Playing the lute is an enormously enjoyable and satisfying pastime. The instrument is capable of producing the most beautiful sounds, and has a vast repertoire of music, which it would take a lifetime to explore fully. This repertoire includes not only solo music, but a substantial body of songs, duets, and consort pieces, and so the lute offers opportunities for social as well as solo playing. The lute attracted the attention of the most accomplished musicians in its day, and so some of the repertoire is very hard, but at the same time, the simplest lute music can sound truly beautiful if played with a correct basic technique.
A good, safe, option is to hire a lute until you feel sure you want to buy one (or while your own instrument is being made). If you are based in the UK, the Lute Society has a small stock of hire instruments. Private individuals with lutes for sale may sometimes be willing to hire them out - see also the back pages of Lute News magazine.
Lutes, like other handmade instruments, tend to be quite expensive to buy, but the expense is likely to prove well worthwhile, given the hundreds of hours of pleasure to be had from these instruments. In any case, lutes tend to keep their resale value reasonably well, if you have to sell again. Very cheap lutes may turn out to be a false economy, though in many cases may be greatly improved by the attentions of a competent luthier.
If and when you decide to buy, you have two options: to buy a pre-existing instrument, or to commission a new one from a lute maker. Lutes for sale are listed in Lute News magazine, on the Lute Society’s website (see Small Ads), and, for the USA, on a website at cs.dartmouth.edu/~wbc/lute/forsale.html. The only retail outlet in the UK regularly selling lutes over the counter is the Early Music Shop in Saltaire, Yorkshire, and London www.earlymusicshop.com/; the address of this and other early music shops are given in the Lute Society’s ‘Who Publishes Tablature?’ leaflet. Lute News lists the addresses of the lute societies in France, Germany, Italy, Belgium, Spain, Netherlands, Sweden and the USA, which you can contact if you are trying to buy or commission a lute in one of these countries. Lute News and the Lute Society website also give lists of lute makers.
Good opportunities to try a variety of instruments at one time are the Lute Society's own annual residential weekend, occasional lute exhibitions in Lute Society members' homes, and the International Greenwich Early Music Exhibition held every November, www.earlymusicfestival.com/
Whether you are commissioning an instrument or buying one, unless you are quite sure of what you are looking for, you should consult an experienced teacher first. A register of teachers is published at the back of Lute News magazine, and on the Lute Society’s website. Paying a teacher a lesson fee for coming to look at an instrument you are thinking of buying, or for sitting down and discussing your requirements for a commission, could save you a great deal of time—and expense—in the long run. Happily, the standards of lute making are generally high nowadays; occasionally one sees a really poor instrument, or an over-optimistic asking price, but the real point is that different instruments will suit different hands. An instrument that is too small or too large for your hand, or unsuitable for the repertoire you really want to play, will cause a great deal of frustration.
Before buying a lute it is worth deciding which parts of the lute repertoire you are most attracted to, for the lute experienced not one, but a series of golden ages of composition and playing, and different instruments are required for the music of different periods. Mediaeval lute music was generally played with a plectrum, on an instrument with five ‘courses’ or pairs of strings. For most of the sixteenth century a lute with six courses, in a tuning close to that of the modern guitar, was used. Works originally written for this instrument, known today as the six-course renaissance lute, include those of great Italian masters, such as Francesco da Milano, Pietro Paolo Borrono and Marco dall’ Aquila, Germans such as Newsidler and Gerle, and works published in France and the Low Countries by the great musician/publishers, Attaignant, Le Roy and Phalèse. In Spain such composers as Mudarra, Milan, Narvaez, Fuenllana and Valdarrabano wrote for the vihuela—essentially a guitar-shaped lute—rather than the lute as such, but as the vihuela is tuned identically to the lute, vihuela music is playable without any adjustment on the lute.
From the later sixteenth century more and more bass strings were added to the lute; first a seventh, then an eighth, then a ninth and a tenth; though initially the old tuning scheme was preserved. England’s golden age of lute music straddles this transitional period; the works of the great English composers, Dowland, Bacheler, Allison, Cutting, Holborne, John and Robert Johnson, call for a range of instruments, from six to ten courses. (Of the surviving works of John Dowland, for instance, 45 require only six courses, about 45 can easily be played on a six course instrument with a little adjustment, and the remaining 20 really require more strings).
As the seventeenth century progressed yet more strings were added, and different tuning schemes were tried; a popular configuration of ‘Baroque’ lute was an instrument of eleven, twelve or thirteen courses, with a tuning scheme based on a D minor arpeggio. The high points of composition for these later instruments were were attained in the works of the seventeenth-century French composers Mouton, de Visée, Dufaut, Gallot and the Gaultiers, and eighteenth-century German composers, including Weiss, Bach, Hagen and Falkenhagen.
Many people taking up the lute begin with a seven-course renaissance instrument. Not only is there much excellent music specifically for this instrument, but being similar in sound to a six-course instrument, it is suitable for playing the entire sixteenth century repertoire. At the same time, while physically more manageable for the beginner than the larger lutes, it can be used for the early seventeenth century repertoire intended for bigger lutes. Music for eight, nine or ten-course instruments can in many cases be ‘busked’ on a seven-course instrument, with a very little on-the-spot editing. Some guitarists might assume that the transition from modern guitar to a six-course lute would be an obvious step, but in fact the octave stringing commonly employed on the lower courses of six-course instruments takes much more time to master than the unison stringing normally used on the seven-course lute.
