A hand-crafted modern Renaissance lute.
An oud being played.
The word 'lute' is the collective term for a category of instruments defined as 'any chordophone having a neck that serves as string bearer, with the plane of the strings running parallel to that of the soundboard. In other words, the lute is a soundbox with a neck sticking out. The strings of some are plucked, some are bowed.
The western lute
The lute family consists of a large group of stringed instruments in which the mechanism for holding the strings and the resonating body are joined, and in which the strings run parallel with the resonating body (i.e., guitar-like rather than harp-like).
The western lute evolved from the Arabian oud. It is recognizable by its characteristic pear-shaped vaulted body, from which stems the neck. The gut strings are usually in pairs, passing over an ornately decorated sound-hole, along the neck and into the tuning pegs, which are generally set at a right angle to the neck.
Early western designs
From pictorial evidence it is clear that a standardized design of the oud existed as early as the ninth century. The earliest design for a lute is thought to be that recorded by Henri Arnaut de Zwolle in 1440. He described the instrument's geometrical proportions, implying that it would be made in different sizes.
Until the fifteenth century, lutes had five courses (pairs of strings), generally tuned in fourths around a central third (e.g. G-c-e-a-d'). By the sixteenth century, six courses had become standard, with the third in the middle. This Renaissance-style lute tuning is the most familiar to us today; however, there was never a truly standardized system. Instruments with 10 courses were not uncommon, usually to give extra bass pitches.
The lute was played at first with a plectrum and occupied a more rhythmic than melodic role. However, from the mid-fifteenth century it became standard to use the fingers, which meant that it could perform melody and harmony, making it the perfect instrument for accompanying song.
There is a huge number and variety of lutes in use worldwide, and they have a history going back thousands of years. Most similar to, and ancestors of, the lutes of European art music are the ud or oud family. Much played in classical popular and traditional music throughout the Middle East, Turkey, Greece, the Mediterranean coastal countries of North Africa, and also in Malaysia, they have a large but light body, shaped something like a bisected pear, a medium-length neck bearing a flat, fairly wide, tapering fingerboard, the peghead bent back at an angle approaching 90 degrees.
Arabic music, like much of the traditional and classical music of non-European cultures, is not chordal so, unlike the European lutes, with their tied or fixed frets, ouds have fretless fingerboards, giving the player the freedom to slide notes and to achieve the microtones of Arabic maqam scales. They generally have six courses of nylon or wound-nylon strings – five double and a single – plucked with a long flexible strip plectrum. The Romanian cobza, a staple of Gypsy lautari bands until displaced by the guitar in the 1970s, is a shorter-necked, wider-bridged variant.
European waisted lutes
It was the Moors who brought lutes to Iberia, where they evolved into the waisted, flat-backed, fretted Spanish guitar and Portugal's regional range of violas (also guitar-like but usually with five or six pais of steel strings). One of these, the viola beiroa, has a further pair of shorter higher-pitched strings that run to machine heads attached where the neck meet the body.
Waisted guitar-type lutes spread to Spain's South and Central American colonies, as did smaller variants that are now a range of tiples and cuatros (the latter name deriving from their four pairs of strings, as the large Cuban trés does from its three pairs and Mexico's bajo sexto from its six pairs). Portugal's little four-stringed cavaquinho travelled to the Portuguese colonies of Madeira (there known as a braguinha), the Azores and Cape Verde, and onward to Hawaii to become the ukulele, and to South America to become the armadillo-backed charango.
In Iberia, however, there are also lutes with bodies of pear or teardrop shape. In Spain there is the laùd and smaller, higher-pitched bandúrria, and in Portugal the fluid-toned guitarra. All three have six pairs of strings. The tuning pegs of the guitarra are in the form of a fan of screw-operated string tensioners; the same sort of mechanism was used in the 18th-century English guitar, from which the Portuguese guitarra descended.
Though the oud is popular in the Arabic music of North Africa, in both North and West Africa an extensive family of long-necked lutes is played, all of them with the soundboard made of animal skin stretched over a circular or oblong body usually made from a gourd or wood.
