Full texts

From the Mary Burwell Lute Tutor, c.1670, f.7 (full stops editorial):

The good stringes are made at Rome or about Rome and none that are good are made in any other place except the great strings and octaves that are made in Lyons att Fraunce and noe where else. They attribute that to the clymate and to the waters. The stringes are made of sheepes and catts gutte and are twisted with a good deale of art. To be good they must be hard and transparant smooth and well twisted hard and strong and now they are preserved in a white paper dipped in oyle of almonds or in a hogges bladder. They endure noe moisture nor any opressive heate noe more than the lute but they will have a temperate ayre and place but of the twoe the moisture is the worst. When they are open there goodnes is knowne thus holding the twoe ends in both hands and strikeing the string with the middle finger if they parte in twoe onely or if being laid uppon the lute they doe not jarre. If the twoe stringes can be made of one bunch they will agree the better but it is hard to find twoe good stringes of a length therefore you must choose them as neare as you can to the same bignes, the string must not be full of knotts or gowty or rugged nor be bigger in one place then in another.

From The Capirola Lute Book, f.3v., translation by Federico Marincola (reproduced with the permission of the author):


The Secret of Stringing the Lute

The strings are made from the gut of ‘castroni’ [in Queen Anna’s “New World of Words”, an Italian/English dictionary published in London in 1611, the word ‘castrone’ is translated as ‘a wether or ewe mutton’], and the gut is always thicker on one hand than it is on the other, so all the hanks [in the manuscript ‘iavete’; ‘gavetta’ is rather old fashioned Italian meaning a ‘hunk of gut strings for musical instruments’] have one hand thicker than the other.

When you tie the string on the bridge from the thicker end, it always becomes flatter (as you play higher on that string up the fingerboard). Turning the string the other way round, that is tying it from the thinner end, it will become sharper. However, if they are strings from Munich [‘Corde da Monaco’ in the original could mean both ‘strings from Munich’, or ‘Monk’s strings’. I personally do not see what connection could exist between a monk and a gut string] they do not have this characteristic as they always become sharper (the higher you play on the fingerboard).

When you put on the ‘contrabaso’ (6th course) and the ‘bordon’ (5th course), then tie them on the bridge from the thicker end. As I said, they will become flatter (the higher you play on that string). However, be careful to tie the ‘tenor’ (4th course), ‘mezane’ (strings of the 3rd course) and ‘sotane’ (strings of the 2nd course) the other way round, that is to tie them to the bridge from the thinner end. As you know, the ‘mezane’ are (already) a flat course, and if you tie them from the thicker end like the ‘contrabaso’ and the ‘bordon’ they will be (too) flat, and you will never be able to tune them. So, you should tie them the other way round, that is from the thinner end, as I already said, and then tune the ‘contrabaso’ at the third fret with the ‘mezane’ at the first fret.

You must understand that this (problem) is more acute with thin strings than with thick ones, and even more so with the strings used ‘da ganzer’ [the ‘ganza’, from the renaissance French word ‘ganse’, was a kind of gut string used to adorn dresses; this is found in ‘Dizionario Etimologico Battisti-Alessio’] and others which are not from Munich, as I already said.

I shall repeat how to tie the strings on a lute: the ‘contrabaso’ and the ‘bordon’ from the thicker end, the ‘tenor’, ‘mezane’ and ‘sotane’ from the thinner end. This is the secret method of Vincenzo Capirola for tying strings on the lute [it does not give any instruction on how to tie the first course, probably because being a very thin string it is very difficult to decide which end is thicker than the other].

How to pluck the strings (to check if they are good) to put on the lute.

When you pluck a string, to check if it is good and right to put on the lute, pluck it with the right hand. As, when you play, you pluck it with the right hand from the (side of the) bridge. The longer end, or better, the rest of the hank of string should be held by the left hand. A good string makes two lines (which run) from one end to the other (of the string when plucked), and remember to tie the correct end of the string on the bridge. The string which makes three lines, which run from one end to the other (of the string) is still a very good one. Be always very careful to pair (the string) with another one of the same kind: if it makes three lines, pair it with another one which makes three lines; in this way (the two strings) will be in tune, and will not sound false. If, for instance, you cannot tune the ‘sotane’ or ‘mezane’, even if they are good, turn the end of the strings the other way round.

For the already mentioned reasons you should then (be able to) tune them. In fact, with the thin strings, very often we cannot be sure which end is the thinner or the thicker one, to tie on the bridge, and for this reason we cannot tune it. If you turn the ends of a string the other way round, you will find that (the string) works better in one position than the other.

If, for instance, when you tie the string, you leave in front of the bridge one inch of false string you will not be able to tune it and the whole string is false. So, take off the string, pluck it again and try and check it. If one of the ‘mezane’ or the ‘sotane’ is, by coincidence, thicker than the other, always put the thicker one uppermost. If you pair a false string with a good one, you will never be able to tune them, and you will just have two false strings.

