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last-edited 29-Dec-2009/23:54:49 by Luke

Inventing the Guihuela

Inventing the Guihuela – a radical approach to instrument accessibility

…Wherein the author, posseffed of a sense of delyte of the qualities of the lvte, poses a multitude of questions about the availability of gud inftruments to learners and seeks a practical solution based on wydely available parts.


I've been interested for some time in exploring possible mechanisms to increase accessibility of various aspects of the lute. As a true convert I believe more people should get the opportunity to get involved and play! My view is that we will only keep this fine instrument alive today by getting more people to experience and play it. But a key problem is the accessibility of instruments, particularly those that are seen as affordable to people starting out to explore their interest. The lute should not just be an elite instrument only available to a select few.

Many people seem to come to the lute from the guitar, and although it is possible to play tablature on the guitar, the effect is still a guitar-like sound and experience. Some of the lute’s unique sound comes from its construction – its shape, thin soundboard, close barring; some from the right hand technique related to its action and setup.

Without these aspects it is difficult to develop the correct technique and really discover what the instrument and repertoire has to offer. So some basic physical characteristics of the instrument are crucial.

Hiring a lute from the Lute Society is obviously one option, and this proves popular, however demand on these instruments is high and there is often a waiting list. Even if you manage to try one of these, you can still be left with the dilemma of how to progress to the next stage, and/or how to make a case for the serious outlay that is a "proper" instrument. If you really are serious, buying a quality instrument is a good investment.

Most lutes are still hand made on an individual basis and this is reflected in their price. Good lutes do indeed hold their value, but it is still a significant investment that has to compete with other demands on your finances, particularly in these straitened times. And for most makers there is usually a long waiting list.

Some makers offer “student” versions of their instruments. These are usually the same as their standard instruments with less decoration, but still quite expensive compared with student versions of other instruments.

There is a second hand market, but this is generally of high end instruments available for a couple of thousand euro/pounds/dollars. Sometimes affordable “student” instruments come up, but not very often.

In the early stages of developing an interest in taking up the lute, it must take a dedicated sense of purpose to continue when people discover that compared to most other instruments there is little available at the “bottom end” of the market that can be recommended to them. Some instruments are produced in Pakistan, for example The Early Music Shop sell such an instrument, but a common opinion I have heard is that the quality is variable - some instruments seem ok, but others have problems with their set-up and sound quality. There are some reports on the Internet of how such instruments can be “fixed” with the attentions of a maker though.

So how can we increase the availability of entry level instruments? Something for a new player or dabbler, who is starting to develop an interest but cannot justify the full investment yet.

And here is the heresy – What about something really affordable but good enough?

It occurred to me that as many come to the lute from the guitar, could there be some kind of stepping stone between the instruments for those exploring their interest? More crucially, could that stepping stone be an instrument that would allow the development of relevant playing skills and exploration of the repertoire?

The historical record

Historically there is a fully paid-up guitar shaped member of the lute family – the vihuela. This is an instrument that has double courses, played with the fingertips, light construction. Its tablature is interchangeable with lute tablature. If you play the lute the vihuela is a familiar instrument and vice versa. Perhaps purists will disagree, but to many intents and purposes a vihuela is a lute in a guitar shaped body. I've even heard it said that the popularity of the guitar shape of the vihuela was motivated by the Spanish disaffection with the "Arabic" form of the lute, but apparently this is a bit of a myth. Many professional lutenists are also expected to play baroque guitar as well.

We also know that in the historical record, lutes were much modified to suit the needs of the day. Renaissance lutes were rebarred to suit changing tastes. Bridges were changed, necks were chopped off and widened as the older instruments were “upgraded” to baroque lutes. Some theorbos were downgraded to simpler mandoras. So there is a long and venerable tradition of adapting existing instruments to suit players’ needs.

Building your own

When I started playing as a student, I could not afford to buy an instrument and so I started to build one following Ian Harwood’s chapter in the Charles Ford book and the Lute society leaflet by Philip MacLeod-Coupe . I learnt a lot from that experience and eventually finished it after a couple of years work, although by today’s standards it is too heavily constructed and not very resonant. Nowadays there is more comprehensive and detailed advice available – and I can personally recommend David Van Edwards’ summer school and CD course.

Building your own lute from scratch is a rewarding experience but requires a considerable investment in time – probably about a year of weekends, and an understanding family willing to put up with sawdust and the smell of hide glue. Some specialist tools have to be built or purchased, particularly in the construction of the back which needs a mold and bending iron. Specialist woods have to be procured for every part of the instrument.

