihuelas were tuned almost like a modern guitar, with the exception of the third string, which was tuned a semitone lower. Six-course vihuela tuning was identical to six-course Renaissance lute tuning — 4ths and mid-3rd (44344).

Plucked vihuela, being essentially flat-backed lutes, evolved in the mid 1400s, in the Kingdom of Aragón (located in North-Eastern Iberia (Spain)). In Spain and Italy (and other regional kingdoms under their influence) the vihuela was in common use in the late 15th and 16th centuries.

There were several different types of vihuela (or different playing methods at least):
*Vihuela de mano — 6 or 5 courses played with the fingers
*Vihuela de penola — played with a plectrum
*Vihuela de arco — played with a bow (ancestor of the viola da gamba)

Tunings for 6 course vihuela de mano (44344):
*G C F A D G
*C F Bb D G C

The vihuela faded away, along with the complex polyphonic music that was its repertoire, in the late 16th century. The vihuela's descendants that are still played are the "violas campaniças" of Portugal. At least some of the vihuela's place, role, and function was taken up by the subsequent Baroque guitar (also sometimes referred to as vihuela or bigüela). Today, the vihuela is in use primarily for the performance of early music, using modern replicas of historical instruments.


Vihuela bodies were lightly constructed from thin flat slabs or pieces of wood, bent or curved as required. This construction method distinguished them from some earlier types of string instruments whose bodies (if not the entire instrument including neck) were carved out from a solid single block of wood. The back and sides of common lutes were also made "of pieces" however, being multiple curved or bent "staves" joined and glued together to form a bowl.

Vihuela (and viola) were built in different sizes, large and small, a family of instruments. Duet music was published for vihuelas tuned one step, a minor third, a fourth, or a fifth apart, as well as unison tuned.

The physical appearance, "the look", of vihuela was varied and diverse — there was little standardization and no mass production. Overall and in general, vihuela looked very similar to modern guitars. A little known fact is that the very first generation of vihuela, from their birth in the mid 1400’s on, all had sharp cuts to their waists, similar to the silhouette of a violin. The second generation of vihuela, beginning sometime around c.1490, took on the now familiar smooth-curved figure-eight shaped body contours. The waist-cut models, however, continued and survived well into the early to mid 1500’s, and side by side with the later pattern. Many early vihuela had extremely long necks, while others had the shorter variety. Top decoration, the number, shape, and placement, of sound holes, ports, pierced rosettes, etc, also varied greatly. More than a few styles of peg-boxes were used as well.

Vihuela were chromatically fretted in a manner similar to lutes, by means of movable, wrapped-around and tied-on gut frets. Vihuela, however, usually had ten frets, whereas lutes had only seven. Unlike modern guitars, which often use steel and bronze strings, vihuela were gut strung, and usually in paired courses. Gut strings produce a sonority far different from metal, generally described as softer and sweeter. A six course vihuela could be strung in either of two ways: with 12 strings in 6 pairs, or 11 strings in total if a single unpaired "chanterelle" is used on the first (or highest pitched) course. Unpaired chanterelles were common on all lutes, vihuela, and (other) early guitars (both Renaissance guitars and Baroque guitars).


The first person to publish a collection of music for the vihuela was the Spanish composer Luis de Milán, with his volume titled "Libro de música de vihuela de mano intitulado El maestro" of 1536. The notational device used throughout this and other vihuela music books is a numeric tablature (otherwise called "lute tablature"), which is also the model from which modern "guitar tab" was fashioned. The music is easily performed on a modern guitar using either standard guitar tuning (44434), sometimes called "new lute tuning", or by retuning slightly to Classic lute and vihuela tuning (44344).

The printed books of music for the Vihuela which have survived are, in chronological order:
*El Maestro by Luis de Milán (1536)
*Los seys libros del Delphin by Luis de Narváez (1538)
*Tres Libros de Música by Alonso Mudarra (1546)
*Silva de sirenas by Enríquez de Valderrábano (1547)
*Libro de música de Vihuela by Diego Pisador (1552)
*Orphénica Lyra by Miguel de Fuenllana (1554)
*El Parnasso by Estevan Daça (1576).

Surviving Instruments

There are only three definite surviving vihuela:
* the well-known example in the Musée Jacquemart-Andrée, the 'Guadalupe' vihuela;
* the recently re-discovered 'Chambure' instrument in the Cité de la Musique (both of the above in Paris)
* an instrument in the Iglesia de la Compañia de Jesús de Quito, in Quito, Ecuador.

Other possible Surviving Instruments

* the Portuguese 'Dias' vihuela in the Royal College of Music (London)
* a relic of Saint Mariana de Jesús (1618-1645), kept in the Iglesia de la Compañia de Jesús de Quito.


The words "vihuela" and "viola" appear to be etymologically related.


* Ian Woodfield. "The Early History of the Viol", Cambridge University Press, 1984 (includes much early Vihuela history, viols are bowed vihuela)

* Ronald C. Purcell. "Classic Guitar, Lute and Vihuela Discography", Belwin-Mills Publishing Corp., Melville, NY, 1976, 116 p., LC: 75-42912 (no ISBN) ("There are more than 100 artists listed as well as approximately 400 composers and 400 individual records.")


* [ Delphin] (with Vihuela sound samples)
* - many free mp3 downloads

External links

* [] Stephen Barber & Sandi Harris, lutemakers and researchers
* [] Alexander Batov, vihuela maker and researcher
* [ Goldberg magazine: "Los dos rinacimintos de la vihuela"] The twentieth-century resuscitation of the vihuela.
* Several photos of Spanish vihuelas can be found among the [ instrument photos at Wayne Cripps' lute pages] .
* [] Liuteria d'insieme, lutemakers and researcher

Gallery of Images of Vihuelas

), was installed. Borgia came from Valencia Spain, where he served as Cardinal. When he took the papacy, Borgia brought with him from Valencia his "court chapel", including his musicians, among them his "vihuelistas" or "violists". This is how we can say with near certainty that the instrument depicted in the Bogia Apts Quadrivium fresco is a "Spanish" vihuela, even though it appears in an "Italian" fresco. Borgia commissioned this and other frescos shortly after taking up residence in the Vatican. Important early images like this are key and essential for seeing and understanding the origins and connections between "plucked" vihuela and "bowed" vihuela, that is "vihuela de arco", otherwise known as "viola da gamba" (in Italian) or "viols".]


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