Six course lutes

The early sixteenth century

Lutes with six courses of strings first appeared in the 1470s and were used by the majority of lutenists for about the next hundred years. By the mid-fifteenth century lute making was an established industry in Southern Germany, especially in the area around Füssen, with it’s abundant local supply of spruce, maple and yew. Subsequently some of the Füssen makers set up workshops in Venice and Bologna. In Italy makers such as Laux Maler, his son Sigismond, Hans Frei and Nicolas Schonvelt gained an international reputation for the quality of their lutes.

Up to the 1560s the Frei and Maler workshops would have have been engaged in making instruments with six courses of strings. Each workshop, employing perhaps four trained journeyman workers, and one or two apprentices, produced lutes in a range of different sizes and in considerable numbers. When Laux Maler died in 1552 the inventory of his workshop lists over 1100[1] finished lutes. Other workshop inventories[2] show that this level of production was not exceptional, and that production and export of lutes in quantity was a serious business. Unfortunately only a handful of lutes survive out of the thousands that were built, and all of these were radically altered when they were converted into ten and eleven course lutes in the seventeen the century.

The Bologna workshops may have made lutes in a variety of body shapes, but the ones that survive, and for which became renowned, are of what Thomas Mace called the “pearl mould” - a long, narrow, elegant form. Unfortunately, no sixteenth century writings describe the sound of these instruments. Later sources show that lute players considered the Bologna lutes to possess very special tonal qualities. This was partly due to age and rarity (as Cremonese violins of the classical period are valued today), but the body shape, quality of wood, and the small number of ribs (nine or eleven) was clearly an important factor in producing the sweetness of tone for which they were famous:

the  pearl-mould is best, both for sound, and comliness, as also for the more conveniency in holding or using. (Thomas Mace, Musicke’s Monument, 1676).

Seventeenth century lute players (especially the French), bought many of these old Bologna lutes  and altered them to suit contemporary musical needs; in this process most instruments lost their original necks, fingerboards, bridges, peg-boxes, and pegs. More problematically, the soundboards were also re-barred, and in some cases reduced in thickness. Given the loss of this crucial evidence can we be confident that we know what original six course lutes of this period were like? 

Besides the surviving lutes bodies themselves, a wealth of detailed paintings, woodcuts, and intarsias from the period provide valuable sources of information regarding the external appearance of these lutes. We also have inventories and other writings which provide some information regarding the choice of woods and lute sizes. In combination, this evidence allows us to make reconstructions that are probably very close in their external features to the .

The Fugger inventory of 1566[3] shows that wealthy collectors could afford lutes made from exotic materials such as Whalebone, Ivory, Brazilwood, Guaiac (Lignum Vitae), and Sandalwood, whereas the majority of lutes would have been built from the more common European hardwoods like maple, ash and yew.

Paintings show that backs with alternate ribs of contrasting woods were a popular choice - sometimes with pegs to match. The necks, peg-boxes and fingerboards appear to have been generally made from light coloured woods, such as fruitwood, beech, and maple. The fingerboard may even have been integral with the neck - ebony fingerboards were a later innovation. One slightly puzzling detail, commonly seen in paintings is where the fingerboard appears to overlap the body. It has been suggested that the fingerboards and top part of the soundboard were varnished, but without any surviving examples to guide us, this sort of detail remains rather obscure, and it is quite possible that the fingerboard did indeed overlap the body.

In paintings of the period these early lutes are generally depicted with a pale amber coloured varnish. Curiously though, Laux Maler was famous for a red varnish, which was of such high quality that in 1526, the Duke of Ferrara asked his ambassador, Jacopo Tibaldi, to obtain the recipe from Sigismund Maler in Venice.

The celebrated lutemaker Sigismondo Maler has promised to give in writing by Monday next ,the recipe of the varnish he uses, as well as the manner of putting it on the lutes. This master also tells me that he has two sorts of varnish, and that it is his assistants who make it and not he himself.[4]

Almost without exception the tuning pegs had heart shaped heads, and must have been a standard item. Soundboards were made from fine grained Alpine spruce (Fichte, or abieto rosso), with a delicate rose or knot carved into it. The soundboards are mostly plain, though one or two paintings show a light-coloured strip set into the edge to protect the relatively soft spruce from damage.

More problematic is the crucial issue of how these instruments sounded. Compared to the later instruments of makers such as Vvendelio Venere, where we have quite detailed information on soundboard thicknesses and barring patterns, the information on early six course lutes is far less complete. Some soundboards (e.g the Warwick Frei[5], and the Maler lute in Paris[6] discovered in 2003), indicate that the soundboards were slightly thicker and had fewer sound bars.This is an area where the modern lute maker has to make creative judgements about what works best.

