Before I begin this section I would like to suggest that a dogmatic insistence that one should hold their hand adjacent to the strings, at a 45-degree angle, use nails, don’t use nails or play with the thumb out or the thumb in seems a counter productive and limiting approach to the music of this era. For the vast majority of modern lutenists, playing on modern (replica) instruments, built with modern tools, and with modern strings, the specifics of one’s technique need not necessarily fastidiously replicate that of a Renaissance lutenist, as modern instruments undoubtedly respond in different ways. Moreover, many of the treatises themselves disagree about the appropriate way one should carry their hands, or pluck various chords.
A further complication is that many of these treatises were written (rather ambitiously) to instruct complete beginners on the fundamentals of Renaissance music theory, tablature, and technique. In doing so, the authors created steadfast rules that experience proves to be significantly hyperbolised, a point made clear by Bruce MacEvoy in his essay The Renaissance Thumb-Under Lute Technique:
All the tutors, for instance, in order to get across the need to sustain voices in a polyphonic composition, no more than tell the lutenist to hold down notes with the left hand until he is forced to release them to finger a new note, a rule he must keep, according to the Capirola manuscript, “like a maxim of Aristotle.”
Experienced musicians will know that the logistics of sustaining notes in this way requires careful examination of fingerings and a detailed understanding of the counterpoint (in order to first determine which voices should be sustained and for how long).
However, through an analysis of the techniques outlined in historical treatises, much can be revealed about the subtle articulations that were favoured by Renaissance musicians. It is these points that should be of most significance to scholars as they reveal tangible sonorities that a modern performer can replicate, regardless of the specific technique (or even instrument) used to achieve them. I would encourage readers to use these techniques as a starting point and to further experiment to find the technique that draws the fullest potential out of your instrument.
A. Right Hand Technique
1. The Thumb-Under Position
The specific posture of the right hand has a profound effect on the performance of Renaissance lute music. As a guitarist, one will have been taught to play (perhaps without realising it), using a technique inspired by Baroque lutenists called thumb-over or Thumb-out. This technique (although used by some German lutenists since the mid 16th century), was discussed in popular lute treatises from around the turn of the 17th century and flourished throughout the Baroque. When using the thumb-over technique, the thumb is extended out towards the rose, and the fingers are loosely held in the manner of a fist.
However, Renaissance lutenists mostly favoured the thumb-under technique whereby the thumb is nestled inside the fingers of the right hand and diminutions are played through an alternation of thumb strokes and strokes of the index finger. This technique is described by Thomas Robinson in 1603:
Begin to strike the string downward with the thumb only, and also striking with your thumb behind your fingers…striking them [the strings] with your forefinger before your thumb, that is holding down your thumb behind your fingers.
With this technique, the pads of the fingers should attack the courses without letting the nails touch the strings. When the hand is held in the thumb-under position, the strings should make contact with the fleshy (heel) side of the fingertip to produce a warm and rounded tone. On lightly built Renaissance lutes It can be more challenging to achieve this warmth whilst holding the hand in the thumb-over position. However, playing in the thumb-over position does have its advantages such as much greater accuracy and facility during index-middle finger divisions (which must be fluent in any renaissance lute technique, and ideally as agile and fast as thumb-index finger divisions).
In MacEvoy’s essay, he describes that thumb under technique (used without nails) “brings to mind with a new meaning all the Renaissance metaphors for the lute’s tone as gentle, sweet and soothing.” An example of thumb-under technique can be seen in Figure 1. A portrait by Giulio Campi, possibly of Francesco Canova da Milano (1497–1543)
Figure 1. A portrait by Giulio Campi, possibly of Francesco Canova da Milano (1497–1543)
As the thumb-under technique supplanted the monophonic plectrum technique of the Middle Ages, it allows the player, with “the kind of bobbing motion that would carry a plectrum swiftly back and forth across the course” the ability to play rapid monophonic passages, whilst also facilitating the realisation of polyphonic lines. The thumb-under technique is therefore perfectly equipped for the music from the 16th century. When playing with the thumb under (as we can assume the vast majority of Renaissance lutenists did), one (even without realising it) imbues the pieces with an array of subtle accents and nuances that serve to enhance the performance of 16th century works.
I have seen both thumb-out and thumb- under players achieve fantastic results at the highest levels and in all honesty it doesn’t really matter which you choose….it is far more important and worthwhile devoting your curiosity to attacking and preparing the courses properly. This is what makes a lute sing regardless of what technique ones uses to achieve it. The specifics of plucking the courses is such a delicate and difficult concept to explain (even in person with an instrument in hand) that there is a little chance one could grasp the concept through text (and even less chance a teacher could accurately describe the process in easily relatable terms). It seems historic lutenists shared this sentiment as this topic is almost never discussed (or at least not in the amount of detail it deserves) by historic lute treatises (despite the fact that this is arguably the most fundamental technical aspect of lute playing and routinely presents students with considerable difficulty)….some things can only be passed down from teacher to student!
