You are more likely to think of the lute as a musical instrument at home in a Renaissance court, alongside kings and queens, jesters, and nobles.
This, of course, is not at all far from the truth – the lute being one of the most important instruments in early modern music. However, with a resurgence in its popularity over the last century or so, you reading this won’t be the only person interested in learning the instrument.
Whilst the classical guitar is certainly more popular these days – another stringed instrument, on which much of the lute repertoire is now played – the lute is, really, an altogether different beast. With its distinctive shape and sound, and a history that stretches back through centuries and centuries, if not millennia, it will never be such a mass-produced instrument as the guitar is now. Each one, pretty much, is unique.
And whilst this gives budding lutenists – or lutists – an extra challenge, it makes playing the instrument something extra special.
So, let’s see how you can become a lutenist yourself. Here, we’re going to talk you through the basic knowledge you’ll need to play this ancient instrument – knowledge of its history, its varieties, some of the more well-known lutenists, and the basic techniques and places where you can find lute lessons.
What is the Lute?
The lute is the name given to any plucked string instrument that has a neck and a rounded back. This should give you a sense of the different varieties that this instrument has – whilst this fact is the result of the non-standardised nature of the instrument. Things such as musical instruments weren’t standardised back in the day when the lutes were still important instruments.
A lute is usually described as having either a pear-shaped or tear-drop shaped body – both being, seemingly, the same thing – whilst the fingerboard can either be fretted or non-fretted.
When you are playing the lute, you may well be playing only one of a range of different instruments – as there remains no standardised ‘lute’ per se that is made by a luthier. Regardless, though, the techniques you will learn for one can be fairly unproblematically transferred to the next.
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A Bit of History of the Lute.
These days, the lute is a bit of an obscure instrument, often seen as the guitar’s ancestor.
Its history potentially goes back even as far as the fourth century BC. Beginning perhaps in Egypt and Babylonia, the lute spread across Mesopotamia, when it could be found from Greece to India and even China. During this period, it remains of the same family as the Arab oud.
This instrument remains important throughout history, up until the sixteenth century when we finally find records of its repertoire in Europe – with composers like John Dowland writing lute music under Elizabeth I.
At this point, its wooden pear-shaped body was combined with gut strings and often gut frets too, whilst the strings were either played with a quill or in fingerstyle.
Yet, the Baroque was the golden age of the lute, when it varied dramatically in size and structure. There are reports that some lutes had over thirty strings – which are often played in pairs, or courses – which meant that certain variations had to be made to the structure of the instrument.
However, after the end of the eighteenth century – when lutenists essentially just played the basso continuo or continuous bass – the instrument fell out of popularity, being replaced usually by keyboards.
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Different Types of Lute.
Since the mid-twentieth century, the lute has been played a bit more, usually by guitarists and people who are interested in early music and baroque music.
Yet, there are a whole heap of different types of lutes from history that are worth being aware of. Let’s take a look at some of these now.
- The vihuela once was a popular type of lute from fifteenth-century Spain. Fretted, and shaped a bit like a guitar, the vihuela actually become the modern-day viola – as people began to use it with a bow.
- The theorbo is a large instrument of the lute family which were developed during the late sixteenth century. They have a much larger neck than most lutes and have as many as fourteen courses of strings.
- A cittern is not quite a lute as it doesn’t have the rounded back. Rather, it is flat and it has wire strings.
Aside from these three, there were, as we have said, very many different types of lute throughout history – with different ranges and tonalities, stretching from soprano to bass.
Famous Lute Performances.
Whilst much of the lute repertoire was written back in the sixteenth and seventeenth century – with composers such as Dowland, Anthony Holborne, and Denis Gaultier – there have been many musicians in recent years who have begun to play their repertoire once again.
Many of these have been classical guitarists, who have transposed the original lute music onto the modern instrument, whilst others have been specialist lutenists.
Let’s take a look at some of them here.
Julian Bream is the UK’s greatest classical guitarist and lutenist. And whilst he had a huge influence in bringing the classical guitar to respectability in the UK, the work he has done with the lute was just as impressive.
In forming the Julian Bream Consort, he brought increased interest to Renaissance music and Elizabethan music – but also brought to public attention significant parts of the lute repertoire that had previously gone forgotten.
To British eyes, he is one of the most important lutenists of modern times.
Music professor and lutenist Joachim Held has won awards for his lute performances that have never previously been won by another lute player. In this way, he is bringing even further attention to this ancient instrument.
Held continues today to tour the world with his instrument.
By the way, learn how to play the banjo!
How to Play the Lute: Some Basic Lute Techniques.
So, how exactly do you play the lute? If you are already fairly competent with playing the classical guitar, you will have a bit of a head start.
But let’s take it slowly in two parts firstly. Here, we are going to talk about tuning lutes, and then about the basic right hand techniques for plucking.
How Do You Tune a Lute?
Tuning a lute all depends on how many strings your instrument has, what period it is from, and, essentially, your personal preference. Like any strung instrument, tunings can be changed.
However, there is something of a tuning standard today – although no such thing existed before the twentieth century.
Going from the lowest string in pitch, the standard tuning would give you something like G-C-F-A-D-G, with each note doubled with the two strings of each course.
Basic Right-Hand Techniques.
Contemporary lutenists these days usually use a similar technique to that of the classical guitar. Here, the right arm reaches over the instrument’s top corner so that the hand is arranged with an arch between the index finger and thumb.
Positioned as if your hand can enter into the sound hole of the instrument, this gives you the maximum agility and comfort – and the use of all of your fingers.
However, if you have ever seen an old painting of a lutenist, you will notice that the technique is slightly different. The arm is positioned so that the fingers are parallel to the direction of the strings, meaning that you would pluck primarily with the index finger and thumb in a pinching motion.
This latter technique has generally been superseded by the former these days.
There are lots of other stringed instruments you can learn too!
Where to Find Lute Lessons.
Now all you need is a tutor to guide you in your process of learning the lute.
A tutor is the best way to learn a musical instrument, offering regular support, professional experience and knowledge, and friendly advice and inspiration.
And whilst the lute is a bit of a niche instrument, there are still plenty of opportunities for you to receive tuition in the instrument. Let’s see where.
Check Out Superprof’s Lute Tutors.
Superprof is a platform that connects budding students with tutors across the world. We have nine lute tutors in our network that offer private lute lessons either in person in selected cities worldwide or online.
Go Online for Lute Repertoire and Tablature.
You can find plenty of resources for learning the lute for free online. Just search for lute tablatures and you’ll find them no problem!
The Lute Society.
The Lute Society is, as you can imagine, a society that promotes and supports this particular musical instrument.
They also offer tuition across Europe, with nine lutenist teachers available in the UK.