What is a lute?

When I say to someone that I’m learning to play the lute, I’m often met with a quizzical look. For many, the word ‘lute’ evokes images of ruffs and pointy shoes (neither of which, sadly, came with my lute). Few think of it as an instrument contemporary to composers as late as Bach and Vivaldi. Wandering minstrels more readily came to mind. And most people, naturally, aren’t even sure what a lute looks like exactly. Until recently I certainly wasn’t.

It’s a great shame the lute is not better known, for it was the most important instrument in Europe for at least a couple of centuries. Its portability and attractive sound made it a popular instrument, and its polyphonic capabilities meant it attracted the greatest composers and captivated its listeners.

Come the seventeenth century, however, it was gradually being replaced by keyboard instruments. By 1800 it had practically become extinct. In some countries the decline was faster than others. England’s last great lutenist, Robert Johnson, died in 1634. Thomas Mace later complained about the instrument’s fast decline in his 1676 book Musick’s Monument (though he still held out hope for its eventual revival). He blamed it on ‘false and ignorant out-cries against the lute’. These include ‘that it is the Hardest Instrument in the World’ and, amusingly, ‘that it makes Young People grow awry’. The reasons for the decline of the lute continue to be debated, but a major factor has to simply be that the intimacy of the lute was ill-suited to an era of bigger concert halls and expanding orchestras.

Fortunately, the lute was revived in the second half of the twentieth century. Luthiers re-learnt the lost craft of making lutes. (Indeed, ‘luthier’ originally meant lute-maker, derived from the French word for lute, ‘luth’.) Players rediscovered how to play the instrument, no easy task given that lute technique was a largely unwritten tradition. It wasn’t until the 1970s, for example, that lutenists stopped using guitar-like right-hand technique. Nowadays there are a great many lutenists, professional and amateur, and plenty of literature on the instrument.

Let’s take a tour of the lute. At the top you have the sharply-angled pegbox (nearly a right-angle). Unlike the modern guitar, the lute uses friction pegs: as one turns the peg to raise the pitch of the string, one pushes it in slightly so that the friction between the peg and peg hole stops it from slipping.


The lute I’m hiring (pictured below) has thirteen strings. There are six paired strings called ‘courses’, and a top single-string called the chanterelle (which very occasionally is paired).


This lute is a Renaissance lute, used around the second half of the sixteenth century. Renaissance lutes have anywhere from six to ten courses; Medieval lutes have four or five; and Baroque lutes have between eleven and fourteen (the latter generally being an ‘archlute’). A theorbo has up to nineteen strings (though fourteen is the norm) and is distinct from other lutes for two main reasons: it is often single strung, and uses a ‘re-entrant’ tuning whereby the top two strings are tuned an octave lower. Unlike other lutes, the theorbo was mainly, though by no means exclusively, used for continuo playing.

5-course Medieval lute (source)
13-course Baroque lute (source)

It is an old joke that lutenists spent as much time tuning their instrument as they did playing. It is sometimes claimed that this is why the lute died out. Lutes traditionally use gut strings, which are particularly vulnerable to temperature and humidity changes. However, each of my lute’s thirteen strings uses nylgut — that is, synthetic gut. They have survived both cosy central heating and cold winter days without any trouble. I seldom need to tune every string, and never more than small amounts. It can be fiddly, requiring slight hand motions and a good ear. Occasionally pegs stick or slip, but with practise this happens less frequently. As early instruments go you really can’t complain: a harpsichord needs to be tuned a few times a week and has way more strings than a lute.

Back to our tour of the instrument. If you look closely you’ll notice that the frets aren’t fixed:


In fact, they are gut string tied around the neck. One can adjust them for different intonations (the lute predates the tyranny of equal temperament). Viols and early guitars also use gut frets.

The decorated soundhole of a lute is called a ‘rose’:


The body is rounded, unlike the flat back of many string instruments, helping to give it its unique sound. It is made using ‘ribs’ of wood:


There are various cousins of the lute. Many of these are types of gitterns (essentially early guitars and mandolins). Particularly interesting are the orpharion and bandora. They were common, though perhaps less respectable, alternatives to the lute. What makes them distinctive are their flat backs, undulating sides and, most of all, their wire strings which give the instrument a rather attractive virginal-like quality. You will find very few orpharion videos on YouTube, and half of them are by this chap:

Perhaps the weirdest member of the lute family, if it can be called that, is the lute harpsichord. It’s a harpsichord strung with gut, giving it a much warmer sound. Some, like the one pictured below, even aspire to look like a lute, albeit a rather bulbous one. Apparently it was Bach’s preferred instrument. Here is Elizabeth Farr playing Bach’s lute suites on one:

Some point soon I intend to write about learning to play the lute. For now, here’s Bor Zuljan playing a ricercar by Italian lutenist Giacomo Gorzanis (c. 1520-1579):


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