2. The Little Finger as Anchor for the Right Hand
In Renaissance right-hand technique, the little finger is planted on the soundboard of the lute somewhere between the rose and the bridge. Although it will seem foreign to most guitarists, the little finger serves to anchor the right hand upon the belly of the lute, and is perhaps the only topic that is unanimously endorsed by all of the historic lute treatises. This technique is illustrated in Figure 2. Marco Palmezzano (c.1460-1539) -The Virgin and Child Enthroned, 1513.
Figure 2. Marco Palmezzano (c.1460-1539) -The Virgin and Child Enthroned, 1513.
This technique is mentioned by Adrian le Roy in 1568, stating that “[the] right hand little finger supports [the] hand on [the] belly of the lute. It is reiterated by Thomas Robinson in 1603:
And now for your right hand, called the striking hand, leane upon the belly of the lute with your little finger only, and that, neither too far from the treble strings, neither to neare, and although you ought to leane lightly, yet carie your hand steadily, not sliding out of his place.
Planting the little finger in such a manner “steadies the hand, and gives a certainty to the grasp.” When playing with the thumb under, the little finger should naturally rest on its outer edge (furthest from the thumb) and, out of necessity, can pivot or slide vertically as the hand stretches to reach lower bass strings. This is particularly relevant on late Renaissance lutes of eight or more courses, but for the most part, it was made clear that the little finger should stay as still as possible. As The Burwell Lute Tutor states, “your hand must lie upon the belly of the lute with the little finger only, which must be as it were glued unto it.”
To a guitarist, this technique may initially feel clumsy, like an experienced cyclist using training-wheels on a bike. However, the planting of the little finger on the lute (especially late Renaissance lutes of nine or ten courses) aids the thumb in navigating the large gaps between the diapasons (bass strings). Mace states:
And your thumb spanned from it [the little finger], to the last, or twelfth string, from which place (by the advantages of the certainty of the little finger’s place, being surely kept) you shall first practice to hit all your basses.
However, planting the little finger on the soundboard does significantly reduce the mobility of the ring finger, which (in the context of a thumb over technique) can prove off-putting to guitarists. It is quite possible that this limitation is directly responsible for the ring finger’s rather rudimentary use in Renaissance music, where it is employed only to play the top note in chords of 4 or more voices. For instance, Thomace Robinson instructs as follows:
For to play four parts, it is easie to be understood that the thumb and the three fingers together, serve easily to strike the four strings or parts, each doing his part in striking upwards and downwards.
However, by the mid 17th century (when thumb over was being established as the primary right-hand lute technique) the ring finger ceases to be used in lute playing. Piccinini and Mace make no mention of the third (ring finger) and the Burwell tutor speaks only of its archaism:
If there be three small strings together you must not strike them as people did formerly with three several fingers [i, m, a], but with the forefinger only, sliding from the treble upwards over the strings and repeating sometimes the treble with the middle finger.
This evidence suggests that the planting of the little finger was an uncompromising aspect of lutenists technique, worthy of completely sacrificing the use of the ring finger. The merits of this technique were recognized and implemented by guitarists as late as the 19th century. In his treatise Méthode Complète pour la Guitare, Fernando Sor writes:
Sometimes I employ the little finger, pressing it perpendicularly on the sounding-board below the first string, but take care to raise it as soon as it ceases to be necessary. The necessity for that support arises from passages requiring great velocity of the thumb to pass from base notes to those of an intermediate part.
Some six years later, the same technique is described by Dionisio Aguado in La Guitare, Méthode Simple, where he states that: “it is customary to place the little finger on the belly, probably in order to find a resting point for the right hand, and at the same time to attain force and certainty in playing.” In light of this evidence, it can be conservatively assumed that the technique of planting the little finger on the soundboard was used by lutenists and guitarists for over 300 years. In light of how drastically other aspects of right-hand technique changed from the 16th to the 19th century, the continued use of the little finger in steadying the hand is evidence of its significant merit in playing early lute and guitar repertoire.
3. Nails: An Overview
Playing with nails has become a fundamental part of modern guitar technique and an understanding and implementation of well-shaped nails largely dictates a modern player’s tone, articulation, and clarity. One of the first guitarists we know to have used nails was Francesco Corbetta. Thanks to accounts from Adam Ebert’s Aulus Apronius, we know that a broken nail forced Corbetta to abandon a concert in Turin:
The world-famous guitarist Corbetta, who taught all the Potentates of Europe, came here from England. But because he had the misfortune to break a fingernail (and with old folk these are accustomed to grow again very slowly) it was impossible for him to present himself at the festival with his consort.
