What Are Lute Guitars?

N. Swensson

Lute guitars are an ancient form of stringed instrument that are most similar in appearance and sound to modern acoustical guitars. They have been in existence since ancient times, with the earliest form, called an ud, originating in the Middle East and North Africa. Lute guitars achieved even greater popularity during the European Renaissance in the 1500s, when a number of innovations were made to expand the instrument's musical capabilities. Although these instruments faded from existence over time, recent renewed interest has resulted in the creation of modern lute guitars.

Lute guitars possess varying numbers of strings.
Lute guitars possess varying numbers of strings.

Unlike an acoustic guitar, which has a kidney-shaped body and flat back, lute guitars are usually pear-shaped and have a rounded back. In general, lutes are also smaller than other guitars. The number of strings on a lute can be more or less than an acoustic guitar, and they may be arranged into groups of two, called courses. The construction of strings on guitar lutes changed over time to expand the musical range of the instrument. The earliest lutes, called uds, had four courses, usually with a single string at the top called the chanterelle. Over time, the number of courses as well as the overall length of the instruments increased.

Lutes are stringed instruments that are similar to modern acoustic guitars.
Lutes are stringed instruments that are similar to modern acoustic guitars.

During the European Renaissance, lute guitars were one of the most widely used instruments. A great deal of music was written for them during this time, much of which still survives. Some arrangements were created for a single lute that may have accompanied a singer, while others were played by groups of two, three, or four instruments. A number of innovations were made to lute guitars during this period. The number of courses increased, and the technology for constructing the strings changed and improved. The shape of the body also became more rounded than previous versions.

After approximately 1700, lute guitars virtually disappeared. The reasons for the decline in popularity are not well understood, but may be related to the rise of larger orchestras with louder instruments, like the harpsichord. In the early 19th century, interest in the lute as well as Baroque music and Renaissance culture was renewed. As very few examples of ancient instruments survived, enthusiasts pieced together as much information as possible through paintings and drawings and also used the music to provide clues about proper construction. Modern instruments are now constructed in low volumes and are usually custom made for individual buyers.

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