To remember about Lutes.

If a good lute has the nut slightly higher than it should be it becomes more difficult to play. If, because of a crack, you need to get a new (nut), be careful to have it of the same height (as the previous one), because, if it is higher, it makes the lute more difficult to play. So, be careful not to lose (the pieces of the broken nut).

Witness the miracle I saw in a lute that I had: the nut was slightly lower than it should have been, the ‘canto’ (1st string) was too low (on the fingerboard), and the lute sounded mute. I raised it to the proper height and amazingly, the lute came alive.

Consider how important the nut is on the lute!

(Always) note the thickness of the strings which are suitable for (your) lutes, at least the thickness of the three thicker strings, which are the ‘contrabaso’, the ‘bordon’ and the ‘tenor’. From these three you can, then, work out (the thickness for) the other strings. Different lutes need strings of different gauges; some need thick (strings), others thin (ones) – the thickness of the strings makes the lute sound good or bad.

From “For Chusing of Lute-strings” by John Dowland, in Varietie of Lute Lessons, Robert Dowland, 1610:


… Ordinarily therefore wee choose Lute-strings by the freshnesse, or new-making: the which appeares unto us by their cleere and oylinesse, as they lye in the Boxe or bundle; yet herein we are often deceived, for Oyle at any time will make strings looke cleere, and therefore this tricke is too too commonly used to them when they are old.

Now because Trebles are the principall strings we need to get, choose them of a faire and cleere whitish gray, or ash-colour, and take one of the knots in your hand, but let it not be too small, for they give no sound, besides they will be either rotten for lacke of substance, or extreame false. Also open the bouts of one of the ends of the Knot, and then hold it up against the light, and looke that it be round and smooth: but if you discerne it to be curlie, as the thread of a curled Cypris, or horse hayre, (which you may as well feele as see) then refuse them, although they be both cleere and strong, because those strings were not well twisted, and therefore will never be true on the Instrument. For trying the strength of these strings, some doe set the top of their fore or middle finger on one of the ends of the Knot, which if they finde stiffe, they hould them then as good; but if it bend as wee say, through a dankish weaknesse, then they are not strong. Some againe doe take the end of the string between their teeth, and they plucke it, and thereby if it breake faseld at the end, then it is strong, but if it break stubbed then it is weake. This Rule also is houlden for the breaking of a string between the hands. The best way, is to plucke out an end of the string (if the seller will suffer you, if hee will not assure your selfe that those strings which he sheweth you are old or mingled,) and then looke for the cleerenesse and faults before spoken, as also for faseling with little hayres. And againe looke amongst the boutes, at one endof the Knot, that the string be not parted, I meane one peece great and another small, then draw it hard betweene your hands, to try the strength, which done, hould it up againe against the light betweene your hands, and marke whether it be cleere as before; if it be not but looke muddie, as a browne thread, such strings are old, and have been rubbed over with oyle to make them looke cleere. This choosing of strings is not alone for Trebles [1st course], but also for small and great Meanes [2nd and 3rd courses]: greater strings though they be ould are better to be borne withall, so the colour be good, but if they be fresh and new they will be cleere against the light, though their colour be blackish.

Now again some old strings will hould well the stretching betweene your hands, yet when you set them on the Instrument they will sticke, (and rise by starts) in the Nut, and there breake, even in the tuning: the best remedy when the strings sticke so, is to rub the little nickes of the Nut, (in which the string slides) with a little Oyle, Waxe, or black lead. If you desire to choose stringes that are not false, that the maker cannot promise you; but there is a rule for the knowledge thereof by sight after the string is drawn out, which being it is so ordinarie and so well knowne, I hould it not fit to trouble you with the relation. Some strings there are which are coloured, out of which choose the lightest colours, viz. Among Green choose the Sea-water, of Red the Carnation, and of Blew the Watchet.

Now these strings as they are of two sorts, viz. Great and Small: so either sort is pact up in sundry kindes, to wit, the one sort of smaller strings (which come from Rome and other parts of Italy) are bound up by certaine Dozens in bundels; these are very good if they be new, if not, their strength doth soone decay: the other sort are pact up in Boxes, and come out of Germany: of these, those strings which come from Monnekin and Mildorpe, are and continue the best. Likewise there is a kinde of strings of a more fuller and larger sort then ordinary (which we call Gansars). [see paragraph 4 of Federico Marincola’s translation of Capirola’s instructions, above]. These strings for the sizes of the great and small Meanes, are very good, but the Trebles are not strong. Yet also there is another sort of the smaller strings, which are made at Livornio in Tuscanio: these strings are rolled up round together, as if they were a companie of horse hayres. These are good if they be new, but they are but halfe Knots. Note there is some store of these come hither lately, and are here made up, and passe for whole Knots. For the greater sorts or Base strings, some are made at Nurenburge, and also at Straesburge, and bound up onely in knots like other strings. These strings are excellent, if they be new, if not, they fall out starke false. The best strings of this kinde are double knots joyned together, and are made at Bologna in Lumbardie, and from thence are sent to Venice: from which place they are transported to the Martes, and therefore commonly called Venice Catlines. The best time for the Marchant is to provide his strings at Michaelmas, for then the string-makers bring their best strings which were made in the Summer to Franckford, and Lypzig Martes. Contrarily at Easter they bring their Winter strings, which are not so good.