Although we see the use of nails on the guitar as early as the 17th century, there were many guitarists who played only with the flesh of the fingers. The debate between those who played with nails, and those who didn’t, continued well into the 19th century. The iconic performer, composer and pedagogue Fernando Sor states in his Méthode Complète pour la Guitare:
Never in my life have I heard a guitarist whose playing was supportable, if he played with the nails. The nails can produce but very few gradations in the quality of the sound.
According to Sor, the use of nails on the guitar “is, to mine, what the harpsichord was in comparison to the pianoforte.” Perhaps the only guitarist who (according to Sor) came close to playing convincingly with the nails was Dionisio Aguado (another equally well respected virtuoso of the guitar). However, Sor writes that “it was only after many years that we met again, and he [Aguado] then confessed to me that, if he were to begin again, he would play without using the nails.”
Perhaps the last 19th-century maestro of the guitar to play without nails was Francisco Tárrega. In his later years, unsatisfied with the sound of the nails, Tárrega cut them off and played with the fingertips alone. In Tárrega’s biography, his pupil Emilio Pujol writes:
Tárrega’s sensitive ears had adapted to the sounds of the orchestra, the string quartet and the cushioned hammer of the piano. His forays in the great name of Art were to give him nuances of expression which were not found due to his personal esthetic in an uneven, metallic and sharp timbre. . . . By not using the nail, he [Tárrega] consequently improved his touch and expressive action. As previously his touch had focused on the point between the nail and flesh, now the focus is the sensitive fleshy part of the fingertip.
The use and discussion of the nails came to an abrupt halt in the 20th century. Andrés Segovia was almost entirely responsible for establishing the use of nails as the staple right-hand guitar technique. When asked about Tárrega’s (nail-free) technique Segovia was disparaging:
The so-called Tárrega method and his pupils’ ideas of right hand technique are absolutely stupid; one reduces the volume of the guitar and the differences in colour and timbre when using only the fingertips.
Due to the popularity of Segovia and his followers, playing the guitar with the nails became the only ‘correct’ right hand technique. Centuries of discussion and debate on the use of the right-hand nails was repudiated by Segovia almost overnight. Since Segovia, the guitar has been slowly adapted to compliment the nails with modern soundboard bracing, reinforcements allowing the use of higher tension strings and a vast array of machine polished synthetic strings.
In direct contrast many lute makers pride themselves on historical accuracy when making their instruments. Using detailed historical plans, modern makers are now able to replicate lutes of the 16th–17th century with considerable accuracy. These instruments are lighter then the modern guitar, have a shorter neck with less frets, and perhaps most important of all, are strung with very low-tension gut or synthetic gut courses. If one attempts to use one’s nails on such an instrument “the delicate tone of the note itself is almost wholly colored by the metallic twang of the attack [of the nails].”
Much as the guitar has been developed to suit the technique of its players, the lute was developed by Renaissance craftsmen to suit the technique of lutenists, who, except for a select few, played without nails. In a way, playing the lute with nails could be likened to a guitarist playing a modern concert guitar without nails. It’s not to say that a pleasant sound couldn’t be achieved, or that it’s in any way aesthetically ‘wrong’, it’s just to say that the instrument was not designed to be played in that way and the result is not ideal. Likewise, if a guitarist can find the courage to cut their nails and experiment with the sound that the flesh produces on the strings, an epiphany can occur. What can initially seem an awkward or clumsy technique begins to make great sense and serves, almost out of necessity, to hold the fingers in the position that draws the sweetest and purest sound from the instrument.
i. Nails: An Historic Approach
In any modern classical guitar method, there will almost certainly be a section dedicated to the shaping of the right hand nails, which is an art in itself that often requires a rather ‘scientific’ approach. As such a complicated and nuanced topic is not even mentioned until the early-to-mid-17th century, it can safely be assumed that lutenists of the 16th century would have played without nails. It is of course possible that some players inadvertently used their nails on the lute (letting them grow out of carelessness or indifference) but the evidence does not support the idea that 16th-century lutenists used their nails (like a guitarist) as a tool to facilitate their technical fluency or increase the tonal range of their instrument.
This hypothesis is also supported by most 17th-century treatises, which agree that using one’s nails in solo playing will not yield the sweetest sound form the lute. As The Burwell Lute Tutor clearly states (with little room for misinterpretation) the nails should not come into contact with the strings:
Take heed that you never lay the little finger upon the bridge or behind the bridge, neither strike the strings with the nails, nor so hard as if you would tear them in pieces… For the nails, they must be short and smoothly cut (which some do with a little file).
The instruction that the nails should be “short and smoothly cut” suggest that even a short but jagged nail edge has the potential to nick the strings and thus produce an undesirable sound. Similarly, Thomas Mace alludes to having experimented with the use of right-hand nails, but ultimately finds the most satisfaction from playing without them:
But in the doing of this, take notice, that you strike not your strings with your nails, as some do, who maintain it the best way of play, but I do not; and for this reason; because the nail cannot draw so sweet a sound from a lute, as the nibble end of the flesh can do.
