Lute instruments

Lute can refer generally to any plucked string instrument with a neck (either fretted or unfretted) and a deep round back, or more specifically to an instrument from the family of European lutes.

The European lute and the modern Near-Eastern oud both descend from a common ancestor via diverging evolutionary paths. The lute is used in a great variety of instrumental music from the Medieval to the late Baroque eras and was the most important instrument for secular music in the Renaissance. It is also an accompanying instrument, especially in vocal works, often realizing a basso continuo or playing a written-out accompaniment. The player of a lute is called a lutenist, lutanist, "lewtist" or lutist, and a maker of lutes (or any string instrument) is referred to as a luthier.


The words "lute" and "oud" derive from Arabic al‘ud (العود; literally "the wood"). Recent research by Eckhard Neubauer suggests ‘ud may in turn be an Arabized version of the Persian name rud, which meant "string", "stringed instrument", or "lute". It has equally been suggested the "wood" in the name may have distinguished the instrument by its wooden soundboard from skin-faced predecessors. Gianfranco Lotti suggests the "wood" appellation originally carried derogatory connotations because of proscriptions of all instrumental music in early Islam.



Lutes are made almost entirely of wood. The soundboard is a teardrop-shaped thin flat plate of resonant wood (typically spruce). In all lutes the soundboard has a single (sometimes triple) decorated sound hole under the strings called the rose. The sound hole is not open, but rather covered with a grille in the form of an intertwining vine or a decorative knot, carved directly out of the wood of the soundboard.


The back or the shell is assembled from thin strips of hardwood (maple, cherry, ebony, rosewood, gran, wood and/or other tonewoods) called ribs, joined (with glue) edge to edge to form a deep rounded body for the instrument. There are braces inside on the soundboard to give it strength; see the photo among the external links below.


The neck is made of light wood, with a veneer of hardwood (usually ebony) to provide durability for the fretboard beneath the strings. Unlike most modern stringed instruments, the lute's fretboard is mounted flush with the top. The pegbox for lutes before the Baroque era was angled back from the neck at almost 90° (see image), presumably to help hold the low-tension strings firmly against the nut, which is not traditionally glued in place, but is held in place by string pressure only. The tuning pegs are simple pegs of hardwood, somewhat tapered, that are held in place by friction in holes drilled through the pegbox.

As with other instruments using friction pegs, the choice of wood used to make pegs is crucial. As the wood suffers dimensional changes through age and loss of humidity, it must as closely as possible retain a circular cross-section in order to function properly, as there are no gears or other mechanical aids for tuning the instrument. Often pegs were made from suitable fruitwoods such as European pearwood, or equally dimensionally stable analogues. Matheson, ca 1720, stated "if a lute-player has lived eighty years, he has surely spent sixty years tuning."


The geometry of the lute belly is relatively complex, involving a system of barring in which braces are placed perpendicular to the strings at specific lengths along the overall length of the belly, the ends of which are angled quite precisely to abut the ribs on either side for structural reasons. Robert Lundberg, in his book "Historical Lute Construction", suggests ancient builders placed bars according to whole-number ratios of the scale length and belly length. He further suggests the inward bend of the soundboard (the "belly scoop") is a deliberate adaptation by ancient builders to afford the lutenist's right hand more space between the strings and soundboard.

The belly thickness is somewhat variable, but hovers between 1.5 and 2 millimeters in general. Some luthiers tune the belly as they build, removing mass and adapting bracing to ensure proper sonic results. The lute belly is almost never finished, but in some cases the luthier may size the top with a very thin coat of shellac or glair in order to help keep it clean. The belly is joined directly to the rib, without a lining glued to the sides, and a cap and counter cap are glued to the inside and outside of the bottom end of the bowl to provide rigidity and increased gluing surface.

After joining the top to the sides, a half-binding is usually installed around the edge of the belly. The half-binding is approximately half the thickness of the belly and is usually made of a contrasting color wood. The rebate for the half-binding must be extremely precise to avoid compromising structural integrity.


The bridge, sometimes made of a fruitwood, is attached to the soundboard typically at 1/5 to 1/7 the belly length. It does not have a separate saddle but has holes bored into it to which the strings attach directly. The bridge is made so that it tapers in height and length, with the small end holding the trebles and the higher and wider end carrying the basses. Bridges are often colored black with carbon black in a binder, often shellac and often have inscribed decoration. The scrolls or other decoration on the ends of lute bridges are integral to the bridge, and are not added afterwards as on some Renaissance guitars (cf Joachim Tielke's guitars).


The frets are made of loops of gut tied around the neck. They fray with use, and must be replaced from time to time. A few additional partial frets of wood are usually glued to the body of the instrument, to allow stopping the highest-pitched courses up to a full octave higher than the open string, though these are regarded anachronistic by some (although John Dowland and Thomas Robinson describe the practice of gluing wooden frets onto the soundboard. Given the choice between nylon and gut, many luthiers prefer to use gut, as it conforms more readily to the sharp angle at the edge of the fingerboard.


