Selecting your personal liuto forte –
Advice for guitarists and newcomers
Number of strings
Players who have so far exclusively played 6-string guitars are often shy of instruments with seven, nine or even more strings. This is understandable, since it takes a while to integrate the new setup physically and mentally. However, the changeover brings great benefits, because each additional string not only enriches the sound but also makes it easier for the left hand.
Once the restriction to only six strings has been overcome, it soon becomes irrelevant whether the new instrument has three, four, seven or eight additional bass strings. Regular, focused practice will ensure that the use of the low strings becomes a matter of course step by step and that one no longer wants to do without this tonal enrichment. This experience is shared by all Liuto-forte customers who originally only played on six strings. So don’t be too anxious when choosing the number of strings in case you decide on the liuto forte in g or the various models of the liuto forte in e.
Staff notation or tablature?
Guitarists usually play their solo repertoire by heart, lutenists from tablature. The reason for this is that the tablature shows the player directly where to place the fingers on the instrument without additional auxiliary signs. Playing according to tablature not only opens the door to an immeasurable treasure house of original sources, but also frees you from the slavish attachment to a single tuning. Lute tablature may look complicated at first glance, but it is very easy and can be learned in just a few days. We will provide you with instructions on how to do this free of charge when you buy a liuto forte.
Transcriptions as well as new editions and reprints of tablatures can be conveniently ordered from Rainer Luckhardt, owner of Seicento-Musikverlag. He will also be happy to advise you on questions of introductory literature and the repertoire for all lute instruments (www.seicentomusic.de). You can also download many tablatures and facsimiles for free.
If you prefer to play from staff notation, a liuto forte in g (alto lute) with 7-10 strings, the liuto forte in e with 9 or 10 strings, or the arciliuto in e with 11-14 strings are the first choice. Music for the alto lute (liuto forte in g) is now available in good quality transcriptions, which means that learning the tablature is not compulsory when acquiring this model. The same applies to transcriptions of baroque lute music for the e-tuning, provided that all bass notes that have been transposed up an octave, which can then be played on the liuto forte in e for the most part in the original position, are marked in the transcription. For the performance of really good arrangements of lute compositions by S. L. Weiß or J. S. Bach in e tuning you need an instrument with at least 10 strings.
Guitarists who want to play continuo in an ensemble with an arciliuto in g, a theorbo (tiorba forte) or a liuto forte in d cannot avoid learning to play from staff notation in this tuning as well. In turn, knowledge of tablature is essential for playing the solo repertoire of these instruments.
The d-minor tuning of the lute was in use from about 1630 to 1800. It is possibly the most “intelligent”, versatile and sonorous of all lute tunings because – in comparison with the old fourths tuning – it not only relieves the left hand considerably but also extends the range of available keys. The latter is particularly advantageous for making music in an ensemble.
This tuning was used on very different lute models with 11 to 15 courses. Its fascinating possibilities in performing compositions even from the 19th and 20th centuries are only just being rediscovered thanks to the form of the d-minor swan neck lute, which we have modernized.
It is quite likely that this tuning will experience a new flowering in the foreseeable future.
String tension and playing technique
Liuti forti are much easier to play than classical guitars. In contrast to the historical lute, however, this ease of playing in no way restricts the enormous dynamic spectrum of this new instrument. The strings stay better in tune than on historical lutes and classical guitars.
The string tension used on our instruments is about halfway between the string tension of a classical guitar and historically constructed double string lutes. All liuto forte models can therefore be played with nails as well as with fingertips. The sound of a liuto forte is something completely independent and at the same time extremely changeable. By slightly modifying your striking technique, a spectrum is available on these instruments that ranges from the sonorous sound of a guitar to the richness of overtones of historical lutes.
Liuto forte in g (alto lute)
The liuto forte in g (alto lute) has a brilliance that no guitar in the world can match. Nor does it oblige you to learn the tablature or to read the g tuning from staff notation, since the repertoire of alto lutes – from Francesco da Milano to John Dowland – is already largely available in transcriptions for the tuning of the guitar.
Liuto forte in e (tenor lute)
With the purchase of a 10-string liuto forte in e or a 9- or 10-string liuto forte in g as an introduction to the world of lutes, you are on the safe side as a guitarist.
Experience has shown that the interest in models with even more strings and other tunings (arciliuto forte in g, swan-neck lute in d and e, tiorba forte) awakens automatically with increasing mastery of these instruments.
The 10-string liuto forte in e is the most easily accessible instrument for guitarists. Since its tuning is identical to that of the guitar, its complete mastery requires only the adaptation of four additional bass strings, which offer enormous tonal advantages.
This universally applicable instrument allows the performance of good arrangements of baroque lute music as well as the entire repertoire for 6 to 10-string guitars. It is also excellent as an accompanying instrument for singers and all kinds of chamber music (solo and continuo).
By using a capo on the second or third fret of the liuto forte in e or the swan-neck lute in e, it is also possible to imitate the pitch of the alto lute and thus reproduce its extremely rich repertoire. Because of the somewhat thicker strings, the sound is in this case a little warmer than that of the liuto forte in g, which is covered with slimmer strings. You can get an impression of this subtle difference in the following sound sample. Compare the sound of this piece played on a liuto forte in e with capodaster with that of the liuto forte in g in the previous recording with Oliver Bensa.
