• Lute (‘Vihuela’) tuning •



The main layout of the Renaissance lute moves Standard tuning’s ‘irregular’ 4-semitone jump back a string, instead placing it right in the middle between 4-3str (i.e. 5>5>4>5>5 vs. 5>5>5>4>5). Reshuffling the same set of intervals (four 4ths and a major 3rd) preserves the same 2-octave open range, and also most of EADGBE’s chord shapes (…just jump them up a string). Great for jazz rhythm parts: particularly for adding upper extensions to 3-string ‘shell shapes’ – in essence, you have an extra string to stack with.


Capo at 3fr to match the lute’s common pitch (G-C-F-A-D-G: almost identical to the Terz, another small guitar cousin from centuries past). And when you tune up, take heed of the fact that our peg-twisting struggles are age-old: Johann Matheson – a German composer, author, diplomat, rhetorician, lexicographer, and music theorist – had this to say about the habits of our string-toting ancestors back in 1720: “If a lute player lives for eighty years, he has surely spent sixty years tuning“ (…admittedly, Matheson may have been less patient than many, based on the fact he tried to kill his friend – composer George Frideric Handel – with a sword after an on-stage opera dispute in 1704. More below!).

Pattern: 5>5>4>5>5
Harmony: E7(sus2) | 1-4-b7-2-5-1


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Guitar history is, essentially, lute history too – the latter being the most prominent ancestor of the former. As outlined in Grove/Oxford Music, “Instrument names related to ‘guitar’ occur in medieval literature from the 13th century onwards…[the] 15th-century gittern was, according to Tinctoris (c.1487), tuned ‘4th, major 3rd, 4th’ [5>4>5]…iconographical evidence suggests that the extension of the range…dates from the beginning of the 15th century…A fifth course was added in the treble, [and] a sixth course was added in the bass, resulting…in the tuning [GG-CC-FF-AA-DD-G: 5>5>4>5>5]…This interval pattern, but with all the courses tuned at unison, was shared by the vihuela de mano, which replaced the lute in Spain.”


Tuning variance did not, however, abate (it never does…). As noted in Corey Flowers’ 2015 PhD (Altered States of Performance: Scordatura in the Classical Guitar Repertoire, p.9): “Complex scordatura [altered] tunings were widespread in lute and baroque guitar traditions of the 17th and 18th centuries…sources indicate about 20 variants in the 5-course guitar literature. This experimentation began to wane as standard notation gained favor over tablature” (still, in my opinion, a backward step…). Listen to some lute stars from these early eras, including Englishmen Thomas Morley (1557-1602: Pavan, Dances for Broken Consort), John Dowland (1563-1626: Melancholy Gaillard, The Frog Gaillard, Lachrimae Pavan), and Robert Johnson (1583-1633: the Delta legend’s namesake worked with William Shakespeare himself, providing music for some of his late plays: e.g. ​​Full Fathom Five, with lyrics from The Tempest – also Pavan, Two Almaines, and a vocal/lute collection).


And from the Continent: Francesco da Milano, the finest player of Renaissance Italy (1497-1543: Fantasias, La Compagna) – as well as Frenchmen Ennemond Gaultier (1575-1651: Chaconne, La Cascade), François Dufault (1604-1672: Courante, Tombeau de Blanrocher), and Robert de Visée (1655-1732: Sarabande, Prélude et Allemande) – and from Germany, Sylvius Leopold Weiss (1687-1750: Dm Sonata, Dmaj Passacaglia) and Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750: Partita in Cm, Suite in Emaj – although these seem more likely to have been written for the ‘lautenwerk’ lute-harpsichord instead). n.b. See more detail on these innovators in a superb Lute Society article: “Francesco da Milano…shared with Michelangelo the nickname ‘il Divino’ – ‘the divinely-inspired’ – when he played, it was said, all thoughts turned to heaven. The music…aspires to grace, elegance, and a certain stylish playfulness; similar in spirit perhaps to [the] paintings of Botticelli…where everyone seems to be dancing…”.


  • Lute 101 – Nigel North (2018):

“My father brought home a lute one day, which he said he’d bought off a sailor on the Charing Cross Road for two quid. I’m sure it fell off the back of a lorry… I eventually joined the army band [and] took up the jazz guitar again, and played the electric guitar, too. I’ve always been a big fan of jazz, of great performers like Dizzy Gillespie and Benny Goodman…although I wasn’t naturally a great jazz player. So things kept going, in spite of being in Her Majesty’s Forces…” (Julian Bream)


Lute-style tunings have enjoyed regular use throughout classical guitar history – used to read old lute tablatures directly, as well as to better arrange music in particular keys (e.g. those which make prominent use of F#, such as Bmaj, Dmaj, and Ebmin). Reintroduced into flamenco several times around the early 20th century – notably, the rondeña style of Ramón Montoya (1880-1949). Also see a Julian Bream Gramophone interview, and the Lute Society’s Downloadable Tablature list for an incredible selection.


