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3 Minute Introduction

Five Degree Calculation Line

String Numbering Order

Cipher Demonstrations

Pattern of Unisons and Octaves

Fretboard Note Spellers

Musical number formula translation tables

Free PDFs -- Grids, Spellers, Cipher Formula

Open position chords for Viola da Gamba


The Cipher for Viola da Gamba and Lute


Page 1   Page 2   Page 3   Page 4   Page 5   Page 6



Instrument shown is 7 string Viola da Gamba
Painting: by Jean-Martial Fredou, of J.B. Forqueray, 1740?
Do you see the frets? It was tuned almost the same way you tune your current guitars today 444344 (for 7 strings).




Before reading this be forewarned that I use Commonsense String Numbers in all explanations.

Index of The Cipher for fretted Viola da Gamba:

This Viola da Gamba (or 6 course Lute) section essentially duplicates the all of the fretboard related material in the Core Cipher Components for Guitar section.

Commonsense string numbering order means your lowest pitched string is String-One, highest pitched is String-Six.

The Cipher System’s Five Degree Calculation Line used for plotting musical materials on the guitar fretboard also work for the fretted viols and six course Lute. If you’re already familiar with The Cipher applied to guitar you’ll feel right at home here. You’ll be able to reuse and apply virtually everything you’ve already learned about music theory and fretboard mechanics to these instruments. In fact, because of their similar tunings, you’ll be able reuse and apply much of your guitar knowledge verbatim, it’s exactly like guitar. I can only give you a basic overview of the instruments here, plus show you how to apply The Cipher to them. Again, I intend only to help you get your foot in the door.



The Cipher for Viola da Gamba and Lute
6 and 7 string (or course)

The Viols

Viola da gamba were fretted, bowed, 4, 5, 6, or 7 string instruments tuned in Perfect 4ths with a Major 3rd interval at or near the middle of the tuning pattern. This is the same tuning used on bowl-back lutes, vihuelas, violas, and other early guitars, thus very similar to present day guitar tuning (we’ll go in to that later). Viols (short for viola da gamba) were popular in Europe, the dominant form of bowed string instrument, for approximately 250 years, roughly 1480 to 1780 in total (so shave 25 years off both ends to represent a fast ascend at the beginning and a fast decline at the end). During their reign, the viols,  along with the  lutes (another guitar-like instrument), were responsible for a very large share of Western Early and Classical music, formal and popular, secular and sacred.

Viols look similar to cellos and violins, but the similarity and comparisons should be reversed, that is, cellos look like viols, because the viols came first -- way first. At the end of the viols popularity, in mid 1700s, both viols and violins/cellos coexisted. Violins first appeared somewhere in the early mid 1500’s, as a three string instrument, essentially a rebec grafted on to a viola style body, in a continuing evolution initiated and facilitated by both earlier fretless bowed string instruments, rebecs, veile’s, lira da braccio, and other fiddles, and the vihuela-based (fretted 4ths) viols, the smaller arm viols specifically (being the early true viola da braccios), ultimately leading to the Baroque violin some time in the late 1500’s. Cellos, frettless 5ths on a bassier instrument, though known of in the late 1500’s or early 1600’s, really made little inroad until the early 1700’s. The fact that the first cello tutor wasn’t published until 1740, while viol tutors (on the other hand) were published in the 1540’s, should help put things in perspective -- and regardless of any occurance of a few isolated cello parts in the 1600’s. Apart from the violin’s relatively early rise (i.e. the smallest, descant, or treble member of the violin family), the gamba family of bowed fretted 4ths string instruments maintained their dominant position all the way through to the early 1700’s. Many of the first cellos were in fact scavenged, chopped,  and repurposed viola da gambas. Violins and cellos eventually overtook the viol family in the mid 1700s, obsoleting them in effect. Violins and cellos apearently became preferred over the Viols because of their greater volume and brightness (some call it piercing sound), their ability to be heard in large halls, larger orchestras, and because more and more new music was being written with the newer instruments in mind. Fashion and taste were changing, and the fretted fourths viols and lutes, and the musics they made, having dominated European Classical string music for a couple hundred years already, were on their way out. Viols lost their foothold little by little, and at different rates, according to country. Italy was first to begin the transition to violin/cello in the late 1600’s, then slowly the French, English, and Germans followed suit. In the later countries, pockets of holdouts and a few virtuoso players lasted all the way until the 1780’s. Carl Friederich Abel, German born living in England, was the most famous, and the last, of them. His death, in 1788, marks the functional end of the viols 300 year long march through Western musical history.



Below; Portrait of Carl Friedrich Abel with his viol, by Thomas Gainsborough, 1777.



Below; another portrait of Carl Friedrich Abel with his viola da gambal, also by Thomas Gainsborough, c.1765.



Defense De La Basse De Viole, Hurbert La Blanc, 1740



Below; detail from a French painting c.1750 showing cello and viol performing side by side.
Paul Joseph Delcloche (artist), Concert at the Court of Prince Eveque de Liegeat, Chateau De Seraing, France.




