Early Guitars and Vihuela

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I'm in the process of (slowly) designing/building myself a vihuela and I need a little info on the string spacing at the bridge. 


What prompted this query is I have just replaced a bridge on a customers vihuela. He needed more space between the courses so asked me to match his 6 course lute spacing. The vihuela originally had 59mm between the outer strings (measured to hole centers) and he needed it to match closer to 74mm. The best I could get was 70mm without running the strings off the fingerboard but it worked out fine for him.


I realize that this is subjective and a players preference but I wonder if any of you luthiers or players find that there is an optimum spacing that you prefer.


Then there is the "thumb under" style of playing. How is string spacing different or not when a player uses this style of plucking?


I'm mainly an Early Romantic guitar maker and player with relatively limited experience in earlier plucked instruments so I'm curious how the instruments are set up taking the different styles of playing into consideration. 




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Hello Scot,

As you rightly mention, string spacing (both on the bridge and, I would also add, on the nut) is subjective. However I don't think it would be too much of exaggeration to say that this seemingly subjective quality is more to do with our modern approach to playing the vihuela. What I mean is that it is played (rather overwhelmingly!) with virtually the same technique as the renaissance lute, i.e. thumb-under, with the plucking hand over or just below the rose and more or less parallel to the strings. Well, it's not that unusual to see modern day players using this technique on virtually everything, from 4-course renaissance guitar, to baroque lute, theorbo etc, and even romantic guitar ...? No wonder that such approach would necessitate a need for more widely spaced courses (perhaps also for larger distances between the individual strings in courses) and not only on the vihuela but on some later members of the lute family instruments too. I'm not saying that this approach is entirely wrong, not at all. As a matter of fact, this technique would work with most of the pieces from the surviving vihuela books but (and this is essential!) not with all of them. What I have in mind is those pieces that would seem to require double stops with one finger on the neighbouring courses (occasionally in fairly high positions on the fingerboard), combined with simultaneous long stretches over four - five frets. With the wider spaced, lute-like set up, fingering such chords would simply be impossible.

Turning now to more practical matters, a good idea of how early Spanish guitars / vihuelas may have been set up comes from a good number of surviving late 18th - early 19th century Spanish 6-course guitars, of such makers as Sanguino (Seville), Juan and Jose Pages, Jose Benedit (Cadiz) etc. I personally examined / restored a number of such guitars and can only confirm that their bridge spacing is fairly consistent and falls within 58 - 60 mm (between the outer holes), or c. 57 - 59 mm assuming that the first course is single and positioned in-between the two strings of the first course*. The distances between the individual strings in courses (if compared to those of the lute) are also rather small, c. 3 - 3.5 mm. I don't think anybody would argue that those guitars could have ever been played traditionally any other way but with the thumb-over right hand position.

As a first line of approach to using a more authentic way of spacing, 37 - 37.5 mm at the nut / 57 - 58 mm at the bridge (which is essentially what the original set up of the Dias 1581 vihuela would be!) is a good way to start exploring a more 'remote' corners of the vihuela repertoire (i.e. the kind of pieces I've mentioned above, which are hardly ever played). And it doesn't take that long to get used to such way of set up, just a matter of determination, certainly easier for those who play in a guitar-like, thumb-over right hand position. With more players taking such an approach we may well one day come closer to understanding of a more convenient technique of playing the vihuela and, as a result, start constructing instruments in a more appropriate, authentic way too.

So as you can see there is no definite answer to your question. It all depends on each individual player, what sort of spacing they are used to etc. I would normally discuss all these things with my customers before starting the instrument. 74 mm is perhaps the largest spacing I ever used on my vihuelas, in fact on larger size instruments, with 66 cm string length. Something between 64 to 70 mm is rather more common.

Hope this helps.


PS: I'm thinking here of the slotted type of the bridge, like that on the Quito / 'Chambure' vihuelas.
Thank you for your thoughtful and detailed reply, Alexander. I appreciate your time and knowledge on this.

The vihuela (actually a viola da mano) I'm using as a base for my pattern is one from a painting by Gerolamo dai Libri (The Virgin Mary with Child and St. Anne ca. 1510). A good number of years ago a Canadian luthier Robert Mavrinac published an article in LSA Newsletter (May 1985) and his drawing of the instrument has intrigued me since first reading. He came to the conclusion that the depicted viola da mano was a discante with a string length of 444mm, 38mm string spacing at the nut and 73mm at the bridge. This would fall into what you are describing above as an instrument played with thumb under technique. And indeed, in the painting, the angel playing it has a nice thumb under hand position.

The Pages 6 course guitar that I have made a copy of has a spacing the same as what you have noted, 58mm at the bridge with 3.3+/- between strings per course. It's pretty much what I was expecting to go with on the vihuela but thought I'd better get the latest thoughts on the subject. I don't play thumb under on my lute or guitars so the wider spacing would not be the best for me. Thumb under is a technique that seems rather counterintuitive to me but I'm sure that's a discussion I'd rather not get into. I learned to never discuss politics, religion or plucked musical instrument technique...it can be hazardous.

I'm always happy to have input from those that have much more experience with these particular instruments than I.


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