Stephen Barber & Sandi Harris, Lutemakers
Catalogue and Price List 2014
1  Six course lutes 8  Gallichone/mandora, colascione
2  Seven and eight course lutes 9  Mandolino
3  Basslutes 10  Continuo instruments
4  Ten course lutes, 9-course lutes 11 Renaissance and Baroque guitars
5  Wire-strung instruments 12 Vihuela, viola da mano
6  Eleven and Twelve course lutes 13 Student Lutes
7 Thirteen course lutes  14 Footnotes

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Six course lutes

Building a six-course lute involves a degree of speculative reconstruction, since although several surviving instruments (those by Laux Maler and Hans Frei, for example) probably started off life originally built with six courses, the vast majority of 16th Century lutes that modern lute-makers have to refer to were subsequently converted to later string dispositions. We know from iconography that there are several design elements that seem to be common, such as the fingerboard extending onto the soundboard and heart-shaped tuning pegs (as seen in the instrument below). Other important aspects such as the shape and size of the neck are confirmed by the two known surviving original lutes from the 16th Century, by Georg Gerle – who worked in Innsbruck, and Magno Dieffopruchar, who worked in Venice.

We are very experienced in building six-course lutes, a type which many modern lutenists gravitate towards, since their repertoire is felt by many to represent the most sublime achievement of the first flowering of the Renaissance.

Above: a 6-course lute made for Craig Hartley, closely based upon the beautiful Laux Maler original in the Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Nürnberg (MI54); the original lute can be seen being measured in the images further down this page, under the entry for No.1. The gut strings with which the instrument we made was fitted can be clearly seen in the close-up view of the rose.

The lute shown here is a reconstruction of the probable original string disposition of an anonymous lute which the late Robert Spencer originally owned (and which currently exists as a conversion to a seven-course). It has been built using the geometry of the original lute's back and its rose design, the rose and bridge being positioned where they are placed on the original; we have fitted the instrument with a typical 'parabola'-section neck, and modelled its pegbox after that of the lute in The Ambassadors (1533) by Hans Holbein.

(Please also see No. 11, below).

Two of the following lutes, the Magno Dieffopruchar (No. 8) and the Georg Gerle (No. 7), are the only six course lutes which survive almost intact, with their original soundboards, necks and pegboxes: the Gerle even has its original bridge, and seems to be in original condition apart from some minor repairs, although the Dieffopruchar's bridge is missing and its pegs appear to be 19th Century replacements.

We have thoroughly measured and photographed both instruments, examining them in great detail. Stephen closely examined and drew the Magno Dieffopruchar lute from the J & A Beare collection, London, in 1981, while the lute was open, and working together, we closely examined the Gerle lute again in January 2002 – including accurately measuring the geometry of its back, using our measuring device shown below.

Following our re-examination of it in early 2002, we are convinced that the Gerle is in completely original condition apart from minor repairs; it has its original bridge, neck and pegbox, and its pegs are apparently original too – from plumwood (probably the harder, darker variety called Zwetschge in German) which has been carved, not turned. Both the Gerle and Dieffopruchar lutes have very interesting body shapes (made from ivory) with beautiful and subtle geometry.

The images above show Sandi measuring the back of the Gerle lute in January 2002.

From the information provided by these two lutes, and from iconography and other data, we have reconstructed and designed the appropriate neck, pegbox and string lengths, of the Maler, Frei, Tiefenbrucker, Prÿffer, 'in Padov' and the own-designed 6-course lutes.

The necks of historical six-course lutes (as well as those of contemporary viols) seem to have been characteristically carved to a parabola cross-section – rather like the profile of the pointed end of an egg – the shape being close to the curve produced by splaying the first finger away from the thumb – as if one were about to grasp a lute neck. This shape can at first seem a little deep and perhaps thick, but its logic becomes apparent when playing through the repertoire: sixteenth Century composers even recommended using the thumb of the left hand to stop the sixth course; Vincenzo Capirola writes (c. 1515) that: "Et manco che adoperi el deo groso, e piu bel al veder sul manego" (The neck of the lute is prettier, the less you use your thumb). Capirola is clearly referring here to what must have been at the very least something that he'd observed many lutenists doing, ie using the thumb of their left hands to stop the 6th course; he also remarks that: "Alla volte el si puo accomodarsi su la corde contrabassa su ogni tasto" (Sometimes one can use it to play the contrabass string on any fret). Silvestro Ganassi also writes of this practise.

We are grateful to Denys Stephens for mentioning these quotes to us.

The two surviving original six-course lutes which have their original necks intact have this distinctive shape (it can be clearly seen on the Gerle lute in the top right-hand corner of the composite image above) and numerous examples can be seen in iconography, including the intarsia shown below, as well as the lute in Holbein's 1533 painting The Ambassadors.

Combining the subjects of iconography and reconstruction, we are working on a 6-course lute closely based on the instrument seen in the Hans Holbein 1533 painting The Ambassadors (London, National Gallery); for further details, see No. 16 below.

The 5-course lute in the intarsia above is fitted with the heart-shaped peg design characteristic of 15th and 16th Century lutes and viols. Its deep, thick neck – rendered by the intarsio artist with contrasting stripes – is reminiscent of the neck of the Magno dieffopruchar lute (No. 8 above) as is its elegant, slender pegbox. Photographed in the Palazzo Ducale, Urbino (below) by us during the 1994 Strumenti della Musica Antica festival.

In his A New Booke of Tabliture (London, 1596) William Barley makes this interesting comment:

" Understand this, that the Lute is ordinarilie strung with sixe stringes, and although that these six stringes be double except the Trebble, and make a leauen (eleven) in number, yet they must be understood to bee but sixe in all, as thou maiest see them here marked on this Lute figured ". Even as late as 1596, it would appear that to at least one commentator and lutenist, the six-course lute continued to enjoy some pre-eminence in England. Paul O'Dette commented to us a few years back that the vast majority of the surviving English lute repertoire of this time can be satisfactorily played on a six-course lute.

1. After Laux Maler, Bologna, c. 1540 (Nürnberg, Germanisches Nationalmuseum MI54).

9 ribs, in figured ash (as shown below)

or Hungarian ash; neck and pegbox in pear, apple or brown oak; boxwood or figured satinwood fingerboard edged with bone; heart-shaped pegs in either pernambuco, or alternating ebony/pernambuco.**.
String length: 720 or 740mm (with bridge in original position, ie 64mm from the bottom edge of the soundboard*)
Pitch: e'
String length: 670mm (with bridge located in proportionally the same place as the Lobkowicz Maler Nr. 1408E)
Pitch: f'


There is a mark of an earlier bridge, very low down the soundboard (approx. 64mm up from the bottom edge), which had rounded ends, similar to those of the Gerle and the 'in Padov' lutes below. Stephen made a 6-course version of this lute back in 1976, with its bridge placed 64mm from the bottom; the instrument was strung throughout in gut, and worked very well. More than 30 years later, it is still being played and enjoyed.