(Anett Batuschka, John Dowland, Fantasie)
(Christian Hostettler, Switzerland and Germany)
(Caterina Lichtenberg & Mirko Schrader, Duetto Giocondo, Germany)
Swan neck lute in e
The swan neck lute in e is not a historical lute model, but a new creation based on the baroque D minor swan-neck lute. It takes into account the fact that the most common tuning today is the e-tuning of the guitar and is intended to make it easier for guitarists to play the lute. It is the ideal instrument for all those who play baroque lute music and continuo in e-tuning and at the same time want to keep open the possibility to string their instrument in d-minor tuning.
(Saulius Lipcius, Lithuania)
(Little potato by Malcolm Dalglish, performed by choir Bel Canto and Saulius S. Lipčius)
The arciliuto in g and the theorbo (tiorba forte) not only have a very attractive solo repertoire, but are also an integral part of the baroque orchestra.
They open up the possibility of participating in performances of works by the greatest composers of the 17th and 18th centuries.
Access to the theorbo is made easier, especially for guitarists, by the tuning of their playing strings (A d g b e a), since their notes on the fingerboard are already familiar. The only thing that needs getting used to is the first and second strings, tuned an octave lower, which, however, allow the formation of chords in close positions, which would be unfeasible in the usual guitar tuning.
Weiß or Bach? Selection of a liuto forte in d
The lute compositions of Sylvius Leopold Weiß and Johann Sebastian Bach are not designed for the same lute model. The unfounded assumption that Bach’s lute works were intended for the same type of instrument that Weiß used has led to many misinterpretations and misjudgements of Johann Sebastian Bach’s lute compositions.
The lutes of Sylvius Leopold Weiß
Sylvius Leopold Weiß began his brilliant career with a 12-course lute without extended bass strings. Around 1718 he then changed to a 13-course lute with bass rider for the two lowest courses A’ and B’ and finally – around 1727 – to a swan-neck lute with 8 courses on the fingerboard and 5 in the extension. The string-length of these instruments was mostly between 70 and 76 cm, the former being tuned in the range around 415 Hz, the larger ones a semitone lower (Roman or French pitch). The body sizes of these instruments corresponded to those of a tenor (pitch around 415 Hz) or small bass lute (around 392 Hz).
The swan-neck lute in d, which we developed, is not only ideal for playing the lute music of Sylvius Leopold Weiß and his contemporaries, but is also suitable for the interpretation of all baroque lute compositions of the 17th century. It is stronger, warmer and more colourful than all historical models.
The three 18th century arrangements of Bach’s lute compositions (BWV 995, 997 and 1000) for a 13-course lute in the standard D minor tuning can also be performed on this model.
The very brave might like the idea of a 15-string swan-neck lute in d where the 13th string is tuned in contra A, but the 14th and 15th to D-sharp (E flat) and C-sharp (D flat). The latter should provide a real tonal enrichment for solo and ensemble pieces in which the regular bass strings above are in C and D. A historical parallel to this seeems to be the 15-course lute by Jonas Elg, built in 1729 in the Stockholm Music History Museum.
Johann Sebastian Bach’s compositions for lute can only be reproduced on an instrument of the size, tuning and stringing of the lute by Sylvius Leopold Weiß with limitations. Any player of such an instrument will confirm this to you. The three 18th-century arrangements of Bach’s lute compositions in tablature for the 13-course lute model used by S.L. Weiß clearly show the limits of a faithful reproduction of these works when using such an instrument.
But for which historical lute model were these pieces composed?
The lute of Johann Sebastian Bach
(see also: www.bach-Lautenwerke.de)
Johann Sebastian Bach’s lute was most probably a single-string liuto attiorbato with a maximum length of 60 cm for the fingerboard strings, whose original stringing consisted of 7 fingerboard and 7 bourdon strings (left picture). The arrangement of courses was already abandoned before 1715 in favour of a stringing with 12 single strings on the fingerboard and 2 bourdon strings. In order to have enough space for 12 single strings on the fingerboard – following the Angélique model – only the left cheek of the pegbox had to be cut out somewhat.
left picture: Liuto attiorbato, 17th century, with original neck, source: https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Erzlaute
right picture: Liuto attiorbato by Matteo Sellas, Venetia 1640, with swan neck of the 18th century, source: Joel Dugot, “Les Luths (Occident)”, catalogue des collections du Musée de la musique (vol.1), Paris 2006
In combination with an additional free string tuned in Bb in the sixth position and an additional contra A, such a string disposition enables the correct, absolutely notation-true execution of BWV 996, 999, 1000 and 1006a (with scordatura) in the basic tuning
A’ B flat’ C D E F G A B flat d f a d’ f
At the earliest after the premiere of the St. Matthew Passion in 1727, this instrument was given a swan neck (right picture) and a modified string arrangement with 10 fingerboard – and six bourdon strings. This is also the classical string arrangement of an Angélique, which is fitted throughout with single strings. J. S. Bach was already familiar with the repertoire and playing technique of this instrument in his Weimar period, as several typical Angélique fingerings of the right hand in BWV 996, 997 and 998 reveal.
