Early Guitars and Vihuela

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Hello folks,


Recently I purchased a beautiful renaissance guitar made by Mr. Forrester, the image of which I use for my avatar.  It had been strung with the rectified nylon which I replaced with the real gut made by Bernd Kürschner.


The problem I encountered when I replaced the strings was: where to put the bourdon of the fourth course, on the bass side or on the treble side?


According to my limited resources, the preface by Mr. James Tyler to the facsimile edition of the guitar tabulature books by Simon Gorlier and Guillaume Morlaye, published by Editions Chanterelle in 1980 suggests that the bourdon should be put on the treble side.



On the contrary, the tuning suggested by Juan Bermudo indicates that it should be on the bass side.  For the comparison, the tuning for the vihuela suggested by Bermudo also indicates that the bourdons (if the lower courses are tuned in octaves) should be put on the bass side.  The images of Bermudo tuning are from "The Guitar And Its Music" by Mr. Tyler and Mr. Paul Sparks, published by Oxford Univ. Press in 2002.




The images on Mr. Alexander Batov's website tell that his four course guitars as well as vihuelas have bourdons on the bass sides.


Please bear in mind that I don't intend to accuse Mr. Tyler for suggesting two contradictory possibilities.  The two publications mentioned above are more than two decades apart from each other, so there is no wonder that new findings and further researches have changed or corrected the previous common belief.


Any suggestions are welcomed.

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Hello Akira,

For strummed music it doesn't really matter where the forth-course bourdon is placed. However, for the music in Gorlier / Morlaye books and, in particular, 4-course guitar pieces in Fuenllana's 'Orphenica Lyra' (which are polyphonic in structure, more like his his vihuela pieces) you'd be more likely to use a thumb more often than an index finger on the forth course (or start running passages, if there are any, from the forth course with a thumb). So placing the bourdon on the bass side is more preferable. Or try it both ways and see which one works best for you. You'd have to bear in mind that nobody knows exactly where the bourdon was placed on the 4-course guitar, it's just one big guess.

Hello, Alexander,

Thank you for sharing your insight.

Currently I'm interested in the music by Morlaye, Gorlier and Mudarra composed/collected for the four course guitar. So, it seems to be better to put the bourdon on the bass side.

The groove in my current nut, however, doesn't allow the bourdon on the bass side and I must make my own. Would you prefer bone to ebony as the material for the nut ?
Never heard anything like this before! You must surely know that lower tuned courses on lutes with more than 6 courses would hardly ever need to be plucked with an index finger. Nevertheless they are strung with the bourdons on the 'thumb' side so how would your logic apply to that?
Hello, Martin,

Thank you for your reply.

Although my experience is very limited, the fourth course sounds a little too trebly or bright to my taste with the bourdon on the treble side. I'm not sure if the "figueta" technique was historically applied to the playing of the four course guitar. On YouTube, I saw a spanish player played Luys Milan's Fantasia for the vihuela with the thumb-out style and without any figueta technique even for fairly fast bass parts while Hopkinson Smith uses a lot of figueta on vihuela. He seems to apply the Lute technique to the vihuela but I'm not sure.

So, as Alexander suggested, I'd better experiment both ways.
Sorry Martin, no attack was intended, only a slight prick at the flank :)
Anyway, it was my fault ... I try (try!) not to discuss the techniques: whether it's to do with thumb-under or -over or which finger plucks best at that angle or another and the risks involved in brushing or not the adjacent strings etc etc.
The technique to me is whether you can or cannot, as simple as that, no additional explanations necessary! And for this very reason I should abstain from this discussion, sorry about that.

Thank you for your further suggestion. The online string calculator by Mr. Hendrik Hasenfuss also suggests the unison stringing for the fourth course. So, the unison stringing may be another possibility.

FWIW, today I changed the strings for the 1st course and the treble of the fourth course with the ones that are one step thicker. The sound of both strings become thicker now, and the treble of the fourth course doesn't sound as trebly as before, and the entire fourth course sounds much more coherent.

Maybe I'll stay with that and eventually try to string with the bourdon on the bass side when the current strings are worn out.

Again, thank you, gentlemen, for your help. This is really a great forum!


after four years, have you decided whether you prefer the bourdon on the treble or bass side, and which is more useful? 

thank you for your help :D


Unfortunately I haven't encountered any further historical or graphical evidence to help me decide.

After experimenting both possibilities myself, however, I felt that the fourth course with the bourdon on the treble side is much easier to hold than the bourdon on the bass side.  With the bourdon on the trebel side, the fourth course may sound a bit too bright, compared to those of other courses, because the treble string is plucked more clearly with the thoumb.

In spite of the results of my humble experiments, the fourth course of my RG is strung wth two bourdons: the treble string had been broken and I've run out of the spare 0.42mm gut.  The four courses sound more evenly, though.

Akira, in situations when strings don't 'bend' that much at the nut and, as a result, do not create a lot of friction in the grooves (as is in case with your guitar) it doesn't really matter which material to use for it. So you might as well use ebony if it's easier for you, or boxwood etc.

Thank you for your experienced advice. Ebony should look better on my guitar but boxwood could fit nicely, too. I'll try either ebony or boxwood.


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