Holding the Lute

This Topic is of particular personal significance as it was an area I originally overlooked (perhaps in lieu of the multitude of other technical shifts that were occupying my mind at the time) when I first began experimenting with early plucked instruments. Nowadays it is one of the most critical and challenging facets of my lute playing, one that I am constantly improving, tweaking and streamlining to make my technique evermore ergonomic and comfortable.

Whilst there is a substantial collection of iconography depicting lutenists in various states of play, the credibility of these sources can be hard to determine. Andrea Damiani wisely cautions as follows:

One must be careful because these images are too easily interpreted; some depict parties and celebrations in which the posture represented is casual, rather than the correct position for serious study or performance.[1]

It is worth noting that the lute, unlike the modern classical guitar, comes in many different shapes and sizes, with varying numbers of ribs, as well as different neck lengths, string combinations, and bridge lengths. Whilst the ‘proper’ sitting position for the guitar has long been established with a footstool under the left leg and the guitar resting on the thighs of the player, there are several different ways of holding the lute, depending on the player and instrument.

On holding a lute for the first time, it quickly becomes apparent that the concave back of the lute is prone to slipping off the thigh and, unlike the guitar, will not support itself upon the player’s legs if both hands are taken off the instrument. Historical treatises instruct scholars to combat this by wedging the lute, with considerable force, against a table edge. 

In The Schoole of Musicke, Thomas Robinson explains:

First sitting upright with your bodie, leane the edge of the lute against the table, and your bodie against the lute, not too hard for hurting your lute, neither for letting it fall, for the table, your body and your right arm, must so possess the lute, that you may have your left hand at libertie to carie to, and fro, at your pleasure.[2]

Some 70 years later, Thomas Mace describes holding the lute in an almost identical manner:

First set yourself down against a table, in as becoming a posture, as you would chuse to do for your best reputation. Sit upright and straight; then take up your lute, and lay the body of it in your lap a-cross; let the lower part of it lye upon your right thigh; the head erected against your left shoulder and ear; lay your left hand down upon the table, and your right arm over the lute so that you may set your little finger down upon the belly.[3]

Despite the clarity of both sources, I would advise against pressing an instrument so delicate against a wooden table edge and believe that the added impracticalities of carting a table to and from performances should, in itself, deter most from adopting this technique. What is important however, and clearly emphasised by both sources, is the need for the left hand to be free from supporting the neck of the lute.

You be this able to manage the holding of your lute with one hand…because the work of the left hand is the most difficult, and therefore must have no hindrance, or impediment, but must be free.[4]

Like a guitar, ones left hand should not take up any of the instruments weight, allowing it to move, unencumbered, up and down the neck of the lute. To prevent the lute from sliding (and without using a table edge) some use a conventional guitar strap attached to the lute at both ends or, as Daminai explains, you can attach a leather cord to the button at the end of the instrument, then sit on the cord, using your own weight to support the lute.[5] He goes on to suggest one can also put a leather, (or some other material) cloth on the left thigh to prevent the lute from slipping.”

Some lutenists prefer to use a footstool under their left leg, holding the lute in much the same manner as the guitar, while others use a footstool under their right leg, elevating the lute into a more comfortable playing position. It is also not uncommon to cross one’s legs while playing (either left over right, or right over left) as this can provide enough support to comfortably hold the lute ( although Jakob Lindberg once told me that he used to have difficulty walking after playing concerts in this manner, being forced to bow and limp off stage with a frozen leg).  It is important for the player to experiment with different postures (or combinations thereof) and seek out the one that can most comfortably and sustainably replicate the support one might expect from pressing the lute against a table.

Personally (and after years of experimentation) I now use a combination of two straps. One attaches to the the pegbox, slides over the shoulder and attaches to the end pin on the bottom of the lute. The other is attached to part of the main strap (near the endpin) and is then sat on and pulled taught. By adjusting the tension of this ‘sitting strap’ one can clamp the lute in place, snugly but safely. By changing the length of the main strap, one is able to adjust the vertical angle of the lute neck, and by changing the pressure and angle of the ‘sitting strap’ one can change the throw of the lute neck (forward and backward). Many professional lute players make their own straps, and the specifics of this will be covered in a later topic… Strapology!

The lute belly should also be tilted slightly upward, which aids in right hand string contact and overall sound projection. I use non-slip synthetic pads (found in home-wares stores and often used to prevent appliances from slipping on counters etc). They grip the lute extremely well and stop it from sliding off my leg (I really can’t play without one of these...one of the best investments you will ever make!)

Good Luck!

References & Further reading

[1] Andrea Damiani, Method for Renaissance Lute, trans. Doc Rossi (rome: Ut Orpheus Edizioni, 1998), Manual, 15.

[2] Thomas Robinson, "The Schoole of Musicke," (London1602), Fol. 3r.

[3] Thomas Mace, "Musick's Monument," (London: T. Ratcliffe & N. Thompson, 1676), 71.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Damiani, Method for Renaissance Lute, 15.