The instrument above – made in 1993 – has a figured ash back and a haselfichte (figured spruce) soundboard; its neck, pegbox and fingerboard are from the wood of the wild service tree (sorbus torminalis).

Owned by Axel Weidenfeld, Oldenburg.

Stephen was one of the first modern lutemakers to specialise in lutes based upon the then-known work of Laux Maler, in the mid 1970's; this included making in 1977 a 6-course version of the Nürnberg instrument MI54 with its bridge placed where the marks of an earlier (possibly the original) bridge are located very low down the soundboard, 64mm from the bottom edge, in fact. This bridge had rounded ends, as one might expect to see on an early sixteenth Century 6-course lute; interestingly, it is placed at approximately one-eighth of what might be conjectured as its original body length as a 6-course lute – yielding a string length of 74cms or thereabouts. We have over the years made a large number of lutes based upon the work of Laux Maler, from 6-course to 13-course instruments; this Maler 'cycle' came full circle when we were asked – by a French player – to make an 11-course version based upon the recently-discovered Maler lute in France (Paris, Cité de la Musique E.2005.3.1) at the time we were examining this Paris lute back in 2004.

It is thought that a large number of old lutes by Laux Maler and Hans Frei ended up in the hands of French lutenists in the seventeenth Century, as they were very highly esteemed. The majority of the surviving instruments by these two masters have an eleven-course string disposition, reflecting this phenomenon.

Above: a version of the Nürnberg Laux Maler lute MI54 which we made in May 2009 for Craig Hartley, an English player in Cambridge, who wanted an instrument which would embody the known typical features of an early sixteenth Century 6-course lute, and he had selected the beautiful MI54 original lute as the model. We made the instrument with a back from highly-figured ash – a typical Maler touch – and a fingerboard from figured pearwood which extends onto the soundboard (a feature seen in many paintings of the period).

In the summer of 2008, we started working on two versions of this lute, which we feel span the historical use of a Maler lute from its origins in the high Renaissance of the early sixteenth Century, to one of its last incarnations, as an instrument much in demand by French lutenists of the second half of the seventeenth Century. Unfortunately, this project was interrupted and had to be temporarily shelved, following the serious accident that Stephen suffered in early July 2008 whilst using a bandsaw; we do plan to complete the instruments when we can find the time, and images of them will appear here in due course.

Laux Maler

The printed label inside MI54 (shown above approximately twice lifesize) reads simply: Laux Maler; none of the Maler labels bear a date or refer to Bologna, the city where he finally settled and achieved his lasting fame.

Laux, or Lucas Maler, originally from Augsburg, is regarded by many as having brought the design of the lute of his day to a point of sublime refinement – effectively defining its shape and form in a way that would be looked back upon for inspiration by another generation of lutemakers working in the later 17th and early 18th Centuries (Schelle, Hoffmann, Tielke et al). The classic 'pearl form' of the soundboard outline (plantila) is generally reckoned to be one of Maler's contributions to the development of the lute. Maler was active between 1518 and 1552; he died on 5th July 1552.

Thomas Mace's well-known acknowledgment of the reputation which was enjoyed by Maler's lutes long after he had died; Mace was writing in 1676.

Returning to the Germanisches Nationalmuseum in January 2002, 16 years after first examining this lute (and 2 days after examining the Gerle lute in Vienna) we were again struck by the Maler's perfection of form, its incredible, perfect, almost invisible rib joints (wood-to-wood, without gap-filling fillets) and the fact that, despite conforming to Thomas Mace's description below (it is indeed pitiful, battered and cracked - but carefully conserved) the integrity of the geometry of its back is quite intact, quite beautiful - and quite inspiring.

The images above show Sandi measuring the back of the GNM Laux Maler MI54 lute in January 2002.

The X-ray image directly above is of the bottom end of the body of the Laux Maler lute, note the accuracy with which the ribs have been jointed beneath the endclasp or capping-strip.

This exquisite instrument has an elegance, completeness and simplicity which still speaks to the modern lutemaker across the centuries, as indeed it did to Sebastian Schelle, working in Nürnberg in the early 18th Century, when he restored and re-necked it, replacing the capping-strip and one edge rib, using the same timber from which Maler built the original back, Hungarian ash ( Blumenesche in German ). Schelle used this wood in the instrument he built dated 1723, now in private hands in Nürnberg, which appears to be closely based on this Maler.

Hungarian ash is often wrongly identified or described as being slab-sawn 'rippled' or 'flamed' ash; it isn't, it has a quite unique and distinctive grain pattern and comes from very special, very rare ash trees. This error has recently been repeated in a description of one of the Lobkowicz Maler lutes (1408E) on page 74 of the 1999 Journal of the American Lute Society, where it is described as: "rippled ash cut on the slab (so-called 'flowered ash')". The truth is that the back of 1408E is made from Hungarian ash, and very, very similar to the wood used for the back of the recently-discovered Maler in France (both of which instruments we have thoroughly examined). Maler clearly had a supply of Hungarian ash – as rare then as it is today – and three of his surviving lute backs are made from it. Slab-sawn rippled ash looks absolutely nothing like true Hungarian ash.

The varnish seen on the lute today may well be Laux Maler's original varnish; this varnish seems to have been held in such high esteem that its recipe was even sought by the Duke of Ferrara, who, on June 20th 1526 requested his ambassador to Venice – Jacopo Tibaldi – to obtain it from his brother Sigismondo Maler: "The magnificent German Sigismondo Maler has promised to have made for me, next Monday in writing, how to make varnish and how to use it on the lute. This same master has said that he has two sorts of varnish, and that his assistants make it and not he himself; thus he has promised to give me, on Monday, the recipe".

Maler was probably settled in Bologna by just after 1500. The following letter makes clear just how widespread his fame was by the 1520's; it was written on March 19th, 1523 by Duke Federigo Gonzaga, who requested his brother, Don Ercole, to obtain a lute by Maler: "Reverend Excellency: Being come into the desire of having a lute made by the hand of Master Laux Maler, who is here in Bologna, we pray you that you would be content to give care to one of your servants to find this Master Laux and to see if he had the thing he made for us, and the price which he is asking for it, notifying him that we would wish a medium lute, that is, it should not be large or small and good in excellence. And in all I foresee you will want to give him warning that we shall send him money to pay for it. To you we recommend ourselves". Duke Federigo Gonzaga was obviously a client of great prestige.