Also used by British fingerpickers John Renbourn (Bicycle Tune) and Nick Drake (Cello Song, Thoughts of Mary Jane, both cp.6), as well as steel-string wizard Don Ross (Spirit Wars). Also A Study in Skaia, David Ellis’ arrangement of Mark Hadley’s video game theme Skies of Skara (“most of the first theme…was playable with [natural] harmonics in Standard tuning…only the top note wasn’t possible. By retuning to E-A-D-F#-B-E and putting a capo on [5fr], it was possible then to play the whole thing…”).


Many tracks by eclectic Canadian singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn use lute layouts – e.g. Fascist Architecture, Strange Waters, After the Rain, The Embers Of Eden, Mango cp.1, Sahara Gold cp.1, Last Night Of The World cp.3, Deja Vu cp.5, Isn’t That What Friends are For? cp.5 (sourced from the Dec 1999 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine: tabs here, playing demo here). Also check out a Lute Tuning Top Tips video from Martin Shepherd for more on the instrument’s general tuning ethos.


  • Rondeña – Ramón Montoya (1936):

“The lute is rich not only in repertoire but in symbolism. It [has] courtly associations in East and West: for Arabs the lute was amir al ‘alat, the ‘sultan of instruments’…It symbolised the beauties of heaven; it was further used as a symbol of harmony – while a lute with a broken string (as in Holbein’s famous painting The Ambassadors) stood for discord….Ancient Mesopotamian seals show maidens playing long-necked lutes in the cult of Ishtar, goddess of love and destruction…If the lute’s sensuous and delicate tones evoked the pleasures of love, the fleeting nature of its sound, and the physical fragility of the instrument made it a fitting emblem of transience and death.” (Chris Goodwin: Lute Society)


6str 5str 4str 3str 2str 1str
Note E A D Gb B E
Alteration 0 0 0 -1 0 0
Tension (%) 0 0 0 -11 0 0
Freq. (Hz) 82 110 147 185 247 330
Pattern (>) 5 5 4 5 5
Semitones 0 5 10 14 19 24
Intervals 1 4 b7 2 5 1
  • See my Tunings Megatable for further such nerdery: more numbers, intervallic relations, comparative methods, etc. And to any genuine vibratory scientists reading: please critique my DIY analysis!


—Associated tunings: proximities of shape, concept, context, etc…

  • Oud (Arabic) (this with 4str -1): guitar history, a twist away
  • José González (this with 6str -2): like Lute plus Drop D
  • Terz: a tiny cousin of the guitar from European history


—Further learnings: sources, readings, lessons, other onward links…

  • Altered lute/vihuela tunings: as noted above, our fret-playing forebears have turned to a dazzling range of different tunings over the centuries – see more in Corey Flowers’ 2015 PhD (“The cordes avallées [lowered strings] ‘used by Francisque (1600) and Besard (c.1603), which involved lowering [4-5-6str] to give drone-like fourths and fifths’, enjoyed a brief vogue in France…[used for] rustic dance pieces…The accords nouveaux [new tunings] that emerged at the beginning of the 17th century [had a range of] less than two octaves…[giving] ‘increased resonance and ease of left-hand fingering: though only within a very limited range of keys’. In particular, the Dmin Baroque lute tuning emerged as a popular choice…”) – and also Bin Hu’s 2019 PhD (Juan Bermudo’s treatise Declaración de Instrumentos Musicales (1555) describes the use of scordatura on the vihuela: ‘If a good player wants to show himself as skilful, he should not be content with the common vihuela tuning: but he should tune it as he desires, and intabulate according to the tuning…Bermudo also mentions an alternative tuning of G-B-D-G-B-D [for] the ‘small vihuela’, and three tuning variants for the 7-course vihuela…[the] tuning of [G-D-G-B-F#-B-D]…in which ‘almost all the open strings produce consonance’, features a narrower range”)
  • Johann Matheson: more on his wild life in a Bach Cantatas profile, and listen to his works (e.g. Cantata Care Fonti) – also read the full tale of his operatic 1704 fallout with Handel in a Classical Music feature (“When the moment came for Matheson to send Handel back to the second violins, the latter took umbrage and wouldn’t budge. Somehow, they muddled on and made it to the end of the opera, but, by curtain-down, their smouldering resentment had escalated into a full-scale row…egged on by the jostling crowd of onlookers, they made their way outside into the market square…[In] Mattheson’s account…it could all have ended in tragedy, ‘had God’s guidance not graciously ordained that my blade, thrusting against my opponent’s broad metal coat-button, should be shattered…’”)

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George Howlett is a London-based musician, writer, and teacher (guitars, sitar, tabla, & santoor). Above all I seek to enthuse fellow sonic searchers, interconnecting fresh vibrations with the voices, cultures, and passions behind them. See Home & Writings, and hit me up for Online Lessons!

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