Concerning the Viola da Gamba, in 1812, Ernst Ludwig Gerber, famous German author of Biographical Dictionaries of Musicians,  states (in his New Musicians’ Lexicon);

"It is remarkable in the history of music that his (Abel's) instrument was buried with him in the year 1787 in total oblivion: the indispensable gamba, without which for a hundred years neither church nor chamber music could be arranged, which in all public and private concerts had the exclusive right to be heard before all other instruments from the beginning to the end, and which therefore, like caskets, must not only be exquisitely finished in every size, large and small, but was also ordered, bought, and paid for adorned with the most costly artistic carving -- ivory, tortoiseshell, gold, and silver--then available. In the course of time there will be no vestige left in the whole of Europe of this instrument, once so universal and admired; henceforth it will have to be sought for amongst the old woodcuts in Praetorius, or specimens of it, stringless and worm-eaten, in a royal music chamber. Another sad proof how greatly Apollo is overruled by the goddess Fashion. The taste of our forefathers for these soft, modest, humming viola tones is also remarkable; they were a quiet, contented, peace-loving people! In the present time the instruments for our musicians cannot be chosen sufficiently high and shrill."
(What would Gerber have said had he lived to see the present demand for instruments required to make up an orchestra? -- Wilhelm Joseph von Wasielewski, a latter author from 1894 ponders, and comments more below)

[Wasielewski, in his book "The Violoncello and its History", 1894 continues;]

It is plain that although Gerber himself played the cello, this instrument was also known to him, and he had not only remarked the disproportion between the tone of the violins and those of the gambas in the orchestra with regard to strength, but also the circumstance that, by the creative faculty of Haydn and Mozart in the region of higher instrumental music, the gamba had become wholly superfluous. The superior qualities of the violoncello to the gamba as a solo instrument had escaped him, although the conspicuous success of cello players in the second half of the last century could not have remained unknown to him. It seems, therefore, as if Gerber had a special predilection for the gamba--a taste which only a few of his contemporaries shared with him.

Those words highlight but some of the passions and the atmosphere of competition that attended the viols verses violin/cello debate throughout  much of the 1700’s -- as it became clear that the viols days were numbered -- which debate continues to this day. There is another famous article published in 1746 Paris by the Frenchman Herbert Le Blanc, titled “Défence de la basse de viole” which laments the decline of the viols. Most recently, is an imagined dialogue between a viol and cello, written by Paolo Pandolfo (modern day viola da gamba virtuoso) for the liner notes of one of his CD recordings -- being an adaptation of Bach’s six cello suites played on solo bass viola da gamba (aka bowed guitar). You can download a PDF of his remarks and read them yourself [I took the liberty of making an text file version readily available so you won’t miss it. You really must read this, Paolo doesn’t mince words here ;’) ]. Of course, you would need to hear the 2 CD’s to fully understand the tenor, implications, ramifications, surrounding all of these passions and opinions. [I, Roger, am apparently in good company, and only one in a long line of passionate writers when it comes to the topic of viols. I have my own axes to grind, but there is commonality and continuity running through all of it, and all of us.] After you hear Paolo’s masterful  solo playing on viola da gamba you might want to question Mr. Wasielewski’s 1894 comments regarding the cello’s obvious(?) superior facilities and prowess.



CD covers, original and new reissue, Paolo Pandolfo, Bach’s six cello suites transcribed for and performed on solo Bass Viola da Gamba. Published by Glossa Music. A must for anyone who wants to understand the true potential of viols (then and now). Here’s a link to Amazon (I get no cut from this. I just want to make it as easy as possible for you to obtain a copy. It’s a double CD, by the way.)





Waist-cut, plucked, Viola Vihuela Guitars
 The Key Connector to Bowed Violas
aka Viola da Gamba, Vihuela d’acro,
 or Bowed Guitars

Below; Plucked Viola, fresco, Borgia Apartments, the Vatican, Quadrivium, Music, by Bernadino Pinturicchio, 1493, Italy



no leap of faith required here; one plucked, one bowed. The large bowed viola at right is from an Italian fresco, c.1503



Below; juxtaposition of recently surfaced (June 2004) plucked vihuela icon (in Valencia Cathedral fresco of musician angels painted 1472-1481) and Sebastian Virdung’s bowed vihuela/viola depicted in his 1511 treatise.



Below; bowed guitar, Valencia Spain, late 1400’s



below, two waist-cut viola guitar lutes, one plucked one bowed; painted panel of the Gonesse organ, 1508, France



below: Raphael’s viol, St. Cecilia painting, c.1510, Italy



Below; comparison between the famous Timoteo Viti bowed viola c.1500 (center) and two plucked viola of similar vintage -- all having small bodies with sharp waist-cuts and long necks. For simplicity’s sake, we could say they’re all late 1400s, or circa 1500, plus or minus 10.



Below; near matching set of Vihuela de mano and Vihuela de arco, detail of musician angels from Coronation of the Virgin, St. Lararus Master, c.1510, Valencia, Spain,



Below; Baldassare Peruzzi fresco, Rome, 1505, vihuela de arco, aka bowed guitar.



Below; much like the above, bowed vihuela/viola unidentified picture (by me) woodcut, most likely German, early-mid 16th century I assume, but after an earlier pattern (turn of the century or even earlier). Six strings, and interesting open old-style peg-box. The inturning shoulders of the upper bouts of this instrument are also remenicient of Virdung’s bowed lute (viola vihuela guitar).



Below: twin tenor bowed guitars (viola da gamba), painter Paolo Veronese, Italian, Wedding (or marriage) feast at Cana, c.1560.



Below; Italian bowed guitar, mid 16th century.




Before we move on I’ll only note how prophetic Mr. Gerber’s words from 1812 were;

. . . In the course of time there will be no vestige left in the whole of Europe of this instrument, once so universal and admired; henceforth it will have to be sought for amongst the old woodcuts in Praetorius . . .

