All fingers and thumbs: some thoughts on left-hand fingering

Rubens (1577-1640) detail (photo: Pascale Bocquet)

Rubens (1577-1640) detail (photo: Pascale Bocquet)

Many lute players today have played the guitar before starting to play the lute, and while it was obvious that right-hand technique would have to be different for the lute, to cope with double strings, lack of nails, and possibly even “thumb-inside” – it has generally been assumed that the left hand was already well trained and needed no real consideration. But while this is a useful perspective for a beginning lutenist, it only takes us so far.

One feature of the modern conception of playing instruments is that even though our fingers are different lengths and strengths, and differ in their degree of independence from each other, we should train them to become equal. If you have played the guitar, think of all those four-finger exercises. If you have studied the piano, think of all those five-finger exercises!   Actually the keyboard parallel is quite interesting because historical keyboard fingerings accepted the differences between the fingers and there was a close association between the fingerings used and the musical result. The Italian organist Diruta (1594), for example, talks about “good” and “bad” fingers and uses each in a systematic way. Modern keyboard fingerings ignore this concept altogether in favour of training all the fingers to be equal.

So there is a tendency for modern lutenists to follow the example of the guitarist and think in terms of “one finger per fret”. You play the first fret with the first finger, the second fret with the second finger, the third fret with the third finger, the fourth fret with the fourth finger. Then this pattern is repeated as you move into higher “positions”.

This might be a useful starting point but it very quickly becomes a liability, especially when chords come into the equation. Even without chords, the differing independence of the fingers makes it inappropriate – as I am reminded whenever I see someone trying to play a trill (or even rapid divisions) using the second and third fingers on adjacent frets.

One thing which is clear from surviving lute music is that the best players were technically extremely accomplished indeed, so much so that there are parts of the repertory where even the best modern lutenists fear to tread. So can we learn anything from the Ancients?

Unfortunately lute music almost never has indications of left-hand fingering (the exception being some late C17th  French manuscripts, e.g. Barbe, which have copious – and very interesting – fingerings for both hands). But there are a few tutor books which give some examples:

Hans Newsidler published a two-part lute tutor in Nuremberg in 1536. The first book starts right at the beginning and gradually introduces more complex music, techniques and notation as it proceeds (it’s ideal for learning German tablature, by the way). The second book includes virtuosic intabulations of vocal music, some of which were first presented in simpler form in the first book. The first book includes many pieces with left-hand fingering. The first exercise is a repeated scale pattern which starts on the third fret of the sixth course and gradually ascends to the third fret of the first course (with one excursion to the fifth fret). Here is the first half of the exercise:

Ex 1

This shows clearly the use of different fingers for the third fret – the third finger for the lowest three courses and the fourth finger for the highest three courses, even though it is just a single line of music and there is no issue of fingering being adjusted to allow for chords, bass notes being held, etc. This violates the one-finger-per-fret principle but is repeated by later authors and is eminently sensible.

Waissel (1592) also shows the use of the fourth finger on the third fret in conjunction with the second finger on the second fret:

Ex 2

He gives fingerings for three and four-part chords, also examples of how to finger single note runs, and chords mixed with runs where some chords have to be held for the duration of the following run. There are few differences from modern practice, but some of his chord fingerings are interesting:

Ex 3

In ex3a-b he gives the usual fingering for these two chords. In ex3b this can be very difficult, and he suggests that as an alternative you can use the fourth finger for the second and third courses, as in ex3c. Although he doesn’t give it as an example, we might infer that the first inversion Bb chord in ex3d can be played in the same way, as shown in ex3e.

Also unusual are the fingerings shown in ex3f and ex3g. Most modern players would use a barré with the first finger here, but Waissel uses the second finger to cover the first and second courses. This is obviously a deliberate choice, as he uses and describes the usual barré with the first finger elsewhere.

This use of one finger for two adjacent courses is perhaps most commonly found in the chord shown in ex4(b), where the first finger covers the second and third courses, leaving the first course open. The fingering given in ex4a is not suggested in any of the sources and is completely impractical in most contexts.

Ex 4

The same problem applies to ex4c and ex4d – the fingering in ex4c is usually very problematic (and not shown in any historical source), but that given in ex4d is a good solution. In ex4e we have a fingering suggested by Besard (1603) but in most contexts this is very awkward and means the fourth finger is stretched out and trying to hold a thick string, possibly paired with a thinner octave string – a situation to be avoided wherever possible. Ex4f shows another historical fingering which is usually much better. It still involves using the fourth finger on the fifth course, but it is often possible to use the third finger for the bass note, as in ex4g. Unfortunately this strategy is not possible in the chords shown in ex5:

Ex 5

Ex 5b also involves a very difficult stretch between the third and fourth fingers, and Ex5d shows another use of the second finger to cover two courses.

It’s worth emphasising here that when you use a finger to cover two courses it does not necessarily involve flattening it to form a kind of barré, and none of the historical sources mention this. If the string spacing is close enough and your finger end is big enough, you can put it down vertically in the normal way. My first finger has quite a narrow end, so I find I have to flatten it slightly, but it’s still not a “half barré”.

Some thicker chords require the use of the third or fourth finger to cover more than one course:

Ex 6

In ex6a (from Newsidler) the fourth finger covers the top two courses. In ex6b (found in Francesco da Milano, Albert de Rippe, and elsewhere) the third finger must cover the fourth and fifth courses. In ex6c you can use the second (or third) finger to cover three courses. In ex7d, quite common in 4-3 progressions, the fourth finger covers the top three courses on fifth fret.

The common G major chord using all six courses can be fingered in a variety of ways of which the first given here is perhaps the least useful:

Ex 7

Ex 7b is probably the most common fingering, (c) is recommended by Le Roy, and (d) is another possibility.

Using the left-hand LH thumb to reach over the top of the neck and finger notes on the bottom course is a technique commonly used by rock, folk and jazz guitarists today. It is common in lute iconography, encouraged by early writers (e.g. Capirola), discouraged by later ones (e.g. Waissel). There are some passages where it might be a useful technique. Consider these few bars from Francesco da Milano (Ness 27):

Ex 8

The fingering shown here is difficult – but if we could use the thumb to play the second fret on the sixth course (third bar) we could keep the second finger on the fourth course.

Jan Van Scorel (1495-1562)

More “thumb-over” lutenists can be found on Jean-Marie Poirier’s page:


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