Laux Maler built lutes in a variety of sizes, and the lengthy inventory taken of the contents of his workshop in 1552, compiled a few days after his death on the 5th July, makes very interesting reading: of the 1100 finished or partly-finished lutes in the house and workshop, no less than 356 are described as 'small', 15 of 'medium' size and 635 as 'large'. Furthermore, the list of lute bellies and ribs makes astonishing reading for the modern lutemaker:

2 medium boxes of lute ribs

22 pairs of lute bellies, carved

200 pairs of lute bellies, unworked

272 lute bellies newly carved, in a box

in another box: 192 lute bellies newly carved

in another box: 174 lute bellies newly carved

a large Venetian box: in the said box, 467 lute bellies newly carved

a medium box of lute ribs

a Venetian strongbox full of lute ribs

eight lute bodies

27 lute bellies

It is, of course, open to interpretation just what these descriptions actually mean, but simple arithmetic suggest that a further 1,354 potential lutes are implied here, in addition to the 1100 already listed as finished instruments, making effectively 2,454 instruments in the inventory of the workshop of Laux Maler at the time of his passing. And we know of barely five fragments which survive into the 21st Century, not one of which is in anything like its original condition.

Interestingly, the inventory does not place a value on any of the items listed – including the finished lutes themselves. Maler was clearly able to control the market in terms of the production and supply of his instruments; he knew his and their worth, and died a wealthy man, apparently preoccupied with tending his vineyards . . .

It is a sobering thought – given this astonishingly prolific output, that Constantijn Huyghens (father of the famous astronomer, physicist and mathematician Christiaan, who discovered Saturn's rings and its moon Titan) – writing in 1647, less than a century after Maler's death, declared " And I believe that there are not fifty of them in the whole world: as for here (England) I am certain that there are not six of them". He also wrote: "I must tell you, Monsieur, that all the Bolognese lutes of nine ribs are by Laux Maller, who dies about (one) hundred and twenty years ago, and they are all for the most part of medium size and not suitable for accompanying singing". Huyghens was also interested in keyboard instruments, and there is correspondence between him and De la Barre, organiste du Roi in Paris, from the following year, 1648, in which the two men discuss Flemish transposing double-manual harpsichords and French 'expressive' doubles.

Thomas Mace, writing in The Second, and CIVIL Part: OR The LUTE made Easie of his great book Musick's Monument published in London in 1676, is a treasury of information about the lute of his day; Mace was writing 124 years after Maler had passed away, and at a time when his lutes were being horse-traded for phenomenal sums of money. We've used Mace's own spelling, italics and capitals in the following quotes exactly as the original text presents them:

" There are diversities of Mens Names in Lutes; but the Chief Name we most esteem, is Laux Maller, ever written with Text Letters: Two of which Lutes I have seen (pittifull Old, Batter'd, Crack'd Things) valued at 100 l. a piece. Mr Gootiere, the Famous Lutenist in His Time, shew'd me One of Them, which the King paid 100 l. for. And Mr. Edw. Jones (one of Mr. Gootiere's Scholars) had the other, which He so valued; And made a Bargain with a Merchant, who desired to have It with him in His Travels, (for his Experience;) And if He lik'd It when he returned, was to give Mr. Jones 100 l. for It; But if he Refus'd it at the Price set, he was to return the Lute safe, and to pay 20 l. for His Experience and Use of It, for that Journey. I have often seen Lutes of three or four pounds price, far more Illustrious and Taking, to a common Eye".

He further seems to be referring to Bologna lutes in this quote, on the following page (49):

"The Shape generally esteemed, is the Pearl-Mould; yet I have known very excellent Good Ones of Several Shapes or Moulds: But I do acknowledge for constancy, the Pearl-Mould is Best, both for Sound, and Comliness, as also for the more conveniency in holding or using". Then again observe the Number of Ribbs. The Compleat Number (most esteemed) is Nine; yet there are very Good Ones of several Numbers."

Both the Nürnberg lute MI54 and recently-discovered Maler lute referred to above (now in the Cité de La Musique collection, E.2005.3.1) were clearly built on the same mould, and they have backs made with 9 ribs, in Hungarian Ash.

Ernst Gottlieb Baron, writing in Historisch, Theoretisch und Practische Untersuchung des Instruments der Lauten, (Nürnberg, 1727) stated:

"Lucas Maler is without doubt one of the oldest and best masters who ever made such instruments. He lived in Bologna, together with Hans Frey. It is remarkable that they were working in today's fashion, with the bodies oblong, flat, and wide-ribbed. These lutes are esteemed above all others . . . they command very high prices, because they are rare and have a magnificent tone"

2. After Laux Maler, Bologna, c. 1540 (London, Victoria & Albert Museum, W7. 1940).

11 ribs, in figured sycamore, figured ash or Hungarian ash; neck and pegbox in pear, apple or brown oak; boxwood or figured satinwood fingerboard edged with bone; heart-shaped pegs in either pernambuco, or alternating ebony/pernambuco.**.

A large and elegant body, which we have reconstructed in its probable original form; a beautifully-sonorous and clear-sounding instrument results. A fortunately surviving example of a larger Maler lute, the geometry of which is intact.
String length: 720mm
Pitch: e'

£4200 (£4800 with Hungarian ash ribs).

This version of the London Maler has a highly-figured Hungarian ash back, boxwood fingerboard edged with bone, and a haselfichte soundboard.

Owned by Jim Stimson, Washington DC.

The original lute's back – all that has survived, unfortunately – is usually referred to (by Pohlmann and others) as having been made from mulberry wood (ein Korpus aus 11 Maulbeerbaumholz Spänen); it is in fact figured sycamore, the varnish a pale golden yellow colour.

Interestingly, it very closely resembles an enlarged version of the Lobkowicz Collections Laux Maler lute 655 1931E (Nelahozeves Castle, Bohemia); the geometry of the two instruments is clearly related.

An example of this lute we built back in October 2001 was entirely strung using Nick Baldock's Kathedrale gut strings, and described by Klaus Martius, of the Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Nürnberg, as the most convincing 6-course lute he had ever heard or played (and several years later, the only string which has ever broken is the chanterelle, as one might expect; but all of the others have, according to the owner – a player in Frankfurt am Main – simply mellowed and improved with age).

In May 2002 Klaus took delivery of one of these large Malers himself. Its size and pitch have a 'presence' which, when strung in gut, perhaps begin to explain the preponderence of larger lutes, rather than the modern taste for g' lutes at 600mm. Its Kathedrale strings have also stood the test of time.

A subsequent version – with a birds-eye maple back, also strung with Nick Baldock's Kathredale gut strings – was built for Blair Whitaker, of Denver, Colorado; it was shipped to him in May 2004, and he sent this response upon receiving it:

" I got the lute - the shipping want fine. The instrument is amazing - it SINGS. it is big and has taken some time to understand the new positions for fingering. The basses are Wonderful - the highs are deep and ring on until the strings are muted - I was so impressed with the gut, that I restrung the small a' lute (see Gallery page) in gut and that sounds and feels better as well. Blair Whitaker ".

