Buying your first lute
What type of lute, how many courses?
As will be clear from my brief history of the lute, there is no one instrument on which you can play all lute music, so your choice of lute will be determined by which music you want to play. Many people first discover lute music through guitar transcriptions, so some of Dowland's famous pieces, some music for the vihuela (especially by Luys Milan), and some pieces by Weiss, are their first loves. If this is where you come from, it is well worth listening more widely before deciding on what kind of lute to buy. In particular, the obvious starting point for anyone who already plays the guitar is music for six-course lute: since the guitar has six courses (well, single strings nowadays) all you have to do is tune the third string to f# and learn to read tablature, and all the vast repertoire for six-course lute (and vihuela) is there to be explored (forget using a capo at the third fret, unless you happen to prefer the sound - there's nothing magic about G pitch for the lute). Music for seven or more courses requires some adaptation to fit on the guitar, and it will often be necessary to transpose pieces to different keys to get a better fit to the guitar. Then you quickly get into the realm of nasty compromises, the worst case being trying to fit 13-course lute music onto a six-string guitar - once you have heard this music played on the instrument for which it was written there is no going back.
One of the considerations which weighed heavily with me when I made the decision to give up the guitar and take up the lute was the involvement of the lute in ensemble music - song accompaniment, lute duets, trios and quartets, playing continuo in larger ensembles. All these things were very seductive to someone who listened widely but whose practical music making was largely limited to the solo guitar. Dowland's songs were a revelation, and since they mostly require a seven-course lute, pushed me in the direction of more courses for a first lute. I ended up buying an eight-course lute, and immediately falling in love with Francesco da Milano and all that wonderful music for six courses! My problem was not just one of having too many strings, I really needed octaves on all the basses from the fourth downwards and a different style of instrument. I still loved Dowland, so I needed at least two lutes… the rest is history.
In spite of my opening sentence, you can be too fussy about achieving a precise match between instrument and repertoire, and a first lute is almost bound to be a compromise of some sort. This is because knowledge of repertoire and personal taste develop so much once you actually own a lute. If this point is granted, what kind of compromises can we make?
Six courses:core repertoire is c.1500 - c.1600, including most vihuela music (because the tuning of the vihuela is the same as the lute). Later music (up to c.1610) is often playable with the odd bass note up an octave. There are lots of good songs in a variety of styles and languages. About half of Dowland's solo music requires no more than six courses.
Seven courses:core repertoire is c.1580 - c.1610, but because there is only one "extra" course, music written for six courses doesn't suffer too much, especially if octave stringing is used where necessary. The ideal instrument for Dowland's best-known lute solos and songs. Main drawback: you have to tune the 7th course to D or F, and changing from one to the other ideally involves changing the string itself - not the sort of thing you can do in the middle of a concert.
Eight courses:As for seven courses, but this is definitely a big step away from the six-course lute, and some of the most difficult seven-course music is even more difficult to play because the 7th course isn't tuned to D (though I have heard that some people do exactly that, tune the 7th to D and the 8th to F). Main advantage: D and F are both available at all times. Not much music written specifically for eight courses. Much nine- and ten-course music fits if the 8th is tuned down to C.
Nine courses:Almost unknown in the modern revival of the lute, but there is probably more surviving music for nine courses than for ten (major sources include: Francisque (1600), Besard (1603), Dowland (1604 and 1610), much of Vallet, many manuscripts including Board and several of Holmes). Many French songs (airs de cour) fit well, even if nominally for ten courses. Main disadvantage: the lack of an E/Eb bass without retuning.
Ten courses:Some lovely music, including a sizeable repertoire in "transitional" tunings. Plenty of scope for continuo playing, and a vast number of airs de cour. Don't even think about playing 6-course music on it.
Once you get beyond ten courses you are really into "baroque" lutes and tunings of one sort or another and hardly any compromises are possible. If this is your first and only love, don't bother buying a renaissance lute first, just go for the appropriate instrument for your chosen repertoire.
Having decided what kind of lute to buy, you still have some hurdles to overcome:
First, the bad news: there's no such thing as a cheap, mass-produced lute. All lutes are hand-made, usually by individual makers working alone. The good news is that compared to the equivalent violins, cellos, guitars, etc. lutes are relatively cheap because the market is much smaller.
Second, most makers work entirely to commission, producing instruments to a customer's specification, so it is unusual for them to have lutes available for inspection and immediate sale. "Try before you buy" is quite rare. Customers will often be able to look at previous instruments by a given maker and place an order on that basis. The quality of the best makers is pretty consistent, so this is not as risky as it might sound. Unfortunately many makers have quite long waiting lists - you may have a wait of years rather than months for the lute to actually appear.
Third, if you buy secondhand, remember that however beautiful an instrument might look, its musical and technical qualities can be hard for a beginner to judge. If you can, take an expert player with you to inspect it. Some detailed guidelines are provided in Selecting a Lute.
Fourth, it is essential to have a good case to protect a lute. Usually, a lute will be sold with a fitted case, but if not, bear in mind when calculating your budget that cases are rather expensive.
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