As will be clear from my brief history of the lute there is no one instrument on which you can play all lute music, so your choice of lute will be determined by which music you want to play. Many people first discover lute music through guitar transcriptions, so some of Dowland’s famous pieces, some music for the vihuela (especially by Luys Milan), and some pieces by Weiss, are their first loves. If this is where you come from, it is well worth listening more widely before deciding on what kind of lute to buy. In particular, the obvious starting point for anyone who already plays the guitar is music for six-course lute: since the guitar has six courses (well, single strings nowadays) all you have to do is tune the third string to f# and learn to read tablature, and all the vast repertoire for six-course lute (and vihuela) is there to be explored (forget using a capo at the third fret, unless you happen to prefer the sound – there’s nothing magic about G pitch for the lute).
Music for seven or more courses requires some adaptation to fit on the guitar, and it will often be necessary to transpose pieces to different keys to get a better fit to the guitar. Then you quickly get into the realm of nasty compromises, the worst case being trying to fit 13-course lute music onto a six-string guitar – once you have heard this music played on the instrument for which it was written there is no going back.
One of the considerations which weighed heavily with me when I made the decision to give up the guitar and take up the lute was the involvement of the lute in ensemble music – song accompaniment, lute duets, trios and quartets, playing continuo in larger ensembles. All these things were very seductive to someone who listened widely but whose practical music making was largely limited to the solo guitar. Dowland’s songs were a revelation, and since they mostly require a seven-course lute, pushed me in the direction of more courses for a first lute. I ended up buying an eight-course lute, and immediately falling in love with Francesco da Milano and all that wonderful music for six courses! My problem was not just one of having too many strings, I really needed octaves on all the basses from the fourth downwards and a different style of instrument. I still loved Dowland, so I needed at least two lutes… the rest is history.
In spite of my opening sentence, however, you can be too fussy about achieving a precise match between instrument and repertoire, and a first lute is almost bound to be a compromise of some sort. This is because knowledge of repertoire and personal taste develop so much once you actually own a lute. If this point is granted, what kind of compromises can we make?
Core repertoire is c.1500 – c.1600, including most vihuela music (because the tuning of the vihuela is the same as the lute). Later music (up to c.1610) is often playable with the odd bass note up an octave. There are lots of good songs in a variety of styles and languages. About half of Dowland’s solo music requires no more than six courses.
Core repertoire is c.1580 – c.1610, but because there is only one “extra” course, music written for six courses doesn’t suffer too much, especially if octave stringing is used where necessary. The ideal instrument for Dowland’s best-known lute solos and songs. Main drawback: you have to tune the 7th course to D or F, and changing from one to the other ideally involves changing the string itself – not the sort of thing you can do in the middle of a concert.
As for seven courses, but this is definitely a big step away from the six-course lute, and some of the most difficult seven-course music is even more difficult to play because the 7th course isn’t tuned to D (though I have heard that some people do exactly that, tune the 7th to D and the 8th to F). Main advantage: D and F are both available at all times. Not much music written specifically for eight courses. Much nine- and ten-course music fits if the 8th is tuned down to C.
Almost unknown in the modern revival of the lute, but there is probably more surviving music for nine courses than for ten (major sources include: Francisque (1600), Besard (1603), Dowland (1604 and 1610), much of Vallet, many manuscripts including Board and several of Holmes). Many French songs (airs de cour) fit well, even if nominally for ten courses. Main disadvantage: the lack of an E/Eb bass without retuning.
Some lovely music, including a sizeable repertoire in “transitional” tunings. Plenty of scope for continuo playing, and a vast number of airs de cour. Don’t even think about playing 6-course music on it.
Once you get beyond ten courses you are really into “baroque” lutes and tunings of one sort or another and hardly any compromises are possible. If this is your first and only love, don’t bother buying a renaissance lute first, just go for the appropriate instrument for your chosen repertoire.
Having decided what kind of lute to buy, you still have some hurdles to overcome:
First, the bad news: there’s no such thing as a cheap, mass-produced lute. All lutes are hand-made, usually by individual makers working alone. The good news is that compared to the equivalent violins, cellos, guitars, etc. lutes are relatively cheap because the market is much smaller.
Second, most makers work entirely to commission, producing instruments to a customer’s specification, so it is unusual for them to have lutes available for inspection and immediate sale. “Try before you buy” is quite rare. Customers will often be able to look at previous instruments by a given maker and place an order on that basis. The quality of the best makers is pretty consistent, so this is not as risky as it might sound. Unfortunately many makers have quite long waiting lists – you may have a wait of years rather than months for the lute to actually appear. I have now managed to incorporate some non-commissioned instruments into my schedule so I usually have some new lutes to show and sell.
Third, if you buy second-hand, remember that however beautiful an instrument might look, its musical and technical qualities can be hard for a beginner to judge. If you can, take an expert player with you to inspect it. Some detailed guidelines are provided below.
