The shape (outline) of the vihuela is simlar to that of the modern guitar. It has incurving sides and bouts, as if it is intended to be played with a bow, and some early instruments of the late fifteenth century were built so that they could be played either with a bow (de arco) or directly with the fingers (de mano). However, by the time the vihuela reached its greatest historical popularity in the mid-sixteenth century, the instruments were built with the bridge low and flat and glued onto the table, as on a lute, so that bowing would be impossible. The vihuela has vertical sides and a flat back, although a vaulted (arched) back was more common during the sixteenth century. The playing technique of the vihuela is similar to that of a lute. Like the lute, the vihuela generally had six courses through much of the sixteenth century, although Fuenllana (see below) printed a few pieces for instruments with only five courses, and perhaps a small number of later instruments were made with seven. All courses, including the first, were usually doubled. The tuning of the vihuela was the similar to that of the lute, using a fourth, fourth, major third, fourth, fourth pattern, so that two octaves separate the pitch of the first course and that of the sixth. It is not clear how many of the lower courses were normally tuned with octave doubling. As on the lute, the fingerboard is fretted, with the frets tied around the neck, so they are movable and allow for adjustment of the temperament. While the lute of the mid-sixteenth century typically had eight tied frets, the neck of a vihuela is proportionately a bit longer, allowing for ten tied frets.
The vihuela was primarily an Iberian instrument. Although the viola da mano (a very similar if not indistinguishable instrument) is sometimes mentioned in Italian publications and is depicted in Italian artworks, particularly those originating in areas under Catalan or Aragonese control, it appears not to have been used as frequently there, and the vihuela was not played commonly elsewhere in Europe. There is some evidence that a few instruments made their way to Latin America, and some may have even been built there.
Only a few sixteenth-century instruments identifiable as vihuela have survived. One is in the Musée Jaquemart André in Paris. Another different instrument is in the Musée Instrumental du Conservatoire National Superieur de Musique, also in Paris. Like other musical instruments of the sixteenth century, the vihuela was clearly made as a family of different-sized instruments, tuned to different pitches. Duet music was published for instruments one step, a minor third, a fourth, and a fifth apart, as well as for unison tuning. The string length of the instrument pictured above is 58 cm. Many modern reproductions have been based on the engraving on the title page of the vihuela book of Luis Milán (1535, Valencia, left) and another picture he includes in the introductory material to it (below).
There were seven significant collections of music for the vihuela published during the sixteenth century containing fantasias, sonetos, and sacred & secular choral music presented as vocal solos with accompaniment, as well as purely instrumental transcriptions (intabulations) of polyphonic vocal music, both sacred and secular. Dances are missing entirely from some publications, and only a few pavanas are found in others. The level of complexity, sophistication and technical difficulty is comparable to that of music appearing in publications for lute at the same time. The main difference is that the vihuela repertory tends to make a bit more use of the ninth and tenth frets and positions beyond them than the contemporary lute music does.
- Libro de Musica de Vihuela de Mano. Intitulado el maestro – Luis Milán, Valencia, 1535 (15365).
- Los seys libros del Delphin de musica de cifras para tañer Vihuela – Luis de Narváez, Valladolid, 15381.
- Tres Libros de Mvsica en Cifras para Vihvela – Alonso de Mudarra, Sevilla, 154614.
- Libro de Mvsica de Vihvela, Intitvlado Silva de Sirenas. – Enríquez de Valderrábano, Valladolid, 15475.
- Libro de Musica de Vihuela, agora nuevamente compuesto – Diego Pisador, Salamanca, 15527.
- Libro de Mvsica para Vihuela, intitulado Orphenica lyra – Miguel de Fuenllana, Sevilla, 15543.
- Libro de Musica en cifras para Vihuela, intitulado el Parnasso – Esteban Daza, Valladolid, 15761.
Several other musical publications of the late sixteenth century mention the vihuela in a list of instruments for which their authors suggest the compositions are suitable, although the music is not presented in the form of tablature for a fretted instrument.
- Libro de Cifra Nueva para Tecla, Harpa, y Vihuela – Luis Venegas de Henestrosa, Alcalá de Henares, 15572.
- Libro llamado Arte de tañer fantasia assí para tecla como para vihuela – Tomás de Sancta Maria, Valladolid, 15655.
- Obras de música para tecla, arpa y vihuela – Antonio de Cabezón, Madrid, 15783.
- Aux origines de la guitare: la vihuela de mano. Cité de la Musique, Paris (2004) ISBN: 2-914147-23-6
- Howard Mayer Brown, Instrumental Music Printed Before 1600 – A Bibliography, Cambridge MA, Harvard University Press, 1965; reprint: Lincoln NE, iUniverse.com, Inc., 2000. (Subscripts on dates of historical publications refer to the corresponding entries in this book.)
- Freis, Wolfgang, Perfecting the perfect instrument: Fray Juan Bermudo on the tuning and temperament of the vihuela de mano. Early Music (Oxford), 1995; 23: 421 – 436.
- Gill, Donald, Vihuelas, violas and the Spanish guitar. Early Music (Oxford), 1981; 9: 455 – 462.
- Griffiths, John, Extremities: The vihuela in development and decline. in Luths et Luthistes en Occident. Cité de la Musique, Paris (1999) ISBN: 2-906460-98-2
- Minamino, Hiroyuki, The Spanish plucked viola in Renaissance Italy, 1480–1530. Early Music (Oxford), 2004; 32: 177-193.