He does later “confess” (as if reluctant to side with the new radical nail players) that in chamber music or continuo playing the nails may help the lute to project over other consort instruments:
I confess in consort, it might do well enough, where the mellowness (which is the most excellent satisfaction from a lute) is lost in the crowd; but alone, I could never receive so good content from the nail, as from the flesh; However, (this being my opinion) let others do, as seems best themselves.
Perhaps one of the lutenists who (according to Mace) “maintain it [playing with the nails] the best way of play”  could have been Alessandro Piccinini. In his early 17th century treatise, Intavolatura di Liuto et di Chitarrone, he does advocate the use of the fingernails in solo lute playing, with perhaps the first ever instructions on shaping the nails for a pleasing sound.
The other three fingers i.e, the index middle and ring, ought to have somewhat longer fingernails. The nails should just pass beyond the flesh and be oval-shaped; that is, longer in the middle than at the sides. When you play a chord or a single string, touch the string with the tip of the flesh and push it towards the belly, letting the nail glide over both strings. This makes a beautiful sound, because you play both strings of the pair.
On the other hand, Poulton describes Piccinini as a lutenist “who appears to [have been] somewhat eccentric in his time.” It is also important to note that the instrument Piccinini played upon (and wrote half of his pieces for) was an arciliuto, which—due to its increased size and extra bass strings—benefited from the sharper attack of the nails in way that a Renaissance lute might not. Nevertheless, the case of Piccinini does demonstrate that nails were creeping into lute playing by the early-to-mid-17th century.
ii. Nails: A Modern Compromise
If cutting off one’s nails and holding the hand in the thumb-under position is at first too daunting a prospect (or perhaps one still needs to regularly play the guitar), a possible compromise is suggested by MacEvay, who states that “some teachers have had good results with paring the nails down on the heel-side of the finger only, so that by leaning the fingers toward the thumb, nails can still be used for thumb-out performances.” This allows a taste of the thumb-under technique (and the benefit of the articulations that it naturally produces) without having to drastically compromise a standard guitar technique.
 B. MacEvoy, The Renaissance Thumb-under Technique (1979), 5.
 MacEvoy, The Renaissance Thumb-under Technique, 2.
 Robinson, "The Schoole of Musicke," Fol.3v.
 When playing in the thumb under hand position, the pads of the fingers are naturally positioned to pluck the strings by pushing them vertically (towards the soundboard) before releasing them. This vertical movement (long established as the optimum means of tone production on lutes) produces a full-bodied sound and sets the courses in parallel motion (preventing them from banging into one another). In the thumb over position, achieving the same vertical movement (without nails) can be harder, as the pads of the fingers tend to strike the strings laterally, producing a more brittle sound, and (potentially) sending the courses vibrating into one another.
 MacEvoy, The Renaissance Thumb-under Technique, 6.
 Adrian Le Roy, "A Briefe and Easye Instruction to Learne the Tableture," (Paris, 1571).
 Robinson, "The Schoole of Musicke," Fol. 3r.
 Mace, "Musick's Monument," 72.
 Rogers and Burwell, The Burwell Lute Tutor, 23.
 Mace, "Musick's Monument," 76.
 Robinson, "The Schoole of Musicke," Fol.9v.
 Rogers and Burwell, The Burwell Lute Tutor, 29.
 F. Sor and A. Merrick, Sor's Method for the Spanish Guitar (Dover, 2007), 33.
Dionosio Aguado, La Guitare, Méthode Simple (London: R. Cocks & Co, 1836), 3.
 Richard Tilden Pinnell, "The Role of Francesco Corbetta (1615-1681) in the History of Music for the Baroque Guitar, Including a Transcription of His Complete Works. (Volumes I and Ii)." (University of California, 1976), 256.
 Sor and Merrick, Sor's Method for the Spanish Guitar, 17.
 E. Pujol, Tárrega: Ensayo Biográfico (Artes Gráficas Soler, 1978).
 G. Clinton, Andres Segovia: An Appreciation (Bold Strummer Limited, 1988), 20.
 MacEvoy, The Renaissance Thumb-under Technique, 6.
 Rogers and Burwell, The Burwell Lute Tutor, 23.
 Mace, "Musick's Monument," 73. Although this quote suggests that some early-to-mid-17th century lutenists had started to play with the nails, this group is still maintained by Mace to be the minority.
 Alessandro Piccinini, "Intavolatura Di Liuto Et Di Chitarrone," (1623), 9.
 Poulton, A Tutor for the Renaissance Lute, 7.
 MacEvoy, The Renaissance Thumb-under Technique, 10.