Choosing a Lute

Acquiring a lute can be a considerable challenge in itself as (unlike the guitar) lutes are not often found in local music shops. If by chance you do happen upon one, they are usually poor quality factory-made lutes that are more of a gimmick than a serious musical instrument. This often means that one must be prepared to purchase instruments from professional luthiers all over the world. As most luthiers will offer a range of instruments, it is important that one has an understanding of the style of lute that will best suit one’s playing.

A.              Types of Lute


Throughout the early-to mid-16th century, lutes were most commonly strung with 5 courses and a single treble string. This is explained as early as 1511 by Sebastien Virdung in Musica Getutscht:

I advise, therefore, that you take up a lute with eleven strings, [a type] that is found almost everywhere....First you must know that the eleven strings are distributed among six courses, always two strings for each course, with the sole exception of the sixth course which normally has only a single string” [1]

Each course was made up of either: two unison strings or (in the bass strings) two strings pitched one octave apart. While historic and modern coursed lutes do have a wonderfully rich and full-bodied texture, it is quite possible that courses were used out of necessity in the 16th century to increase the rather limited volumetric possibilities of the Renaissance lute. In the bass strings, the octave courses also add clarity to what would otherwise be a rather muddy texture.

As late Renaissance and early Baroque lutenists were experimenting with more complex and adventurous forms of harmony, there was a strong desire to see an increase in the harmonic capabilities of the lute.  The six-course lute didn’t offer the harmonic flexibility needed to perform fugues or continuo, so gradually more and more strings were (quite literally) added to Renaissance lutes. Much to the dismay of historians, many 6 course Renaissance lutes were ‘cannabilised’ in the 17th century, fitted with extension pieces and new peg boxes, so they could hold more strings.

Towards the end of the 16th century, it was not uncommon for lutes to be strung with ten or even eleven courses, and by the early 17th century lutes were built with upwards of fourteen courses (referred to as arciliuto (arch lutes) or theorboed lutes) and tuned in G, F or D-minor. Due to their increased volume and harmonic range, the arch lute or theorboed lute became the favored solo instrument of Baroque lutenists.

Unfortunately, to play all the repertoire from the early Renaissance to the late Baroque, one would need a “minimum of a dozen instruments in order to cope with all of the different tunings and different types of instruments to fit the style of music that you're playing.”[2] For a touring musician, this is about as impractical as it is financially burdening.

As a result, many lutenists will choose the instrument that best satisfies the style of repertoire they are performing. For some, a desire for complete historical accuracy means early 16th century music can only be played on a replica 6 course alto lute.  However, to an amateur lutenist, it seems a luxury (in light of the extensive repertory of lute music written for instruments of seven or more courses) to limit oneself to an instrument of only six courses. However, in doing so, certain subtle characteristics and physical qualities (of the six-course lute) will compliment the repertory in a way that perhaps later lutes do not. An example of this is given by Paul Odette, who notes “the early lute has octave strings in the bass, and so, in the case of a six-note chord, you lose three of the voices if you try to use a late 16th century lute.” [3]  Likewise, If one chooses to play early Renaissance music on a ten-course lute, the extra diapasons will provide a sympathetic (or perhaps unsympathetic) resonance that was not necessarily desired by lutenists of the early 16th century.

Whilst this may seem an overly pedantic discussion, I am confident that after playing Da Milano or Narvaez on a six-course lute, one will find it somewhat unsatisfying to play the same music on a lute from the turn of the 16th century (just as a guitarist will likely find it unsatisfying to play Dowland on the guitar after experiencing it on the lute). Likewise, if one wishes to purchase a theorboed lute (to play the early Baroque repertoire) one will discover that the wide frets and the distance between the courses makes early Renaissance music considerably more fatiguing and demanding for both hands.  In some cases, the stretches can be so severe that one is forced to sacrifice the full value of certain notes as the intended fingering is simply not possible.

Whilst these distinctions are undoubtedly idealistic, I aim only to illustrate the fact that one needs to take special care to choose the lute that best suits the repertoire for which one has a natural affinity. As there is an almost overwhelming selection of lutes available to modern players, start with the repertoire one loves, and find out what lute will best serve that repertoire.  (If you still can’t decide, an 8 course lute is probably the best all rounder.)