3. After Hans Frei, Bologna, c. 1540 (Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum C34).

11 ribs, in figured maple (as shown below), figured ash or Hungarian ash; neck and pegbox in pear, apple or brown oak; boxwood or figured satinwood fingerboard edged with bone; heart-shaped pegs in either pernambuco, or alternating ebony/pernambuco.**
String length: 630mm
tch: f#' (g' with a'=415 Hz)

£4000 (£4600 with Hungarian ash ribs).

The version above has a highly-figured maple back, a pearwood neck and pegbox, boxwood fingerboard edged with bone, and pegs made from ebony alternating with pernambuco.

Owned by Anna Langley, Cambridge.

Little is known of Hans Frei, even his dates have never been satisfactorily proven, although it is supposed that he died in 1523. It is known that he worked contemporaneously with Maler in Bologna.

His lutes have a broad similarity in their geometry, but unlike the surviving Maler fragments, they are of differing proportions and outlines. The labels of the instruments listed here are block-printed, although the stylistic character of the individual letters varies.

Nevertheless, the surviving lutes of Hans Frei are very beautiful and elegant instruments, with a similar 'pearl form' to the Malers; the rose design of the Warwick Hans Frei lute is quite simply one of the most beautiful of all of the surviving old lute roses.

References to Laux Maler and Hans Frei in the Mary Burwell lute tutor of 1660

This well-known manuscript tutor for the eleven-course baroque lute was published in facsimile in 1974 by Boethius Press, at the instigation of the late, great Robert Spencer. The book was either written by Mary Burwell (born in 1654, married in 1672) or by her mother Elizabeth (1613-1678); it is possible that the lute teacher whose comments are transcribed was John Rogers, who taught the lute in London.

There are several comments concerning the lute, and some echo Mace's remarks in Musick's Monument (1676). The following remark, quoted from the first paragraph of the 2nd Chapter of the Mary Burwell Lute Tutor (c. 1660-72, page 3) – titled Of The Increase of the Lute and its Shape – makes very interesting reading:

" . . . . besides all Bolonia Lutes are in the shape of a pare and those are the best Lutes but there goodness is not attributed to there figure but to their antiquity; to the Skill of those Lutemakers to the quality of the wood and seasoning of it and to the varnishing of it. The Bolonia Lutes are knowne by there shape and varnish which is darkish red. Laux Mauller and Hunts Frith have beene the twoe cheifest Lutemakers that have lived at Bolonia who have rendered there names immortall by the melodious sound of that famous Instrument and will still make them resound through all the earth as long as it will please God to maineteyne the harmony of the universe"

Mary Burwell refers to both Laux Maler and Hans Frei, but it would be interesting to know just how many of their lutes were still in use in England at the time she was writing: the teenage lutenist had obviously heard from her teacher just how valued these old Bologna lutes were, yet Constantijn Huygens – writing only a couple of decades previously – commented that he believed that there were only 6 Maler lutes surviving in England (interestingly, he didn't mention Frei).

4. After Hans Frei, Bologna, c. 1540 (Warwick County Museum Nr. 162).

11 ribs, in figured maple or birds-eye maple; neck and pegbox in pear, apple or brown oak; boxwood or figured satinwood fingerboard edged with bone; heart-shaped pegs in either pernambuco, or alternating ebony/pernambuco.**
String length: 720mm
Pitch: e'


This lute has a very beautiful and unique rose design (shown below) and a beautifully-proportioned and elegant back – quite different in concept to its sister Hans Frei instruments KHM C33 & C34. Interestingly, like both C34 and C33, it exists today as a conversion to 11 courses.

The instrument shown above – strung with Nick Baldock's 'Kathedrale' gut strings – has a back from figured maple of a very similar grain to that of the original; the rose is copied from that of the original lute, and we have reconstructed the probable neck length, the style of the neck and pegbox taken from surviving instruments and iconography. The fingerboard is from figured satinwood, edged with bone; the fingerboard extends onto the soundboard, as many 16th Century lute fingerboards seem to have done, as depicted in contemporary paintings. The fixed wooden body frets had not been fitted when the photographs were taken.

Owned by Ron Andrico and Donna Stewart, of Spencer, New York, who emailed us after receiving it, in February 2006:

"It's incredibly beautiful, like something that belongs in a museum, and it sounds just as good. We love it. It arrived in excellent condition thanks to your careful packing; the carton was barely even scratched. The lute is quite beautiful, the bookmatching of the bowl was done well, creating a wonderful shimmering effect that I can see from across the room this very minute. The rose is one of the best I've seen and I may have logged more time staring at the carving than I have playing the lute so far. More to the point, the lute sounds great. It is a little frightening to hear an instrument sound so well, fresh out of the shipping carton. I played through some of my favourite six-course music, which I have been neglecting for far too long, and had very little problem adjusting to the longer string length. Donna says the lute matches her voice, light and dark at the same time. We read through some early chansons we are preparing for an upcoming program and the polyphony is clear and transparent. Thanks for working with us to make an idea a reality".

In September 2009, Donna and Ron – referring to the lute shown above – sent us this entertaining account of an encounter with the director of classical music at their local radio station:

"Hi Stephen and Sandi, we have been meaning to write to you for months to relate an amusing story. Oh, sure – your lutes sound splendid, but did you know that they have the power to hypnotize otherwise sane, articulate people?

We were being interviewed live on a public radio station some months ago, by a DJ who has hosted us in studio several times before – the classical music director for the station, who is himself a musician. He had invited us to talk up an upcoming concert, and to sing and play a bit in their spiffy new studio set up for just such live performances. The DJ – who you must understand is a seasoned broadcasting professional with nearly 30 years of on-air experience – was utterly flabbergasted by the beauty of Ron's E lute.

He sat there transfixed, staring at the lute and babbling rather incoherently about how he wished the listeners could see it. He had someone come in and photograph it so he could put pictures on his blog. In fact, he proceeded to break what must be every rule of good radio . . . talking and talking and talking about something the listeneres could not see. He asked all about what kind of woods were in it, and he cooed over the adorable heart-shaped pegs, and he kept saying over and over: "I just wish everyone cold SEE this . . . it's such a beautiful instrument . . . I've never seen anything like this. It's so . . . beautiful . . ."

We practically had to hit him over the head to get him to remember that it also makes some extraordinarily lovely sounds, and that we were prepared to demonstrate this remarkable function as well. We left the station and laughed all the way home. I don't know what you're putting in those things, but it's pretty powerful.

All the best, Ron & Donna".

5.  After Hans Frei, c. 1550 (Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum C.33).

9 ribs, in birds-eye maple; neck and pegbox in pear, apple or brown oak; boxwood or figured satinwood fingerboard edged with bone; heart-shaped pegs in either pernambuco, or alternating ebony/pernambuco.**
String length: 680mm
Pitch: f'


A lute with certain similarities to the instrument depicted in Hans Holbein's The Ambassadors (1533, London, National Gallery) which also appears to have ribs from birds-eye maple. Slightly larger than its sister instrument in the same collection (No.3 above) which has an 11-rib back.