From Musick’s Monument, Thomas Mace (1676), pp.65-68:


The first and chief thing is, to be carefull to get good strings, which would be of three sorts, viz. Minikins, Venice-Catlins, and Lyons, (for basses: ) There is another sort of strings, which they call Pistoy basses, which I conceive are none other than thick Venice-Catlins, which are commonly dyed, with a deep dark red colour.

They are indeed the very best, for the basses, being smooth and well-twisted strings, but are hard to come by; however out of a good parcel of Lyon strings, you may (with care) pick those which will serve very well.

And out of these three sorts, first, chuse for your trebles, 2ds, 3ds, and some of your small octaves, (especially the sixth) out of your Minikins.

Then out of your Venice-Catlins, for your 4ths, 5ths, and most of your other octaves.

Your Pistoys, or Lyons, only for the great basses.

There is a small sort of Lyons, which many use, for the octaves; but I care not for them, they being constantly rotten, and good for little, but to make frets of.

Now that you may know, all these strings, and also how to know good, from bad, take these following observations.

First know, that Minikins are made up always, in long-thin-small knots, and 60 are to be in a bundle.

Venice-Catlins are made up, in short double knots,and 30 doubles in a bundle.

Both which, are (generally) at the same price, and the signs of goodness, both the same; which are, first the clearness of the string to the eye, the smoothness, and stiffness to the finger, and if they have those two qualities, dispute their goodness no further.

The Lyon string, is made up in a double knot; but as long as the Minikin.

They are sold (commonly) by the dozens, and not made up into bundles. Their goodness may be perceiv’d, as were the other: but they are much more inferiour strings than the other.

I have sometimes seen strings of a yellowish colour, very good; yet, but seldom; for that colour is a general sign of rottenness, or of the decay of the string.

There are several sorts of coloured strings, very good; but the best (to my observation) was always the clear blue; the red, commonly rotten; sometimes green, very good.

As concerning the keeping of your strings, you must know, there ought to be a choice care taken; for they may be very good when you buy them, but spoiled in a quarter of an hours time, if they take any wet, or moist air. Therefore your best way is, to wrap them up close, either in an oyl’d paper, a bladder, or a piece of sear-cloth, such as often comes with them, which you may (haply) procure, of them who sell your strings: yet they are not very willing to part with it, except they sell a good quantity of strings together.

Which, when you have thus done, keep them in some close box, or cupboard; but not amongst linen, (for that gives moisture;) and let them be in a room where there is, or useth to be, a fire often: and when at any time you open them for your use, take heed, they lye not too long open, nor in a dark window, or moist place: for moisture is the worst enemy to your strings.

Forget not, to tye, or bind them close, or hard together.

I will now begin to help you to string your lute, and the first thing I would have you take notice of, is to know how to pull out a string well; for I have seen many a good string spoil’d for wantof the best way, and care in this particular: and thus it is;

Your Minikins and Venice-Catlins, will generally run quite out, after you begin to pull them at the right end.

In your Minikin, observe to find the running end.

Then take it either with your fingers, or your teeth, (holding the contrary end fast with your finger and thumb, to keep it from ruffling, or running upon cross twists) so may you draw it quite out, to the twisted place; the which you must be careful to untwist, otherwise you will draw it into a knot, and so lose a good, (or it may be the best) part of your string.

Thus will most strings run out easily; yet sometimes they will run a-cross, and not come out well, without your farther care; which must be, to find out the other twisted end,and so with a pin, or some such thing, open that twist, by which means you will save your string, otherwise (if you force it) you spoil, or break it.

Secondly, when your string is well open, and you find it 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 than it will break, yea, although it be a small treble-minikin string: but your Venice-Catlins will scarcely be broken, by a mans (reasonable) strength.

Thirdly, when you are thus far satisfied concerning the fitness of your choice, both for strength and size, then endeavour to find, a true length of that string, for your purpose, (the which is both a pritty curiosity to do, and also necessary;) and thus ’tis done.

First, draw out a length, or more, then take the end, and measure the length it must be of, within an inch or two, (for it will stretch so much at least, in the winding up) and hold that length in both hands, extended to a reasonable stiffness; then with one of your fingers strike it, giving it so much liberty, in slackness,as you may see it vibrate, or open it self; which if it be true, it will appear to the eye, just as if there were two strings; but if it shews more than two, it is false, and will sound unpleasantly, upon your instrument; nor will it ever be well in tune, either stopt or open, but snarle.