B.              Strings


Traditionally, the best lute strings were made of lamb’s gut, and as a lutenist it was imperative that one was able to discern the difference between a true and a false string. Lute players went to great lengths to find the freshest and best sounding strings, purchasing them from specific string makers at specific times of the year. To test the quality of a gut string, Mace suggests:


[if] you find it [the string] smooth and free from knots, try its strength, by taking it at one end in both hands, pulling it so hard, till you perceive it strong, or rotten; And if it be a right good strong string, it will many times endanger the cutting into your flesh, rather then it will break.[4]


Sadly, most modern lutenists will never need such skills as the art of making fine gut strings has been all but lost. Whilst modern gut strings are still available for period instruments, they are highly susceptible to changes in humidity and are thus impractical to use when travelling. However, if the relative humidity and temperature of the climate can be loosely maintained, then gut strings have the potential to respond in a more predictable way.

A common alternative to gut strings are synthetic strings such as nylon, fluorocarbon (PVF) or Nylgut. Whilst nylon and PVF strings are better equipped to deal with humidity changes and less prone to breaking, they sustain far longer than gut strings, and are usually significantly louder (especially in the lower register). These qualities seem to align rather well with the aesthetic of modern guitar playing, where (to project in large concert halls) luthiers go to great lengths to increase the sustain and volume of their instruments. But to many lutenists, the added bass and overall sustain that is typical of nylon and certain PVF strings is a major setback that significantly changes the character of the lute. This philosophy makes a lot more sense when one considers the original performance aesthetic of Renaissance lutenists.

The lute was considered a dignified and delicate instrument, “used commonly at the going to bed of the kings of France.”[5] According to The Burwell Lute Tutor a good lutenist must “play neatly and in a little room or to please a small company (the lute not being fit to play in a hall before a multitude of people; there the violin is most fit.)”[6] It seems that the volumetric limitations of the lute were not only recognized, but celebrated by Renaissance lutenists.  When one approaches the debate on strings from this perspective, increased resonance and volume is not necessarily desirable over a richer or more articulate sound. Or, as the Burwell Lute Tutor puts it, “like to a delicate stomach, a good bit and well seasoned doth more good than a great piece of beef and a great deal of other meat.”[7] As described by Andrea Damiani in his Method for Renaissance Lute:

Gut strings in the bass certainly do not vibrate as long as nylon strings, but they do have their own characteristics, such as the attack taking on a more vocal quality. Furthermore, less resonance makes the contrapuntal line more pure and transparent.[8]

However, the great dilemma facing lutenists of the 21st century is that modern nylon strings are “not satisfactory substitutes [for gut strings]….[but] they're the only substitutes we have if we want to play in tune in the modern life of a touring musician.”[9]

On the other hand, there is a compromise between gut and synthetic nylon called Nylgut. These strings have been developed by Aquila Corde Armoniche and posses a very similar decay and tonal characteristic to gut. They are available in a matte finish (NNG) or highly polished (NGE). NNG strings are more analogous to true gut and give the fingertips of the right hand more purchase on the course. The NGE strings produce less string noise (and are better suited for recording) but are more slippery and hence can be harder to grip with the right hand. Aquila also make a combination of different bass strings that mimic the sound and feel of traditional twisted gut such as the copper loaded red strings (CD). Although Nylgut strings do not posses the same tonal qualities as gut strings, they are one of the closest thing we have that allows lutenists to enjoy the benefits of the increased reliability and longevity of synthetic strings. Ultimately, as is the case with the guitar, the ‘ideal’ string will vary from instrument to instrument and it is only through experimentation that one can find the solution that best suits one’s instrument and ear.

C.              Frets and Temperament


1.                Frets


During the 16th–17th century, lutenists were expected to know how to set up their instrument with movable gut frets. As a guitarist, used to fixed metal frets, this means one is now in control of the action, temperament, and intonation of the instrument. As the gut frets wear out, new ones must be tied to the neck of the lute, arranged in sequential gauges and tuned to an appropriate temperament. According to Mace, “if it [the lute] carry less than nine [frets], it is too short, and if more, it is too long; therefore nine is esteemed the best number [of frets] for a true sized neck.”[10] There are several variations of a noose knot that are used to tie a gut fret, but the most important thing is the way the fret is stretched into position. Mace instructs:

