Andean charangos and guitarrillas are string instruments derived from the vihuela family and early Spanish guitars, which were brought to America during the colonial period. Using them as base from which to explore, local luthiers included an array of different elements from other European chordophones (such as the chitarra battente, the lute and the mandolin), that would have an effect on their shape, strings fitting and construction techniques. However, their characteristic features are closely linked to those of the vihuelas and guitars.
The vihuela was played during the 15th and 16th centuries in the Iberian Peninsula; here the instrument the same role as the lute (or "vihuela de Flandes") in the rest of Europe. Some authors point out that the vihuela developed in the Kingdom of Aragón as a substitute of the lute, which was very similar to the arab/moorish oud at a time of wars between Christian and Moorish kingdoms for control of the Iberian Peninsula.
Early vihuelas had sharp cuts to its waist and later took on the smooth-curved eight-shaped body. They were built in different sizes; many had long necks, while others had the shorter variety. The number, shape and placement of sound holes also varied greatly, as did decoration and pierced rosettes. Peg-boxes came in different styles while their backs used to be flat. Vihuelas usually had 10 movable gut frets and 12 (sometimes 14) gut strings arranged in six (or seven) double courses. Unlike other types of string instruments whose bodies were curved out from a single block of wood, vihuelas were constructed from thin flat slabs of wood, bent of curved as required, and joined and glued together. The so called "vihuela de mano" or "viola de mano" was played with the fingers, while the vihuela "de péñola" was played with a plectrum.
The Renaissance guitar appears at the beginning of the 16th century. According to Brother Juan Bermudo ("Declaración de Instrumentos Musicales", 1555) this instrument was constructed and tuned similarly to the vihuela, though it only had four double courses. It is regarded as a descendant from the Latin guitar or Medieval gittern, which was early documented in the "Cantigas de Santa María" (a series of musical pieces–complete with pictorial representations, which were commissioned by King Alfonso X of Castile, called the Wise, ca. 1270), among other iconographic sources. The guitar continued to evolve and its Baroque version would include two more strings. In his "Musurgia Universalis" (1650), Athanasius Kircher indicates that the guitar had five double courses; and Marin Mersenne, in "L'Harmonie Universelle" (1637), explains its tuning.
While the vihuela remained in the hands of the aristocracy gaining importance and popularity among troubadours and court musicians, the guitar was mostly used by ordinary people. The vihuela faded away in the mid-late 16th century; and one of its descendants still played today would be the viola campaniça of Portugal. For its part, the guitar underwent several changes that eventually led to its modern "standard" six-strings design.
During the Spanish conquest and colonization of the Americas, the vihuela and the Renaissance and Baroque guitar were introduced in its territory. Since none of these instruments were "standardized" and several versions were in use at that time (including small "guitarricos"), its arrival was followed by a rapid increase in their quantity and variety, to which a great number of descendants contributed: from the Mexican jarana and the Venezuelan cuatro, to the Colombian tiple and the charango of the Central Andes, played by both indigenous and mestizo musicians. In many cases, more complex techniques of construction were simplified, and the instrument's structure changed according to materials used.
First historical evidence of the vihuela being played in the New World dates as far back as 1568 ("Ordenanzas de carpinteros, escultores, entalladores, ensambladores y violeros de la ciudad de México"). And Felipe Guaman Poma de Ayala included a drawing of a four-strings Renaissance guitar in his "Nueva corónica y buen gobierno" (1610).
Certain Bolivian guitarrillas (khonkhotas, guitarrillas Chipayas, etc.) might well derive from the vihuela, however, charangos would be most closely related to guitarricos, guitarrillas and Baroque guitars. While laminated charangos (mostly used in Peru) would have retained the intricate construction techniques inherited from their European ancestors, the simplification of those techniques would have led to the creation of charangos lauqueados (carved out from a single block of wood), and wood scarcity would result in the use of other materials, including armadillo's (kirkincho) and turtle's shells, hide and gourds (pulu, mathi).
American descendants and variants of European vihuelas and guitars soon acquired their own character strongly linked to the land and local cultural traditions. Five centuries later they have become unique and distinct in their own ways.