Seen or heard of a lute, but aren’t sure exactly what it is? You’ll find out today, as in this article we cover what a lute is, how it differs from guitar, the history of lutes and more.
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What Is A Lute?
A lute is an instrument from the string family. Much like a guitar, a lute has a hollow base made of thin strips of wood called the body. The body of a lute is round and deep, helping give the instrument its unique sound.
The flat side of the body is called the soundboard, and it has a patterned cutout that echoes and amplifies the sound throughout the instrument’s body.
The base of the lute connects to a neck which contains the fingerboard and frets. At the end of the neck is the pegbox, which holds all of the strings using pegs. Musicians twist the pegs to tighten or loosen the strings, thus tuning the pitch of each set.
The strings on a lute function just like those on a guitar. They run from the pegbox, down the neck, and across the body of the lute. They connect to the bridge at the bottom of the body. More complex lutes can have 13 sets of two strings on the arm, while beginner versions have just six.
How Do You Play The Lute?
A musician must begin by tuning the lute using the pegs on the pegbox. Lutes have at least six pegs, though they will have more if there are more sets of strings. You can tune the lute by twisting each peg until the strings sound as they should. Electric tuners work best.
The easiest way to play the lute is to use a strap and wear it over your shoulders. Beginners will find it best to play seated where they can rest the body of the lute on their thighs.
From here, a musician will use their left hand to control the notes, while your right hand will pluck the strings across the body of the lute. Beginners will likely pluck with their index finger and thumb, but advanced players can pluck several strings using all their fingers.
You can change the notes by switching your finger positions on your left hand.
The History Of The Lute
Because the lute has been around for such a long time, it’s tough to nail down the exact history of the instrument. However, many experts believe it is closely related to the ‘ud, an Arab string instrument boasting a similar pear-shaped body and decorative soundholes.
This Arab instrument can be confidently dated back to the 9th century thanks to carvings and paintings. Later, in the 13th century, the Western lute became more distinctive.
Lutes continued to appear from the 13th century onward, enduring many changes along the way. The most prevalent change was usually to the courses or the pair of strings. The instrument went from four courses to 13.
The lute quickly became a crucial instrument from the Medieval era to the late Baroque period. It was frequently used to play secular music during the Renaissance, where it got played to entertain kings and queens, as musical theater in many plays – including Shakespeare – and was enjoyed by commoners on the street.
But why was the lute so revolutionary? With the addition of many more strings, musicians discovered that plucking the strings using multiple fingers allowed them to follow several lines of music at once. It was the perfect solo instrument for a masterful performance.
Throughout the centuries to come, the lute would reach peak popularity in several countries: first France, then Italy, and finally, Germany in the 18th century. J.S. Bach himself owned a lute and arranged for the instrument as well.
But after his death, the popularity of the instrument began to diminish, and the 19th century saw the lute all but disappear. Today, musicians and historians alike have revived the instrument.
The Modern Lute
Today, lute players can be found in such diverse places as folk festivals, renaissance festivals, and even rock bands. Lute players are also known as “lutenists,” and there is a thriving underground community of these musicians.
How Is A Lute Different From A Guitar?
While the lute and the guitar are similar instruments that use strings, frets, and pegboxes to play and tune, the two have some significant differences.
One of the main differences between the two is the number of strings. The average guitar uses just six strings, while a lute can have as many as 24 strings in sets (called courses) of two. The average lute will have eight courses containing 15 strings.
Although the general design of the lute and guitar are similar, lutes typically have deeper, rounder bodies. They also have shorter necks that may or may not have frets. Guitars tend to be larger, with longer necks and more frets.
If you are a person with smaller hands who finds the size of guitars to be intimidating, the lute may provide you with a style of instrument more up your alley.
The lute also comes with a much longer, richer history than guitars. The first guitar came from Spain in the 19th century – a full ten centuries after the first known lute. The guitar likely evolved from the lute to give us the modern design we see frequently today.
What Is A Lute? Final Thoughts
So, what is a lute? A lute is a beautiful, classical string instrument with a very long and rich history.
Although the lute was almost forgotten in the 19th century, its revival gave the instrument new life.
If you’re interested in learning more about the lute, visit your local music store. You might be surprised to learn how many people are fans of this instrument!