I have wondered: could there be some kind of shortcut through some of this construction process for those with some modest woodworking skills? Is there something that could be easily built in a few weekends? A tall order you might say.

A conversion job

Out of this soup of speculation that I have been stirring for a while has come a realisation that the necessary elements are readily available to assemble an instrument that allows the correct development of technique and exploration of the repertoire. Over the last few months, I've been experimenting with the modest lutherie knowledge I have, to look at what it might take to convert an existing, mass produced, cheap instrument into something that plays like a lute/vihuela. My goal is something that plays like a lute/vihuela and can be relatively easily constructed.

A 3/4 size student guitar is about the right string length and approximately similar body size to a lute/vihuela in G. Their bodies are quite heavily built to withstand mistreatment. And with a thick plywood top there is little musical character to enjoy, but generally they are solidly made and reliably assembled in China.

The following photos shows a typical 3/4 size guitar alongside a 60cm 8 course g’ lute. As can be seen, the string length is similar and although the body volume is slightly less, it is not too dissimilar:

But best of all, most of the major work is done – the body is built and correctly aligned with the neck so major aspects of construction and alignment are already complete. The neck is about the right width to take six courses.

Most of the sound quality of a lute or vihuela comes from a high quality spruce soundboard that has been thinned to the right thickness (about 1.5mm) with a fairly compact barring pattern to bring out the higher frequencies and “sweet” tone.

Our student guitar has an unremarkable 3 mm plywood top with a micro thin veneer to look like solid wood. That is the main part that needs to be replaced with a decent spruce top.

So to scratch the itch I rolled up my sleeves and made a start...

I’ve named the invention the "Guihuela" to reflect its heritage, and I've built my first prototype over the weekends of the last 2 months. I'm pretty pleased with how it turned out and it already sounds surprisingly sweet given its hybrid construction. It has 6 courses in G with a 60cm string length and you can play it like a lute.

Building the prototype

Here is an illustrated story of my conversion process . The idea is that it can be quite easily created and is perhaps a more likely prospect for someone with modest woodworking skills to create compared to building a lute from scratch. The total cost of all materials including the student guitar and strings was about £100, but the main saving is in time. It took me about 6 weekends, which is much quicker than building a lute from scratch


The tools needed are very much those found in most sheds: a good saw, chisel, plane and vice are at the centre of any woodworking project. Generally lutes are made with hide glue which means mistakes can be fixed and joints reassembled again. My glue pot is a baby’s bottle warmer picked up cheaply on eBay.

As the body is already assembled, you don’t need a bending iron or to build a mold. The only specialist tool you really cannot get by without is a violin peg reamer to make the tapered holes in the peg box. You can get specialist lutherie tools and woods from suppliers on the Internet.

Other materials I used were as follows:

• Good quality spruce top – ones intended for acoustic guitars are fine for our needs
• Pegs – violin pegs are cheap and widely available and will meet our needs.
• Some hard wood for the fingerboard. Historically this would have been ebony. I used oak as it is widely available.
• Strings – a set of normal lute strings for a 6 course instrument.
• Material for a nut – get a bone blank from luthier supplier.
• Other bits of miscellaneous wood to make the bridge and peg box. I was impatient and used 12mm plywood for these.
• Selotape or masking tape to help glue the soundboard back on
• A long screw
• Stain/varnish/danish oil as required


First obtain your 3/4 size guitar. These are widely available as “student” guitars, designed for younger children who do not perhaps have adult sized hands. I got mine from a local high street music shop. I tried a couple and the one branded “Jose Ferrer” seemed the best quality, and had a body that was similar to that of a lute (see photo above).

Buying it new cost about £50, but you can also pick up 3/4 size guitars on eBay for much less.

This instrument has a body made of plywood, including a 3mm plywood top. Not surprisingly, it was pretty dead acoustically. It came with a dust cover, which I kept for the final instrument.

Next the fun part. After having removed and discarded the strings, nut and tuning pegs, rev up your Black and Decker™ jigsaw and set to work removing the top.

Trim back the remnants of the plywood soundboard with a chisel and clean up any spare frayed wood if any.

On a modern guitar, the fingerboard sits proud on top of the soundboard, but on our guihuela we want it to be flush as per a lute. However if we take off the fingerboard, the neck would be too thin. So I decided to cut of the neck and set it back, leaving the original fingerboard in place, and putting our own one on top .

