What is a Lute, and How is it Different From the Guitar?

what is a lute

As a guitar player, I rarely had to deal with the issue of explaining what my instrument was to people I met. Even non-musicians are generally familiar with the guitar and the many forms and shapes it takes. When I made the transition to playing the lute, however, this changed significantly, due in no small part to the odd-looking case that I have to carry the instrument around in. People will often ask me, “What is a lute?” In truth, the history of the lute is a long one and I often simply explain that it’s like a guitar with more strings. If I have the time, though, I really do love to give a more complete answer. Read on to learn a brief overview of the history of the lute, and some comparisons between the lute and its more famous cousin, the guitar.

The lute is a descendent of the oud, which was most likely brought to Western Europe by the Moors in the 9th century, when they occupied Spain. While the Spanish would seem a likely conduit for the instrument to enter the rest of Europe, they generally rejected the instrument, and the oud instead traveled with merchants through Sicily and up into Italy. The oud is a fretless melodic instrument, double-strung in courses, that is perfectly suited to the subtle tunings, systems and scales of the Middle East.

In order to better integrate the instrument into Western European music, a few changes were made; adding frets was the first of these changes. Because Western European music was harmonically-driven and used precise tuning systems to harmonize multiple notes at the same time, the oud needed the addition of frets to comfortably play in tune with other musicians. This simple addition of frets marked the change from oud to lute.

Despite the obvious harmonic implications that frets allow, the lute remained largely a melodic instrument until the beginning of the 16th century. Like oud players, the new European lute players continued to play the instrument with a plectrum or a bird quill. Through paintings and other iconographic sources, we have been able to reconstruct much of this early picking technique and determine that it is remarkably similar to modern mandolin and even electric guitar playing. The pinky of the plucking hand rests on the body of the instrument and acts as an anchor and a reference point for the rest of the hand. This allows for very fast and accurate diminutions. The fretting hand seems to have been very similar to modern technique. Depending on the size of the instrument, the thumb of the fretting hand could hang over the neck and even fret notes when needed, or if the instrument was too large, the thumb remained relaxed behind the neck.

The end of the 15th century marked an amazing change for the lute, one that helped make it the most popular instrument for more than 200 years. A group of German lutenists discovered that by using the fingers to pluck instead of a plectrum, they could play entire polyphonic works. The hand position itself remained largely the same, but the instrument could now play solo material of remarkable complexity. The addition of a low sixth course (double string) also increased the gamut of the instrument, allowing for full bass lines. A few years later, the very first lute publications were printed by Ottaviano Petrucci. First came Francesco Spinacino in 1507, and then Joan Ambrosio Dalza in 1508. What becomes quickly apparent from these early publications is the high level of lute playing that is present so soon after the development of a polyphonic technique.

The lute then exploded in the 16th century. Courts like those of Henry VIII, Francois I and the Pope in Rome hired lutenists as personal musicians and as means of cultural competition, pitting lute players against each other in contests that often impacted a ruler’s status amongst his peers. The highest-level lute players were paid in amounts comparable to modern NBA stars. Alberto da Ripa of Mantua, for example, was hired by the French court of Francois I, as the royal lutenist. In addition to earning the second-highest salary at court (of everyone, not just musicians!), he was given land and yearly stipends of food and alcohol. Intense competitions for these lucrative jobs produced musicians of unbelievable capability.

The lute was easily the most dominant instrument of the 16th century, its regard only increased by the fact that it was linked (erroneously) to the Greek lyre of legend. The Florentine Camerata’s influence on the arts in the 1570s and 80s helped propel a deep interest in reviving Greek culture, a culture that many considered the peak of human civilization. In fact, it was this invented connection to the legendary Greek instrument that may have allowed the lute to survive as long as it did.

Despite its popularity during the 16th century, the lute began to lose ground in the early 17th century. The addition of more and more bass strings, up to 11 total courses (or 20 strings total, with two single strings), and the increased popularity and manufacturing of keyboard instruments, started to alienate the lute from the general population. The instrument was getting more difficult to play and more costly to maintain, and simpler instruments like the guitar were becoming more readily available. Thomas Mace, in his “Musick’s Monument” (1676), tried to defend the lute and uphold it as the supreme instrument, but ultimately his argument showed that the lute was on a decline, and one from which it never quite recovered.

Despite this decline, great players of the lute continued to produce amazing music and hold the highest positions at important courts. For example, the great German lutenist Sylvius Leopold Weiss (1687-1750) was the highest paid musician at the Dresden court and was reportedly so talented that another musician, jealous of his abilities, tried to bite his thumb off! The lute survived the 18th century, often playing continuo in orchestras, including Mozart’s, and filling the second violin position in string quartets. Ultimately, the lute died out in the first decades of the nineteenth century.

The beginning of the 20th century also marks the beginning of the lute revival. While early players and researchers like Diana Poulton did much to expand our knowledge of the lute, it wasn’t until the virtuoso guitar player Julian Bream began playing the lute in concert that audiences and players started to become aware of the beauty and complexity of the instrument and its repertoire.

The generation since Bream has elevated lute playing to very high levels. Players like Paul O’Dette, Robert Barto, Nigel North, and Hopkinson Smith tour the world and often have fanatical followings. The large body of music (60,000+ pieces) and its predisposition to added embellishment hopefully guarantee the lute a new life in the 21st century.

Some students may be interested in how the lute differs from the modern classical guitar, an instrument that has come to share some of its repertoire. In terms of the actual instrument, even the largest lutes are significantly lighter in build than the average guitar. This lighter construction means that the lute is much more responsive, but produces less volume. The lute’s double strings, or courses, tuned in octaves and unisons on the higher strings, produce a different timbre than the guitar’s thicker, single strings.

The strings of lutes today are also generally either made of animal gut, nylgut (a synthetic gut), or nylon, while the classical guitar generally uses only nylon strings (wound and unwound). Depending on the type of the lute strings, the sound can be crisper and brighter than the modern guitar. The most obvious difference between the lute and the guitar is the pear-shaped body of the lute, which is produced by gluing ribs of wood together and then gluing the soundboard on top. This “tortoise shell” shape is descended from the oud, and some other instruments today, like the mandolin, have also retained this body shape.

The lute can be a fickle, even difficult instrument, but when well-played, it produces some of the most beautiful and powerful music ever written. Perhaps one day it will regain its stature and stand beside the guitar as not only one of the most beautiful instruments, but also as one of the most popular.

Laudon S. teaches music theory, guitar and classical guitar lessons in Baltimore, MD. He specializes in classical and early music, as well as bluegrass and folk. Laudon has been teaching for over 10 years and he joined the TakeLessons team in January 2011. Learn more about Laudon or search for a teacher near you!


Photo by Kevin Kenny


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