Selecting a lute
Here is a summary of some of the things to look for when buying a lute. I assume that this is your first lute, with 6-8 courses and a string length of around 60cm. The sound of a lute is difficult to assess and even more difficult to put into words; it is also not apparent unless the lute is really well in tune. Therefore this advice concentrates on objective measures which will enable an inexperienced person to make some useful assessment of a lute which is offered for sale.
Take a clear plastic ruler with you! These measurements should be regarded as typical of historical lutes rather than definitive of modern practice: since modern hands tend to be larger than 16th C hands, these values should perhaps be regarded as a minimum; but I could not recommend an increase of more than 10% except in exceptional circumstances (it does happen: I once made a lute for a friend who is 6' 8" (2.03m) tall).
Many lutes made before about 1980 have characteristics influenced by the modern guitar. They may still be serviceable instruments, but may prove unsatisfying in the end and will in any case have very low resale value. Things for look out for include open-backed pegboxes; large, spade-shaped pegs; closely spaced strings; near parallel neck (very little taper); bridge with a saddle, made of ebony or rosewood, or with no cutaways; rose crudely cut or with no surface carving; string heights very large. These are all explained in more detail below.
String spacings:the string band (width across all the strings) at the nut should be around 40mm for a six-course lute, 47mm for a seven-course lute and 55mm for an eight-course lute. The spacing of course centres will be about 7.5mm and the spacing within a course will be about 2-2.5mm. On lutes of eight or more courses, the spacing of course centres may be slightly compressed and the spacing within a course slightly enlarged from the seventh course downwards. At the bridge the string band will be around 75mm for six courses, 90mm for seven, 100mm for eight. Spacings within a course will vary from 4-4.5mm for the second course, expanding to 5.5-6mm for the lowest course.
String heights:the height of the strings can be most easily measured with a small stick, tapering from about 6mm at one end down to 1mm at the other, marked off in 1/4mm divisions. The height of string above the fingerboard at the eighth fret (near the top of the neck where it joins the body) should be around 2.5-3mm for the first course and 3.5-4mm for the lowest course. The height at the nut is more difficult to measure but it will be 1mm or less (see notes on the nut, below). At the bridge, the first course will be about 5mm above the soundboard, the lowest course about 6mm (see notes on the bridge, below).
Nut:Should be shaped so that the strings run over it in a smooth curve into the pegbox. The grooves for the strings should be very shallow, and cut with a round file with a diameter greater than the string (not V-shaped!!!). The string height should be such that the strings have a clearance over the first fret about the same as their diameter (much less for thick gut bass strings). The strings should run smoothly over the nut when tuning.
Bridge:Authentic lute bridges are a very complex shape, which seems to be designed to provide all the necessary functions with the minimum of wood. They taper in height (6mm to 8mm) and width (typically for a 7c lute, 13-16mm), they are cut away at the front to provide a small ledge which the strings pull up to, and cut away at the back as well. They are usually made of a fruitwood, but often stained black so the actual material can be difficult to determine. Very hard and oily woods like ebony and rosewood are not suitable for lute bridges.
Fingerboard:should not be completely flat but should have a slight camber, and the edges should be well-rounded - both features which help the frets to lie securely on the fingerboard and make fingering easier.
Pegs and pegbox:The pegbox should have a closed back. The joint to the neck should have a thin tongue of neck (2-4mm) between the nut and the end of the pegbox (I have seen some disastrous lutes where the pegbox joins on to the underside of the fingerboard!). The pegs may be stiff to turn but should nevertheless turn smoothly. Peg heads which are excessively small or have sharp edges make tuning very uncomfortable.
Cracks or loose joints:check the neck/pegbox join and the neck/body join. Most soundboards have a single join down the centre, which may open between the bridge and the end of the lute, in front of the bridge, and sometimes at the neck join. Much more difficult to see are loose bars underneath the soundboard: they usually result in a buzz or rattle and can sometimes be seen by looking across the soundboard towards a light source, when a sudden change in direction of the surface can be seen. This most frequently happens to the bar in front of the bridge on the bass side. If the bridge is starting to part company with the soundboard, this will be at the back near the middle.
Soundboard:The soundboard bends under the tension of the strings and as long as the distortions are not too extreme they are nothing to worry about. As the bridge rotates forwards, the soundboard rises behind the bridge and sinks between the bridge and the rose. Sometimes the rose rises slightly as the soundboard takes up an S-bend.
Rose:The rose is essentially a decorative feature. Authentic lute roses almost all have some surface carving - the main elements of the design weave over and under, the thin tendrils have bevelled edges, and there is often a chip-carved border like a rope or dog's tooth (see the lute pictures in my catalogue). They are often supported by many thin bars underneath as the soundboard is very thin at this point - often down to 1mm.
Back to Buying your First Lute
Back to Home Page