6.  After Hans Frei, Bologna, c. 1540 (Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum C.37).

11 ribs, in yew (with holly lines between the ribs), figured maple or figured ash; neck and pegbox in pear, apple or brown oak; boxwood or figured satinwood fingerboard edged with bone; heart-shaped pegs in either pernambuco, or alternating ebony/pernambuco.**
String length: 520mm
Pitch: a#' (or a')


A very pretty little instrument, very similar in general proportion to the larger C.34 lute in the same collection, it has been attributed to Hans Frei, although it has no label; the original has a yew heartwood back with ivory lines between the ribs. It is at present converted to a gallichon, but its original neck-block seems to be intact, indicating its probable original 6-course set-up; its size makes possible tuning to either a' or a#'.

7. After Georg Gerle, Innsbruck, c. 1550 (Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum A35).

11 ribs, in figured maple, figured ash or Hungarian ash; neck and pegbox in pear, apple or brown oak; boxwood or figured satinwood fingerboard edged with bone; heart-shaped pegs in either pernambuco, or alternating ebony/pernambuco, or plumwood, as the original lute has**
String length: 600mm
Pitch: g'



Also available as a 'negative image' of the original (which has ivory ribs and an ivory-veneered neck, pegbox & fingerboard with ebony and green horn inlays). Sandi's version has a back in ebony, with holly spacers; the neck, pegbox and fingerboard are veneered with bone and green horn, the ebony & bone inverting the ivory & ebony of the original. It looks stunning, and sounds fabulous !

£4800 as shown above, left and below (ie with ebony ribs)

The lute back above, centre, is made from a wildly-figured variety of ash from Sherwood Forest, England. (A version is also available decorated as above, top right – with its neck, pegbox & fingerboard veneered with mammoth ivory – to special order; we will quote for this according to the cost of the material).

The ebony instrument shown above was made in March 2005 for Simon Lilley, of Bolton, England.

This is the only known surviving instrument by Georg Gerle (c. 1520-1591), an emminent member of the Füssener lute-making tradition. He was born in Immenthal, to the north of Füssen, and he worked in Füssen, where he was a founding-member of the guild of lutemakers there – from 1548, when he married – until 1567. He moved to Innsbruck in 1567, where he held the combined post of instrument maker and organ regulator (Kalkant) for the court chapel of Duke Ferdinand of Tyrol (1529-1595). He had become sufficiently successful to have bought a house in the Pradl district of Innsbruck in 1586, and also some land at Pinswang Ober, south of Howenschangau and Füssen, in the Tyrol. Gerle died in 1591.

The lute is mentioned thus, in the Schloss Ambras inventory of 1596, where it remained until 1806: Eine weisz helfenbainere lauten mit schwarzen Strichen.

Duke Ferdinand is known to have played the lute and is referred to as having particularly favoured one made of ivory – perhaps this exquisite lute by Gerle.

A suggestion has been published in recent years that this instrument is a fake, or made to satisfy the whim of a collector a long time after such six-course lutes were originally made; there is no evidence whatsoever for this claim. The most likely explanation for its design is that Gerle – who made a variety of instruments, keyboards as well as lutes – was building in a style which he was accustomed to from his earlier years. It has to be borne in mind that the six-course lute was still being played in the German-speaking lands at the time, so it would not be so unlikely that Gerle could have received a commission for such an instrument.

Whereas it is of course vital to approach an evaluation of any old lute with an open and inquiring mind, we are satisfied that the Gerle lute is exactly what it appears to be – a genuine and fortunately intact example of a particular style of 16th Century Füssener six-course lute design.

The set of images above shows a copy we made in 1993 (with a back from figured ash, its neck veneered with mammoth ivory and green horn) alongside the original ivory-backed Gerle lute. These photos were taken in January 2002 when we re-measured and photographed the Gerle in the Kunsthistorischesmuseum, Vienna; these are genuine images, not produced in Photoshop. The 1993 lute was owned by Ruth McIntyre, a former student of the late great Tom Finucane.

Above: a recent version of the Gerle lute was made for Ammun Luca, an Australian sculptor, who sent us this message after having had the opportunity to play the instrument for several weeks:

"I did not have time when I last wrote to fully convey my appreciation for the wonderful instrument you have made for me. Regarding the Ash back, the photos did not convey the beautiful, almost three-dimensional quality of the grain. Each rib has been chosen and laid with such a view for the balance of the patterning; it is really beautiful. The crispness of sound I desired is certainly there and the different balance that the gut strings give across the registers has shaped the way I play and the different emphasis I give to the voices. The action and string spacing are absolutely perfect (despite my initial fears).

Initially the basses seemed a bit unyielding but after some playing-in they have warmed up well. The only tiny change I have made was to bump up the gauge slightly on the first course and the 'f' octave. The top course only lasts about 2 hours with me so I have ordered some Nylgut for practice. Incidentally, the gut has proved to be much more stable than I expected.

I can honestly say that in this past year about the only thing that has given me joy and soothed my soul is the time (hours every day) spent playing this instrument. Later in the year I will be taking the lute down to Adeleide, my old home town, to play for some lutenists and a luthier I know. I am sure they will be as impressed as I am by the quality of your workmanship. Kind Regards, Ammun".

Here are more images of Ammun's lute; the beautiful, swirling patterns of the Hungarian Ash we used can be cleerly seen:

8. After Magno dieffopruchar, Venice, c.1550 (collection of J & A Beare Ltd, London).

9 ribs, in figured maple, figured ash or rosewood; neck and pegbox in pear, apple or brown oak; boxwood or figured satinwood fingerboard edged with bone; heart-shaped pegs in either pernambuco, or alternating ebony/pernambuco.**

String length: 630mm
Pitch: f#'


A very elegant instrument with beautiful yet simple proportions, and bearing the earliest known example of the famous 'Tieffenbrucker knot' rose design.

(The label has the family name printed with a lower case letter 'd', as quoted above).

The first ever modern copy of the Magno dieffopruchar six-course lute from the Beare collection, made by Stephen in May 1981, whilst measuring the original (which was open) in our workshop. The case - its design inspired by lute cases seen in many old paintings and engravings - is made of wood, with a felt lining to protect the lute back; the lid is lined with a marbled paper made by a friend who is a conservator at the National Gallery, London.

The lute above – built in 1987 – has a back made from figured, rippled ash, colour varnished; the neck, pegbox and fingerboard are brown oak, the fingerboard edges are bone, and the pegs are bone alternating with ebony.

One of the few known surviving lutes by this member of the illustrious family from Tieffenbrück near Füssen. Like the Gerle, the original instrument has a back made of ivory, with an ivory-veneered neck, pegbox and fingerboard.

We have an ongoing project to build a series of lutes inspired by the Raimond Fugger inventory of 1566, in which are listed instruments whose backs are made from various exotic, precious materials, including ivory, sandalwood and ebony; this series of lutes will also include examples built from materials such as Hungarian ash and Holbein maple.

