A lute is a distinctive instrument, both in terms of its sound and appearance. The parts of a lute also stand out from other string instruments.
The lute’s original roots lie in the Middle East, and by the 1300s, it was quite common to see a lute in the courts of European kings and queens.
Its unique construction gives it a bulbous, pear-shaped appearance that distinguishes it from other stringed instruments.
The Parts of a Lute
Let’s take a closer look at the parts of the lute and how they come together to form this interesting instrument.
Overall, the shape of a lute’s body pretty strongly resembles that of a guitar or a mandolin.
The wooden front, or soundboard, is flat with strings stretched across it, just like an acoustic guitar.
You can call the soundboard the top or table of the lute.
But the back of a lute’s body is quite different from all other stringed instruments.
Instead of using a single piece of wood to construct it, many curved ribs of wood assemble tightly together, arranged to create a round bowl.
When the flat top affixes, you have a complete lute body.
From the front, it looks fairly similar to other familiar stringed instruments.
From the back, it has a deep, rounded shape, with long ridges running down its length.
The ribs of a lute are so unique they deserve a bit more examination to understand their design and their arrangement in a lute’s construction.
The finished product looks more like the hull of a small wooden ship than an instrument until the neck and strings complete the instrument’s build.
Picture long, thin strips of wood carefully bent into a curve.
Starting with a central rib laid over a rounded mold, a lute builder will layer strip after strip on either side of the first rib, clamping and gluing them together and creating the distinctive bowl shape.
If you’re having trouble imagining it, this old video is an excellent reference that clearly shows the technique, as well as other aspects of lute construction.
It takes an expert craftsperson to create such detailed work.
The lute’s long, thin neck sticks out from the narrower end of the body, and the strings lie across it, just like a guitar.
The backside of the neck is round to fit in the palm of a player’s hand, while the front surface, or fingerboard, is flat.
There are usually narrow, parallel strips of metal lining the neck on the front side, called frets.
They help mark the fingering surface, or fretboard, where the lutist will select different notes by depressing the strings.
The frets on a modern lute are narrow, crowned ridges of metal that help players locate and finger the desired notes.
They set the fingers into the fretboard, all parallel to one another.
Not every lute has frets, though they make it much easier to play.
As we already mentioned, the fretboard is where the player’s fingers depress the strings, sounding notes that vary with the placement of their fingers.
If we continue using the guitar as a reference, the wooden pegbox resembles the headstock of the lute and performs much of the same function.
It’s where the strings mount to the head end of the instrument via pegs and where the player adjusts the tune of the strings.
But instead of a straight extension of the neck like on guitar, the lute’s pegbox cants back toward the player of the instrument, increasing tension.
Instead of winding around pegs on the face of the neck, a lute’s strings wind around wooden pegs that cross the pegbox, with tuning heads on either side.
Different from modern tuners like you would find on a guitar, the pegs on a lute use friction to maintain the string’s tone.
They don’t have gears, so tuning is pretty tricky until you get the hang of it.
You first pull on them to release tension and then turn the pegs to find the right pitch.
Then you lock the tuning in place by pushing the peg into its hole in the soundbox until there is enough friction to hold it in place.
Between the pegbox and the fretboard, there is a nut inlaid in the fretboard parallel to the frets.
Traditionally they made nuts out of bone, but modern nuts are often plastic, just like guitar nuts.
This piece not only helps the strings slide smoothly over the angled joint of the neck, but it also adds to the instrument’s resonance by helping to transmit the sounds made by plucking the strings through the lute and out to the audience.
Most of the strings of a lute come in pairs, called courses.
Lutes typically have between six and thirteen courses, bringing the number of strings from twelve to twenty-six.
There is also one additional string called a chanterelle that isn’t part of the courses.
It sits at the bottom of the fretboard.
So, lutes have a range of strings totaling between thirteen and twenty-seven depending on the exact design.
In the past, they made lute strings from sinewy strips of animal parts.
The guts of lambs were quite prized as lute strings.
Modern lute strings are typically nylon, which is much more durable than the old-fashioned animal-derived version.
But, some lute players prefer to remain period correct and utilize the Medieval traditional lamb strings.
It can be a lot of work to string a lute, as the fastenings lack the modern conveniences of a guitar.
Each string ties to the bridge.
The bridge is the attachment point for the strings on the bowl of the instrument.
The bridge is also known as the tie block, and it lies across the face of the soundboard, near the base of the instrument.
The strings affix to it, held in place by knots, with their other ends wrapped around the tuning pegs.
If you have a picture of an acoustic guitar in your head, try to imagine the soundboard without the hole in the middle.
Now, instead of cutting out a complete hole, imagine a carving that only removes some of the material, leaving many tiny holes in the surface, leaving a rounded and intricate design.
Called a rose or rosette, this round design adds some flare to the face of the instrument and also helps it become more resonant, projecting more sound at greater volume through the soundboard.
On the backside of a lute, there are two buttons, one near the neck and the other at the base.
These act as attachment points for a strap to hold the instrument in place against the player’s body.
The Parts of a Lute Assembled
When its many parts come together, the lute bears a strong resemblance to many other stringed instruments.
But, its construction is unique, and it stands out from the pack in a few ways.
It’s exceedingly difficult to play, and getting it in tune takes a bit of skill and patience as well.
So, it’s not a big surprise that modern instruments have in many ways replaced the lute, especially in terms of popularity.
But none of its modern cousins have the lute’s unique sound, history, or construction.
Even though its heyday has passed, and it has a bit of a reputation for being hard to master, it is still a prized instrument that sounds amazing in the hands of a master.