Fourth, it is essential to have a good case to protect a lute. Usually, a lute will be sold with a fitted case, but if not, bear in mind when calculating your budget that cases, which are usually made to measure, are rather expensive.
Selecting a Lute
Here is a summary of some of the things to look for when buying a lute. I assume that this is your first lute, with 6-8 courses and a string length of around 60cm. The sound of a lute is difficult to assess and even more difficult to put into words; it is also not apparent unless the lute is really well in tune. Therefore this advice concentrates on objective measures which will enable an inexperienced person to make some useful assessment of a lute which is offered for sale.
Take a clear plastic ruler with you! Measurements should be regarded as typical of historical lutes rather than definitive of modern practice: since modern hands tend to be larger than 16th C hands, these values should perhaps be regarded as a minimum; but I could not recommend an increase of more than 10% except in exceptional circumstances (it does happen: I once made a lute for a friend who is 6′ 8″ (2.03m) tall).
Many lutes made before about 1980 have characteristics influenced by the modern guitar. They may still be serviceable instruments, but may prove unsatisfying in the end and will in any case have very low resale value. Things for look out for include open-backed pegboxes; large, spade-shaped pegs; closely spaced strings; near parallel neck (very little taper); bridge with a saddle, made of ebony or rosewood, or with no cutaways; rose crudely cut or with no surface carving; string heights very large. These are all explained in more detail below.
The string band (width across all the strings) at the nut should be around 40mm for a six-course lute, 47mm for a seven-course lute and 55mm for an eight-course lute. The spacing of course centres will be about 7.5mm and the spacing within a course will be about 2-2.5mm. On lutes of eight or more courses, the spacing of course centres may be slightly compressed and the spacing within a course slightly enlarged from the seventh course downwards. At the bridge the string band will be around 75mm for six courses, 90mm for seven, 100mm for eight. Spacings within a course will vary from 4-4.5mm for the second course, expanding to 5.5-6mm for the lowest course.
the height of the strings can be most easily measured with a small stick, tapering from about 6mm at one end down to 1mm at the other, marked off in 1/4mm divisions. The height of string above the fingerboard at the eighth fret (near the top of the neck where it joins the body) should be around 2.5-3mm for the first course and 3.5-4mm for the lowest course. The height at the nut is more difficult to measure but it will be 1mm or less (see notes on the nut, below). At the bridge, the first course will be about 5mm above the soundboard, the lowest course about 6mm (see notes on the bridge, below).
Should be shaped so that the strings run over it in a smooth curve into the pegbox. The grooves for the strings should be very shallow, and cut with a round file with a diameter greater than the string (not V-shaped!!!). The string height should be such that the strings have a clearance over the first fret about the same as their diameter (much less for thick gut bass strings). The strings should run smoothly over the nut when tuning.
Authentic lute bridges are a very complex shape, which seems to be designed to provide all the necessary functions with the minimum of wood. They taper in height (6mm to 8mm) and width (typically for a 7c lute, 13-16mm), they are cut away at the front to provide a small ledge which the strings pull up to, and cut away at the back as well. They are usually made of a fruitwood, but often stained black so the actual material can be difficult to determine. Very hard and oily woods like ebony and rosewood are not suitable for lute bridges.
Should not be completely flat but should have a slight camber, and the edges should be well-rounded – both features which help the frets to lie securely on the fingerboard and make fingering easier.
Pegs and pegbox
The pegbox should have a closed back. The joint to the neck should have a thin tongue of neck (2-4mm) between the nut and the end of the pegbox (I have seen some disastrous lutes where the pegbox joins on to the underside of the fingerboard!). The pegs may be stiff to turn but should nevertheless turn smoothly. Peg heads which are excessively small or have sharp edges make tuning very uncomfortable.
Cracks or loose joints
Check the neck/pegbox join and the neck/body join. Most soundboards have a single join down the centre, which may open between the bridge and the end of the lute, in front of the bridge, and sometimes at the neck join. Much more difficult to see are loose bars underneath the soundboard: they usually result in a buzz or rattle and can sometimes be seen by looking across the soundboard towards a light source, when a sudden change in direction of the surface can be seen. This most frequently happens to the bar in front of the bridge on the bass side. If the bridge is starting to part company with the soundboard, this will be at the back near the middle.
The soundboard bends under the tension of the strings and as long as the distortions are not too extreme they are nothing to worry about. As the bridge rotates forwards, the soundboard rises behind the bridge and sinks between the bridge and the rose. Sometimes the rose rises slightly as the soundboard takes up an S-bend.
The rose is essentially a decorative feature. Authentic lute roses almost all have some surface carving – the main elements of the design weave over and under, the thin tendrils have bevelled edges, and there is often a chip-carved border like a rope or dog’s tooth. They are often supported by many thin bars underneath as the soundboard is very thin at this point – often down to 1mm.