My Mariachi Vihuela

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.

My Vihuela
My Vihuela

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.

Here is a link to Paracho on Google Maps, and another link to the article about Paracho on Wikipedia.org. It’s in Spanish.

Me selecting my vihuela in the store in Paracho

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.

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0 thoughts on “My Mariachi Vihuela”

  1. I found this post to be truly fascinating…lover of visual detail that I am. I learned more than I ever dreamed there was to learn about the instrument I have previously incorrectly called “specialized guitar,” not knowing its correct title. Thank you for taking the time to share the info!

  2. Mexico, Central and South America are full of different cordaphons (plucked or strung string instruments) in the guitar family that have different shapes, ranges, tunings, number of strings, sizes, and names. There is a Veracruz vihuela that is different than the Mariachi vihuela. And so on forever. This is largely because instruments have been built locally and not mass-produced, so there has been no standardization around the regions.

  3. I’m a folk singer from the United States [Michigan] and have been researching and shopping for a vihuela for several weeks now, as I wish to learn to play one. I really appreciate your detailed post here. But could you tell me which model this is that you have? It’s beautiful! I’ve found some other Paracho vihuelas online, but nothing as visually as pretty as this one, and frankly, yes, I’d like one with a bit more razzle dazzle than the ones I’m seeing. I also like it that yours is fretted all the way down. Can you point me to a website where I could find one? Thanks!

  4. I don’t know which “model” this one is because I have never had any other contact with the luthier, and I never found anything on a Web site, or for sale over the Internet, quite like this one.

    In my limited experience, vihuelas in the United States of America are brought up by individual musicians from Mexico directly. It’s just not an item you can reliably order online! If you want to find a better vihuela, I think your best bet is to ask around at a local Mexican restaurant and ask to meet some mariachi musicians.

    I came by mine because my wife was already studying at a language school in Morelia, Michoacan, and I asked her if she’d travel with me to the town of Paracho just so I could see what it was all about, and this was my souvenir.

    Things are complicated today because just this month, the US State Department strongly urged United States of American citizens to avoid all travel to the state of Michoacan, due to the tremendous crime and violence there. If I can find some resources, I’ll post them.

  5. Very nice. i am a Mariachi musician and i play in the Armonia (rhythm section) and i play the guitar, vihuela, and guitarron. this is a very unique paracho vihuela i have never seen one with such detail, the added frets is a plus ! 😀 lets you really get into a solo and just have a good time with various chord modulations . is the rosette, trim, and inner bridge Mother of pearl? very nice the only thing that would have made this a perfect 10/10 would be if it had wooden pegs. adds to the sound and really brings out the tone and resonance. but over all a very beautiful instrument . hold onto it and let it age like a fine wine lol the tone will follow. man i would love to hear and play it ^_^.

  6. hello,

    I am looking for a vihuela with six strings….difficult to find here in Germany. I want to play it like a guitar, so I need six strings. Do you have addresses where I can order one?
    Thanks…

    greetings from Berlin (Germany)

    Marko

    1. Perhaps you are referring instead to the European Renaissance instrument called the vihuela, which is not the same instrument as the Mexican mariachi vihuela at all. Search for information on web sites devoted to “early music” or “historically-informed performance”.

  7. Hi there, my name is David Alejandro Aldana, I came across this article and i found it really amazing that people take interest in the vihuela, an instrument of my culture. I play many instruments such as piano, drums, guitar but I am a vihuela player at heart. Its been my main instrument of about two to three years now or so(ive been playing guitar for about 6, but its basically the same thing the only real big difference is that the vihuela is missing the low e string) and i play in a professional and school mariachi so i have a pretty good amount of experience to these wonderful instruments.I currently have 3 of them, my first one, Lucida, my second a Reyes Standard, and 3rd a Reyes Deluxe.If you want to know more about them i will gladly answer.
    Your vihuela is really nice, it has the looks, and it seems like it has a loud bright tone, and lots of frets which is really good.
    Here i will, inform you more of the vihuela you have. Yours looks like its made for professional use. Most professional vihuelas have a headstock like yours, they have more than three frets, and they look and sound nicer. Standard and cheaper vihuelas usually only have 3 or 4 frets and they sound and look ok.Nowadays vihuela players use more than the usual three frets, we dont play everything in first position anymore, we are evolving our capabilities you could say, haha. But yes your vihuela isnt ment to be hung on a wall,it is something of fine quality with elaborate designs so you can show it off when you play gigs or concerts, it really is a fine instrument. What is unusual is the frets ,my Lucida is like that, but i prefer the plastic frets better.
    Thank you,
    David Aldana