Gerber’s prophecy became more and more true, as we scoured the iconography, tracing the viola da gamba line back through history all the way to it’s origins in the humble vihuela-viola guitar of the late 1400’s!  which work, was really only completed in  November/December 2004, and by your’s truly, with a series of revelations and connections made, in quick succession, including:

  • First, in november 2003, the fretboard genetics drawings, reuniting the greater guitar family, specifically recaiming viola da gamba: Plate 1 Plate 2 . Then, I went looking for the iconographic evidence which might further support and prove the obvious connections being brought to light. Which leads to November/December 2004 and the following:
  • then, in mid November 2004, with the linking of the waist-cut viola sine arculo guitar to the early viola da gamba story
  • then linking the Sebastian Virdung 1511 treatise plate the to list of key connector documents
  • then, on 11-30-2004, independant discovery of (but not the first) a two-in-one viola (two bridges, one for bowing and one for plucking?) in the Timoteo Viti painting, Madonna and Child, c.1500
  • on 12-4-2004, recognizing Raphael’s 1514 viol (in his painting: The Ecstasy of St. Cecilia) as being one of the key-most instruments of all for linking plucked viola sine arculo with bowed viola cum arculo (vihuela/viola with and without bow), meaning linking viols to guitars (violas to violas), at the same key critical moment in history, and in same key region, call it 1485 to 1515, Italy/Spain, and the Raphael viol also appears to be the key-most instrument in the story of viola da gamba itself the point of perfection which ensured that bowed viola guitars (viols) would live long and prosper (as our favorite first officer would say).
  • but we keep going. On 12-11-04, tracked down and added to the mix, the oldest viola-shaped vihuela guitar I’ve seen to date, the Salamanca viola, 1300’s.
  • then, 12-17-2004, The Cap-Stone plucked Viola Vihuela Guitar Viol! In a painted panel of the Gonesse organ of 1508, France, l'orgue de Abbey Eglise Saint Pierre et Saint Paul. A plucker with that bowing-style tail. This case is closed folks! It’s a done deal. Viols are guitars. ;’) I’ve subsequently (6 months later) found another instrument of the same set, from the same organ case panels, a large bowed viola played da braccio or on the arm. Here they are, side by side, plucked and bowed. Strange, it might turn out that this is the single best iconographical connector between the plucked and bowed viola, and the bowed viola is actually played da braccio ;’)
  • But wait, there’s more ;’) . . . .
    On 4-17-2005 we identify and recapture the original viola da braccio: being small 4, 5, or 6 string, lute-tuned, fretted, viols played on the arm. Here’s a small sampling composite of these early instruments. This all came about after first stumbing upon and then adding Martin Agricola’s 1529 treatice plates documenting a whole family of 4 string lute-tuned fretted fiddles, large and small, to our story, and then searching for those instruments in the iconography. In the end, we’ve recaptured even the term itself, viola da braccio, applied to all viols of any string count played on the arm (and many many were). The full section on early viola da braccio arm viols is on pages 3 4, and 5, of this article. All pages are very graphic heavy so please be patient and let them load.
  • On 5-31-05, I made the next key observation, discovery, connection, that most 16th century viols, just like guitars of the period which they sprang from, were in fact very shallow ribbed, not deep ribbed like 17th century instruments we usually see. Combine the two facts, of small shallow ribbed viols played on the arm, and you have to reevaluate everything you thought you knew about early violins, and all 16th century iconography.
  • In the last month, May of 2005,  I’ve also reclaimed, as viols, some, if not all, of the Gaudenzio Ferrari instruments in his 1535  Sorrono Cathedral dome painting. Narrow ribbed and played on the arm was the norm for small viols in the 16th century (asside from the other more obvious problems with those pictures, like frets on the larger viol -- fer Christ’s sake). That is not a family of violins -- sorry kids, Groves, scholars, and everyone else, every book and every web site which unamimously points to the Ferrarri instruments as early (way too early) proof !? of a complete violin family. Story on page 4.

[In the process, I’ve also made the key discoveries regarding exactly what happened to the viola shaped guitars (they survived longer that most people might have thought, but beyond that they most certainly survived as viols ;’),  and the fact that the guitar did not begin as a four courser in the mid 1500’s, it was a six courser by 1500, plucked and bowed, and every time you see a 6 string viol (bowed guitar) throughout history, you are seeing the proof of it. Six string guitars have been here since 1500, non stop.] Four course guitars came back to fill a void, to provide simpler music making machines for the masses to play (as the earlier four course bowl-back lutes and gitterns had done before them during the previouse two or three hundred years).

[The Viti viola mentioned above is also, and at minimun, some kind of conversion and chop-job adaptation from a 4 or 5 string plucked to a 6 bowed instrument. For now, notice it’s very narrow neck, very narrow tail, small peg-head, outside strings hanging off the edge of the fretboard left and right,  path and angles of strings from tail to bridge to nut (should be close to straight line tail to bridge, means tail was meant for fewer strings), and more. ]

The waist-cut viola sine arculo guitar specifically (we’ll call it violin shape guitar to make it easy, even though violins took there shape from these earlier instruments, not the other way around), not the pea-nut shaped smooth curved vihuelas, is the first key missing link. [see the image in the center of the 10 picture composite below. That’s the one (in Italy, 1492). The image top left, another key image, is the plucked waist-cut viola-vihuela link traced back to it’s Spanish/Valencian roots in the 1470’s-80’s. Both are plucked vihuela-viola guitars, and both lead to the bowed variant seen elsewhere in that composite. Other important images and instruments are (to name just a few):
the 6 string, two bridge, Timoteo Viti viola
Raphael’s 6 string viol
the Gonesse organ case violas, plucked and bowed
the Girolamo Libri plucked viola
and the Nicolo Pisano plucked viola.

