Ralph Maier

Mastering the dedillo: Issues of Performance Practice in Sixteenth-Century Music for Vihuela

In sixteenth-century Spanish vihuela books and treatises, the issue of dedillo is foregrounded as an essential technique in playing the instrument, one that has remained elusive both as a concept within vihuela history and as a technique among modern players. For today’s performer, the incorporation of this technique raises many questions: do the sources provide an adequate description of dedillo? To what advantage may this technique be used? How does the use of dedillo impact right-hand position? In his book on Luis Milan, Luis Gassar recently drew attention to this significant problem in modern vihuela performance practice:

The dedillo technique is neither used nor heard in current performances. The sound resulting from these fast up- and down-strokes with the index finger is light and weak, and involves a subtle amount of noise produced when the fingernail hits the string. The avoidance of this authentic aspect of performance - which adds color to the pieces containing the dedillo technique - questions whether performers try to recreate historically based principles or prefer to look for a result more suited to their tastes and those of the audience.1

Having spent considerable time grappling with this technique, Gassar's comments articulated my own growing frustrations with the failure of modern performers to cultivate this important skill. Emilio Pujol's 1949 edition of Mudarra presented a clear and detailed discussion of dedillo, noting its use among present-day players of the Portuguese guitarra, and the subject has received attention from a wide range of musicologists since then, though no-one has presented players with either an in-depth study or a clear approach to the development of this skill.2 The problem is further aggravated by several misconceptions regarding its execution: Diana Poulton's well-known and widely used A Tutor for the Renaissance Lute has led many to conclude that dedillo passages begin with a downward stroke not unlike modern guitarists using a pick. Charles Jacobs has suggested that since dedillo is Spanish for “little finger,” it might in fact have been performed using the little finger of the right hand.3 Unfortunately, neither of these solutions offers much in the way of a workable technique and it is perhaps no surprise that most players opt for the more widely used method of thumb-index alternation and avoid dedillo altogether, regardless of what may be found in the sources or shown on the page.


The proper execution of dedillo can be best described as follows: when commencing a section of passage-work where dedillo has been indicated in the tablature, or where the passage seems well-suited to this type of articulation, the vihuelist performs an up-stroke with the fleshy side of the index finger on the accented beat. During the subsequent release of the finger to its original starting point the vihuelist articulates the string with the backside of the nail resulting in a strong-weak pattern not unlike that produced using thumb-index alternation.4 When sixteenth-century sources describe dedillo as an easy technique, they would appear to refer to the simple and efficient nature of this gesture as well as its usefulness in fast passages: in terms of economy, the advantage of dedillo is self-evident.

Our knowledge of the playing habits of vihuelists and their use of dedillo comes to us from a handful of sixteenth-century sources.5 The tablature books of Luys Milán and Alonso Mudarra contain valuable insights into the application and cultivation of this technique through specific pedagogical works, and the descriptions of both Juan Bermudo and Venegas de Henestrosa also confirm its widespread use among players of the period. The Ophénica Lyra of Miguel de Fuenllana offers some of the most detailed descriptions of its execution by one of the instrument’s greatest composers:

Coming then to the style of redobles, I maintain I find no more than three ways [in] which [they] customarily are played on this instrument, the vihuela. The first is [the] redoble they commonly call ‘dedillo.’... I grant [it] is easy and agreeable to the ear, but [its] imperfection cannot be denied, since one of the excellences of this instrument is the attack with which the finger strikes the course. And inasmuch as with this kind of redoble, the finger, when undertaking to strike the course with [the] attack in leaving, cannot avoid striking [another course - sic] with the fingernail; and this is an imperfection as much because the note is not fully formed, as because there is no complete or true attack. And from this it follows that those who redoble with the fingernail will find ease, but not perfection, in what they do. And what I say here is not to condemn any way of playing, since I hold as very good what sagacious and knowing musicians practice and so approve. I only wish to say that there is good, and [there is] better.6


Non-practitioners may take comfort in the fact that Renaissance musicians also had mixed feelings about dedillo and its impact on tone production. Fuenllana’s proposed alternative, presented later in his preface, is the use of the middle and index fingers in alternation, eliminating the contact of the backside of the nail with the string and allowing for a more perfectly formed note. To what extent his ideas were shared by other vihuelists is uncertain, though descriptions of this type of alternation can also be found in Venegas de Henestrosa's Libro de Cifra Nueva.7 In any case, Fuenllana’s comments -however cautionary- resolve the question of the direction of the stroke (up or down) and help to confirm the widespread use of dedillo until mid century at the very least.

