The classic vihuela was used in Spain and Portugal during the Renaissance, instead of the lute, which was almost exclusively used among the other courts of Europe. It is shaped like a smaller, slimmer and less curvy guitar and has six gutted strings. The back is either flat or slightly curved and the front decorated. The decorations vary from just a stylized flower on the sound hole to several elaborate shaped patterns scattered across the instrument.
The classic vihuela differed widely in form and use, played either with a bow, a quill, or the fingers. The only surviving instruments from the period that make reconstruction possible are the ones that were played with fingers.
Vihuela players and composers received the highest honours at the courts. Luys de Milán, El Maestro, dedicated his most outstanding work to king João III of Portugal. Luys de Narváez worked exclusively for king Carlos I of Spain.
The popularity of the vihuela was not to last, however. With the arrival of the Baroque period, new musical
styles, such as chamber music from Italy, arrived at the scene. Together with the guitar, which had until then only been used by the lower classes, the new music phased out the old instrument.
The classic vihuela disappeared in the 17th century, but the concept lived its own life in the Spanish colonies and in Portugal. Because of their similarity, the guitar was called a vihuela in Portuguese, which still calls the guitar a viola. It is now famously used to accompany the beautiful fado song.
In 1800s Latin America, some musicians developed their own vihuela based on the old one. Unique to mariachi music, the modern vihuela has a distinctive sound and is quite different from the renessaince one. Instead of a flat back, it is now highly curved, and has five strings instead of six. The vihuela is the size of a large ukulele and is normally used for rhythm and chordal accompaniment.
And finally, if you have the money and the inclination, you can buy your own reconstructed vihuela, crafted and carved by hand. It makes for some really neat ancient music, and if you can't play, the vihuela is always nice to look at.