Raphael’s viol, though, is all the proof positive I personally will ever need. I am satisfied.  I believe we’re finally put this to bed. Viols are beget of guitars. They are bowed guitars (period). Bowed waist-cut violas -- that kind of bowed lute.

Viols came in a suite of sizes, a family or consort of instruments: treble, alto, tenor, bass, and double bass or voilone. The 4ths tuned modern double bass (4 stringed stand-up bass) is the only (somewhat representative) survivor of the viol family. Six strings guitars though, are in fact very related to viols (and even lutes). Aside from the fact that both guitars and viola da gambas spring from vihuela-violas, an early form of Spanish/Italian guitar, further proof of their relationship  lies in the guitar’s (chromatic) frets and it’s tuning — all P-4ths, except for a Major 3rd interval near the middle. Both six string viols, vihuelas, and lutes were tuned that same way, but the 3rd was placed dead center in the tuning pattern. Meaning, on a six string instrument, viol or lute, low to high the intervals between adjacent strings went:

    6 string Guitar tuning (for reference)
    4th, 4th, 4th, 3rd, 4th

    6 string Viol tuning
    4th, 4th, 3rd, 4th, 4th (viol, vihuela, and lute)
    Seven string double bass viols added a lower string, also in a 4th relationship to it’s next highest string, resulting in this tuning pattern:
    7 string Viol tuning
    4th, 4th, 4th, 3rd, 4th, 4th
    (7 string viol)
    Now loose the highest pitched string and you get . . .
    6 string Guitar tuning
    4th, 4th, 4th, 3rd, 4th
      (6 string guitar tuning pattern.  Note: That’s one way you can come to it, but that’s not how it happened.)




Composite: early vihuela/viola guitars plucked and bowed
The birth of Viola da gamba -- Bowed Guitars




Fretboard Genetics — a new “organology”
Making History by Illuminating it
[but more importantly, making sure it reached your hands, where it belongs]

Although violins and cellos look similar to viola da gambas, (particularly the late Italian viols), the viols differ from violins, violas, and cellos, in almost all ways:

First, and please let this sink in, they are guitars. Meaning they are of, from, and for, the fourths tuned fretted vihuelas and violas, the vihuela and viola players, and even bolw-back lute players who wanted to play a bowed and fretted lute-tuned string instrument of the same tuning and general configuration as their lutes.

[The terms vihuela and viola, Spanish and Italian respectively, are essentially interchangeable. Thus, the terms vihuela de mana and viola da mana (mana means of the hand) are interchangeable. Vihuela de arco or d’arco means bowed vihuela (bows are arc shaped), and viola sine arculo means viola without a bow, hence plucked viola, same as plucked vihuela. Both plucked vihuela and plucked viola are early guitars.]

The modern guitar line is the only surviving branch of the greater family of fourths tuned fretted string instruments which once included lutes, viola da gambas, vihuelas, and violas. And in the same way that much lute music and lute function was eventually transferred to the classical guitar of the 19th century and beyond, the viols too are as much guitars as they are anything else. The modern bowed-string community, the violin and cello enthusiasts, became the archivists of the remaining viols and some aspects of the viol tradition. They even absorbed some of the viol part music which they now play on their own (but very different) instruments. The viols are a strange class of orphan. For all intents and purposes they are vihuela-viola-guitars, bowed guitars. But they do share some traits in common with the violin/cello. Both viols and violin/cellos were bowed, so both have a somewhat similar sound. Both were of the classical music traditions, although viols and lutes also had their common-folk players, fans, traditions, and spheres of influence as well. Violins and cellos look similar in appearance to viols because they came after the viols, and they were built by the exact same instrument makers, the luthiers (root word lute). The violin-cello world assume that viols belong to them (are part of the violin family), yet they have little or no interest in playing those viols (they believe their violins and cellos are the evolutionary superior instruments, and they couldn’t play viols even if they wanted too -- because they are guitars, and most guitar players don’t even know about viols, never heard of them, don’t remember them at all (their music educators have conveniently forgotten about viols (bowed guitars) and the history of music they were encharged to pass on. They are preoccupied with perpetuating Classical era music only, and thus only in breading new generations of violin and cello players to fill up the vacated seats in the school band each year). For that matter, few guitarists even remember lutes, aside from hearing the name or seeing a picture somewhere.

So the idea that Gambas are Guitars might surprise some people and even offend others (a rude awakening). Most of the world has also looked at lutes and guitars as being different things. Technically, they are — or at least they have a seemingly different direct body-parent than guitars. Lutes are known to have come from the comparatively recent and traceable bowl backed Arab or Moorish fretless Oud, and body type and geographical origin are important defining criterion in the eyes of formal musicologists, hence I say lutes and guitars are technically different. But perhaps the similarities between all of these instruments might soon begin to receive greater emphasis, more emphasis than their differences. At any rate, there are a number of new things on this page and within the greater Viola da Gamba and Lute site section, beginning with that pop-quiz graphic revelation at the top of this page, undeniably linking Gambas and Guitars, and continuing with some larger and more encompassing drawings linking and rejoining one if not many families of instruments, a set of drawings I call Fretboard Genetics:
Greater revelation picture view 1 (from page 3 of this section)
Greater revelation picture view 2 (from page 3 of this section)

This is a history making page you are about to read. It’s the first time (and first place) that all of the pieces have been put together (period, but then what’s more), and then presented to the general public, and presented in a place that is on the radar of the general playing public, the guitar players in particular. It’s the first time that all of the players in the game (all of the instruments) have been reunited at one time and in one place so that the always suspected truths can be made crystal clear and undeniable to anyone. This author is the first person who’s ever actually sat down and drawn up the chords for all of the instruments in question here, scoured the iconography to find the actual and the key connections between viols and guitars (verses simply suggesting there might be some possible connections yet never get to making and showing them) and therefore was the first to see and realize the bigger picture with absolute certainty, and can simultaneously share it with you here — because I have all of the drawings, iconography, and materials already on hand, I can prove it to you, show them to you, and you can prove it for yourselves.