Take the fret (thus far fastened) and draw it so close (by both ends) as you can well, to stiffen it to the neck; then, (holding both ends fast in your left hand) with your right hand and left, force it down so low (towards [the frets] c. d. e. f..) as you can; then put it up again to the nut, where you will find it much too wide or slack; therefore take the ends, (in each hand one) and draw it stiff and close again…Thus do it three or four times, till at last you find it [the fret] stiff and close again.[11]\

What Mace is trying to say, in a rather unclear manner, is that one can make use of the natural taper of the lute’s neck (that widens as it reaches the belly of the lute) by initially tying the fret close to the nut (or previously tied fret) and then (once it is fastened as tight as it can be) sliding it up into position. This will automatically stretch the fret in place and can be repeated (as Mace suggests) to draw any slack out of the fret. It is important that the frets sit completely flush against the fingerboard, as any raised sections (especially at the top and bottom edge of the fingerboard) will dull the sound of the strings.

The frets must be arranged so that the fret with the thickest gauge is closest to the nut. The first fret (as it needs to be considerably thicker than the 9th fret) can be a diapason from a theorbo or viola da gamba and the next fret should be fastened with the same gauge, or with an incrementally smaller gauge string. Rather than needing nine different sized frets, it is possible to fret a lute with four or five different gauges of gut string, as long as the general fret gauge is reduced in a step wise manner until the last fret is reached. This will mean that, in places, two or even three of the same gut string can be used to tie sequential frets. The exact positioning of the frets determines the temperament and tuning of chords and intervals. Whilst Dowland (in his treatise A Variety of Lute Lessons) explains his rather methodical and scientific approach to tuning the frets, The Burwell Lute Tutor esteems that “the best way to place them [the frets] is by the ear, singing the gamut [solfeggio].”[12] Likewise, The Burwell Lute Tutor instructs the player as follows:

Strike an open string and sing ‘ut’ [do]; then[,] skipping one fret and laying the finger upon c of any string[,] you shall sing ‘Re’. Then skip a fret again and stop in e; it will sing ‘Mi.’[13]


Mace seconds the importance of tuning by ear, describing that “the best way [to fret the lute] is to place your frets as you tune up your lute, by your ear, according to unisons, 3ds, 5ths, and 8ths”.[14] Mace goes on to instruct as follows:

First , tune it [the lute] so well as you can open, (without frets) making all agreeing strings accord, in their several concords; and when you are so satisfied, then attempt the fixing of your frets to their certain places, and not before…and the more exact your lute is strung, the more readily will your frets find their places, and consequently your business of tuning the easier.[15]


Whilst this may seem a laborious task, movable frets gave Renaissance lutenists the ability to sweeten particular keys, chords, or intervals.


2.                Temperament


Long before mean tone, the first tempered scale was the Pythagorean scale, where all of the fifths (except one) are exactly in tune.[16] However, the more in tune one makes the 5ths, the worse the 3rds sound, and as a result 3rds in the Middle Ages were considered less consonant. Mean-tone temperament was designed to sweeten the 3rds and temper the 5ths so that some keys (generally those with fewer sharps or flats) sounded pure and harmonious. However, mean-tone temperament produces some 5ths and 3rds that are “wildly sharp, but these were kept in keys which composers took care to avoid.”[17]

Unlike equal temperament (a tuning system designed for fixed pitch instruments such as the keyboard or modern guitar) mean tone temperament was designed for movable pitched instruments (such as the voice, viol, or lute) and was the dominant tuning system of the 16th century.[18] In mean tone temperament “all 3rds [are] pure and 4ths and 5ths as nearly pure as possible.”[19] Whilst the exact positioning of the frets (in mean tone temperament) varies for every lute, by slightly adjusting the frets one will notice that some 3rds may sound sweeter and more resonant, while other 3rds or 5ths may sound dissonant or out of tune.

Unfortunately, as each fret covers multiple strings, any minute adjustments will simultaneously favour certain strings and compromise others. These are compromises that are on top of the compromises already inherent within mean-tone tuning.  In other words, it is not possible to accurately capture mean-tone temperament on the lute unless each string was separately fretted.  The tuning of the frets is certainly a balancing act that can be constantly adjusted (to suit certain keys) or left in an approximate ‘middle ground’ (equal temperament). Whatever the tuning “one must put them [the strings/frets] to the lute with curiosity.”[20]