Known by classifiers as spike lutes, these have no fingerboard, and the neck, usually cylindrical is essentially a stick that passes right through the soundbox. emerging as a spike at the other end. Spike lutes are not restricted to Africa; they and spike-fiddles are also found across Asia. A design more specific to Africa is the semi-spike lute, in which the stick does not go right across the soundbox, but emerges through a ole in the skin soundboard.
In both forms the strings are attached to the ends of the spike. In effect, though the stick is not curved, spike-lutes are musical bows with a soundbox. At the top, each string is tied to a tuner, either a plaited skin noose that grips the neck but can be slid up or down it to tune, or a wooden tuning peg or geared metal machine-head.
The archetypal semi-spike lute widespread in West Africa, particularly among the griots (a French word signifying musician castes), has many names but is best known as ngoni, in Wolof xalam, or among the Gnaawas of North Africa gimbri (which sometimes has attached to the top of its spike a metal plate bearing rattling rings). The Saharawi of Mauritania have the tidinit, the Tuareg the tehardent. Designs vary a little, but these instruments generally have a long soundbox and three or four strings, some of which may stop short part way up the neck.
The neck has no fingerboard nor frets; the melody string is stopped by the player's fingers, with the other strings mainly acting as drones. Sometimes the uppermost string is a short chanterelle string played on the off-beat i the same way as the fifth string on the American five-string banjo – a descendant of the West African spike-lutes.
Some spike lutes have a soundbox that is circular because it's made from a gourd (or occasionally a tin can). This type have the spike running right through the gourd, and the bridge resting on the skin, as it does on a banjo vellum.
The name ngoni is also used for some types of harp lutes. These are spike lutes with a larger number of strings, picked harp-style, one note each, rather than having one string producing several notes by being finger-stopped. The bridge is made taller to accommodate the extra strings, which then run parallel to different tuning nooses on the neck.
The donzo ngoni of the Wassoulou people has a large circular gourd soundbox and six or seven strings, and is specific to hunters and songs about hunting. The kamele ngoni, which can be played even by non-hunters, has been taken up and developed for stage use – with tuning pegs are metal machine-heads – by some internationally touring Wassoulou musicians.
The dital harp was an instrument invented in 1798 by Edward Light, a guitar teacher: it was at first called a harp guitar. By 'dital' is meant a finger-key (actually played by the thumb), as opposed to 'pedal': each dital raised the pitch of a string by a semitone. Another name was harp lute, the appearance of the instrument suggesting the body of a lute continued upwards by that of a small harp.
The best-known harp lute, in West Africa and internationally with many virtuoso griot players, is the one with the most strings, the kora. Its soundbox is a very large hemisphere made from a calabash – half a gourd – over which is stretched a cowhide soundboard. Penetrating this skin are two wooden rods that protrude for a distance upward, parallel to the neck. These serve as hand-holds for the player, who plucks with his thumbs and forefingers the two rows of strings (nowadays made of nylon fishing line) that stretch from the neck to the sides of a tall bridge and onward to their anchoring point at the bottom of the spike. The spike emerges from the gourd having passed right through it. Kora music, an intricate weaving of melody and rhythm, has many fine practitioners, and some have achieved wide international acclaim.
There have been lutes in Asia for at least four millennia, and today many indigenous forms are played across the continent and in Eastern Europe Most have a long, usually narrow neck bearing a fingerboard with or without frets, joined to a soundbox with a soundboard of wood or stretched skin. They are so numerous that it is only possible to describe a few here.
The Iranian tanbur is of a form found throughout central Asia. It has a teardrop-shaped mulberry-wood body, with wooden soundboard flowing gracefully into a long neck bearing tied frets and three strings. Some other tanburs have more strings; for example, the Turkish tanbur, whose body is more hemispherical, typically has seven. In Turkish music, this is a keyed instrument but it can also be bowed.
The teardrop-bodied dotar or dutar, which archetypically has two strings is found right across central Asia, including Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, and among the Uighur people of China. Setar means 'three strings', but today's Iranian setars tend to have four: two of steel and two brass.
The Turkish saz or baglama family closely resemble the tanbur in structure. They have three or four courses of double or triple strings. Bosnia's sarija and Albania's çifteli are similar, but the latter has just two strings.