No guitar player should have his or her concept of the timeline of guitar history begin and end somewhere around 1850! The guitar has been around, at minimum and traceable without a doubt, since 1250 (an almost random date I’m choosing to use here simply to enable us to effortlessly push the clock back another 600 years prior to 1850. And that’s a good enough start. You can use the Cantigas de Santa Maria (which we’ll talk about in a minute) as your year 1250 documentation and historical marker, the lutes and guitarra latina’s therein). In other words, I’m hoping that you’ll  never again have to hear a statement from someone that begins; “the guitar has been around for 150 years . . and yady-ya”. From now on it should be; “The guitar has been around for 800 years, . . and yada-yada”. And you’ll be able to make that statement with out hesitation or qualifiers. You won’t need to stretch your imagination nor that of the person you’re speaking to. You will not feel the need to mince your words with lots of “kinda sorta” qualifiers, e.g. that the guitar you have in your hands right now is “kinda sorta related” to some other instrument(s) in history before 1850. The guitar you have in your hands right now is 100% related to the instruments of 800 years ago. There is a direct line, and there are no gaps. We have a history. When we’re done here, you should be able to visualize yourself as the musician in 1250 sitting under a tree in the Andalusian forests (Spain) playing his or her instrument, by ear, and playing the exact same chords, using the exact same fingerings, and hearing much of the same music as you do now with your exact same instrument and in the exact same tuning here in the year 2003.

Here, I will unify a long divided family  of instruments, a family of players, family of influence, family of trainers and training ground, and by circumstance families of musicians, songs, compositions, composers, cultures, and more. In general, on this page and throughout the entire Cipher for Viola da Gamba and Lute section on this site, we’ll be recapturing a full 3/4’s of the greater guitar family, the viols, lutes, violas vihuelas, integrating and linking the greater guitar family in as many ways as possible, reintroducing viola da gambas, lutes, and violas and vihuela’s to the relevant playing public, the 21st century guitar players, and in the process reclaim and regain the history, culture, and heritage implicit in this new and expanded view of guitar (fretted fourths plucked and bowed), guitar history, and Western music history itself. We’ll be doing some culture mining and bringing back some gold.

A little string instrument history

Guitar-like instruments, bowed string instruments, and lute type instruments, existed in Europe in an incredible variety long before the 1400s. From the combination of written history, manuscript illuminations, stone carvings on medieval cathedrals, paintings, frescos, and etchings, we have evidence (however incomplete) that might suffice for our purposes here going back to at least 900 AD.  Of particular interest to European string instrument history, research, and knowledge generally, is a singularly important document from the mid 13th century called The Cantigas de Santa Maria (Songs to the Virgin Mary) commissioned by the then King of Spain, Alfonso X "El Sabio" (1221-1284). The Cantigas, is a collection of 427 songs, and every tenth page of the book is a color plate (an illustration or illumination) of period (medieval) musicians and their instruments (meaning there’s about 42 illuminations). Researchers have already gone much further back in time than the 900 AD year I’m pulling from a hat here for convenience, another 3000 years back at least, and they still don’t have a complete understanding of the developments of all of these string instruments, plucked and bowed, their absolute true origins, first appearance, cross-pollination’s, migrations, returns, and remigrations — and we never will know.

In the story of the viola da gambas, however, there is a key event that fixes for us an accurate and documented time, and place,  which we can take as a clear marker in the birth or evolution of viols. The story starts in Spain, in the late 1400s, with vihuelas and violas (guitar-like instruments if not guitar exactly). People will probably never finish debating how the vihuela-guitars themselves came to be, what their most direct lineage(s) are, what defines that apparent holy grail, the guitarra-latina, where it came from, what it referred to, and what it evolved into and where. But that’s really not important to us right here and now. We’ll just jump into the guitar/vihuela/viol story around 1490 and take it from there.

Spain, Italy, and the new Pope
or simply, Vihuela d’arco to Viola da Gamba

Viols sprang from 4ths-tuned guitar ancestors, the vihuelas and violas, the vihuela d’acro specifically (arco means bow). Vihuelas came in three types:
vihuela de mana (of the hand, strummed or finger picked, plucked)
vihuela de penole (of the pick or plectrum)
vihuela d’acro (of the bow)

The early instruments later to be called viola da gamba by the Italians, were developed in Spain in the mid 1400s by vihuela de mana players taking a bow to their instruments, and even still held like vihuelas and violas, like guitars. The bowed vihuelas and violas received a rounded or humped bridge allowing both single line melody and chordal playing. Deep knee-freindly and bow-freindly cut-outs or contours can be seen in the waists of most all the early instrument variants, whether they are being plucked or bowed in any given illustration. A more upright holding posture was later adopted as the instruments grew larger and larger.

