The Lute Society: Beginners Lesson 16

Beginners' lesson 16 - how to tune your lute

  • Part of a series of beginners lessons by Lynda sayce

For this issue, in place of the usual short piece, I shall look at a topic which seems a regular source of grief to beginner lutenists, namely tuning. I am not going to deal with the actual notes to which one tunes; these vary from lute to lute, and this information should be clearly indicated by the maker or the seller from whom you acquire your lute. Instead we shall be considering the practical mechanics of tuning a lute. In my experience most beginners know what notes they should be tuning to; they just have difficulty getting their strings there. The tuning process can be broken down into the following parts:

  1. deciding on a reference pitch and temperament.
  2. producing a clear, focused sound on the string being tuned, without sounding other strings.
  3. accurately hearing the pitch of the string.
  4. the physical manipulation of the pegs.
  5. the adjustment of frets, if necessary.

You will need some sort of reference pitch. For the sheer practicality of leaving your hands free, an electronic tuner is far the best option. There are many models available at a reasonable price, including some very inexpensive smartphone applications. I particularly recommend the Cleartune application, available for both the iPhone and Android phones, for the price of a coffee. If you buy a dedicated electronic tuner you will need a chromatic model in order to have all the pitches you need available. Avoid tuners designed for guitars, because most of them produce (or react to) only the notes of the guitar's strings. Most tuners will produce either a sound to which you tune by ear, or a digital response to the sound of your lute, to which you effectively tune by eye. Personally, I prefer to use the former method. If you have to use the latter because of background noise, you will almost always get a more accurate readout from the tuner if you keep plucking a string repeatedly, at least once per second.

Volumes have been written on various different ways of tuning intervals, and at some point you may wish to explore historical tuning systems, called temperaments. However, for purposes of getting your lute acceptably in tune, with the fewest complications, and in a system which will sound familiar if you have played any modern instrument such as a guitar, equal temperament is the option to choose. You should be aware that most lute players abandon it when they reach a certain level of proficiency, but tackling historical temperaments when you are getting to grips with your first lute is a complication no-one needs.

In my experience it is always better to tune the lute holding it in playing position if possible. Other methods usually require you to pluck the strings at a very different place from normal - over the fingerboard, for example, and/or with a different right hand touch because of the different angle involved. The result can be a quite different balance of overtones in the sound from what the instrument will produce when played normally, and this can affect the pitch that one perceives. If you find it difficult to keep control of your pegs with the lute in playing position, there are some tips below.

The first requirement is to produce a clear, focused sound on the string you are tuning. It is often counterproductive to try and tune very quietly; it will generally take much longer than if you pluck at a decent volume. If you are trying to be considerate to your fellow musicians in an ensemble situation, it is generally kinder to them to tune efficiently at a clearly audible volume, than to keep fiddling for ages at a low volume.

If you are tuning the first string of a double course, you need to pluck that string alone, without its neighbour. The easiest way to do this is to use a rest stroke, bringing the finger or thumb to rest on the other string of the double course, which has the added bonus of damping the neighbouring string. Note that this is the only time I will ever advocate using a rest stroke with a finger on the lute! When you want to bring the string's neighbour into tune, you will need to pluck both strings, either simultaneously or in very quick succession; again a rest stroke is the most effective method.

Tuning requires intense and focused listening, and there are various little tricks one can use to enhance the clarity of the sound one hears. I find it very useful to damp other strings which are harmonically related, to avoid their sympathetic resonance clouding the pitch of the string I am tuning. For example, if I am tuning the highest course of a renaissance g' lute, I will pluck the string with my right hand index finger, and rest my right hand thumb on both strings of the 6th course to damp out those other two G strings. The most closely related pitches you may wish to damp out are strings an octave or a fifth away from the one you are trying to tune. If you are in a noisy situation, you will hear your instrument much better if you can tune facing a hard reflective surface such as a plastered wall. You will need to be quite close to it for your sound to bounce back to you. Tucking yourself and your lute closely into a corner is even better, as you will hear the sound reflected from both sides. Certain types of string (especially old and/or poor quality strings) will produce a noticeable difference between the pitch of the pluck and the pitch of the sustain; usually the sustain will be flatter (lower in pitch). In such cases, I would recommend changing the strings as soon as possible, and in the meantime tune the front of the note (the pluck), rather than the lingering sustain.

Manipulating the pegs should not be an issue, but it can be on many student-quality lutes. The lute society's booklet by David Van Edwards on lute care (available via the society's catalogue) has lots of useful tips for dealing with problematic pegs, or a trip to a maker can work wonders on recalcitrant pegs. Assuming your pegs are functional, the best way to keep them under control is to tune by turning the peg and simultaneously pushing it gently into the pegbox. The operative word is gently; you want it to grip just enough for it to hold, not to end up jammed in the pegbox. When tuning the pegs on the top of your pegbox (those facing the ceiling), you may find it helpful to just lower the pegbox slightly so that the pegs on the lower side rest on your leg. For the pegs on the underside of the pegbox (facing the floor), I grip the peg heads between my thumb and index finger, and hook my middle finger over the side of the pegbox. This gives just sufficient purchase to push the peg against. I find it is most effective to pull a string up to the required pitch, rather than to tune it down, so if a string is a bit sharp I will first flatten it so that it is below the required pitch, then pull it up.

Once you have your open strings in tune, check them, and then set your frets with the tuner by working your way up the top string, one fret at a time. Keep the frets parallel to the nut, and check any octaves and unisons as you go. Many makers put tiny dot indentations in the fingerboard, marking the places where the frets go for equal temperament. If your lute has these, simply set your frets so that they cover the dots.