Our edition uses this Magno dieffoprucher lute as the model, and the first 4 in the series were built from bamboo, sandalwood (mentioned in Fugger), palmwood (cocos nucifera) and strikingly-figured afzelia.

A version of this instrument (with figured pearwood ribs) was made in April 2004 for Jean Wirth, of Geneva, who wrote to us thus after receiving the instrument:

"Chers Sandi et Stephen, Me voici de retour à Genève avec le luth. J'ai pu le jouer quelque peu depuis samedi et j'ai dû m'interrompre tout-à-l'heure, car la chanterelle a sauté. Je ne prétend pas encore le connaître, mais j'en suis déjà extrêmement content. Visuellement, il est très beau, même si j'ai été surpris en le découvrant, car je l'imaginais plus rouge. La raison est sans doute dans la langue, car "red" et "rouge" n'ont pas exactement le même sens! En ce qui concerne le son, cela correspond exactement au souvenir des luths que j'avais essayé chez vous et donc à la raison que j'avais de le commander. Je trouve particulièrement remarquable la tenue des notes et la clarité des basses qui donnent une grande lisibilité au contrepoint, mais aussi l'équilibre entre les registres. Merci très chaleureusement. Vous aurez encore de mes nouvelles. Jean".

Another was made for Matthew Weinman, of New Jersey, USA (a former student of Pat O'Brien) who emailed us:

"I have never played its equal and it is very beautiful. It is so easy to play it's scary. It has not even begun to 'open up' and it already sounds like a seasoned well played instrument. I did not know that any instrument this size could be so resonant. In short, the lute has exceeded my expectations – I now have been introduced to an entirely new class of instrument". Having played the instrument for several months, Matthew recently told us that "My 6-course 'purple heart' is unbelievable. It is already blossoming into simply the best instrument I have ever heard. All who hear and see it cannot believe how well it 'speaks' and how warm the sound is".

Matthew's version of this lute – made from purpleheart – is shown in the top of the upper part of this composite image, and at the bottom of the lower part. The other instrument is made from pink ivorywood.

9.  After Moises Tiefenbrucker, Venice, c. 1540 (München, Stadtmuseum 41/201).

11 ribs, in figured poplar (as original), figured maple or figured ash; neck and pegbox in pear, apple or brown oak; boxwood or figured satinwood fingerboard edged with bone; heart-shaped pegs in either pernambuco, or alternating ebony/pernambuco.**
String length: 630mm
Pitch: f#'


One of the few known surviving lutes by this member of the illustrious family from Tieffenbruck near Füssen, it has a 'flattened' but full body profile.

10.  Lute Society Six Course   (designed for the Lute Society by Stephen Barber in 1982)

11 ribs in figured maple, birds-eye maple, figured ash or Hungarian ash; neck and pegbox in pear, apple or brown oak; boxwood or figured satinwood fingerboard edged with bone; heart-shaped pegs in either pernambuco, or alternating ebony/pernambuco.**
String length: 600mm
Pitch: g'


Similar to the Gerle lute, but with a slightly fuller body; this 1982 design of Stephen's – commissioned by Christopher Wilson for the Lute Society – has been built hundreds of times by professional and amateur lutemakers around the world.

The lute above has a back made from figured pearwood, striped with plum; its fingerboard is boxwood, and the rose has parchment detailing in its central area; the soundboard half-edging, extending to just above the rosette on both bass and treble sides, is red satiné.

11.  After a lute labelled "in Padov 1595"  (ex-Robert Spencer collection)

9 ribs, in pear, plum, apple, figured maple, Holbein maple or Hungarian ash; neck and pegbox in pear, apple or brown oak; boxwood or figured satinwood fingerboard edged with bone; heart-shaped pegs in either pernambuco, or alternating ebony/pernambuco.**
String length: 576mm
Pitch: g'

A smaller g' lute, suitable for players who experience discomfort playing a larger instrument.

£4000 in fruitwood or figured maple – £4600 with Hungarian Ash or Holbein maple ribs.

(A seven-course version is also available, at £4000 with figured maple ribs and £4600 with Hungarian ash ribs)

The back of the lute above is made from a very rare type of maple which we call 'Holbein' maple, since its grain closely resembles that of the lute in Hans Holbein's famous 1533 painting 'The Ambassadors'. Its fingerboard is boxwood edged with bone, with bone fingerboard points, pernambuco heart-shaped pegs, a Haselfichte (figured Bavarian spruce) soundboard, and a neck and pegbox made from Mountain Ash (a Sorbus species, known in Germany as 'Elsbeere'). The instrument has been fitted with a bone strap button, for the player's convenience.

The back of the six-course example on the left is made from Hungarian ash, that of the seven-course on the right from plum (plum is what the original lute appears to be made from).

Shown above is a 7-course version of this beautiful lute, owned by Douglas Goodhart, of Kansas; Doug emailed us after receiving the lute:

"Hi Stephen and Sandi, well, the lute arrived this morning. It arrived in perfect condition; I must say that I like everything about this lute. It is on the bright side, which I like, is even and projects wonderfully. You really did a great job on the set-up; it plays absolutely effortlessly. The neck is a dream to play, the finish and choice of wood is outstanding. Bravo and thanks so much. I like the trebles, but I've changed the basses to gut fundamentals and Nylgut octaves; I think it sounds great like that, but I will continue to experiment, for fun and to see what happens".

We've built 7-course versions of many of the lutes shown on this page – such as the instrument shown above – using 'early' 16th Century features such as heart-shaped pegs, 'flower' - ended bridges and plain, unveneered necks and pegboxes (in this case German Elsbeere – known in England as Mountain Ash, a sorbus species) with a light-coloured timber for the fingerboard, as shown here. The instrument above has a back from 'Holbein' maple and a figured satinwood fingerboard, edged with bone*.

A recent 7-course version of this lute was sent to Jean Paul Tran, a lutenist in Grasse, France, who wrote after receiving it:

"Dear Sandi and Stephen, after picking up the lute at my father's house, I spent the evening tuning and playing this wonderful instrument. It is well-balanced and easy to play. The timbre is delightful. I love the chanterelle, so easy to play. This lute is the perfect size for me, it fits me in every aspect. I really love its early 16th Century design. The fingerboard, soundboard and rosace are 'magnifiques', as we say in French. Thank you so much for this wonderful lute. Kindest regards, Jean Paul Tran".

The original 'in Padov' lute

The original instrument is a very important surviving fragment of 16th Century lute construction: the soundboard of this very interesting and beautifully-proportioned lute originally had only five main original bars, two between the rose and block, two between the rose and bridge and one below the bridge, and no main bar through the rose centre (just four small supporting bars which extended just beyond the rose aperture). Originally from the Sebastian Isepp collection, it was acquired in 1969 by Robert Spencer; at this point, it was fitted with 8 courses and had a long neck which could hold ten tied frets (with the eleventh just on the body) probably dating from the early 18th Century – possibly indicating a conversion at that time to a mandora – since removed from the instrument following a modern conversion.