The reluctance of modern players to use dedillo may be connected with the more fundamental question of general right hand position. The overwhelming majority of players prefer the method of thumb-under for its full, powerful sound, and easy access to all courses. However, it may not be completely representative of Spanish practices. Consider the comments of Henestrosa:

Also know that there are four ways of doing passage work (redoblar): one with the second finger of the right hand, which is called redoblar de dedillo; the second is de figueta castellana, which is crossing the first finger [thumb] over the second; the third way is de figueta estranjera, which is on the contrary, crossing the second finger over the first… 8

I believe the cultivation of an effective dedillo technique to be closely bound to the use of thumb-out. In addition to the natural tendency of the hand to assume this position during passages involving wide reaches between bass and melody, a workable dedillo stroke relies on a minimal amount of horizontal travel of the finger along the string, and a more localized movement of the index finger at an angle more perpendicular to the string. In contrast, the tendency of thumb-under players is to allow for a subtle amount of movement in the hand and forearm during thumb-index alternation, enhancing the strong-weak relation of note pairings and encouraging a fluent and relaxed technique. Unfortunately, the localization of movement necessary for the production of clean, accurate passage-work using dedillo is one that is not easily incorporated into a thumb-under position. Simply put, the execution of dedillo is greatly facilitated by the adoption of a thumb-out technique.9

Fortunately, the handful of musical models contained in the vihuela books of Milán and Mudarra provide adequate information on how aspiring sixteenth-century players may have cultivated this skill. The first book of Luys Milán's El maestro (1536) - the earliest source of vihuela music in print - commences with a series of fantasias of gradually increasing difficulty, leading to three fantasias (nos.10-12) designed specifically for the introduction of dedillo:

"The fantasias of these present, fourth and fifth sections, [into] which we are now entering, demonstrate a [type of] music which is like [i.e., which consists of ] a touching [tentar][i.e., playing of ] consonances mixed with redobles on the vihuela, which [redobles] commonly are spoken [of as] to be effected [by the] index finger [dedillo]..."

"...the redobles of these three fantasias are best played with the index finger [dedillo], since they were composed to foster finger agility ["soltura de dedo"]." 10

While Milán's comments offer little in the way of specific instructions, these fantasias present a variety of technical situations to which dedillo can be easily applied. For the uninitiated, the challenge lies in the coordination of up- and down-strokes while shifting strings and the most sensible starting point for the beginner would be one in which shifts from one course to the next are few and easy. The first fantasia in the group (Fantasia del primero y segundo tono Fantasia No.10) ends with a section of passage-work in which string crossings are far apart and occur regularly at the end of every bar. Here, string crossing occurs on the strong beat, allowing the index finger to execute the more easily performed up-stroke:


In Fantasía No.11, Milán progresses to string crossings in both directions, as well as passages where more difficult string crossings (those occurring on even-numbered notes, thus requiring a down-stroke) happen in close succession:


The last fantasia of the group, Fantasía del tercero y quarto tono, is characterized by elaborate passage-work with both ascending and descending string crossings, now ending on chords and introducing a greater level of difficulty:


However vague Milán's performance instructions might seem to appear, these three fantasias exhibit several common, fundamental principles: passages played dedillo almost always begin on an upper course - usually the first or second , and in rare instances, the third; these passages almost always proceed to the next lower course, regardless of where they begin; the use of dedillo tends to be confined to the first three courses (when the fourth course is included, it occurs as the final note of the passage); dedillo passages tend to be proceeded and followed by sections of rhythmic repose, allowing the player ample opportunity to adjust the hand.11 The notion of rhythmic flexibility to accommodate right-hand preparation is indicated by the composer:

