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