The black & white photographs montaged here below were originally taken in 1970, just after the lute was first acquired by Bob Spencer; the relatively long neck fitted at this point can be seen to be much longer than when the lute was subsequently sold in 1983, and its length has remained unchanged since, so far as we are aware.

Original neck


Bob had the neck shortened, and another 8-course bridge was added, along with a replacement, plain ebony fingerboard, the existing panelled fingerboard (inlaid with ebony, other dark hardwoods and ivory) being removed. The five main bars seemed to have been fitted at the same time, and also seemed to be original; their grain was very similar and the manner in which their ends were chiselled away was identical and consistent. The original string length was around 620mm, although the exact position of the front edge of the original 16th Century bridge – removed and replaced long before Bob acquired the lute in 1969 – was uncertain.

Vintage lute

This lute has passed through the hands of several owners since Bob sold it in 1973. Along the way, it has been speculatively (and almost certainly erroneously) attributed to 'Martin Presbyter', but the hand-written label fragment is probably that of a repairer; the lute seems to date from much earlier in the 16th Century. There are no known authenticated, genuine labels by 'Martin Presbyter' with which to compare the fragment which survives in this instrument, so any attribution to 'Presbyter' must be treated with caution.

An important instrument, it has a very interesting rose, recalling Moorish mosaic patterns, and clearly visible here in the red-tinted panel in the composite image above are traces of a painted pattern of arabesques on the soundboard around it, following the tracery of the rose.

There were also traces on the soundboard of an earlier bridge with rounded ends (now sadly obliterated forever by the most recent 'restoration'). Stephen first measured it back in 1973, and we again measured and photographed it in April 1989 (when it was in a London auction house, awaiting sale) using our specially-designed machine for accurately recording the geometry of its back, to supplement the internal documentation we already possessed from 1973.

*Sebastian Virdung, the Heidelberg-born publisher, mentions that the 7-course lute existed as early as 1511 (in his treatise on instruments, Musica Getutscht, Basel).

The instrument shown above is a 7c version of the 'in Padov' lute, and was bought by Thomas Höhne on June 3rd 2009; its back is made from figured Hungarian ash, and the fingerboard is satinwood edged with bone. The instrument was fitted with heart-shaped pernambuco tuning-pegs, We feel that this interpretation gets quite close to the spirit of the original lute in its 16th Century configuration (albeit without the arabesques painted on the soundboard around the rose).

12.  Lute for g' tuning (own design)

11 ribs, in figured ash or figured maple; pear, apple or brown oak neck and pegbox; boxwood or figured satinwood fingerboard edged with bone; heart-shaped pegs in either pernambuco, or alternating ebony/pernambuco.**

String length: 584mm
Pitch: g'


13. Lute for a' tuning (own design)

11 ribs, in figured ash or figured maple; neck and pegbox in pear, apple or brown oak; boxwood fingerboard edged with bone; heart-shaped pegs in either pernambuco, or alternating ebony/pernambuco.**
String length: 540mm
Pitch: a'


The lute above is made from lightly-figured Hungarian ash striped with rippled ash, with a walnut neck and pegbox; its fingerboard is figured satinwood edged with bone, and the heart-shaped pegs are from ebony alternating with pernambuco.


The lute directly above is made from strongly-figured Hungarian ash, the ribs cut in sequence from the same block of wood; it has a pearwood neck and pegbox; its fingerboard is boxwood edged with bone, and the heart-shaped pegs are from ebony alternating with pernambuco.

(£4600 with highly-figured Hungarian ash ribs as shown here, above).

Above: three 6-course a' lutes photographed in Peacock Yard in February 2011; the one in the centre has a back made from Hungarian ash, and was ordered by Andrei Vanazzi, a Brazilian lutenist. The instrument on the right has a back made from consecutively-sawn slices of highly-figured ash very simlar to Hungarian ash, and was recently sent to Stanislaus Germain Thérien in Quebec. The third lute (on the left) is owned by us, and it has a striped back made from two cuts of figured ash; we keep this lute at the workshop for visitors to try,

Andrei Vanazzi, a player in Brazil who we sent a recent version of this lute to (a regular order from our waiting-list, rather than an instrument sold from this page) wrote to us thus upon receiving his new lute:

"Dear Sandi and Stephen, the lute is amazing, again congratulations for your work. It has a beatiful and smooth sound. It is an instrument that makes every single note clear not only making it ideal for playing polyphony, but also it is an instrument that can easily be played at speed without losing the "angelical beauty" of the lute. I'll be happy to indicate you to other lutenists in Brazil and Latin America that I know and will meet in the future. Once again thank you for having received Michelle in your office and having the patience to make business with me. Being a musician in Brazil, it is really difficult, especially when you're in a sector not much known here in my country, such as early music. I wish you all the best".

(the lute was collected on Andrei's behalf by a friend of his who was studying in London at the time, Michelle de Castro).

Please visit the Gallery to view three further examples of this instrument, photographed together in 2002.

14. After Friedrich Prÿffer, Bayern (?) 1546 (Eisenach, Wartburg Inventar-Nr. KH51)

9 ribs, in figured maple, figured ash or Hungarian ash; neck and pegbox in pear, apple or brown oak; boxwood fingerboard edged with bone; rose with a bold, chip-carved design surrounding it and a delicate stamped corona of 'sunrays' surrounding the whole; heart-shaped pegs in either pernambuco, or alternating ebony/pernambuco.**
String length: 732mm
Pitch: e'


Friedrich Prÿffer is otherwise unrecorded, but it is thought that he worked in Bavaria; the handwritten label simply gives his name and the year 1546. Wolfgang Wenke, who restored the instrument in Eisenach in 1995-96, suggests that Prÿffer is probably the actual maker, since a later faker would probably have attempted to reproduce a label bearing the name of a known lutemaker, rather than attribute the lute to the obscure Prÿffer. Interestingly, its rose bears a remarkable resemblance in style and execution to roses on lutes by Laux Maler (Nürnberg, GNM MI54, and a recently-discovered lute by Maler in France). Recent dendrochronological examination has established a link between the soundboard of this lute and that of the recently-discovered Laux Maler lute in France, as well as bowed stringed instruments by Jakob Stainer and Andrea Amati, the timber perhaps originating in the Bayerischer Wald.

15.  After Laux Maler, Bologna, c. 1550 (Nürnberg, Germanisches Nationalmuseum MI54).

9 ribs, in figured ash or Hungarian ash; neck and pegbox in pear, apple or brown oak; boxwood fingerboard edged with bone; heart-shaped pegs in either pernambuco, or alternating ebony/pernambuco.**
String length: 610mm
Pitch: g'

£4000 (£4600 with Hungarian ash ribs).

