The Vihuela

Early History of the Vihuela

There are two different guitar-like string instruments for whom the name vihuela is used : the 19th century Mexican vihuela which has 5 strings and is typically played with Mariachi bands; and the instrument relevant to this article, the 15th and 16th century Spanish instrument that usually featured 12 paired strings. The vihuela A popular plucked instrument in the Renaissance was the lute, however the Spanish objected to this instrument, keeping in mind Arabic incursion on the Iberian peninsula, as it was too similar to the Arabic oud. The vihuela, essentially a flat-backed lute, evolved in the mid-15th century Kingdom of Aragon and was in common use in Spain and Italy by the late 15th through to the late 16th centuries. The viol developed from the vihuela when players in the second half of the 15th century began using a bow instead of plucking.

Jean-Baptiste Lully

A painting by the Italian Luca Signorelli (1445-1523)
featuring a vihuela played by the character in the centre

    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 the six course vihuela de mano (44344):
  • G C F A D G
  • C F Bb D G C

Luis de Milán's Fantasía de tono mixto
performed by
Carlos Gass

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Vihuela in the 1600s

By the 1600s the vihuela and it's complex polyphonic music had faded away, suffering the fate of another Spanish Renaissance instrument, the cross-strung harp. The violas campaniça of Portugal is an instrument that is descended from the vihuela, and the tiple descended from vihuelas imported into the Americas. The vihuela's role and function in music was substituted by the Baroque guitar. In the modern era vihuelas are primarily used in the performance of early music by artists such as Juan Carlos Rivera, Juan Carlos de Mulder and Eligio Luis Quinteiro. Vihuelas appeared in a variety
The Zarzuela

Some musicians played the vihuela de mano
with a bow, thus creating the vihuela de arco and
beginning the development of the viol

of sizes comprising 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. Intonation was achieved through movable, wrapped-around and tied-on gut frets, which were chromatically fitted. Lutes were likewise similarly fretted however they usually featured seven frets, whereas the vihuela had ten. Vihuelas were always gut strung, usually in six paired courses, sometimes a single string known as a chanterelle was employed for the highest-pitched string. The first generation of vihuela designed in the mid-1500s had sharp cuts to it's waist, similar to that of the violin and other instruments of the string-family. A second design, much more similar to the modern guitar, became prominant later that century c.1490 with smooth-curved figure-eight shaped body contours. The two designs continued in production side-by-side well into the 1500s. An additional variation in models was the length of the neck, with some having long necks, and others short. There were also different designs of peg-boxes and the number, placement and shape of sound holes, ports and pierced rosettes.

La Capilla
Gaspar Ruiz Cardona

Juan Carlos Rivera,

Today the vihuela is largely used in the
performance of early music by performers
such as Juan Carlos Rivera

The Spanish composer Luis de Milán was the first to publish a collection of vihuela music with his Libro de música de vihuela de mano intitulado El maestro of 1536. He employed lute tablature to notate this music. Other books of vihuela music which have survived to this day include :

Surviving Instruments

  • the well-known example in the Musée Jacquemart-Andrée, the 'Guadalupe' vihuela
  • the recently rediscovered '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 Instruments :

Vihuela Media

Enríquez de Valderrábano's Diviensela
performed by
Gabriel Schebor
an arrangement of the french
chanson "Dont vient cela"
by Claudin de Sermisy

Diego Pisador's Pavana

Miguel de Fuenllana's Perdida
de Antequera

performed by
Teresa Berganza
and Gabriel Estarellas

Esteban Daça's Spanish Song
performed by
Trond bengtson (lute) and
Ernst Stolz (viola da gamba)
- the second tune is a song
by Juan Vasquez

Benedictus (des Prez)'s Fuenllana
performed by
Nicolae Szekely on a vihuela

Dalza's Calata Ala Spagnola
performed by
Francesco d'Amstelredamo on a vihuela

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