Early Guitars and Vihuela

A network for historic guitars and vihuelas

Good morning to all the members and thank you for letting me join the group.

I am from Guatemala, actually  I am a violin maker, I just finished a Vihuela chambure with the back fluted. I just had a diagram  with no measurements.

¿Does any one can give me some info or advise, I do not have the hight of the bridge or the nut,  I have made it, but now that I put the gut strings I have a buzz in the   3rd fret.  I think the bridge is low, so I made  it higher, but it would be good to have the right hight from the nut to the diapason ( fingerboard) the hight of the strings at the end of  the diapason and the hight of the bridge. If any one can help me I would appreciate it. Thank you in advance and have a wonderful day to all of you.

Feiga Siedler

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That's very helpful and interesting.

Thanks for Carlos - it certainly reinforces the view some of us first put forward many years ago (including the late Donald Gill, as well as myself) that we need to question the assumption that the instrument (E.0748) was constructed in the sixteenth century and is therefore a good model for performance of vihuela music from Spain's golden age.

After considering various options my view at the time was that it might be a mid-eighteenth century six course guitar when such instruments were starting to be made in Spain (notably Cadiz and Seville) although, of course, the body shape is significantly different to the many extant instruments from these centres and also different from artistic depictions of this period which generally show a considerably longer long lower bout  etc - perhaps the instrument was made elsewhere on the peninsula.

But other explanations are clearly possible, including Romanillos's that it may be late nineteenth century construction - I agree that the finish seems generally more refined than that of many earlier instruments.  I suppose a question arising from this is that, if it was made at such a late date, was it deliberate deception (such as other instruments made/remade around this period by Leopoldo Franciolini, 1844–1920)?  or was it made as a sort of attempt at historical reconstruction for genuine research purposes?  Do we know how the instrument arrived in the collection of Geneviève Thibault, Comtesse de Chambure (1902 - 1975), in the first place? I thought I'd seen the provenance trail some years ago but can't find it now.



In my opinion the doubts about the dating of the vihuela Chambure have no justification, and we are facing an instrument built in Spain or Portugal at the end of the 16th century.

1-This type of construcción of the tumbled and grooved boxes appears in the regulations of Spanish violeros of the time.

2-Do not forget the vihuela / guitar of 5 orders Belchior Dias, construction even more refined than the Chambure.

3-Dendrochronology analyzes of the soundboard and dating of the parchment strips.

4-The internal soundboard structure , with only 2 cross bars and the shape of the bridge, common to the three existing vihuelas. About this I have to contradict my admired teacher José Luis Romanillos when he writes in his report: "The large and unbarred area of the lower bout and small narrow bridge must question the stability of the instrument to sustain the required tension."

Just the combination of thick soundboard, small bridge with openings and not with holes to tie the strings, is the fundamental characteristic of the vihuelas; is what produces its sound, very different from that of the lutes, as Isabella d'Este said to her Venetian luthier Lorenza da Pavia.

I've been several years  building this type of vihuelas without problems of stability of the harmonic cover, or bridges that take off, and also producing a very interesting sound and very different from that of my lutes.

In fact I am convinced that the family of the lutes and that of the vihuelas / guitars have a completely different constructive concept, and therefore both produce very different acoustic and musical results.

Dear Carlos,

Thank you for this and your view that the instrument in question may have been built as late as 1600. However the use of much aged wood by the maker working even after this date cannot be ruled out - indeed, your own view suggests that the wood used may have already been around 200 years old when you think the instrument was made. The employment of much aged wood is by no means historically unknown (eg Italian stringed instruments) and accordingly it is quite reasonable to also postulate that the instrument may have even been made in the seventeenth or even early eighteenth century but with much aged wood. Similarly, as previously mentioned, the use of ancient written parchment cut up to reinforce joints etc is not unknown and, indeed, surely the parchment used would have been redundant and well out of date and considered of no other significance to allow its usage in this cavalier manner.

Regarding the dendrochronological study, you'll have seen that Monica Hall seems to have identified the relevant paper you mentioned but neither of us have been able to find and peruse a copy so that any statistical variations, uncertainties etc arising from the study are not known. 

I very much agree that just a relatively thick soundboard with just two principal bars should probably be considered a basic feature of the vihuela: as it is also, of course, for many guitars - especially many of those built before the rise of 'fan barring' in some Spanish centres (notably Cadiz and Seville) in the mid eighteenth century. Like you I do not find  any significant structural instability in such instruments of which Romanillos speaks - perhaps it was his initial work with modern much-barred guitars which predisposed him to this view.  In short, I agree that the lute and guitars of the earlier period used a different basic structural concept: one employing numerous relatively delicate cross bars but with thin bellies; and one using thicker bellies but only two transverse bars.

To conclude, I think we also both at least agree that E.0748 was constructed after the 'Golden age' of Spanish vihuela music and thus represents a poor model for performing the wonderful and inventive music of this early period - it is, therefore, astonishing that it is currently to be much favoured by modern players. As already said, perhaps it is the sheer novelty of the back construction rather than any concerns about what the 'Old Ones' might have reasonably expected.


Dear martyn,

The problem when we talk about the vihuelas and the 4-order guitars is that we do not really know what is representative and what is not. The three historical vihuelas are very different, and in the iconography we find a great variety of models. Many people don't know that at least half of the iconographic representations of the vihuelas in the sixteenth century in Spain are of the viola type, with C shapes, which in general is associated with the Italian hand viola.

At this moment I am building 4 courses guitars  and vihuelas based on archaeological remains found in Spanish ships sunk in Florida, and the proportions that we can deduce are very different from our "usual" models with very small and thin bodys and very long necks in which you can place 12 and 13 frets.

I have never made copies of the E0748 because it is a model that I do not like, I prefer flat backgrounds. But our world likes news and it is normal that musicians are interested in this type of instruments, which are also historically valid.

Dear Carlos,

Thank you for this.  Yes - I agree with much of what you write and, in particular, about the peculiar and, to my mind, unattractive (truncated/squashed) body shape profile of E.0748 (the Chambure instrument) - but, as you also remark, the early music world likes novelty which might incline customers to buy unusual, if a bit unhistorical, instruments to show to their associates.

Some early sources (eg Bermudo) also specifically comment on the relatively small depth of the vihuela's body (ie two or three fingers deep ie around 4 - 6 cm only) and this clearly is reflected in the shallow body instruments recovered from early Spanish colonial-era shipwrecks which you mention.   NRI (Ephraim Segerman designed) was the first to offer a vihuela with such a shallow depth in, I believe, the late1970s but it didn't seem to catch on. Although my own first vihuela (now in the possession of my daughter) was similar and still possesses an immediacy of projection which, perhaps(?), they preferred at the time...   Certainly, some of the, admittedly occasionally crude depictions, also seem to show shallow instruments. The large Jacquemart-Andre instrument fits this model, although the colonial Quito instrument (mid-seventeenth century?) with native indigenous features, is more related to contemporary guitar bodies and, of course, probably dates (like E.0748) from well after the Spanish 'golden age' of vihuela music.

As mentioned by others, the C cut-outs in the body profile of some early depictions were probably principally necessary for the bowed version of the instrument and the distinctive feature seems to have been retained, as you mention, for some plucked versions too.  I have seen little evidence that the bowed instrument generally employed doubled courses as the finger plucked instrument and this is, perhaps, a significant distinguishing feature.



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