D.              Modern Lutes


Whilst the revival of the Renaissance lute has led many luthiers (inspired by strict historical accuracy) to make copies of traditional 16th century instruments, there are some makers who have approached lute construction from a 21st century perspective. These lutes are strung with higher tension nylon or carbon strings (not courses) and have an action and string spacing that is somewhere between a traditional lute and a modern guitar.  This allows guitarists the flexibility to use nails on the lute, and thus the ability to play both the guitar and the lute with only a small technical adjustment. These high tension lutes share similar physical dimensions to traditional Renaissance lutes, but use a modern method of soundboard bracing (terrestrially guitar bracing) and often have fixed metal frets. These lutes make the production of a clean, resonant sound, more straight-forward and more reliable (compared to the somewhat precarious tone production qualities of historical lutes). In this regard, they have made significant advances from the lutes pioneered by the likes of Julian Bream in the 1960s, despite the apparent similarities.

Moreover, a replica lute of 10 or more gut courses with (at least) 20 wooden pegs and tied gut frets of varying thicknesses, is not exactly a practical instrument. It has certain sound qualities that are unique and very beautiful, but as most lutenists can attest to, tuning over 20 strings, tweaking intonation, and constantly monitoring and replacing frets can become a loathsome task. In fact, it has been suggested by some scholars that these hindrances are responsible for the lutes early demise. Jonathan Santa Maria Bouquet states:


As lutes continued to acquire supplementary strings, they became more difficult to tune and maintain. These hindrances, along with the rising popularity of violins and keyboards, pushed the lute almost to extinction.[21]

However, single strung lutes do not posses the indescribable, almost ethereal beauty that can only be made by a coursed lute. One who has the patience, willingness and curiosity to learn to play a coursed lute will be rewarded in the long run. If however a guitarist is wanting to dabble in lute playing (without compromising their technique on the guitar) a single strung lute will perhaps be a more practical instrument as one will encounter far less technical difficulties before one is able to make a satisfying sound on the instrument.

Closing remarks

I used to own one of the aforementioned ‘modern’ lutes when I first started playing. It was fabulous at making a reliable & predictable sound and had a wide dynamic range. I enjoyed the instrument for a few years, but I could never fully satiate my curiosity and desire to play on an historic instrument. I felt a disconnect between the composer, the composition and my playing because of the lute I was using.

Making the switch to a coursed instrument was a real mental and physical challenge (and it took over two years to fully adapt to the new technique). But, having since come out of the other side, I could never go back. There is a real magic to coursed lutes and when they are properly tuned and plucked (in just the right way) the lute sings and has a warmth and texture that no other instrument can match. It makes interpreting the repertoire much easier and idiomatic traits of a coursed lute suddenly fall into place on the page. If you have the the discipline for it, playing a coursed lute is well worth the effort!

[1] S. Virdung and B. Bullard, Musica Getutscht: A Treatise on Musical Instruments (1511) by Sebastian Virdung (Cambridge University Press, 1993), 150.

[2] Paul O'dette, interview by Bruce Duffie, 1993.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Thomas Mace, "Musick's Monument," (London: T. Ratcliffe & N. Thompson, 1676), 67.

[5] J. Rogers and E. Burwell, The Burwell Lute Tutor (Reproduced under the direction of Leslie Hewitt for Boethius Press, 1660), 62.

[6] Ibid., 61.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Damiani, Method for Renaissance Lute, 14.

[9] O'dette, "Lutenist  Paul O'dette - a Conversation with Bruce Duffie ".

[10] Whilst The Burwell Lute Tutor also states that 9 is the optimum number of frets, it is worth noting that this did not define the range of the Renaissance lute. As early as the 1560s Adrian Le Roy discussed the frets above ‘i’ (the 9th fret) which (as translated by William Barley) “have no frets at all, notwithstanding those that are expert in this instrument, stop the strings so certainly as though they had frets aligned them, and the letters that sometimes come after I, are these k, l, m, and n. but have no frets allowed them”

[11] Thomas Mace, "Musick's Monument," (London: T. Ratcliffe & N. Thompson, 1676), 69.

[12] Rogers and Burwell, The Burwell Lute Tutor, 16.

[13] Ibid. 

[14] Mace, "Musick's Monument," 69.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Jeremy Montagu, "Temperament," The Oxford Companion to Music.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Rogers and Burwell, The Burwell Lute Tutor, 16.

[21] Jonathan Santa Maria Bouquet, "The Lute," The metropolitan Museum of Art, (April 2010).