Early Guitars and Vihuela

A network for historic guitars and vihuelas


I am primarily a steel-string guitar builder but lately have been fascinated by the vihuela. I intend to build one, hopefully this year. I have a few questions for the experienced players (or builders).
- what is your ideal nut width and course to course spacing
- ideal bridge string spacing (1st course to last)
- ideal scale length for an instrument in G
- neck shape ( round, flatter, with or without shoulders etc.) and thickness dimensions (at 1st, 3rd, 5th and 7th fret)
I realise that the repertoire (Milan, Narvaez et all) probably calls for close string spacing as one finger often frets 2 courses, perhaps the left hand thumb is over the neck rather than behind it?
Do you most often play with the highest strings in double or single course?
I intend to build a "small" vihuela in G since it seems it would be the more versatile, but I am totally open to suggestions.
Finally I think I will use German spruce for the top, cocobolo for the fluted back (or a mix and match of cocobolo and bloodwood), cocobolo sides and perhaps applewood for the neck, maybe butternut or cherry. Again I am open to suggestions. Thanks in advance for your feedback!

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Fluted back? Nothing like jumping in at the deep end. If you've never made a Vihuela before you might be better advised making a flat-back and saving the fluted model for some time in the future - but it's your decision (obviously).
As for ideal neck shape, string spacing - their really isn't such a beast, it all depends on the particular player.
I think many of your questions can be answered by taking the lead from 6 and 7 course Lutes. String length for a Vihuela in G is going to be at or around 60 cm.
Neck shape - I make mine as a flattened oval or what is referred to in modern guitar terms as being D shaped. Again depends on the preference of the player.
Highest string is usually, or rather nearly always single. I'm fairly certain players don't do thumb over but more experienced players on the list are better placed to answer that question.
I've never used Apple. Cherry for the neck will be fine providing it is well seasoned, hopefully quarter sawn.
I'll dig out some string spacings after I consult some of the plans that I have.
Thanks for the reply Michael. Yes I assume there is no such thing as standard for neck shape, spacing and so on. I am just trying to get a sense of what players prefer for the repertoire as the playing technique is different to what I'm accustomed to.
I'm fairly confident I can pull off the fluted back with cocobolo, it's one of the easiest woods to bend. As for the neck stock I assume a weaker wood such as butternut would work, gut string tension is fairly low. Any pointers are most welcome!
Hi Laurent,

We tend to think of one vihuela for all the published repertoire, but my experience is that the situation was more complex. Dr John Griffiths argues that Fuenllana used a vihuela in A, c.56cms, although I can quite comfortably play all his pieces (and I've read them all) on a vihuela in G, c.60cms. Certain pieces sound better on larger instruments, say in E or D. But I think your notion of a vihuela in G is a good mean size.

The Batov vihuela I owned had close string spacing at the nut. This was good for some awkward moments, but annoying for some other moments. Again, Fuenllana seems to have had close spacing on a small instrument, but the other guys were not so demanding. A deciding factor might be the technique of who is going to ultimately play your instrument. It seems that most vihuelas were designed to be played thumb-out, that is, the right hand thumb does not move inside the palm of the hand after playing a stroke, but stays outside the index finger. This technique can be happy with close string spacing at the bridge. Thumb-in strokes prefer a wider string-spacing at the bridge, so that might have a knock-on effect for the spacing at the nut.

Sadly I don't have the instrument now, so can't measure it for you...

There is no mention of the thumb of the left hand - some illustrations show it behind the neck, some coming over it. Both techniques were in use, but I have not noticed anywhere in the tablatures where it would be necessary to have the thumb stopping the string at a fret. Therefore, the neck profile need not be as round as for a 6c lute, in my opinion.

There are a few comments about woods, detailed on Batov's and Barber's websites. Isabella d'Este ordered a vihela of ebony...

None of the repertoire goes beyond the tenth fret, so no body frets are required, but you must make sure that the tenth gut can actually be fitted on the neck - too much of a 'heel' and it will slip out of place easily.

There is still debate about octave stringing in the bass, the fifth and sixth courses. Usually the fourth is unison. My impression is that the earlier instruments, being influenced by the 6c lute, had octaves in the bass, but some players preferred unisons. We will never know for sure. I would experiment once the instrument is made, to see how the soundboard reacts.

Sorry I have no measurements.
Rob, thanks again for your detailed reply!
Would you happen to know what vihuela Christopher Wilson plays on his Milan/Narvaez CD? It's a G vihuela, and it sounds like the courses are in unisson. Beautiful tone.
Chris makes a beautiful tone on anything. I don't know who made the instrument.
Here's some dimensions, basically what I do on a 60 cm Vihuela in G.

Neck width at Nut: 50.5mm
String band at Nut: 44.5 mm
String band at bridge: 70 mm Bridge is 'tunnel' type and allows for small amount of adjustment.
Intra string spacing: 3.5 mm centres - 2 nd course. Wound strings or thicker lower courses will need slightly greater spacing.
Neck thickness at fret 1 = 22 mm - includes fingerboard.
These dimension vary an awful lot on the various plans that I have.

Careful with peg spacing on a Vihuela - pegs too close and it makes tuning a real pain. I've been there and had to make a new longer head. As Rob says watch the 10 th fret (I've been there too), it often slips back down the neck although it is possible to notch the edge of the fingerboard. Not the ideal solution though.
Thanks much for your dimensions and advice Michael, this will be an excellent point of departure for me. Last questions, I saw some vihuela top bracing with 2 lattice braces around the soundhole only. I assume the soundboard must be thick enough to support the strings pull, over .080" (2mm), .100" (2.5mm)? Where can I find a gut string tension calculator?
Sorry, ignore the 3.5 mm intra string spacing - it's not centres but outside edges. Centres will be nearer 2.9 mm.

String calculator: http://www.cs.helsinki.fi/u/wikla/mus/Calcs/wwwscalc.html

By lattice braces I assume you mean harmonic bars? Yes there are usually just the 2 or some makers place another smaller and lighter one near the bridge position. 2.0 to 2.5 mm soundboard and you are in the right area although I think the Chambure has a thick(er) soundboard. If you are making a copy of the Chambure it might be best for you to contact someone like Batov or Wadsworth to get their thoughts. Any other type of Vihuela and it's anyones guess, although Baroque guitars must give us some clues.
Well, in steel-string guitar lingo perpendicular braces are called lattice braces… Yes, harmonic bars… So, no bridge patch but rather a small tonebar under the bridge? Is this something Baroque guitars have in common?
I intend to make a vihuela much smaller than the Chambrure, so given the small box I can perhaps go on the thin side.
No, I'd be tempted to leave out any bar near the bridge. I've seen patches (perhaps linen or parchment) under the bridge area but of course these may have been later repairs or additions. I'm sure I've seen a photo of the Chambure with just the 2 harmonic bars -perhaps go with that.


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