Ok, so here’s how the story goes. This is taken from a pre-translated English version page at Orpheon, an Austrian Viola da Gamba (and violin) Society, with a few word changes made my myself. You should go read the rest of that page at some point. For any instance of the word “viol” read it as vihuela d’arco, aka bowed guitar. The notion that vihuela d’arco (called viola in Italy) beget viola da gamba is also shared by the French Federation of Viola da Gamba Societies (among others), the source of the two painting details shown below. The French site also has an English version of it’s comparisons and evolutions of vihuela d’arco and viola da gamba:

The origin of the viola da gamba is to be found in the culturally heterogeneous Spain of the end of the 15th Century, more precisely, in the Kingdom of Aragon.
Playing position and technique were derived from the “rabab”, a Moorish bowed instrument that is still played in North Africa today. The form of the body, the stringing and the frets, on the other hand, were taken from the Spanish “vihuela de mano”, a precursor of the modern guitar (their words). The viol appears frequently in 15th C. Aragonese painting around Valencia.
The year 1492 - when Columbus sailed for America - witnessed a crucial turn of destiny: elected to the papal throne, the Valencian Rodrigo Borja (In Italian: Borgia), now Alexander VI, brought with his entourage the entire court chapel, which employed many violists [vihuela d’arco players], from Spain to Rome. The newcomers - pope and instrument - kindled upheavals everywhere: in the first instance (the new Pope) with regard to the all encompassing turmoil and military confrontations of Italian politics, and the other (the new musical instrument) in the more serene musical establishment.
Already in 1493 the ambassador Bernardino Prospero reported to the art-loving Isabella d'Este [Marchesa of Mantova, first lady of the Renaissance] about a performance by a Spanish viol consort [vihuela d’arco ensemble] sent to Milano by the pope: “The Spanish musicians from Rome played viols almost as big as I. Their playing was so sweet, delicate...”, following which, Isabella d'Este ordered a number of “viole a la spagnola” [original Italian name for the instruments] from the renowned Italian lutemaker, Giovanni Kerlino in Brescia. Before long, the tender tone of the viol resounded throughout the entire Italian peninsula, which welcomed it as its new home.
These new, large but sweet viols flourished astoundingly fast on the fertile soil of the Italian Renaissance. Already in his manual for the courtier, “Il Libro del Cortegiano” of 1528 Baldassare Castiglione considers the playing of viols indispensable for the education of a nobleman:
“Music is not just a decoration, but a necessity for a courtier. It should be practiced in the presence of ladies, because it predisposes one to all sorts of thoughts... And the music of four viole da arco is very enchanting, because it is very delicate, sweet, and artful.”



Below; angel concert, fresco, Ferrara, Italy, c.1510-15, details from (The Coronation of the Virgin), at the monastery-church Chiesa Santa Maria della Consolazione, painted by either Michele Coltellini or Ludovico Mazzolino
Note the size of those viols, at that date! The vihuela in the picture has 11 frets as well, at that early date. The smaller viola at center played on the arm (da braccio) is also a viol, I believe, a four stringer.






color copies added 12-17-2006



some odd distortion in the image below, apears shorter and fatter, oh well . . .




Recapping and returning to the differences between viola da gambas and the violin, viola, and cello family:

  • viols are guitars (bowed vihuela/violas)
  • viols had lighter thinner construction and bracing
  • flat back, and originally flat top as well (not carved nor curved)
  • gut strings rather than metal on later violins
  • looser strings (less tension)
  • 4, 5, 6, or 7 strings
  • frets (tied movable gut frets)
  • 4ths tuned rather than 5ths
  • less neck angle
  • no sound post like violins have (means less volume but better harmonics and ring tone from the top plate or sounding board)
  • different bow and bowing technique (viol bows are used underhanded and palm up)
  • and more

Viols were played by common folk and professionals alike, in homes, taverns, churches, and  palaces, and they dominated much of European music, string music in particular, popular and formal from the very early 1500s through the mid 1700s.

Further, being tuned in fourths, and particularly those tunings having the 4th 3rd 4th kernel in their tuning, as almost all Vihuelas, Lutes, and Viols did (and guitars still do, and ukuleles are exactly tuned as we speak, if you don’t use re-entrant tuning) means that Viols (as well as lutes and vihuelas) are more apt to spawn simple, rudimentary, and easily fingered chordal styles of playing and most importantly facilitate methodic chordal exploration in the first place. Fifths tuned strings, given their wider intervals and somewhat unwieldy and wide open chord voicings are not the kind of fertile ground for methodical rudimentary experimentation with polyphony (harmony) as are fourths tuned and fretted stringed instruments, vihuelas lutes and gambas. In any event the elemental chordal aspects of viols and viol playing are largely lost to the later fifths tuned and fretless 4 stringed violins and cellos, and this is a huge difference among the two outwardly similar looking families of bowed string instruments.

Add to this the fact that frets in and of themselves, and regardless of tunings, are one of the real keys and facilitators of chordal exploration (and reproducibility) and we can clearly see that the later fretless (as well as being 5ths tuned) violins and cellos, the successors to the viols, truly move far away from the viol line, and the viols capabilities as a primary musical training ground for musicians and string players generally and in the development of Western music generally. We can’t ignore the singers (Church or otherwise), the vocal and choral means of exploring music, polyphony, harmony, and composition, nor the earliest keyboard instruments, but for solo string players to explore harmony (that is by playing chords, plucked, strummed, or bowed), fourths tuning (with frets) is the more fitting womb and was one of the crucial backbones of European music, and going back to the 1200s at least (on  early vihuela-guitars and lutes, no matter how many strings or courses they had).

We really have to stop and think about that a  minute. Lutes, Vihuela-guitars, and Viols, though not the only game in town absolutely, were probably the single biggest player when it came to music making for much of our early music. Of course, there was singing, recorders, psalter-zithers (that later became our keyboard instruments), drums, and a whole array of other instruments. But if you remove the lutes, vihuela-guitars, and viola da gambas from the picture, you’d be looking at a pretty stark landscape and perhaps one without a focal point, a center piece, a central hub and center of attention. Chordal logic on 5ths tuned instruments is not a simple thing generally, but imagine you’re a child or a novice of any age trying to comprehend chords on a 5ths tuned instrument, not to mention a fretless one! Fifths tuning is simply not as user friendly nor versatile as fourths tunings are and always have been. I’m reminded of the old saying, “throwing out the baby with bath water” when I consider the fate of the viols, and our loss for letting them go.



