If you’re a fan of Mariachi, then you’re probably familiar with the vihuela, a small, guitar-like fretted string instrument that holds a special place in traditional Mexican music. But the original vihuela is actually of Spanish origin and has surprisingly little connection to the vihuela of modern-day Mexico.  

The Spanish vihuela has a fascinating history that goes back hundreds of years, from the Spanish Renaissance to becoming a staple of Mexican Mariachi and the precursor to the Italian viola.

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What Is a Vihuela?

Pronounced bi’wela, a vihuela is a stringed wooden instrument that is somewhat like a cross between a classic guitar and a lute. You can see the influence of the guitar in the figure-eight shape of the vihuela’s body, while it remains very much in line with a lute in terms of both its flat back and how it’s tuned.

The vihuela was invented in Spain’s Kingdom of Aragon in the 15th century and was the aristocracy’s answer to the common people’s guitar. It was also nearly identical to the Italian lute. By the later part of the 1400s, the traditional vihuela had grown in popularity and could be found all over Spain, Portugal, and Italy. And eventually, musicians began playing the instrument with a bow instead of by finger plucking; a move that eventually led to the development of the viola.  

vihuela
Source:Wikimedia Commons
The Spanish vihuela featured six double courses of strings and was the inspiration behind the modern-day viola.

Interestingly, the Mexican vihuela, which first appeared in the 19th century, is unrelated to its eponymous Spanish predecessor. Despite sharing a name and being similar in appearance, the Mexican vihuela was invented by the Coca Indians in Southwestern Jalisco and is most comparable to a ukulele. (However, the Spanish vihuela did make its way west eventually and is considered to be the primary influence for the South American charango and tiple.)

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How Many Strings Does a Vihuela Have?

You’ll find 12 vihuela strings on the Spanish version of this stringed instrument, which are divided into six courses (pairs of strings that are played as one). The Mexican vihuela has five strings. The two varieties also differ in string material, with the vihuela strings on the Spanish instrument being made of gut and the strings on the Mexican instrument being made of nylon.

vihuela
Source:Wikimedia Commons
The Mexican vihuela has only five strings to the Spanish vihuela’s 12.

Originally, the vihuela was always played fingerstyle, even if it later evolved to be played by bow or pick. The Mexican version of the vihuela is finger plucked to this day, providing a folksy tonality that is an integral part of Mariachi music.  

Types of Spanish Vihuela

There are two primary types of Spanish vihuela: the vihuela de mano and the vihuela de arco. Despite the name difference, though, they’re the exact same instrument played in two different ways:

  • Vihuela de mano: Hand vihuela (played with the fingers)
  • Vihuela de arco: Bow vihuela (played with a bow)

A third type, the vihuela de penola, is played with a plectrum, also known as a guitar pick.  

The Spanish vihuela is not played much today, at least not in mainstream Spanish music. The Mexican vihuela, however, remains highly popular, as do the other lute-like string instruments that the vihuela has inspired over the years.

painting of people playing vihuela
Source:Wikimedia Commons
A Girolamo dai Libri altarpiece depicting a musician playing a vihuela de mano.

Vihuela Music Tutorials and Examples

Because the Spanish vihuela isn’t really used in modern music, you’ll have to look to historical resources for guidance on how the instrument is played. Famous examples include Los seys libros del Delphin by Luis de Narváez (1538) and Libro de Música de Vihuela by Diego Pisador (1552),

If you’re more interested in the Mexican vihuela, then you’re in luck. You can find lots of tutorials online for how to play the Mariachi-style vihuela, as well as modern music examples to practice with. Focus on general guitar fundamentals, too, which will provide you with a lot of the basic skills that you need to learn to play any type of stringed instrument in the guitar or lute family.

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