The Vihuela - An Overview
Have you noticed the shape of this instrument? The VIHUELA MEXICANA is a smaller physical scale of the Guitarrón. The sound produced from this musical instrument is that of a tenor guitar (tenor-higher pitched). The body or the sound box is much smaller and also has a convex back, which in Spanish we call "la joroba". The tuning mechanism on the headstock can be metal machine heads or wooden pegs (also called las clavijas). The Vihuela Mexicana has 5 strings and is tuned similar to the guitar. The difference is that the open G, the D and the A strings are tuned an octave higher than a guitar thus giving it a tenor sound or a higher pitch. The gauge of the strings and the order in which they are applied is important in producing a soft sound or a punchy bold sound when the instrument is strummed (the strum is called a mánico). The tension of the strings and the order of which they are applied can vary depending on the type of sound desired from the vihuela. The Delgado Vihuela String series by La Bella will accommodate any tension spectrum you desire. The strings used for the Vihuela Mexicana are monofilament nylon and in some preferred cases, nylon wound.
This instrument is strummed (los mánicos) with all of the fingernail tips to produce a rich, full and clear sound of the chords being played. A finger pick (la púa) on the pointer finger (1st finger - dedo índice) gives it a brighter and clearer sound when strummed. Many vihuela players have longer than normal fingernails on their strumming hand to facilitate their playing technique and to also get a clear crystal sound. The optimum spot to strum this instrument is between the sound hole and the point where the fret board or neck meets the body of the instrument. (The same linear area between the upper and lower bouts closest to the fingerboard.)
The frets on the Vihuela Mexicana are tightly tied nylon string.
We usually do not play a melodic line with the Vihuela Mexicana. It is more of a strummed, percussive instrument with pitch. It is considered a stringed chordal instrument.
The role of the Vihuela Mexicana functions as the secondary rhythmic support instrument to the Guitarrón. It provides the rhythmic, syncopated pulse and musical guide along with the Guitarrón and the guitar. The Vihuela Mexicana provides and maintains the tonality, which is the pitch preference.
(The Guitarrón, Vihuela Mexicana and Guitar together are commonly referred to as the rhythm section or las armonías). The Vihuela Mexicana was the instrument preferred by the mariachi musicians in central Jalisco.