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Adapting the Lute Part to a Different Instrument

Updated: Apr 22

While I believe that there is much to be learned from singing with a lute player, not all singers are lucky enough to have a lute player available with whom to perform. This often means that singers will turn to guitarists and pianists for accompaniment, and the results can be quite mixed. Here I would like to discuss some ways that non-lutenists can adapt the lute part to their own instrument. Because guitar and piano are the most common instruments used to do this, I will focus on these two instruments. 

The guitar is perhaps the first logical replacement for the lute part when a lute player is not available. Like the lute, it is a fretted, plucked-stringed instrument, and adapting most songs is relatively easy. That said, there are some interesting differences between the instruments, and some advantages and disadvantages to consider whenever adapting a lute part to the modern guitar. For the purposes of this discussion, we’ll assume that the guitarist is using a classical or nylon-stringed guitar. While I certainly think that you could play lute songs on a steel-stringed guitar (there were wire-strung instruments in the Renaissance), it is more common to see lute repertoire adapted to the classical guitar. 

The first thing to consider when adapting a lute song to guitar is the tuning and pitch level. For most lute parts, it makes sense to tune the 3rd string (G) down to F#. By doing this, the intervals between the open strings will now match the lute and the guitarist can actually read directly from the tablature. That said, there are instances where keeping the guitar in its standard tuning actually makes it easier to play a piece, so this should be explored as well. Pitch level is an area in which adjustment is easier on the guitar than the lute. Because capos are not well designed to fit on lute necks, lute players will often have to completely retune their instrument or use a different instrument to play at a different pitch level. For example, if my lute is tuned to A=440, but the singer would like to sing the song at A=415, I will generally have to tune each of my courses down by half step. While it is possible in some cases to simply transpose, it is not a great strength of the lute, due both to the significant color changes that occur and the issues that arise when using non-equal temperament. For the guitar, it is much easier. If the singer wants a higher pitch, a capo can be used. If the singer needs the pitch level to be lower, the guitar, with only six strings, can easily be tuned down. This is a nice advantage over the lute.

In terms of tuning systems, I generally recommend that guitarists stick with equal temperament. Because most guitars have fixed frets, it does not make a lot of sense to attempt using something like mean-tone tuning, which relies on shifting your frets. That said, I think small adjustments can be made to make certain chords that are commonly played sound better. For example, if you are performing a lute song in E major, it may make sense to slightly lower your third string to make sure that your major third is a little more in tune than it would be with equal temperament. I wouldn’t go overboard with this, but it is an option. Truthfully, equal temperament was a known tuning system in the 16th century, so there is nothing unhistorical about using it. 

One other common issue that arises when you adapt lute parts to the guitar is the question of how to handle the diapasons. Many lute songs incorporate the use of additional bass courses below the 6th course. Since most guitars only have six strings, this means that some adjustments must be made. In general, I would recommend either simply raising the notes an octave or skipping them. While it may make sense in some places to retune the 6th string down a whole step to try and incorporate some of these additional bass notes, most of the time it is not worth doing this because it makes the rest of the piece significantly more difficult to play and the goal should always be to make the part sound as natural as possible. 

For the piano, there are far fewer technical limitations than the guitar, but there are some additional considerations that should be taken into account. Lute parts can often sound quite thin and small on a modern grand piano. While you can certainly choose to perform on a smaller piano, most often the grand piano is what is used in concert, so knowing how to adapt lute parts to it can be very helpful. There are some characteristics of the lute that can be helpful to know when making a piano arrangement. Bass courses on the lute—usually the 5th and 6th course (and lower), and, less frequently, the 4th course—are strung in octaves. For example, the sixth course G has both a fundamental string and a string that is tuned an octave higher. Both are struck and sounded when that course is played. This means that for the piano arranger, most bass notes written can also be reinforced by a note an octave higher. This helps to “fill out” the sound a bit on the piano. Pianists should also not be afraid of using legato or other resonance-increasing techniques. Not only was resonance a goal of period lutenists but they also tended to play in spaces that provided a lot of reverb (churches, castles, wood and stone buildings, etc.). The modern and often acoustically-dry world is not necessarily the friendliest place for lute.

For both piano and guitar, there is one final consideration which I think is most important. Often I hear accompanists on these instruments attempt to imitate the intimate sound of the lute. Unfortunately, I don’t think this does a service to the music. I think it is much better to use your instrument to its full capacity. Keep in mind that during the Renaissance, pieces were often arranged for other instruments, and in those cases the expectation was that the instrument being used would be played to its fullest potential. This means that bass notes would be added (or dropped), idiomatic techniques would be incorporated, and appropriate ornamentation would be added. I believe that this spirit of adaptation should be strongly considered when you are adapting a lute part to a modern instrument. While I’m entirely in favor of performing in as historically accurate a way as possible, handicapping your instrument will only hurt your ability to convey the dynamics, articulation, and color of this amazing music.

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