"... you have found a type of music which has more respecting taner de gala than the serving [of a strict] compas, for the reason that I told you there: playing the vihuela in consonances mixed with redobles, to foster agility of the index finger [here, dedillo] and of two fingers [i.e., thumb and index finger]. After this, you found music [in] which there was a clear need for manual dexterity and [agility of the] index finger, as you did in part music." 12

The most significant source after Milán is Alonso Mudarra's Tres libros de música (1546). Like El maestro, Mudarra's book follows the plan of a vihuela tutor, and his preface contains what might best be described as a textbook introduction to the technique:

Regarding the redoble I wish to state my view. And it is that I regard the [stroke with] two fingers as good: and he who wishes to play well should take my advice and use it because it is the most secure, and [the one] which gives the best style to passages. Of dedillo I shall not speak ill. He who practices both manner of redoble will not encounter difficulties for both are necessary at times. Dedillo [is] for passages that are played from the first towards the sixth [course] which is from top to bottom, and dos dedos for ascending [passages] and for cadencing.13

At first glance, Mudarra's remarks would seem to offer little more than a confirmation of what has already been drawn from Milán’s fantasias. Furthermore, his preference for dos dedos (thumb-index) is reflected not only in his comments, but also in the composer’s own right-hand instructions (thirty-six indications for dos dedos, as opposed to twenty-seven for dedillo), and one might easily conclude that his feelings on the subject were no less mixed than Fuenllana’s. Nevertheless, a closer look at Mudarra’s score indications demonstrates an extremely imaginative and versatile approach, and it is in these “hands-on” directions that today’s players are likely to find the most useful insights. The opening work, Mudarra’s Fantasía de pasos largos para desenboluer las manos ("Fantasia of long passages for loosening the hands,") expands on the concepts of Milán’s El maestro by extending the use of dedillo to encompass all six courses of the instrument. In Mudarra’s second fantasia the player is often required to perform ascending scales dedillo, and the two techniques are used almost interchangeably:


One of the most persuasive demonstrations of the versatility of the dedillo technique is Mudarra's fourth piece, Fantasía de pasos de cotado (A de yr el compas muy apriesa). With its long stretches of fast passage-work over a slow-moving bass, its character is patterned, study-like, and perhaps even unremarkable with the exception of one noteworthy curiosity: Mudarra's indication of dedillo applied to passages in the bass.14 This unusual direction is not mentioned in the book's closing correccíon, and a similar (though much shorter) example is found in Mudarra's fifth fantasia. To the best of my knowledge, no-one has drawn attention to this oddity. While it is entirely possible to perform the passage with downstrokes in the thumb, such a reading tends to produce a somewhat heavy series of equally accented notes, rather than the strong-weak relationship one would normally expect, to say nothing of imposing limits on tempo and rendering Mudarra's directions redundant. The distance between courses makes it extremely unlikely that the lower part would be executed solely by the index finger, with another finger on the upper line. A more likely interpretation would call for alternating strokes by the thumb alone:


This interpretation is not as unusual as it first appears: Sylvestro Ganassi's Regola Rubertina (1542-43) describes a variety of situations in which a lutenists might arpeggiate chords using up-strokes with the thumb. Recent research suggests the possibility of a similar technique by the baroque guitarist Foscarini, and the use of down and up thumb-strokes still exists among flamenco guitarists today.15

So how do modern performance attitudes reflect what was once such a widely practiced technique, and what might encourage the players of today to adopt it? The CD liner notes of one leading artists quipped that:

...while the vihuela de mano has been somewhat of an enigma in the historical instrument movement of the past few decades, its music for the most part is very straightforward. Many performers have felt they have too few historical references on which to base a stylistic performance.What exactly is dedillo? How were ornaments used? What was the vihuela's place in society? What exactly is the difference between a vihuela and a guitar? These questions have never held much interest for me.The music speaks for itself. 16

While this may be true, a closer look at the sources provides ample material for the development of this skill. Perhaps the most compelling argument for the incorporation of dedillo into the skill-set of today’s player may lie in its expedience. Once mastered, the use of dedillo greatly reduces the amount of vertical movement in the right hand, and results in a simpler, more efficient gesture (see below). The fact that such a well-known and widespread style of playing has been overlooked by today's leading players is unfortunate: clearly, the instructions of sixteenth-century musicians provide an adequate basis for the formation of this important technique. And given the pragmatic and flexible approach of those original practitioners, the incorporation of this important aspect of performance practice into the arsenal of the modern vihuelist should be embraced rather than shied away from.


