I created a minor sensation recently when I took my mariachi vihuela to Maple Street Guitars in Atlanta to get them to cut a new bone nut for it. Practically everybody there had never seen one close up, so I thought I’d provide this post.
There are so many unusual things about the vihuela that I hardly know where to start. I’ll try to explain them in a logical order.
Mention a vihuela to most classical guitarists, and they will think you are talking about a European Renaissance instrument associated with Portugal that is the direct ancestor of the guitar, kind of a missing link between the lute and the guitar.
However, my instrument is a Mexican mariachi vihuela, a more-or-less 19th-century cordophon which is the rhythm instrument in the strolling band of players and singers that just about everybody has encountered at some point in a Mexican restaurant–the colorfully dressed guys that, as one patron of the guitar salon put it, “you pay to go away.” Well, not me.
Anyway, it surprises me that even experienced non-Mexican musicians like those in your local guitar shop have never seen a Mexican vihuela close up and really have no idea what one is–even if they’ve spent some time in Mexican restaurants and seen and heard a mariachi band.
I bought my vihuela when I traveled to the legendary mist-shrouded mountain village of Paracho, Michoacan, Mexico several summers ago. Now I have never played mariachi music, before or since. When I went to Paracho, I wanted to buy a modestly-priced instrument, just to have something to hang on my wall as a memento. This instrument just called out to me, asking to be bought. It wasn’t expensive, and it was easy to transport, so I got it. I brought it back to Atlanta a few weeks later, having hand-carried it carefully in a small gig bag on numerous trips on buses, taxis, and finally an airplane.
Paracho is renowned for luthiers and guitar-making. At least until recent times, more than half of the people in the town were luthiers or directly involved in making guitars and other plucked stringed instruments, specifically the bandurria, requinto, guitarron, and vihuela. My instrument was hand-made there, mostly of indigenous woods and materials. Paracho luthiers are legendary for making guitars and other instruments by hand, with a minimum of special tools and industrial capabilities, and great ingenuity. The quality of what they make there can vary greatly.
My instrument is an unusual example, not just because of its not just elaborate but completely-over-the-top ornamentation, but also because of its unusual, modern construction features which I have not seen on any other instruments.
My vihuela has a scale length of 20 7/8 inches, or 530mm. A Mexican vihuela, when you strum it, makes a sound similar to the Hawaiian ukulele. The vihuela has five single unwound nylon strings, tuned up under considerable tension and making a loud, chirping, choppy strumming sound that cuts but needs little sustain. The pitch of the lowest string on the neck is the “a” that, on the guitar, is made on the second fret of the “g” string. But it has a re-entrant tuning: the fifth string is “a”, then up a fourth to “d”, up a fourth to “g”, but then down a minor sixth to “b”, and up a fourth from there to “e”. So any chord you play will effectively be confined to pitches within a single octave, and one or two pitches within a chord played on all five strings will be repeated in unison on different strings.
A proper set of five vihuela strings is not that hard to find in the States, but you can also make up a set from the treble strings of two conventional classical guitar sets in a pinch.
LaBella sells a vihuela Mexicana set for $5.50, and the string gauges are as follows (all are unwound plain nylon):
5th A, .042 inches
4th D, .032
3rd G, .028
2nd B, .040
1st E, .032
Vihuelas typically only have three tied gut frets, and consequently they are only used to play simple major, minor or dominant seventh chords in first position only. The upper range of the neck is inaccessible and is not used at all, and the vihuela can’t be used to play a melody due to the re-entrant tuning. In usage in mariachi music, the guitarron (the bass instrument) always plays the note of the downbeat of the measure, invariably a chord root. The, vihuela then strums chords on the off-beats. Thus, for instance, if the song is in 3/4 time, the vihuela will only be heard strumming on beats 2 and 3, and it is not used to establish the root of a chord, neither the lowest note in a chord played in inversion.
My vihuela, just as I found it sitting in the store in Paracho, has nine metal guitar frets, going up the full length of the neck to where it joins the body. It’s the only vihuela I’ve ever seen or read about that has guitar frets, and the only one that has more than three frets. So whoever designed and built this instrument thought it was time that vihuelas be used to play chords higher up the neck. Obviously this idea hasn’t caught on yet, as the only vihuelas you can find for sale anywhere continue to have only three tied gut frets in first position!
Other unusual features of the vihuela are the construction of the bridge, the shape of the sides and back, the method of gluing them together, and the headstock and tuners.