Since I am going to be reshaping the neck to some degree, I used a paint/varnish stripper to remove the existing finish. The guitar had a top layer that came off really easily, but had underneath a more stubborn waxy layer that took more encouragement and scraping.

The original peg box had a number of channels and holes in it to hold the original guitar peg mechanism. This didn’t seem to leave much room for new pegs, so I decided to cut if off and fashion a new peg box from a piece of 12mm plywood. The scalloping around the edge was done using the curved end of a belt sander.

However this made the joint with the neck somewhat tricky, and my first attempt came off rather dramatically during some enthusiastic stress testing by a flamenco guitar player and had to be reinforced later.


Now we can start to put it back together again.

In order to keep a sufficient thickness in the neck, I decided to leave the old fingerboard still attached to the neck and reassemble neck back onto the body. The neck joint was vertically offset so that the face of the neck (in fact the top of the old fingerboard) it is now flush with the body. This will have the advantage that the old fret slots cut in the guitar fingerboard will be hidden behind a new fingerboard going on top.

As with a lute neck joint it is reassembled using hot glue and a long screw through the block from the inside of the body into the neck.
Building the front of the instrument is where most of our energy goes. We are aiming for a good sound, and so we need a high quality piece of spruce planed to the correct thickness with an appropriate barring pattern.

Guitar soundboard fronts are relatively easy to get hold of. I chose a “medium” quality one – the best one I could justify buying considering the fact that the instrument is a prototype. There is little point in buying a very expensive one, if the rest of our instrument is made of plywood! But on the other hand this is one area where high quality will pay off later in terms of sound quality.

The soundboard comes in two pieces, book-matched. As per a lute construction process, I jointed it down the middle (this can take some time and patience to get it right).

Now we mark out the body, leaving about 5mm spare. The wood removed can be used for bars later, as seems to have been the practice with historical lutes.
Lute soundboards seem to be around 1.5mm thick, with some variation, so that seemed to be a reasonable reference thickness for our guihuela.

Next I planed the top down to 1.5 mm all round. I discovered that you can easily pick up a piece of ply or wood from craft shop already thicknessed to 1.5 mm to use as a reference thickness. If you lay it alongside your top you can plane the top down until it is the same size. Or if you have access to some thicknessing callipers, even better .

Then I thinned a little more in the area where the rose will be, to ease carving. You can hold it up to a bright light to see relative thickness.
Based on the proportions of the original instrument and from looking at pictures of vihuelas and baroque guitars, I decided to carve the new rose pretty much where the original guitar sound hole was. I carved mine using a surgical scalpel. For your first one, I suggest to choose relatively simple design for your rose. Mine was a simplified design based on the Gerle design.
To cut it I used a scalpel, but with the blade reground on the edge of the belt sander to get a more “vertical chisel” tip. The design was then cut with a series of vertical push cuts to chop cleanly through the wood fibres.

I experimented a bit with barring schemes. I thought that I needed to give the instrument the best chance of being resonant given it still had its plywood body. So initially I chose a very simple light barring scheme primarily comprising two main bars between the bridge and the rose, and a single treble bar, based on some photos by Larry Brown documenting his construction of a renaissance guitar.

This meant that instrument was indeed quite resonant, but perhaps more like a baroque guitar than vihuela/lute sound with more of a bass response and not as much higher harmonic texture as a lute. This suggests that another variant of the instrument might be to bar it lightly and indeed string it as a 5 course baroque guitar.

I got some useful input from David Van Edwards who suggested to bar it more as a lute would be. That is to extend the above barring to have three bars between the bridge and rose, two bars above the rose and to add a bass bar to remove some of the bass end of its sound. I went for a simplified bass bar without a bend in it.

Before putting the top on, don’t forget to put your maker’s label in!
The bowl needs to have a slight hollow carved into it. Lutes have this, usually about 3-4mm at the rose. This means the action is deep enough to allow the player to “dig in” and develop a good right hand technique.

The soundboard goes on with hide glue. This is a joint you want to be able to easily undo in case repairs or adjustments are ever needed. The fingerboard is simply a piece of oak the same thickness as the soundboard.

In terms of finishing, there is not a lot of work to do – the back of the body is already finished, and the soundboard should not have any varnish on it. I chose to stain the back of the neck and pegbox, as the underlying wood was quite pale (probably made of tulip wood).

The nut was a piece of Corian , but a bone luthiers nut blank could have been used instead.

The frets are tied on using fret gut as per a lute.