Angélique by Johann Christoph Fleischer, Hamburg n.y., State Library of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania (Schwerin), Source: Fotodesign Klose, Schwerin
The basic tuning of the instrument, extended to 16 strings, is
E (or D flat) A flat’ B flat’ C D E flat F G A flat B flat c d f a d’ f’ (BWV 997 and 998)
For the execution of BWV 995, all notes of this tuning of the 16-string instrument were tuned down by a whole or half tone from the seventh string onwards, so that the lowest note of the instrument was contra G.
The tone E on the 16th string, which can also be tuned as D flat or C sharp, can no longer be played on an instrument in the aforementioned tuning with only 10 fingerboard strings, since its lowest fingerboard string is an F. It was therefore added outside the regular range from A flat’ to f’ and occurs in two places in the “Double” of BWV 997, in one place in the Allegro of BWV 998 and in the Sarabande of BWV 995. These altered bass tones sound extremely attractive in the relevant passages. They were deliberately composed in by J. S. Bach and would not only distort the voice leading but also lose much of their effect if they were played in the higher octave.
In order that both Bach’s compositions for the 14-string instrument with 12 fingerboard strings and those for the model with gooseneck and only 10 fingerboard strings can be played on the same instrument, our 16-string Bach lute has 12 pegs in the first and 6 in the second pegbox of the swan neck. This means that players are free to use both types of stringing for the correct reproduction of Bach’s lute works.
The different tunings of the basses can be realized on the same instrument without changing the strings.
Two or three instruments in one?
The question is often asked whether the same liuto forte model is also suitable for different tunings. This is indeed the case with the 11- to 14-string swan-neck lute in e with a fingerboard scale of 64 cm. It can be strung like a swan-neck lute in d if required. The same applies to the 14-string Arciliuto forte in g with a fretboard scale of 62.5 cm. Both models have – in contrast to the swan neck lute in d – only slightly curved fingerboards.
The tenor lute in e as well as the swan-neck lute in e can also be played in the tuning of the alto lute in g if a capo on the second or third fret is used. This means that when you purchase such an instrument with 10 strings (tenor lute) or with 11 to 14 strings (swan-neck lute in e), you have at your disposal arrangements of baroque lute compositions for e-tuning as well as the repertoire for renaissance lute from 1500 – 1630 and the entire repertoire for 6 to 10-string classical guitars, which usually gains considerably in brilliance and clarity when played on a liuto forte in e.
Body wood – matching the personality of the player
(see also: Details/body woods)
The woods mainly used for lute bodies from the 16th to the 18th century were maple, yew and rosewood. Other materials were also used, of which ivory and ebony are the most unsuitable from an acoustic point of view. For the construction of liuti forti we only use the three first mentioned woods. In order to make the right choice between them you should consider the following:
Maple provides the richest palette of timbres with a bright basic sound and mixes best with the sound of string instruments. If clarity and the musical shaping through tone colours are particularly important to you, maple is the first choice.
Rosewood also stands for clarity, but at the same time for an optimum of dynamic design possibilities. It is the best wood for very vigorous players who perform music in front of larger audiences.
Yew has the warmest sound of all woods used for lute corpora. Lutes made from this wood exude a magic all of their own. Yew is the ideal wood for the romantics among you who want to revel in the natural sound of the instrument without adding too much in dynamic contrasts or differences in timbre.
In a way, the three woods can also be characterized as follows:
Maple corresponds to a clear, penetrating boy’s voice, rosewood to the sonorous voice of a man and yew to the warm alto voice of a woman.
If you would like to play in a duet with another lutenist, you should make sure that you choose instruments made of woods that are compatible in terms of sound. Maple blends best with maple but not so well with yew or rosewood. Rosewood and yew, on the other hand, blend together excellently – despite the difference in their timbres.
Generally speaking, the wood with the brightest timbre is the most suitable for lower tunings. For this reason we always recommend a maple body for liuti forti in e. Yew was the most popular lute wood in the 17th century because it gave the traditionally somewhat pointed and short sound of historical lutes more warmth and – thanks to the ist enormous elasticity – better sustain. The latter, however, is achieved far more effectively with the liuto forte thanks to the new soundboard construction. This reduces the acoustic contribution of this wood in our instruments to its specific, almost romantic sound.
Classical pegs or geared pegs ?
Since 2015 we have been equipping our instruments with geared pegs from Wittner. They enable fine tuning as with the guitar and – in contrast to the classical pegs – neither require care with chalk and soap nor the application of pressure during tuning.
Also the danger of unexpectedly jumping out is completely eliminated with these pegs. They do not differ from a classical peg on the outside, but do require some consideration when winding the strings. Information on this can be found in the instruction manual supplied with the instrument. Guitarists who are less practiced in handling classical pegs will particularly appreciate this innovation.
(See also: Details, “pegs”)