    http://www.youtube.com/user/DavidAA1964?feature=mhee
    heres my youtube channel with videos of me playing my vihuela so you can check out what an instrument like yours can do.

  8. Hello i have also been looking to by a vihuela like the one you own so i was wondering how much you paid for that one. its a really nice one and since im planning on taking a trip to that part in mexico i wanted to have an idea of how much they are worth.

    Thanks,

  9. There are the “Morales” vihuelas, guitarrones, guitars, and harps specially dedicated to the mariachi genre. These instruments are generally top quality and very expensive. They are made in Guadalajara, Jalisco, Mexico by Roberto Morales and,since a pair of decades ago, his son Ruben. It is pretty much generally accepted that vihuelas come in three sizes being #1 the smallest and brightest. Any mariachi musician from Jalisco might know how to contact these luthiers.

  10. Hi to all,
    Just to comment on your vihuela and the beatiful inlays it has, it has very inusual features; the long scale and the frets on her,I am asumming this was a special order instrument.I have a vihuela made in Leon, Guanajuato(another mexican state) by a guy with the surname morales and it also have metal frets(six to be precise) and a six string, but with a short string scale,I think this was a experimental instrument falling in between a vihuela and a requinto but with the tunning on E as any standar guitar, it sounds very nice and after 30 plus years of service, still holding out pretty nice.

  11. You should try playing melodies on your vihuela. Both baroque guitars and ukuleles use re-entrant tuning and have a wide melodic repertoire.
    Campanella, where the succeeding notes are played on adjacent strings rather than along the same string, gives an effect of chords hanging in the air as you play. The effect is charming but very difficult with standard tuning. Re-entrant makes it, if not easier, at least less difficult.

  12. I just came across your article and I thank you for sharing it with us. I have been a mariachi musician in the Los Angeles and Orange County area of California since I was 8 years old. I have played and have several Vihuelas and never came across one so elaborate as yours. It is really nicely put together. Paracho Vihuelas have a good sound and a lot of Mariachis using these are their gigging instruments. If you are looking for a recording or professional instrument you need to look into Morales, Sevillano or Candelas. Priced a bit higher but you will notice that the action and the sound are substantially better and brighter. I have and currently use a Sevillano and I am very please with it. You can find all three of these luthiers on line.

    Good Luck!!!

    p.s. there is no such thing as a 6 string vihuela.

  13. I my name is Armando Mora and I play the vihuela in a Mariachi am only 13 years old and I was wondering how much was the vihuela in the front of this web site called my vihuela.

  14. Your article is very informative. I had purchased a cheap Lucida vihuela, these are made in China. I am looking to upgrade but all the finer vihuelas I find in websites have nylon frets and not metallic. I will really have to find someone who is going to Mexico and ask them to purchase one for me. I not that, I need to find the correct formula for installing nylon frets.

  15. Nice!

    I am a luthier; I just worked on a mexican vihuela much like yours. My task was to reglure the bridge, which had come off due to heat softening the glues.

    I was also asked to replace the trad. tie on frets with metal guitar frets! I was able to fit nine on, just as yours has.

    Thanks for the interesting post and nice pics.
    http://jbhguitars.blogspot.com/

  16. Hi Rob,

    I came across your site online – great stuff!

    Do you still play the vihuela? I’m looking for someone to perform and record a 30″ song for a low-budget spot.

    Thanks!

    Kathleen

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