Greece has baglama, but this is a very small version of the country's well-known member of the tanbura family, the bouzouki. This has a soundbox similar to that of the oud, and a long neck body bearing eight steel strings in four courses, running to a guitar-type head of geared metal tuners.
In the 1960s, the Greek bouzouki was introduced into Irish traditional music, and has now become transformed in today's Irish and Scottish traditional music to a flat-backed instrument similar in appearance to the mandolas and citterns now also used in that context. It has recently been further developed in Swedish traditional music with the addition of microtone frets, stud-capos that click into the fingerboard to shorten individual pairs of strings, and extended bass strings.
The Kyrgyz national instrument is the komuz, a small three-stringed fretless lute with a pear-shaped body of apricot-wood. Kazakhstan's prime lute is the fretted, two-stringed dombra. The bodies of the three-stringed fretted Georgian panduri and unfretted changuri are more rounded-diamond than teardrop, the chinguri has a short fourth string that runs to a peg part way up the neck.
Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Bulgaria, and Romania all have variants of tambura, which has a teardrop or spoon-shaped body with a shallower bowl-back than the tanbur. They come in a range of sizes, particularly among the tambura ensembles of the former Yugoslavia states, where most have escalated from two strings to five. These series of Croatian tamburas, apart from the smallest, are guitar-shaped – a change that occurred in the early tentieth century.
The early Russian domra, a three-stringed lute said to have arrived with the Tartars in the thirteenth century, became largely obsolete, but a revival version, with three metal strings, oval shallow body, metal fretted fingerboard and guitar-type machine heads, was instigated in the late-19th century, and developed into an orchestral series by band-leader Vassily Andreev. He did the same with the three-stringed balalaika; the huge triangular body of the bass balalaika makes it possibly the world's most awkward-shaped instrument.
BanduraThe Ukrainian bandura, whose neck and body-shell is traditionally carved from a single piece of wood, looks like a fretless lute whose body has swelled to accommodate up to 30 steel strings (there can be around 60 on some models of the chromatic bandura). A few of these run up the neck while the rest – the melody strings – fan from the tailpiece across the long bridge to tuning pins on the top curve of the body.
Although it evolved from the much longer-established Ukrainian kobza, a true lute, with a fairly short, fretted neck and no body strings, the bandura's kinship is much closer to the Baltic zithers than to lutes. None of its strings' sounding-length is altered by fingering – those running up the scroll-headed neck are bass strings, plucked on the neck by the left hand while the right hand plucks the body-mounted melody strings. The Soviet-era Chernihiv factory produced very heavy instruments, some with lever mechanisms to shift the pitches of pairs of treble strings by a half step. However, craftsmen are now making less clumsy models, some of them the simper, so-called 'classical' form.
There is a separate entry for the sitar.
Other Indian lutes
The rudra vina or bin of northern India is actually closer to a stick zither than a lute, having a hollow soundboard with a large gourd resonator near each end. But in playing terms it fits with the other Indian lutes, having four melody strings, passing over 24 tall fixed frets, plus three or four drone strings running alongside, all with buzz-inducing bridges. The vichitra veena is its unfretted version, played with a slide, and like the southern chitra vina it has sympathetic strings. Several Indian virtuosi have recently added sympathetic strings to the steel-strung western guitar and play it with a slide in a new and impressive tradition.
Southeast Asia has many lutes among its myriad instruments. One of the best known is China's pipa, which has a short neck blending smoothly into the shallow body, making the whole instrument appear teardrop-shaped. The neck is zigzagged with deep wooden frets, and more are glued to the body, which has no soundholes The picking technique is very highly developed, involving all the fingers and the thumb of the right hand, to which picks are taped. Its forerunners are said to have arrived from central Asia. The Japanese biwa, descended from the pipa, is similar but with fewer, higher, broader frets. The Vietnamese equivalent is the dan ty ba.
