minstrel: guitar lute & others

Lutr Ruckstaendewerfer lutr at betahelix.net
Mon Jul 14 04:19:15 PDT 2008

Lutes are by nature a quiet, indoor instrument.  They are meant to be 
extremely light and delicate, which is part of what gives them their 
characteristic sound.  Because they're so light, they're not not as 
strongly braced as a modern guitar, and the strings are under much less 
tension.  Hence, it's impossible to get the same kind of room-filling 
volume out of them as is possible with a modern guitar, even when 
strumming (*).  Also, a lute's soundboard is usually not sealed -- it 
affects the sound -- and is therefore much more subject to humidity and 
temperature changes than a guitar.  That's one reason why they're famous 
for being out of tune so often, but it also can affect the health of the 
instrument.  It's possible to break a lute by, say, taking it out of a 
dry, air-conditioned car and playing it in Pennsic-level heat and 
humidity.  And you Do Not Want to get your lute rained on, or have beer 
spilled on it.

So, if you want to play loudly and/or outdoors, I do not recommend a 
lute.  As others have said, there certainly were medieval and 
renaissance instruments that are much closer to modern guitars than they 
are to lutes, and there were instruments that were designed to be loudly 
strummed (cittern, bandora, orpharion, etc.), some of which were 
metal-strung.  So playing a modern guitar is not nearly as ahistorical 
as one might think.

That said, the lute is a beautiful and beautiful-sounding instrument, 
and it's quite easy to fall in love with it for its own sake, without 
trying to make it do things it's not good at.  But you should really 
tune your classical guitar to renaissance lute tuning and learn to read 
lute tablature (it's very easy) and play for a few months before 
seriously considering buying a lute.

(*) Yes, lutes were strummed in period.  It wasn't common, since that 
wasn't the popular style for lute music (there were other instruments 
for that, e.g. cittern), but it did happen. 


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