1. Luis Gassar, Luis Milan on Sixteenth-Century Performance Practice (Bloomington: Indiana University Press,1996), 189 (n.156).

2. Emilio Pujol, ed, Alonso Mudarra: Tres Libros de música en cifra para vihuela (Sevilla, 1546) (Barcelona: Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Cientificos, Instituto Español de Musicología, 1949), 56-9.

3. Diana Poulton, A Tutor for the Renaissance Lute (London: Schott and Co, Ltd., 1991), 58; Charles Jacobs, ed. Miguel de Fuenllana: Ophénica Lyra (Seville 1554) (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978), xci. Jacob’s suggestion is in contradiction to his own discussions of dedillo and is simply not useful in practice. The limitations in size and strength of the little finger, as well as the crowding of the right hand that results when a dedillo line is accompanied by basses on nearby strings makes this solution extremely unlikely.

4. The execution of dedillo has been discussed by others. See, for example, Joan Myers, “Vihuela Technique,” Journal of the Lute Society of America 1 (1968), 17-8. Also John Griffiths, “The Vihuela: Performance Practice, Style, and Context,” in Performance on Lute, Guitar, and Vihuela, ed. Victor Coelho (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 176-8.

5. Luis Milán, El maestro (1536); Alonso Mudarra, Tres libros de música (1546); Miguel de Fuenllana, Ophénica Lyra (1554); Juan Bermudo, Declaración de instrumentos musicales (1555); Luys Venegas de Henestrosa, Libro de cifra nueva (1557).

6. Jacobs, Miguel de Fuenllana, xc-xci. The use of the term, “redoble” to describe passage-work is common among vihuela sources.

7. See Higinio Anglés, La música en la Corte de Carlos V vol.1(Barcelona: Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Cientificos, Instituto Español de Musicología, 1965), 160: “...la quarta [manera], es con el segundo y tercero dedos...”

8. Quoted in Myers, "Vihuela Technique," 17. Fuenllana also refers to thumb-index alternation as "foreign." See Jacobs, Miguel Fuenllana, xci.The fourth manner to which Henestrosa refers is index-middle alternation (see previous footnote).

9. This should not discourage (or excuse) thumb-under players from finding solutions.

10. Translated in Charles Jacobs,ed., Luis de Milán: El maestro (University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1971), 298.

11. Redobles beginning on lower courses are performed using thumb-index, and constitute Milán's next area of study: "The following fantasia (12) is to be played in the spirit and compas of the past three fantasias. And it was composed to foster agility of the two fingers [the thumb and index finger]. Play the redobles that are in it with two fingers, since it [the fantasia] was made solely for this...The following fantasia (13) is also for playing redobles with two fingers [i.e., thumb and index finger]..." translated in Jacobs, Luis Milan, 298.

12. Translated in Jacobs, Luis Milán, 308.

13. Translated in Griffiths, “The Vihuela,” 177.

14. The use of either dedillo or index-middle alternation over a cantus firmus is also described by Henestrosa. See Anglés, La música en la Corte, 160.

15. Hildemarie Peter, ed., Sylvestro Ganassi: Regola Rubertina, Daphne and Stephen Sylvester, trans. (Berlin-Lichterfeld: Robert Lienau, 1977),73-4; for Foscarini see Monica Hall’s unpublished paper “Giovanni Paolo Foscarini –Plagiarist or Pioneer?” available at www.monicahall.co.uk

16. http://www.gyremusic.com/catalog/product_info.php?products_id=30 , accessed June 3, 2008, 3:55 pm.

Ralph Maier