A&S Journey

A&S Journey: Plundering the Lute, Part 2 (Playing)

This week’s entry focuses on the process and appropriateness of playing lute pieces on a modern guitar. As with last week’s exploration of the history of the instrument and the English lute repertoire, much of this material is incorporated into the class “My Guitar’s Persona Is a Lute”.

Let’s start with the choice use a guitar as a substitute for the lute, as opposed to acquiring an actual lute, or a mandolin, which is the lute’s direct descendant. Let’s start with an actual lute. There is nothing wrong whatsoever with playing lute music on a lute, and all things being equal, this is the most authentic choice. There are a few important considerations to make before purchasing a lute, however, if you do not already have one. For one thing, which lute, and which music? As discussed last week, the lute evolved considerably over the centuries, and went from a four courses (pairs of strings tuned identically or an octave a part) up to as many as 8 by the end of the Renaissance. Also, the style of play evolved from monophonic music played by plucking a plectrum on early lutes, to finger picking on Renaissance lutes. So it is important to identify what sort of music, and from which era, you wish to play, and that will determine what you are looking for.

If you really want a lute, you may want to rent or borrow one to work out what is the right type for your preferred repertoire and playing style. The challenge for many beginning hobbyists if they decide to invest in a lute, is that lutes, as a specialty instrument, tend to be far more expensive at any given quality point than a comparable guitar or mandolin. Based on conversations with Master Arden of Icomb (who knows his instruments and is happy to help people find the right one for them), a reasonable quality student lute that has no manufacturing defects in either the neck or the body, and which will therefore produce reliably decent sound, will usually start close to $1,000. Higher end, more professional lutes, including ones that have more advanced designs and are easier to play and to tune, move rapidly up to several thousand dollars. (I got lucky with a $400 lute a few years back, but have not yet gotten around to getting a little work done on it that will make it playable. When that happens I will report in on it.)

An authentic lute has wooden friction pegs, which are significantly more challenging to get and keep in tune than modern instruments that use planetary gears, which provide minute tension control. The spacing is different, generally much wider, than that on a guitar, which allows for easier fingering, but also stretches the fingers a good deal more and requires development. Finally, placement and playing of paired strings rather than individual strings on a guitar adds another level of challenge. All of these challenges can be surmounted with enough practice, but together with the price point, this may be a lot to ask of someone who would like to try a few lute pieces to see if they feel a real calling to specialize in this repertoire. (See the Lute Society of America’s guide for more details about working with a lute.)

As to the mandolin, my experience is limited to variants that Arden and Dave Lambert played when we were recording songs like “The Bastard’s Tale” (octomando) and “My Thirst” (mandolin). Per this article, it seems like mandolin would be a reasonable substitute on pieces written for earlier lutes, as it has four courses and is generally played using a plectrum. Price is probably less of an obstacle, but the article suggests that some of the same concerns about playability on cheaper instruments may apply.

My persona is Elizabethan, so the music I look to play was written for a 7- or occasionally 6-course tenor lute. And for that sort of music, it happens that guitar is a very reasonable modern substitute. Obviously, as a mass-produced instrument, the price point for a quality instrument is much less of an obstacle. But the reality is that guitar and the Elizabethan lute are closer cousins than a casual observer might guess. Critically, the difference in tuning is actually trivial to address. Like the guitar, the lute is tuned on perfect fourth intervals, except for one major third, and the major third on the lute is only one string over from where it is on the guitar. To play the full range of tones written for 6 lute courses, all that is required is to drop the third-highest string half a step, from G to F#. If you wish to adjust the tuning to (G) (C) (F) (A) (d) (g) in the manner of a tenor lute, place a capo on the third fret. That’s all there is to it. (As discussed in an earlier entry, if you want to incorporate lines from the 7th bass course, you can transpose them up an octave and work out the proper fret on your own or using software.)

Obviously, not all guitars are equal. A classical guitar strung with nylon has a wider neck with more room for finger picking without stumbling, and is highly recommended if you can afford one. Nylon strings are a solid choice for finger picking work regardless, and on most full-body acoustic guitars it is possible to restring them with nylon and still get decent sound, if not the same volume. (Silk/steel composite strings are a compromise I used for a time, but nylon is closer to the traditional gut strings, and much lighter for the kind of delicate fingerwork that Renaissance lute pieces call for.)

For those who, like myself, prefer the shape of a mandolin body, without the guitar shoulders, there are options for guitar that are a decent compromise, if a bit pricier.

As we mentioned last week, the lute died out as an instrument at the end of the nineteenth century, around the time it had adopted 13 courses and become impractical to tune or maintain. However, at the turn of the 20th century, interest in lute music revived in Germany, and craftsman began developing lute guitars for the purpose, with modern industrial strings and necks, but the rounded body and ornamented pegbox evoking a lute. Likewise, Ukranian instruments such as the bandura and kobza, which evolved from lutes, have been updated in the Ukraine into lute guitars in a similar fashion. As a result, there are a select number of purveyors of 21st-century lute guitars from the likes of Roosebeck which can run in the $500-$700 range for a lovely instrument with a classical guitar neck and a ribbed, eggshell body (of which my Rosalind is one), or Ukranian lute guitars which are more simply put together, but can run in the $200-$400 range plus shipping, and are less likely to be damaged at a camping event (like my Amyrillis). These instruments present a very reasonable middle ground, maintaining the period illusion per the 10-foot rule, but simple to tune (and cheaper for string replacement).

This still begs the question of how to play lute music on a guitar, or indeed any instrument, if you aren’t familar with lute tablature. But, like the tuning, the trick there is also very simple. Tablature explains a piece of music mechanically, instructing which strings to play with the right hand, and which frets to press with the left, on a given beat (assuming you’re playing right-handed). Modern guitar notation comes from Spanish notation, which uses numerals to indicate which fret to hold down on a string: 0 for an open string, 1 for the first fret, 2 for the second fret, etc. (This approach was used by Italian tablature during the Renaissance, but the lines are displayed from the lowest at the top of the staff to the highest at the bottom, a mirror inversion of the way the strings appear to a right handed player looking down at the neck of the instrument.)

The most popular tablature for English speakers was French (alphabetta) notation, which used lowercase letters: a for an open string, b for a string held down on the first fret, c on the second fret, etc. The lines are arranged to match the strings when playing right-handed. This translates readily to guitar tablature, using a=0, b=1, c=2, etc. (Note that, j was omitted from note sequence, since it was a considered a variant of i. Additionally, note that lowercase c and e can be tricky to distinguish. In any piece of music, they are distinct from one another–often a flat top stroke is used for e–but styles vary and require examination.)

Initially, I would translate alphabetta tablature to guitar tab by writing it out (and these days, MuseScore makes it even easier, since there is support for lute tablature, and you can configure which notation to use on the lute staff with a few clicks). Generally, even now, I prefer to learn John Dowland in guitar tab, since his arrangements are highly complex and challenging, and it reduces the mental processing. For Thomas Campion, whose music is lovely but whose arrangements are less complex (and whose music will be coming up a few weeks out in this series), I enjoy the challenge of learning them in the original, and often directly from facsimiles of the original printed songbook pages.

For each lute piece we’ll be discussing in this blog series, sources for tablature will be provided, and original facsimile wherever possible. We’ll also rate them on a scale of complexity from 1 to 5, to indicate from our experience how accessible they would be to a newcomer to lute music. (“Can she excuse my wrongs?” is probably about a 4.)

Thanks for taking the time to read this. Talk to you next week (which will be our last entry, or possibly entries, before Pennsic).

2 replies on “A&S Journey: Plundering the Lute, Part 2 (Playing)”

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