Other Asian lutes
China's yue qin is a lute with a short neck, two, three, or four strings, and a circular, flat-backed soundbox. It has also evolved into the four-stringed ruan, or 'moon-guitar', which has a similar shape but is more heavily built. Similar to the yue qin are Japan's silk-stringed gekkin and Vietnam's more oval dannhat or dan doan 'sun-lutes'. The circular-bodied Vietnamese dan nguyet or dan kim 'moon lute', and Cambodian chapey deng have a more slender neck and higher frets spaced for a pentatonic scale.
The two-stringed Indonesian kachapi (the name is also used for a type of zither), Filipino kudyapi or hegalong, and Thai kraajappi show a variety of soundbox shapes, from very slim to lozenge- or boat-shaped. The outline of the three or four-stringed sape of Sarawak and Borneo is broadly paddle-shaped, beautifully decorated with swirling tattoo-like patterns; most of its frets are not positioned on the short neck, but rather on the unusually long wide soundbox, so the player must stretch across several inches of soundboard to reach them. The Indonesian sambe is a less extreme example of the paddle shape.
The present population of Madagascar is largely descended from seafarers from Indonesia, and their instrumental ideas came with them. It is likely that this is the origin of the Malagasy kabosy, a lute of variable but usually box-like body-shape that often has partial frets to facilitate the moving of chord shapes up and down the neck.
Bowed world lutes
Apart from the African spike- and semi-spike lutes, all the lutes here have wooden soundboards. In most of the same regions, however, there are lutes with soundboards of stretched ski, which give them a sound with relatively strong attack but short sustain. Bowing the strings is a way of producing and controlling long notes, and many of these plucked lutes with a skin soundboard have close kin that are bowed.
Just as various forms of dotar are widespread throughout central Asia, so are instruments named tar (from Persian for 'string'). Most of these have a skin soundboard. The tar found in Iran, Azerbaijan, Armenia, and several other central Asian countries has the soundbox so deeply waisted that its skin-covered front looks like a figure-of-eight. The six strings are in three pairs, and they run over a long neck with about 26 tied frets that can be adjusted to the tones and microtones of the scale being used.
Rubab and Sarod
Afghanistan's dominant lute is the rubab or rabab. Its short thick neck and body, with deep 'C'-shaped cutaways on both sides, are carved out of a single piece of mulberry wood. It has three nylon melody strings and two steel drone strings plus, running under the bridge to tuning pegs along the edge of the body, 11 steel sympathetic strings. The Indian sarod, a descendant of the Afghan rubab, shares its goatskin soundboard and sympathetic strings, but all its strings are metal and it has a shiny metal-clad tapering fingerboard that allows extreme sliding of notes.
The rubab, rabab, or rawap of Uzbekistan and the uighurs of western China are long-necked fretted lutes with snakeskin soundboards on a circular soundbox, often with wooden arches curving from the lower end of the neck towards the body. The sgra-snyan of Tibet and Nepal is similar, but in the place of arches there are just swellings at the base of the neck. Bhutan's long-necked lute is the dranyen. Bangladesh's versions of the dotar, which have two to six strings, have a skin soundboard, as do some forms of Mongolia's fretless two-stringed horsehair strung tobshuur.
Asian bowed lutes
The skin-soundboard lutes of Southeast Asia are generally delicate, long-necked spike-lutes with snakeskin or lizard-skin soundboards stretched over the front of circular, curved-rectangular, or polygonal soundboxes. The Chinese san hsien has three strings and a round or rounded-rectangular soundbox. The similar Okinawan sanshin and Japanese shamisen, played with a surprisingly large, stiff pick the size and shape of a car ice-scraper, are its descendants. Their Vietnamese cousin is the dan day.
A very different instrument in sound and appearance is the Turkish cümbüs, in which the idea of a skin soundboard has bounced back from the America banjo to the old world. Invented in the 1920s by Zeynel Abidin in Istanbul, and named by the country's president, Kernal Atatürk, whose desire for a new, innovative Turkey inspired Abidin to launch it, the cümbüs has a banjo skin on a deep, saucepan-like spun aluminum body, a fretless fingerboard veneered with plastic, and six pairs of steel strings. With a range of neck options it takes the role of a saz, oud, tambur in situations such as wedding bands where extra power and volume is necessary.