Is your lute set up well?
by Lynda Sayce, first printed in Lute News 89
This paper was requested from Lynda Sayce, a very experienced teacher, because of horror stories circulating in the lute community of beginners enthusiastically taking up the lute, and then giving up after just a few months because the lute is 'too hard', when in fact the real problem is that they have been struggling against impossible odds with a lute that is not set up properly. Standards of lute making are generally high nowadays, but there are still some badly set-up lutes around, whether old lutes (generally from the 1970s or earlier); lutes poorly assembled from kits, or made by marquetry enthusiasts who are not really instrument makers; or the first efforts of young makers who are still learning their craft; or lutes imported from countries where there is not really a tradition of lute making (often sold over the internet)-though the imported lutes have got markedly better of late. That is the bad news; the good news is the commonest problems are often with the most easily replaced or adjusted parts of the lute: pegs, strings, fretnut, frets, or bridge, and a few hours work on a luthier's bench can make all the difference to your playing experience. Lutemakers, teachers and players are a friendly bunch, so if you are struggling, just show your lute to someone more experienced, and they may well be able to tell you straight away what is wrong, and what to do about it; and also show you how to carry out the DIY maintenance tasks referred to below. Some lutemakers do a regular trade in correcting poorly set-up lutes; contact the Secretary for suggestions. And why not come to the Lute Society's lute exhibitions, summer schools and playing days, and try out other lutes, to compare them with your own?
Many lute players, especially beginners, are struggling with instruments which are not as well set-up as they might be, and the set-up can make a huge difference to a lute's playing qualities. Knowing what to look for-or to avoid-in the set-up can be hugely helpful in selecting a new instrument, or indeed, in getting the most out of one you already own. If you are thinking of buying your first lute, please ask a player or maker to advise. Most are only too happy to help, and even if your chosen instrument is not ideally set up, many problems are easy and cheap to fix. Refretting, restringing, pasting pegs, and smoothing string holes in pegs are all simple DIY remedies (thought the cautious may still ask for help!) other jobs should be referred to a maker.
Some lutes have very little clearance under the strings where the plucking hand plucks, either because the soundboard has bulged up at that point, or because the lute has a very low bridge. A low bridge can be raised by adding a decorative face plate, as long as the required lift is no more than 1 or 2mm. Very occasionally it may be possible to fix the problem by simply pulling the strings up to sit higher on the bridge. If the soundboard has bulged, this sometimes indicates a loose bar or inadequate barring inside: consult a maker. Otherwise, it may be possible to remove the soundboard and dish the outer ribs slightly to give more clearance, though this will usually leave visible signs.
This is the height of the strings above the frets: it translates into how far down you have to push the strings when you play, and thus how hard your fretting hand has to work. This aspect is absolutely crucial to the playing qualities of a lute, and sadly the one which is most often neglected on cheap instruments. It is worth taking a good ruler with you when you evaluate an instrument, you need the metal type that start their measurement exactly at the end of the metal. Measure the distance between the underside of the treble string and the top of the eighth fret. If that distance is more than about 3.5mm, the lute's action is rather high, and it will be quite hard work to play cleanly. Many professionals prefer a treble string action in the region of 2.4 or 2.8mm. The action is usually higher on the bass side, but the height of the lowest string at the eighth fret on the bass side should be no more than about 4.5mm, and many consider 3.5-4mm to be ideal. If the action is higher than this it can be fixed by a maker fairly easily, though it usually involves lute surgery and may be indicative of structural problems in the instrument. If the action is too low the strings will buzz on the frets however cleanly you play. This can be an expensive problem to fix, and such lutes should be avoided. If the action is within acceptable limits, the 'feel' can be fine-tuned by careful fretting.
This should be perfectly flat with very well rounded edges leading round to the neck. Sharp corners here will make the frets curve away from contact with the fingerboard on the first and last string and make these notes dull. It is a simple matter to sand a smooth curve on the edges. (On baroque lutes and some extended lutes, the fingerboard is made with a pronounced and clearly visible camber). Any lumps or hollows will result in buzzes. If you find problems in fretting your lute it is worth having the fingerboard checked by a maker, and scraped flat if necessary. It is common for older lutes' fingerboards to become fractionally concave across their width, which causes play in the frets in the middle of the fingerboard and a dull sound on the notes fretted at that point. In general frets should make firm contact with the fingerboard all across the neck.
Though not specifically part of the set-up as such, strings can be responsible for many difficulties, especially if they are at an inappropriate tension for the size of the instrument. Lutes usually come with a recommended string list: if you want to string a lute at a different pitch or in a different material it is important to retain the same working tension, even if the actual materials and gauges are different. Simply winding a lute up to a higher pitch can cause serious structural damage, and tuning it down to a lower pitch can make it very difficult to play cleanly. Worn strings (frayed and hairy gut, old stretched nylgut, frayed overspun strings with broken windings, etc) can also cause buzzes and make it hard to produce a clean sound. False strings are not uncommon, and can be impossible to tune, or can create buzzes or strange wolf tones on certain frequencies. If in doubt, try a fresh string. A maker can calculate the gauges for you, if you don't know, and can supply replacements promptly. Unmatched strings (different tensions and/or materials) on unison courses can also make it difficult to fret the pair cleanly.