In size and shape, the vihuela is remarkably similar to its musical mate, the much larger six-string mariachi guitarron, the bass instrument. (A guitarron has a body bigger than a cello, but is nonetheless strung on a strap and played standing up and walking around like all the other instruments in the mariachi band.)
To begin with, the bridge of the vihuela (and the guitarron) does not look anything like a classical guitar bridge. It does not have a wooden bridge foot and a separate saddle across which the strings pass before they are tied down. It merely has a one-piece wooden construction. The point of tying the string down is also the “break point” and witness point of the string. This is traditional, but it is also clearly a structural disadvantage, as there is no possibility to compensate anything for more accurate intonation or action, and the instrument cannot be calibrated or set up after it’s built. Given that the traditional vihuela is only used to strum chords in first position, this is not a problem, because intonation need not be critical, while the action should be quite high to make for a loud acoustic sound in a crowded restaurant or marriage reception. But if the unidentified genius who decided to put nine metal frets on my instrument keeps going with his ideas, perhaps he’ll build a vihuela with a more traditional classical guitar bridge for the sake of better intonation calibration for playing chords in higher positions.
About the back and sides–well, you’ll just have to look at the pictures. The deeply v-shaped back has a practical aspect; it’s a great shape for playing the instrument standing up. Hug it to your body and the top of the instrument is naturally angled up and outward for maximum acoustic projection, perfect for a strolling musical ensemble, which is what a mariachi band is!
On my instrument the top, back and sides are glued together without the use of kerfing, which seem strange to me as the concept of kerfing is quite well known and used in constructing all the regular guitars in Paracho. Perhaps it’s because of the unusual angles involved in the joining of the wood panels. Custom angled kerfing would have to be designed for this.
With regard to the headstock, a vihuela has five single strings, so typically they use a set of classical guitar tuners but cut off one tuner, leaving two tuners on one side of the neck and three on the other. Mine was set up with a traditional six-string guitar headstock, and one tuner simply sits unused. Again, mine is the only vihuela I’ve ever seen or read about that looks like this.
The top of my vihuela is made of a single, rather thick solid piece of tacote, which I believe to be a local Mexican wood. It appears to be fan-braced; I haven’t put a dentist’s mirror in there to look at the construction. The back and sides are made of palo escrito, also known as Mexican rosewood, a handsome-looking wood commonly used in Paracho guitars. The fingerboard is granadillo, a hard wood associated with South America, and mine is sealed with glossy shellac. The bridge appears to be palo escrito as well. The multi-piece neck could be cedar or mahogany, and it has a dark, thick headplate on the elaborate, dimensionally-carved head stock. The headplate is probably granadillo or it could be some form of rosewood dyed darker than the palo escrito used elsewhere. There is a stiffening rod or “skunk stripe” of what appears to be granadillo in the back of the neck, and there is no truss rod.
The binding, purfling, and inlay on this instrument are just insanely detailed. I’ll leave you to the photographs, and I may post more closeups later. Stripes and laminations involve wood strips dyed green, red, black, and natural tacote or maple. The top inlay in the amazing rosette and the purfling appears to be real abalone, and it sparkles; the unique inlay in the headstock, disappointingly, might just be plastic.
Overall the finishing and staining is sloppy, and there are numerous flaws in the astonishingly ambitious binding, purfling and inlay, including a couple of places where ugly brown filler was noticeably applied to fill in gaps.
In the gallery above is the maker’s mark. I know nothing about this luthier shop. The one time I was in Paracho, sadly, it was on a Sunday afternoon and almost everything was closed. I found the vihuela in a large music store with hundreds of instruments from many builders, and I was not able to inquire about the luthiers. If anybody out there knows anything about the shop of Jose Luis Velazquez, please let me know!
And how does it sound? This instrument barks loudly, in the chihuahua register (the dog, not the state elsewhere in Mexico) which is what a vihuela is supposed to do.
All in all this is a truly unique piece. Clearly it’s not a working man’s mariachi vihuela; it’s much too elaborate in its decoration to be used in that manner. So you might assume that it’s a showpiece designed to be hung on a wall and admired. The most curious thing, though, is that it has nine metal frets, meaning that it can be used to play lots and lots of chords that you can’t play on a conventional vihuela. So what is it? A display showpiece, or an innovative cutting-edge instrument that expands on what a vihuela is capable of doing in the hands of a forward-thinking mariachi musician? I just don’t know.
But now that I’ve paid the capable masters at Maple Street Guitars to cut a better, stronger nut and fix its intonation problems, I need to take this instrument down from the hook on the wall and find opportunities to play it.