Here’s how close Lute/Vihuela/Viola da gamba tuning is to modern 6 string Guitar. The difference in tuning results in just a slight pattern-shift, one string over,  towards the bass side.




If you’re wondering about the idea that 4ths tunings are somehow the more fertile and likely training ground for the methodic exploration of chords and harmony on string instruments than 5ths tuning is, and you’re not familiar with the differences between the kinds of chord voicings that emerge naturally from either fourths or fifths tuned string instruments, compare the triad voicings and “adjacent successive strings” voicings that arise from each (see charts linked below, mandolin 5ths is the odd-ball there, everything else, lute, viol, guitar, is fretted 4ths). In particular, notice the 3rds in the fifths tuning triads. Root position  R, 3rd, 5th voicings are nearly impossible to play in fifths tuning. The default routine voicings in fifths tuning use Major and minor 10ths, the octaves of Major and minor 3rds (see the chromatic numbers 15° and 16° in the fifths tuned triad voicings, those are the minor and Major 10ths respectively). These make for pretty sounding voicings no doubt, yet leap beyond elementary and methodic exploration of chords -- and in fact preclude it.

open position chords, 4 course, all-4ths: p1 p2
open position chords, 4 course, 4-3-4 (Uke)
triads (root position) in 4ths tuning (guitar)
triad inversions in 4ths tuning (guitar)
triads and inversions in 5ths tuning (mandolin)
. . . and now . . .
root position triads for viol and lute (viol, lute) by string set, just to prove to you that they are essentially identical to guitar (pattern shifted over one string) and equally good training ground, if not better — given that a sustained bowed melody line or chord is an altogether different experience than an fast decaying plucked note or triad on guitar or lute, like the difference between harpsichord and organ for example.
Again, when you see those chords pay attention to root position triad voicings first, and then inversions and any doublings (octaves, fifths or thirds) of chord tones. Diads (harmonic intervals, double-stops) and triads could be considered the first concerns for chords (that is beyond the simple doublings of octaves and fifths), followed at some point by seventh chords. Triads are hard enough to methodically execute in fifths tuning, seventh chords are even less likely. Remember, the 4th-3rd-4th kernel common to all vihuelas, lutes, viols, and guitars, allows root position seventh chords (and even 6th chords if you have long enough fingers, and I for one do) on four adjacent strings to be fingered, experienced, and explored by solo string players as well.

Of course, it’s not impossible to play chords in fifths tuning, as modern mandolins attest to, and the results are pretty. But at minimum, they are different birds. And somehow I have to believe that if fifths tuning were the best tuning for polyphonic (chording) string instruments, the lute, early guitar, and viol players would have used 5ths all along. Even the original citterns of the 15 and 1600s (thought by modern-day 4 course “cittern” or octave mandolin players to be the parent of the modern mandolin, even although aside from their tuning mandolins are more akin to soprano lutes) were not tuned to all-fifths as far as I can ascertain. Tuning in all fifths is also problematic using early gut strings because the more strings you add the more likely they will snap and collectively they exert a much greater tension and strain on both the neck and top plate than fourths tunings do. Like modern acoustic guitars, Viols did not have sound posts inside their bodies supporting downwards pressure of strings bearing down on the bridge.

European bowed string instruments turned to all-5ths tuning, cellos and violins, en mass (sometime in the early late 1600s) only when the technology allowed (instrument construction techniques, sound post supports, and string making techniques and materials) and when solo accompaniment and small groups of musicians gave way to large orchestral part driven court music, where the sum total of parts constituted the instrumental polyphony, rather than squeezing as much music (and chords) out of one or a few single instruments as you could to fill up the room. The shear amplitude of the combined instrumentation became the bigger concern, the fashion, and taste of the court elite and perhaps even the musicians themselves. Little by little the violins and cellos grew more popular, they were louder and brighter by comparison, even in their early incarnations apparently (through trial and error they got their sound posts and bass bars right), and fashions and taste trickle down to the masses I suppose. So if gambas aren’t used in court any more (by the mid 1700s), and composers are writing more and more the cellos and violins rather than Gambas, perhaps their time had come. The luthiers stop making them (this is before mass production and they had to go where the money was), and in turn the general population migrated to violins and cellos too. As the viols go, so too go the lutes and theorbos. From the beginning, in the 1400s, viols and lutes (plus early guitars, vuhuelas and violas) were essentially the same instrument, tuned the same way, and played by the exact same people and in the exact same musical compositions and forms. Meaning, until the mid 1600’s, when many lutes turned to D minor tuning and took on countless strings, if you played viol you probably either did play or could play lute, and perhaps even started on lute (or any member of the lute/viola/vihuela/guitar family), and visa versa, and the two instruments, bowed and plucked, had been working as a team in musical composition and performance for centuries (harpsichords too were part of the lute and viol universe and they too were on the way out). In the mid 1700’s Viols and Lutes essentially disappeared from the stage, and in an amazingly short span of time virtually all memory of them is lost — viols in particular, both in the world at large and in the guitar-family community.

