How I came to own a Vihuela
I was accidentally reintroduced to lutes: I swear I had no intention of getting involved, it "just happened". I studied classical guitar in the late 60s and found my inspiration from Julian Bream and Walter Gerwig, not Andres Segovia. Back then Julian Bream played a kind of hybrid guitar/lute that had metal frets, was quite heavily strung. No matter: his John Dowland was an revelation to many of us. The availability of lutes in the 60s was pretty limited; I actually bought one, I believe a 7 course instrument, while in Spain. It was a miserable, heavy instrument with metal frets and that never tuned well. Double-strung courses at modern guitar tensions resulted in an instrument that took more strength than I had to play, so eventually that instrument was abandoned.
You my ask, "who was Walter Gerwig?" In 1964 he recorded Johann Sebastian Bach: Lute Music on the Nonesuch label, and died two years later. It was a marvelous recording; I understand that he played everything on a 10 course lute using the rennaisance vieil ton. I remember his playing as being a model of simplicity and sweetness, but I haven't heard the recording in 30 years.
I continued playing guitar until I turned 40. I had played from tablature since I was a teen, frequently tuned my g string down to f#, and had actually stopped playing with nails when I was 30. However, when I turned 40 I dropped the guitar entirely and took up the piano, then the clavichord, expecting never to look back.
A dozen years later I met another client of Cezar's who shared my interest in early keyboard instruments. She also owned two of Cezar's lutes, a 7-course, then a 6-course, and had a vihuela on order. She was astonished to discover that I could read tablature and that I could barely scratch out some pieces on her instruments. I was intrigued by these historically authentic lutes, but not enough to make a commitment to a new instrument! However, when her vihuela arrived I was instantly infatuated. I loved its size, its bright, sweet tone, and of course its elegance. I told myself at the time that if I was ever going to study early fretted instruments, it would be a vihuela. I began collecting vihuela recordings, which only further convinced me that I really wanted a vihuela.
Ordering my vihuela
I told Cezar I wanted an elegant instrument that wouldn't look like a funny guitar, that I preferred darker woods for the back, even though it didn't look like he had done that before. I also told him that I liked the parchment and pearwood rosette that is found on the original Chambure vihuela. Finally, I wanted an ornate, "Moorish" head. Beyond that, I trusted Cezar's aesthetic decisions. Cezar got quite excited and came up with a design that alternated two rosewoods, a light and a dark. The result, which you can see in the pictures (click on them to see a larger version), is simply stunning. This is an instrument that immediately draws the eye to it. Okay, most people still think it looks like a funny (but very beautiful) guitar—that can't be helped.
My recommendation is to work closely with Cezar. Each instrument is a collaboration. I would trust in Cezar's taste: let him decide on the details. No two of his instruments are identical, but all are beautiful.
The other thing to think about sooner than later is the case. This will protect it day-to-day, and especially when the instrument is shipped. The Kingham MTM cases are works of art in themselves and I think you are crazy not to invest in one. The actual size is somewhere between that of a violin case and a standard guitar case. In other words, it is quite a bit smaller than a guitar case, and that makes it very, very portable. One of the many things I like about this instrument is that there is no excuse not to take with you—and I take mine everywhere.
Playing my vihuela
I play my vihuela with a strap; I really don't think there is any other way. The instrument is too small to play like a classical guitar, and I soon discovered that I could play standing up or sitting down. When I sit, I usually raise my right leg just a bit to rest the instrument on. I leave my strap on the instrument all the time and find I can tuck it easily into the case so that I don't have to detach it.
Now I must boast. My vihuela sounds as good those on the best vihuela recordings I own. Light and sweet: it has a nice balance between the bass and treble. You have a couple of options with stringing. I prefer the slightly brighter sound of silver Pyramid strings over the copper Savarez on the sixth and fifth courses, but some like the more muted sound of copper. I use nylgut on the fourth through second courses; you can optionally use wrapped strings on the fourth course, but I find the nylgut blends in just right. Finally, I tried nylgut on the first course and found it too thin and insubstantial; I find a plain old nylon string to be just right.
In playing my vihuela, I find that John Griffiths put it so eloquently in the notes to Alfred Fernández's recording, Nunca más veráan mis ojos:
To find yourself in a quite place with a vihuela in your hands and to pluck the strings that run the length of its fragile body is an exquisite experience, for musicians today just as for players of yesteryear. The touch of the fingers on the strings is precious, the vibrations of the gut convert the assembled woods into a balanced union of living tissue, and the sound fills the space with harmonious delicacy.
Cezar's vihuela is a thing of beauty: perfectly proportioned, gorgeously decorated, it is a light and vibrant instrument that has captured my heart. I find myself playing when I should be doing other things.
This, of course, has opened Pandora's Box. I never understood why it seems lutenists must own more than one instrument. Having gotten the exquisite feel of strings under my fingers, I have since commissioned Cezar to build an 11 course French baroque lute. My argument: totally different instrument, music and tuning. I can't wait. However wonderful the new lute it, it can't match the portability and intimacy of my vihuela.