A basic introduction to Renaissance lute tablature for beginners

Warning!The renaissance lute was popular for many years in many places, and there are many forms of tablature. This is a basic introduction, for a thorough overview get Diana Poulton's book "A Tutor for the Renaissance Lute." I am not trying to be complete, nor am I trying to be 100% accurate!

Tablature works by telling you what string and what fret to play, rather than telling you what pitch to play. Lute music was written in tablature before 1500 and tablature is still used for guitar music today. Many people find it easier to learn to read tablature for the lute than to read "regular" music.

A lute is tuned sort of like a modern guitar. If you tune a guitar with the G string tuned down to F# you will have the relative pitches of a lute, and you will be able to play from lute tablature. The most common pitch of the top string on a lute is g, which you would get by capoing a guitar up three frets. The top six courses, from bottom to top, are tuned G C F a d g.

letters

Tablature is written on six lines, each of which represents a course (pair of strings) on the lute. The top string in what is known as "French" tablature represents the highest pitched course on the lute. The 6th string represents the sixth course, a low pitched course. (There may be lower courses on the lute, I will get to them later..) In French tablature letters are used to tell you which fret to place your finger behind. An 'a' is an unfretted string. A 'b' is the first fret. A 'c' is the second fret, and an 'f' is the fifth fret. Warning! the 'c' in lute tablature often looks like an 'r'! It is *not* an 'r' though, it is a form of 'c' used in Renaissance times because it is easy to differentiate from an 'e'. The 'e' may have an exta loop or line on its lower left side. The letter 'j' is not used.


on the top line are the letters a b c d e f g h i k l, and on the bottom are alternate forms of f, g, and h. You will see these versions of the letters in old manuscripts.

time

The duration of the notes, the time, is written with symbols that look like the top part of modern music notes, without the circles on the bottom. Just like in modern music, an extra line on the top divides the duration of the note in half. These flags come in many forms. The English liked to use lots of flags, often connecting them in a "grid" formation:

Here is a more continental sample. Note that here the notes are on the lines:

Italian tablature

Another popular variation is the form used in Italy. Numbers are used instead of letters, with 0 being an open string, 3 the third fret, etc. Usually in music intabulated this way, the lowest line is the highest pitches course. It takes a bit of practice to get used to reading both ways!

Bass notes

Lutes often have more than 6 courses, sometimes as many as fourteen. Since these courses are almost never fretted, there is no need to indicate what fret to use. Often the lower courses are numbered, 7 to 13 (with 7 being the seventh course) or 1 to 7 (with 1 being the seventh course). It is also common to represent the seventh through ninth courses with slashes, / is the seventh course, // is the eighth, and /// the ninth. Exactly what each string is tuned to varies from one musical piece to another. On a seven course lute / is often F or D. with eight courses / is usually F and // may be D or C. With nine or ten courses / is F, // might be e-flat, and the bottom course is C.

Baroque tuning

The baroque lute is a different beast, often with 11 or 13 courses. A 13 course lute might be tuned A Bb C D E F G A D F a d f from top to bottom, though the low notes may be tuned sharp or flat to fit the music. Baroque tablature characters are "loopy":
Wayne's lute page LSA

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