The baroque repertoire, however, cannot be played on a renaissance instrument (or vice versa); if your real passion is for baroque lute music there is no logical reason why you should not begin on a baroque lute: ask an experienced teacher for advice.
Lutes were and are made in different keys; the most common renaissance lute today is an instrument tuned in G, at modern pitch (A=440Hz) with a string length of around 60cm. Some singers may welcome an instrument tuned a little lower, perhaps in F, and if you want to play with baroque instrumentalists you will need an instrument tuned in F# (A=415Hz); while those with small hands might find a lute tuned in A less of a stretch for certain areas of the repertoire, but a lute in G is generally to be recommended, not least for the purposes of playing duets with other lutenists, playing lute songs at written pitch, and renaissance consort playing. Again, if in doubt, ask a teacher.
If you are not familiar with the full range of the lute repertoire, it is worth listening to CD recordings of lute music music of different eras. Lute News gives quarterly listings and reviews of new lute CDs. Early Music Review (tel: 01480 452076) includes some lute CD reviews. The Lute Society also publishes a leaflet of ‘Recommended listening’, which gives results of a Lute Society survey of members’ all-time favourite recordings.
Better still, go to as many lute recitals as you can, such as those organised at the quarterly meetings of the Lute Society; for early music concert listings generally (in the UK) see Early Music Review.
It cannot be emphasised too strongly that, whether you are starting the lute from scratch or coming from the guitar, you should seek lessons from an experienced lute teacher. Even if it is not convenient to have regular lessons, you should have a few lessons at the start to lay the foundations of a good technique, especially in respect of the right hand. A good right-hand technique is essential to getting the best sound from your instrument, and is not usually discovered intuitively, or from a book. A summer school with a dedicated lute teacher is a good option for some intensive tuition, especially if you live a long way from any teacher; see the summer school listings in Lute News magazine, or on our website. Open lute classes are held from time to time at the showrooms of the Early Music Shop in Saltaire, Yorkshire, and in London, contact or , respectively.
Several lute tutors are currently in print (see the Lute Society’s leaflet ‘Who publishes tablature?’ for details of publishers and music retailers):
Stefan Lundgren has set up an interactive online lute tutor at www.luteonline.se
David van Ooijen has recorded the music of the Lute Society publication '70 Easy to Intermediate Pieces for Renaissance Lute'(available in our online shop), with close-ups of the player's hands, on Youtube, on the Lute Lessons channel, www.youtube.com/user/LuteLessons
Simone Colavecchi of Rome has made a series of online lute tutorial films on Youtube; search for Lute Player 80.
Ut Orpheus Edizioni have also published a tutor for theorbo.
...you will already have a left-hand technique which is perfectly serviceable for playing the lute. You should learn to play from tablature as soon as possible, as this opens the door to a vast repertoire of music which has not been, and probably never will be, published in staff notation. All of the above tutors give an explanation of tablature, as does the Lute Society’s booklet Playing Lute Music on your Guitar. The main decisions for guitarists concern what right-hand technique to use, and whether or not to cut those nails! From the early 17th century a technique known as ‘thumb outside’ technique was preferred, which is relatively similar to modern guitar technique; prior to this, however a ‘thumb inside’ technique was generally used, with the fingers more or less parallel to the strings, and using a flesh technique. Regarding nails, perhaps the earliest historical reference commending the use of nails is in the writings of Piccinini (1623); some very fine players, ancient and modern, have played lute with nails. (Conversely of course, you can play the guitar with flesh technique, as Tarrega did.) All this is ultimately a matter of acoustics, and of taste, not of holy writ or statute law: tastes certainly changed over the history of the lute. The main point is that the lute, which (compared to the guitar) is weak in the lower harmonics and strong in the higher, can sound tinny if played with nails. Some players who want to play both lute and guitar trim their nails very carefully so that they can play guitar with nails and (renaissance) lute with flesh technique, something which is possible because the angle of the hand in ‘thumb inside’ technique is so different from that in modern guitar technique. Others alternately grow and cut their nails. Ask your teacher for advice.
...it is a good idea to take lessons from a teacher, perhaps working through one of the tutor books listed above, at the same time, as the teacher advises. A common problem with tutors, from the point of view of those who do not already play the guitar, is that the learning curve tends to be rather steep. To avoid frustration setting in at an early stage, it is a good idea to stock up on books of easy repertoire. A number of lute music publishers make a point of publishing easy pieces; ask a teacher for suggestions. The Lute Society publishes a number of tablature sheets of easy pieces (free to members), as well as several printed editions suitable for the less experienced player including anthologies, 58 Very Easy Pieces for Renaissance Lute (with accompanying CD), Lessons for Lute and 40 Easy to Early Intermediate Pieces; ask the Secretary for details. Most issues of Lute News contain some pieces aimed at the beginner or early intermediate player.
As always New Grove is a good starting point for lute studies. The main fora for the publication of lute studies are The Lute (Journal of the Lute Society), The Journal of the Lute Society of America; the Deutsche Lautengesellschaft also now has a Jahrbuch. Relevant articles also appear from time to time in The Galpin Society Journal, Recercare, Chelys, Early Music,The Fellowship of Makers and Researchers of Historical Instruments, also JAMS, ML, etc. Two good recent books are Douglas Alton Smith, A History of the Lute from Antiquity to the Renaissance (Lute Society of America, 2002) and Matthew Spring, The Lute in Britain, A History of the Instrument and its Music (Oxford University Press, 2001). The best way to put a specific question to a large number of people nowadays is to post it to the lute discussion groups on the internet.