I still can’t quite fathom it myself, the disappearance of the viols, but one way or another the viols (and lutes) essentially vanished from the face of the earth after the middle late 1700s. The guitar relatives of the vihuela de mano took the place of the lutes and fulfilled much the same role and function — resulting in some loss, but overall we still have a similar instrument today in our guitars as we once had in our lutes. But the violins and cellos became our sole form of bowed string instrument, banishing the viol line completely and with no suitable replacement in the wings to fill the void like the guitars for lutes substitution and solution. For all intents and purposes, and with the possible exception of the stripped down 3 or 4 string fretless (but still fourths tuned) double bass, i.e. the somewhat reduced and demoted instrument we call the “bass viol” today) there were no more fretted fourths-tuned bowed string instruments left (or played) in the world. An apparent species extinction took place, and for the greater vihuela-guitar line (at least) it was a great loss, the end of an era.

The above review of fretboard triads on fourths tuned fretted string instruments was also to illustrate for you the fact of the existence of, and the continuity of, one of the primary training grounds in European music down through the centuries. First consider the relatively short history and influence of the modern piano keyboard. Add to that church organs and some harpsichord keyboard music,  while remembering that very few of them were ever made and rarely if ever were found in the hands of common folk. The keyboard line of polyphonic (chordable) instruments also included instruments that might be found in domestic use, in homes etc, the Spinets, Virginals, and Clavichords, but remember too that they like our current pianos were not isomorphic, therefore they were not nearly as easy to learn or play. They were also less portable and were no doubt much more expensive than the fretted strings, as they still are today. So again, their actual use could not have been anywhere near that of the fretted fourths tuned strings, vuhuelas, lutes, and viols, and early guitars (of the 5 and 6 course variety). And although I’ve chosen to focus on chords here (harmony) we can’t forget that melody is the stuff of harmony, of music, and there’s no keyboard then or now that can sing a melody line like a Gamba! The one instrumental contender in the keyboard line that could sing a melody line would have been the single lone pipe organ in the Church (if your community had one or could afford one). But even though it might claim greater sustain and volume it could not claim superior melodic expression, singerly expression, over a Viol’s voice.

By contrast then, consider this, from the year 1200 (at least) through 1750, the greater guitar family (including: lutes, Guitarra Latina, Viola, Vihuela, Vihuela d’arco, Viola da Gamba,  4 course Renaissance Guitar, 5 course Baroque Guitar, was playing chords, experiencing chords, the exact same chords, same chord voicings, same chord shapes and fingerings, and hearing similar stringed music and chordal harmony as a 6 string guitar player in 1780, 1800, 1850, 1954, and 2003. Exactly the same.  Further, there is no gap in the long line of succession of fretted fourths tuned string instruments from 1200 (at least) to the present (2003). In all, it would not be an exaggeration to say that Guitars, in one form or another, have dominated and been an actual backbone of European instrumental music the entire time! The greater guitar family was thus one of the West’s primary and early exposure to and experience with polyphony (chords, harmony). If you’d like some proof of that, see the following sections on this web site and you can re-experience history as it probably happened for yourselves, then you be the judge. Was there polyphony before the Renaissance (before 1400)?:

open position chords, 4 course, all-4ths: p1 p2
triads and inversions (some) in all-4ths (4 string bass is all 4ths)

open position chords in 4 course 4th 3rd 4th tuning: is Lute, guitarra latina and Renaissance Guitar tuning
triads in that same 4th 3rd 4th tuning (Ukulele still embodies this)

open position chords in 5 course vihuela and Baroque Guitar tuning

open position chords in 6 course Lute and Gamba tuning
chord progressions for 6 course Lute or Viola da Gamba

So the guitar family is not some new and lowly or low class member of our musical family and history, they are one of the center pieces and stars, the prince at least (if not the king). Some might perceive a gap somewhere between 1750 to 1850, lets say, i.e. the period encompassing the disappearance of lutes and viols and the transition to what we know as “Spanish” guitars or “classical” 6 string guitars. But even that perceived gap is really a misperception, an illusion. The people never stopped playing guitars, ever. Only the kings court musicians  stopped, stopped playing lutes and viols and moved to violins and cellos.



below; portrait of early Baroque composer and viol player Claudio Monteverdi in his youth, born 1567 died 1643.
 In 1592, at age 25, Monteverdi was hired as a viol player to Vincenzo I, Duke of Mantua. He began his musical life as a choir boy.

Claudio Monteverdi
portrait: c.1590-1600




Below (now 2 below); painting detail: Jan Breugel (Elder) Sense of Hearing, 1618.

There are five bowed guitars in this grouping, a large consort of viols -- at rest after playing part music around the table. Also seen is a lira da braccio, soprano lute, a violin of sorts, and a keyboard instrument (at far left, the bass viol is leaned up against it). In the full picture (cropped away here) there’s also a woman off to the right playing a large lute.

Remember this is 1618, more than 125 years before Haydn and the age of violin family quartets and similar late chamber music. This is what I mean when I say that bowed guitars laid much of the foundation of later classical music, and later bowed string music in particular. Part music means polyphony by anyone’s definition. Fretted fourths, of all kinds, plucked and bowed, were one of the West’s primary polyphony engines.

In fact, I’ll insert another picture before Breugel’s, this one being c.1500, or 250 years before Haydn !, a very early consort of viols, a quartet, painted by Francesco Francia, Italy. Yes, viols, bowed guitars, fretted fourths, plucked and bowed, laid the foundation.

As an after-thought, I’ll go one further and insert below a chronoligical collection of viol consorts in early iconoraphy (all I have). These are pure viol consorts (trios, quartets, quintets, or sextets, of bowed guitars), not mixed with other instruments (called a broken consort):








































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© Copyright 2002   Roger Edward Blumberg


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