Another area of uncertainty concerns the particular string lengths in common use. We know from inventories of the period that lutes were made in three sizes - large, medium and small, but not how these relate to the sizes of the surviving instruments. There may have been other sizes, and the size of lute used for solo playing is still a matter of debate. Estimates today range from about 60 cms up to 67cms, and some players advocate string lengths outside this range. In 1523 Federico Gonzaga wrote to his brother, Cardinal Ercole Gonzaga, asking him to find a lute by Laux  Maler:

“... we would like a middle-sized lute (“un lyuto mezano”), that is, neither too large nor too small, and very good….” A few days days later, Ercole answered: “ I received your letter in which you commanded me to look for a Maestro Luca who makes lutes, and to send you right away a liuto mezano. This, I did it and had selected two from a great number, and I am sending them to your Excellency. I am sending you two because I was not certain of the size [you wanted].”[7] 

Clearly there were at least two different sizes of liuto mezzano available in Maler’s shop, quite possibly more. It is likely that lutes were made in a whole range of string lengths to suit people’s hands and technical abilities.

Two of the instruments that I make are based directly on surviving lutes by Hans Frei - the Tenor in the Warwick County Museum and its slightly smaller cousin in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna - number C.34 . There must however have been other sizes which are now lost. Certainly we could expect there to have been a larger bass lute, though whether there were smaller altos is an open question. If the Vienna Frei had a string length of about 64 cm then perhaps it is not too fanciful to suggest that there were other liuti mezzani of a slightly smaller.

As a young maker learning my craft in the late 1970s some of the first instruments that I built based on the form of Warwick Frei . This most elegant of models combines a beautiful outline with subtly designed, slightly flattened cross sections.

The later sixteenth century

Although the six course lute is nowadays associated with the repertory of Spinacino,Francesco de Milano, Marco dall’Aquila etc it should be remembered that it continued to be played until almost the end of the 16th century. There is however evidence suggesting that these later six course lutes were slightly different from the earlier type - changes reflecting developments both in musical practice and lute making. There is only one surviving lute made by Georg Gerle of Innsbruck, now housed in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna. The instrument is undated, but the maker is known to have worked in Innsbruck between 1567 and his death in 1591. Whatever the actual date of manufacture its importance for our understanding of the lute in 16th century cannot be overstated. As one of only two 16thcentury lutes that survive in unaltered form, it provides valuable information about what six course lutes were like. Apart from the lavish and conspicuous use of ivory in its construction, it provides much detail and evidence lost when the lutes by Frei and Maler were modified in the seventeenth century. Whilst it is not generally wise to apply evidence from a later to an earlier period, much of the iconographical evidence about the necks, peg-boxes, and bridges of early 16thcentury lutes is confirmed by the Gerle lute.

Of greater importance though is what the Gerle instrument may tell us  late about how 16th soundboards were constructed. Radiographs of the soundboard show that there are three bars between the bridge and the rose, plus a single radial bar that terminates under the treble side of the bridge. Given what we know of the how lutes were barred in the Venere workshop from the 1580 onwards it can be argued that we have here a move towards a slightly thinner soundboard supported by a greater number of bars. It marks a subtle shift of the delicate balance between the mass of the soundboard and its supporting braces. It has been suggested that the Gerle lute was made as a conscious anachronism - a reversion to an earlier period of lute building, however the barring suggests something quite different - that the maker was looking towards new tonal ideas rather than old ones.

By the time Gerle moved to Innsbruck in 1567, the first tablatures for the seven-course lute had already been published. However, we should not forget that six-course lutes continued to be played (and probably made) for at least another two decades. In England the instrument was common until the end of the sixteenth century. It is likely that John Dowland, not only would have learned to play on such a lute as a young boy in the very late 1560s, but that he continued to use a six-course until about 1590. Thirty-five of Dowland’s pieces are for a six course instrument, including all the Fantasies. In Italy, Vincenzo Galilei writing in 1584[8] regarded seven-course lutes with evident disdain.

Gerle’s lute is a beautifully made instrument, full of subtle detailing, especially on the slender neck and fingerboard which curve gracefully into the body. Tempting as it is to copy the instrument

faithfully, some small changes are sometimes necessary. The string spacing at both the nut and the bridge is very narrow - indeed it is possible that it was made for an aristocratic child, or small adult. Whilst I assume that at least some 16th century lute players would have found this lute very comfortable to play, many modern players need a wider spacing. Changing the design of old lutes should always be approached with caution, but some degree of pragmatism is also required.


[1]  Sandro Pasqual, ‘Laux Maler’.1485-1552), Lute News 51 (September 1996)

[2]  See ‘Inventories of the workshop At the Black Eagle  made for the heirs of Magno Tieffenbrucker II and Moisé Tieffenbrucker, 1581’  D.Alton Smith ‘ op. cit  (2002), Appendix I

[3] D. Alton Smith ‘The musical instrument inventory of Raymung Fugger.’ Galpin Society Journal XXXIII (1980).

[4] Quoted in ‘Antonio Stradivari, His Life and Work: 1644-1737’  by W. Henry Hill, Arthur F. Hill, Alfred E. Hill

[5] Warwick County Museum,  acc no. 67/1965

[6]  Le Luths (occident) catalogue des collections du Museé  del la musique (vol I) 2006, p 16-19/

[7] See William F Prizer  ‘Lutenists at the court of Mantua in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries.’  Journal of the Lute Society of America, vol XIII (1980).