Renaissance lute

Also:       luth      Laute      lauto      

Title: A Candle in the Dark: Elizabethan Songs and Consort Music--Johnson’s Grounde, by John Johnson; Jacob Heringman, lute, with the Newberry Consort. Label: Harmonia Mundi. Format: CD. Catalogue#: HMU 907140. Track: 10.

Contextual Associations

[Note: the term ‘lute’ is used on this website in two distinct ways: 1) as a classificatory label for a large sub-group of chordophones; and 2) as the name of a specific type of European chordophone (in this article).] The lute is a plucked bowl-lute chordophone of Renaissance (16th century) Europe. The two lutes pictured here were made in 2000 by the American luthier Lawrence K. Brown, who modeled them after an extant Renaissance lute by Giovanni Hieber of Venice, c. 1580. Lutes of various sizes (as many as seven; the lutes pictured here are more accurately labeled alto lutes) and with differing numbers of strings were popular instruments in the secular musical life of Renaissance Europe and were played by both males and females and as a solo and an ensemble instrument. Many paintings from this period depict the lute either being played or as an object in a domestic setting, but the names of many highly skilled professional players, often in the employ of royal households, were documented. A substantial repertoire of solo and ensemble works and song accompaniments from this period survive notated in a variety of tablature systems specific to this type of instrument. Since the middle of the 20th century the number of luthiers making replica instruments and the number of amateur and professional performers of the lute has exploded as part of the early music movement.


The two lutes pictured here are identical in design and construction. Each lute’s vaulted resonator body is made from thirteen slats or ribs of maple wood that are individually shaped and bent before being glued together. The resulting egg-shaped hollow body is covered with a flat soundboard of straight-grained softwood (spruce or pine) that, near its center, has a circular space (called a rose or rosette) with carved perforations in an Arabesque pattern serving as the resonator’s soundhole. A long bridge is glued to the soundboard just above its bottom end, and four wooden frets of varying length are glued across the soundboard near its top end. Running from side-to side on the bottom side of the soundboard are a number of wooden bars the ends of which are glued to the resonator’s top-most ribs, enhancing the sound quality of the instrument and strengthening its delicate soundboard. A short and broad neck made of hardwood, rounded on its backside but nearly flat on its front side, is securely attached to the top of the resonator. Its front side has a thin veneer of ebony wood and serves as the instrument’s fingerboard. The top end of the fingerboard terminates in a nut. Eight gut frets are securely tied around the neck between the resonator and the nut. Joined to the top of the neck and bent back nearly at a right angle is a slightly tapering pegbox with fifteen side-mounted wooden tuning pegs (eight on one side, seven on the other). The instrument’s seventeen strings (historically from gut, but nylon line and wire wound strings are used on this replica) are organized into eight courses, the first seven are double, the topmost single. One end of each string is tied to the bridge on the soundboard, then the string passes over the resonator and above the frets on the fingerboard, makes contact with the nut, and is finally threaded through and wound around a side-mounted tuning peg. All the strings have the same vibrating length of 23.4 inches as measured from the bridge to the nut.

Player - Instrument Interface and Sound Production

The lute is typically played by a seated player with the side of the resonator body resting on the lap and the soundboard facing outwards. The instrument can be held horizontally or with its pegbox end raised up to about a 45-degree angle. The strings are plucked with the thumb and first three fingers of the right hand and stopped against the frets with all four fingers of the left hand (the left-hand thumb hooks around the neck and supports the weight of the neck and pegbox). Although tuning was not fully standardized during the Renaissance, this replica lute is designed to be tuned as follows: D2-D3 - F2-F3 - G2-G3 - C3-C3 - F3-F3 - A3-A3 - D4-D4 - G4. Note that the lowest three courses of strings are tuned in octaves, and the next four in unison. Polyphonic music is played on this instrument; it was seldom written for as a melodic instrument. The playing of a wide variety of subtle ornaments is expected of the performer. The instrument has a narrow dynamic range.


The Renaissance lute evolved from the Medieval lute in the late 15th century. It is felt that this transition was largely the consequence of a change in performance practice--when lutenists began plucking with their fingertips rather than with a quill plectrum, makers started introducing design changes (such as a move from a teardrop-shaped soundboard to an elliptically-shaped one) to improve the instrument’s sound quality in accordance with the new sounding technique. German-trained luthiers living and working in Venice, Bologna, and other Italian cities from the late 15th century and throughout the 16th century were at the forefront of these design innovations. The creation of lute tablatures and the advent of music printing in the 16th century contributed to the increased popularity of the lute in Italy and throughout Europe. The lute design of the Renaissance period continued to evolve well into the Baroque period, during which a greater number of strings were added and changes to the width of the neck to accommodate these additional courses were made.

Bibliographic Citations

Harwood, Ian, and Diana Poulton. 1984. "Lute, 3-7," NGDMI v.2: 553-575.

O’Dette, Paul. 1994. "Plucked Instruments," In A Performer's Guide to Renaissance Music. ed. Jeffery T. Kite-Powell. New York: Schirmer Books, pp. 139-153.

Smith, Douglas Alton. 2002. A History of the Lute from Antiquity to the Renaissance. [Lexington, VA?]: Lute Society of America.


Instrument Information


Continent: Europe

Formation: European

Classification (Sachs-Von Hornbostel revised by MIMO)

321.321 chordophone--necked bowl lute: the handle is attached to or carved from the resonator, like a neck

Design and Playing Features

Category: chordophone

String carrier design: lute - joined

Resonator design, chordophone: bowl with wood soundboard

String courses: single, double at unison, double at octave

Vibrational length: tension bridge to ridge-nut

String tension control: friction peg

Method of sounding: plucking (direct)

Pitches per string course: multiple (by pressure stopping against fretted fingerboard)


29 in. length 12 in. width

Primary Materials

string - gut
string - synthetic
string - wire-wound synthetic


Lawrence K. Brown


after Hieber

Entry Author

Roger Vetter