The strings were a standard set of Aquila Nylgut lute strings for the 60 cm string length.

The peg box is similar to that on a baroque guitar or ukulele, set back at a slight angle with the pegs coming through from the back. My design used a simple scallop outline. You could attach a lute style peg box, but then would not fit in a guitar carrying case, and it would look less like a historic instrument and more of a weird pastiche.

The pegs are standard violin pegs. This simplifies the process of building a peg box, which is a single piece of wood with the pegs reamed from the rear .

As it all comes together an instrument emerged that looks similar in shape and general dimensions to the “Chambure” vihuela in Paris – without, of course, its fluted back.

Early experiences and feedback

As you can imagine the excitement of putting the strings on and bringing your own instrument up to pitch is almost overwhelming. It is such a rewarding experience to build your own instrument – however it turns out.
Lutes tend to sound pretty dull when they are first strung, and the guihuela was no different. For some reason, an instrument tends to settle in and brighten up over the first month or so – perhaps it is to do with the glue completely drying out.

The instrument turned out much better than I expected. I’ve not been aiming to win any aesthetic awards - my first priority was to create an instrument that was first and foremost playable and had the right lute like “feel” under the left and right hand. However I was surprised at the pleasantness of the tone – certainly it is an instrument that enjoys being played. Its sound is somewhere between a lute and baroque guitar. Playing renaissance repertoire on it sounds good.

Initial feedback from pretty much everyone I have shown it to so far has been positive, ranging from mild amusement right up to wild enthusiasm. The most positive responses have been from those looking at it as an instrument that could be used for teaching purposes for students getting started. Other possible uses include using it as a “knockabout” instrument for more serious players who don’t want to take their lute on holiday. I’ve also received some useful technical feedback and hope to experiment further with subsequent models.

Follow up and next steps

My main aims in this project have been to show another route through the problem of providing affordable instruments to new learners. The approach has been to show how it is possible to adapt a mass-produced instrument into something that is a meaningful stepping stone into the world of the lute and yet allows development of correct playing technique. In this regard I view it as a success.

Hopefully I have also shown that the conversion process is fairly straightforward, and so perhaps others can also feel inspired to pick up a saw and give it a try.

Since I completed the instrument, as a player I’ve been forcing myself to exclusively play my guihuela exclusively (at the expense of my lute which currently languishes in the corner) for a while so I can try to evaluate the instrument more from the perspective of a player. I think it is absolutely crucial that any instrument design choices we select must be those that make the instrument actually more playable or improves the sound. However at the same time I have tried to stick close enough to a design concept that has some historical precident. My view is that the guihuela should be seen as a new shoot on the lute family tree rather than as a completely new instrument altogether.

Another interesting part of the project has been the fact that all the materials are low cost and widely available. It is much easier to experiment with designs and ideas when you know that there you are only working with low cost materials. If it goes wrong, throw it away and start again.
My next steps are to build some more guihuelas and further develop the overall approach. I aim to experiment further with design options for the head to neck joint and with barring. Although the barring pattern I settled on for this first instrument is quite compact, in talking with other makers I have learned that vihuelas and baroque guitars were often barred in a much lighter way. Not having the rounded back of a lute probably means the acoustic profile is naturally more slanted towards the higher frequencies anyway. So a lighter barring might open the instrument up further.

I welcome any feedback and your thoughts!

- Luke


[1] This document is a slightly extended version of an article shortly to appear in Lute News.
[2] Chapter 2, The Lute, Ian Harwood. In Making Musical Instruments, by Charles Ford, 1979
[3] Lute society booklet: Lute Construction, by Philip MacLeod-Coupe
[4] http://www.vanedwards.co.uk
[5] As noted above, due to this being an adapted version of an article for Lute News, the instrument building story is told from the perspective of explaining the process to someone with woodworking experience, but not an experienced instrument maker. As a result, some of the elements of the construction process may seem a little obvious to experienced luthiers
[6] However this approach is not going to work on some guitars. I tried this on a different make of guitar and managed to break the teeth of my saw, as it had a steel bar running through the neck and into the body. So beware of cutting the neck off in this way!
[7] These are still on my shopping list.
[8] http://www.cincinnatiearlymusic.com/renaissance_guitar.html
[9] A material by Dupont originally invented for kitchen worktops and chopping boards, but used by luthiers as a material for nuts
[10] This pegbox style is used on historical plucked instruments such as vihuelas and baroque guitars.
[11] Anonymous vihuela E.0748, Cite de la Musique, Paris

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