Frets should be gut. Nylon frets chew up your strings quickly, and should be replaced with gut. Ideally the first fret should be no more than 1mm in diameter, and most players prefer graduated fretting, whereby each successive fret decreases in diameter, either by half-step (1.0mm, 0.95mm, 0.9mm, etc) or by whole step (1.0mm, 0.9mm, 0.8mmm, etc). To fine-tune your fretting, if you want to do this for yourself, start with the largest first fret which allows clean, strong plucking of the open strings, then reduce the diameter of the next fret by the smallest possible amount, and test the first fret notes for buzzes. If there are any buzzes, try a second fret one step smaller. Repeat until there are no buzzes, then apply the same procedure to the other frets, working systematically up the fingerboard. Note that glued-on wooden body frets can cause buzzes if your last tied frets end up quite small. Many body frets are larger than necessary, and it is a minor job to have body frets scraped down. If your lute has a very low action and you are confident that its body frets are functioning well, it is also possible to start fretting at the top end of the neck with the smallest fret which works behind the body frets (though 0.5mm is probably the smallest practical fret). Work towards the nut repeating the same fret size until a buzz occurs, then go up in half-step increments. If you arrive at the 1st fret and find that open strings buzz, a piece of paper under the nut will usually solve the problem. Of course you could just ask a maker to do all this for you, and show you how to tie frets on, which you will subsequently be able to do for yourself. The Lute Society booklet The Care of your Lute has diagrams showing how to tie fret knots.
Pegs must turn smoothly, and grip well at both ends without sticking, slipping or popping out. Peg paste (available from any good music shop because it's used on violins, etc) can help both sticky and slipping pegs: undo the string, withdraw the peg and apply a tiny amount of paste to the shiny bands where the peg contacts the pegbox walls. Work well in, and re-fit the string, taking care to lead it straight to its groove in the nut. A string which is pulling at an angle will cause the peg to pop more frequently. Peg heads should be comfortable to grip, with no sharp corners. The hole for the string should be smoothed at both ends so it does not cut the string. Ideally pegs should fit slightly tighter at the head end than at the tail end, if the reverse is the case the peg will twist in its length and make secure tuning almost impossible. If your pegs stick badly, or simply will not grip, a maker may be able to refit them, or-a rather bigger job-replace them.
The spacings between the holes in the bridge and the grooves in the nut affect how easy it is to pluck a double string as one without making a rattle, or producing two individual notes, and to fret a double string cleanly. Generally there should be about 5mm between strings of a course at the bridge. At the nut, the thinner strings can be paired more closely, so that it is easy for the stopping finger to cover both strings without falling between them. As a rough guide, second course strings can be around 2.5mm apart at the nut, 6th or 7th course strings should be about 3.5mm apart. Bridge holes can also be redrilled or enlarged, but sometimes old holes will need to be plugged. This is a fiddly job, but not terribly complicated.
In addition to spacing your strings, the nut partly dictates the height of the strings above the fingerboard, and how smoothly and efficiently they run to their pegs. Sharp-edged nut grooves can chew through strings; grooves which are too deep and/or narrow can grip and crush strings, and cause them to stick, but strings can pop out of grooves which are too shallow, particularly on German baroque lutes and theorbos with their very shallow angle between pegbox and fingerboard. Buzzes on open strings which are difficult to trace are often caused by a nut groove whose highest point is a little way back from the edge of the nut, allowing the string to vibrate against the groove itself. To check for this on a suspect string push your fingernail down hard on the string just at the edge of the nut as you pluck the string. If the buzz stops, a badly filed groove is the likely culprit. In general the edge of the nut should be the highest point of the groove and the last point of contact for the string. Dished grooves can cause whining noises, so there is a lot which can go wrong at the nut! If you have any problems here, grooves can sometimes be tidied up or new slots cut in the existing nut (both quick and cheap fixes). A new nut is also a fairly easy job for a maker.
Few of the points mentioned above can improve the sound of your lute, except perhaps fresh frets and strings, but all of them can significantly improve the ease and thus the enjoyment of playing, so check your lute over and make sure you are really getting the most from it. Above all, don't just struggle with an unfriendly instrument: ask for advice and don't be afraid to take the lute to a maker for a quote: you may be pleasantly surprised at how a small and inexpensive adjustment can transform the feel of an instrument.
Further reading: Lynda Sayce's paper 'Rattle and hum', on tackling extraneous noises on lutes, can be found on the Lute Society's website. David van Edwards, who kindly reviewed the measurements in this paper, has written a booklet, 'The Care of your Lute' available as Lute Society booklet no. 6.
Electic guitar builder and lute player John Buckman describes the work he carried out on a rather poor imported lute at john.redmood.com/improvebargainlute.html This included supplying new strings, replacing nylon with gut frets, using an electronic tuner and pickup to set them correctly, sanding the nut down, and finally replacing it altogether and filing new grooves into a blank nut, soaping the tuning pegs and chiselling a lot of excess wood from the bridge.
Another, more adventurous, contributor to this same webpage describes more radical surgery: levelling the fingerboard with an electric sander, thinning the soundboard, and replacing nut, frets, strings and body frets, cleaning up the rose, refining the pegs and re-reaming the pegbox holes, and sawing off the bridge with a metal blade (the wrong sort of glue had been used for routine removal) before lowering it and refixing; he says 'this I do not recommend that "just anyone" do, but the results were wonderful'. Well, you get the idea!-Ed.