Strings were historically made of animal gut, usually from the small intestine of sheep (sometimes in combination with metal) and are still made of gut or a synthetic substitute, with metal windings on the lower-pitched strings. Modern manufacturers make both gut and nylon strings, and both are in common use. Gut is more authentic for playing period pieces, though unfortunately it is also more susceptible to irregularity and pitch instability due to changes in humidity. Nylon offers greater tuning stability, but is seen as anachronistic by purists, as its timbre differs from the sound of earlier gut strings. Such concerns are moot when more recent compositions for the lute are performed.

Of note are the "catlines" used as basses on historical instruments. Catlines are several gut strings wound together and soaked in heavy metal solutions which increase the mass of the strings. Catlines can be quite large in diameter by comparison with wound nylon strings for the same pitch. They produce a bass which differs somewhat in timbre from nylon basses.

The lute's strings are arranged in courses, of two strings each, though the highest-pitched course usually consists of only a single string, called the chanterelle. In later Baroque lutes two upper courses are single. The courses are numbered sequentially, counting from the highest pitched, so that the chanterelle is the first course, the next pair of strings is the second course, etc. Thus an 8-course Renaissance lute will usually have 15 strings, and a 13-course Baroque lute will have 24.

The courses are tuned in unison for high and intermediate pitches, but for lower pitches one of the two strings is tuned an octave higher (the course at which this split starts changed over the history of the lute). The two strings of a course are virtually always stopped and plucked together, as if a single string, but in extremely rare cases a piece calls for the two strings of a course to be stopped and/or plucked separately. The tuning of a lute is a somewhat complicated issue, and is described in a separate section of its own below. The result of the lute's design is an instrument extremely light for its size.

   History and evolution of the lute

The origins of the lute are obscure, and organologists disagree about the very definition of a lute. The highly influential organologist Curt Sachs distinguished between the "long-necked lute" (Langhalslaute) and the short-necked variety: both referred to chordophones with a neck as distinguished from harps and psalteries. Smith and others argue the long-necked variety should not be called lute at all because it existed for at least a millennium before the appearance of the short-necked instrument that eventually evolved into what is now known as the lute. It also was never called a lute before the 20th century.

Various types of necked chordophones were in use in ancient Greek, Egyptian (in the Middle Kingdom), Iranian (Elamite and others) , Hittite, Roman, Bulgar, Turkic, Indian, Chinese, Armenian/Cilician cultures. The Lute developed its familiar forms as Barbat in Persia, Armenia, and Byzantium beginning in the early 7th century. These instruments often had bodies covered with animal skin, and it is unknown exactly when it became replaced with a wooden soundboard.

As early as the 6th century, the Bulgars brought the short-necked variety of the instrument called Komuz to the Balkans, and in the 9th century, Moors brought the Oud to Spain. The long-necked Pandura had previously been a quite common variety of the lute in the Mediterranean. The quitra did not become extinct, however, but continued its evolution. Besides the still surviving Kuitra of Algiers and Morocco, its descendants include the Chitarra Italiana, Chitarrone and Colascione.

Middle Ages

In about the year 1500 many Spanish, Catalan and Portuguese lutenists adopted vihuela de mano, a viol-shaped instrument tuned like the lute, but both instruments continued in coexistence. This instrument also found its way to parts of Italy that were under Spanish domination (especially Sicily and the papal states under the Borgia pope Alexander VI who brought many Catalan musicians to Italy), where it was known as the viola da mano.

Another important point of transfer of the lute from Arabian to European culture might have been in Sicily, where it was brought either by Byzantine or later by Saracen musicians. There were singer-lutenists at the court in Palermo following the Norman conquest of the island, and the lute is depicted extensively in the ceiling paintings in the Palermo’s royal Cappella Palatina, dedicated by the Norman King Roger II in 1140. By the 14th century, lutes had disseminated throughout Italy. Probably because of the cultural influence of the Hohenstaufen kings and emperor, based in Palermo, the lute had also made significant inroads into the German-speaking lands by the 14th century.

Medieval lutes were 4- or 5-course instruments, plucked using a quill as a plectrum. There were several sizes, and by the end of the Renaissance, seven different sizes (up to the great octave bass) are documented. Song accompaniment was probably the lute's primary function in the Middle Ages, but very little music securely attributable to the lute survives from the era before 1500. Medieval and early-Renaissance song accompaniments were probably mostly improvised, hence the lack of written records.

In the last few decades of the 15th century, in order to play Renaissance polyphony on a single instrument, lutenists gradually abandoned the quill in favor of plucking the instrument with the fingertips. The number of courses grew to six and beyond. The lute was the premier solo instrument of the 16th century, but continued to be used to accompany singers as well.

By the end of the Renaissance the number of courses had grown to ten, and during the Baroque era the number continued to grow until it reached 14 (and occasionally as many as 19). These instruments, with up to 26-35 strings, required innovations in the structure of the lute. At the end of the lute's evolution the archlute, theorbo and torban had long extensions attached to the main tuning head in order to provide a greater resonating length for the bass strings, and since human fingers are not long enough to stop strings across a neck wide enough to hold 14 courses, the bass strings were placed outside the fretboard, and were played "open", i.e. without fretting/stopping them with the left hand.

Over the course of the Baroque era the lute was increasingly relegated to the continuo accompaniment, and was eventually superseded in that role by keyboard instruments. The lute almost fell out of use after 1800. Some sorts of lute were still used for some time in Germany, Sweden, Ukraine.