Early Guitars and Vihuela

A network for historic guitars and vihuelas

What to do with an old Applause Ovation 6-string with a godawful aluminum/resin neck and a plywood top? Rebuild it into a lute, or vihuela, of course!

I started by removing the plywood soundboard. Most luthiers that do repair work will tell you they hate Ovations. I can see why. Ovation uses all sorts of epoxies and other "space-age polymers" to glue their guitars together so taking them apart is not pretty. As I wasn't planning on saving the soundboard, I didn't care. I wore a respirator, used a heat gun and steel spatula, and removed the top.

The top was glued to a plastic rim which in turn was glued to the bowl. Ovation bodies are reportedly some sort of helicopter blade material. I will say this: when you remove the top and all the plastic binding and lining material, the bowl is extremely thin and fairly light-weight.

Once I had all traces of the old space-age glue removed, I made kerfed lining from some old trim molding, and used polyurethane glue to glue it to the inside of the bowl. I did this to provide a wood-to-wood surface to glue the soundboard to with hide glue. Obviously historical lutes and early guitars and vihuelas did not use lining, but I had to in order to have something wooden to glue the soundboard to. At least now if the top should need to be removed some day, it will be no more difficult than any other guitar built with hide glue. 

The new soundboard is Carpathian Spruce from Old World Tonewood. I'm still thicknessing it and haven't completely decided whether this will be a lute or vihuela. I'm leaning toward lute since I have a vihuela in G already, but the body is guitar-shaped and though it is tighter waisted than a vihuela, the waist is not very tight. It is bowl-backed after all, so it more resembles either a lute or perhaps a round-backed Baroque guitar. 

The neck is made from the same piece of Sapelle that I used for my vihuela. I made the neck to headstock joint at a 45 degree angle which is much shallower than a Renaissance lute, but steeper than a vihuela. My intention from the start was a 6-course lute, but I wanted the thing to still fit in its old case, so the almost 90 degree lute angle was out of the question. The joint is also more oud-like than lute-like. 

This brings me to the headstock. Since I have already thrown historical accuracy to the wind by using a helicopter blade Ovation body, I'm also borrowing Rickenbacker's ingenious headstock design (Google Rickenbacker 12-string for pictures). And yes, I will be using tuning machines, not pegs.

So this hybrid beast will be an instrument like no other. The soundboard, in addition to being of European spruce, will be thicknessed, braced and voiced like a lute. The bridge will be a lute bridge. The frets will be tied-on gut. The fretboard will be on the same plane as the soundboard, not raised above it like a guitar.

My hope is to preserve the essential elements of a lute's sound while experimenting on a modern platform. Of course it's heresy, but I like to call what I do "guerrilla lutherie".

When it is completed I will post a video so all can judge the sound. I'm a weekend warrior though, so don't hold your breath!

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Comment by Mark Day on September 26, 2011 at 16:36

Unfortunately I made the neck to the dimensions of a Renaissance lute in G. I don't have it in front of me to measure, but the scale length would be in the neighborhood of 60cm. I could make a new neck and build a vihuela in E, since guitars are already in E. Bridge placement is very different though in modern guitars vs. lutes. Less information is available about vihuelas, probably owing to the dearth of extant historical instruments to study. When I built my vihuela in G, I placed the bridge at 60cm from the nut after I had built the neck.

My vihuela is actually built from Scott Tremblay's GAL plan for an 1816 salon guitar, which is what I had originally intended to build. Details of the building of that instrument are available here:



Comment by William Bustard on September 7, 2011 at 6:48

A kind of wild concept maybe more like "Gorilla Luthiery" :-)

 I will be interested to see bridge placement and the final scale length. Going by the body length of those guitars I would think it may be quite long. Perhaps a Viheuela may be a good choice or one of the longer scale lutes. Might make a fun instrument. 

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