Last of the Maler lutes listed here – but by no means least – this is our version of a 'small' Maler lute, and it is based on the beautiful lute in the Nürnberg GNM collection, MI54. It has proved very popular with players who desire a Maler lute, but one which can be played at g' (a'=440 Hz) pitch.

Laux Maler built lutes in a variety of sizes, and the inventory taken of the contents of his workshop in 1552, compiled a few days after his death on the 5th July, makes very interesting reading: of the 1007 finished or partly-finished lutes in the house and workshop, no less than 356 are described as 'small'.

Although, of course, one can never be absolutely sure what is meant by 'small', the few Maler lutes which survive (and all of those are in an altered condition), are all instruments which would produce a string length of 670mm and above. We have therefore developed this model (first built in 1982), closely based on the Nürnberg lute, in order to meet the demand for a 'small' Maler lute.

An example of this model which we built in 1994 was included in the 1996 Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Nürnberg, exhibition: Leopold Widhalm une der Nürnberger Lauten-und Geigenbau; it was chosen to demonstrate a faithful modern interpretation of a Maler lute – the context being that both Leopold Widhalm and his father-in-law Sebastian Schelle worked on many old Bologna lutes, and were clearly inspired by them – as are we today.

The well-known woodcut (below) by Dürer, The Draughtsman And The Lute from his book: 'Treatise on Mensuration with the Compass and Ruler in Lines, Planes, and Whole Bodies' (1525) seems to us to illustrate what may well be a Maler lute – even its visible capping-strip end closely resembles those of the instrument in the Victoria & Albert museum collection, London.

The Draughtsman And The Lute, by Albrecht Dürer, 1525.

Note that the plane of the soundboard and fingerboard of the lute are more or less parallel to the surface on which it rests; this feature can be observed over and over again in iconography, and the two surviving 6-course lutes which have their original necks and pegboxes – the Gerle and the Tieffenbrucker (see Nos. 7 & 8 above) display this characteristic, where the length of the pegbox is almost the same as the depth of the body. This allows the instrument to be laid down on a flat surface in balance (see also the lute in the 1533 Holbein painting The Ambassadors, a detail of which is shown a little further down this page).

The thickness measurements of original lute soundboards, and modern 'copies'

We were – at the time of writing the following – the only modern lutemakers who had closely examined and documented all five of the surviving Laux Maler lute fragments – including a recently-discovered instrument in a private collection in France, which we were invited to examine, measure and give an opinion on in February 2004 and again in May. It is very similar in size and shape to the Nürnberg instrument (with an identical rose, although its axis is rotated through 60 degrees – the two lutes were very likely made on the same mould.) but its soundboard is in much better condition – and the quality of the rose cutting and carving is indeed superior to that of the GNM example.

Its existence is very bad news indeed for many modern lutemakers, who seem to insist on slavishly copying the thicknesses of surviving instruments' soundboards (usually only read from museum drawings, rather than by personal observation and measurement) apparently without stopping to think through the implications of what they are doing in terms of understanding the evidence – and of course failing to realise that the vast majority of old lutes have had their soundboards 'cleaned' and thereby thinned by various 'restorers' and dealers over the years (and not even stopping to ponder the simple fact that there is absolutely no way of knowing just how stiff the particular piece of wood they are 'copying' was in the first place, as it was worked by the original maker). Several years ago, we were sitting having coffee with colleagues in the musical instrument restoration lab of a well-known German museum, when a certain English lutemaker telephoned, demanding to know if one of their drawings – of a well-known 16th Century lute belly (no prizes for working out which museum and which lute) – was accurate; when he was asked why he was so exercised by this, his response was that he planned to make an exact copy, including following the extant soundboard thicknesses to the dot. It was the best laugh we'd all had for some time; the restorer who fielded the call wished him luck . . . we subsequently saw the resultant instrument, when we were asked to do something about its collapsed soundboard; it was – 9 months after construction – beyond any reasonable economic repair, and we sent the unfortunate owner back to the maker, and suggested that he asked him about a certain telephone call.

Many modern makers pontificate that lute soundboards should be very thin, and go on to build instruments which collapse after only a few short years or less, with an attendant and irrevocable loss of sound and playability. This recently-discovered Maler's belly is more than 2mm thick over a large area of its surface – and the dendrochronology has located its youngest year-ring to 1529 and its eldest to 1349 (with significant cross-matches for other early instruments including those by Jakob Stainer, Andrea Amati and Friedrich Prÿffer).

Perhaps this Maler might finally help to nail once and for all the widely-practised but misguided modern habit of making lute soundboards – and the soundboards of other historical plucked instruments – paper-thin (and then wondering why they don't last). Maler's lutes were being used two centuries after he died - for the simple reason that their sound was highly-prized and obviously had longevity – possibly not something achieved by blindly copying a soundboard thickness which may be as little as 0.9mm or less from a museum drawing, and expecting it to work, or last . . .

The opinion that we've always held – that the soundboards of old lutes were probably originally significantly thicker than they now present to us – would appear to have been more than vindicated by this instrument.

Thomas Mace yet again provides insight into the longevity of old lutes which were still being played in his day:

"Yet we see, that many Lutes there are, of a Great Age, and I myself have at this present, a Lute made of Ayre, that is above 100 years old, a very strong and Tite Lute, and may yet last 100 or 200 years more, provided it can be kept according to This careful Order prescribed".

Having in June 2004 closely examined the two Laux Maler lutes in the Lobkowicz Collections at Nelahozeves Castle, Bohemia, our deep respect for Maler as the father of all lutemakers has been more than confirmed.

In preparation:

16.  After Hans Holbein, 1533 (London, National Gallery; maker and provenance of lute unknown).

13 ribs, in a uniquely-figured European maple; neck and pegbox in maple; boxwood fingerboard; pegs in boxwood, shaped and carved as in the painting.
String length: 600mm
Pitch: g'


The back of this instrument is being made from a very rare and unusually-figured European maple species, which closely resembles the timber of the lute depicted in the Hans Holbein 1533 painting The Ambassadors (London, National Gallery – see below). We recently obtained a supply of this timber, and we will continue working on a lute closely based on this famous painting, as time allows; we will post further details here when more progress has been made. Since 2004, we have made nine instruments using it; this hard and very white maple seemed to give a crispness to their sound which we would associate with a hard maple or ash – favoured by the illustrious early 16th Century lute makers Hans Frei and Laux Maler. We feel we can press ahead with confidence and make a 'copy' of the famous Ambassadors lute – now that we are sure we have finally located the timber so accurately painted by Holbein. It's just a matter of finding the time in a very busy schedule.

The lute in the Hans Holbein painting The Ambassadors of 1533 has long been the subject of fascination, speculation and intrigue to modern lutemakers, and now that the cleaned and restored painting is once again on show in the National Gallery, it is possible to study closely both the instrument and its accompanying case in considerable detail. The painting - executed on 10 vertically-joined fine-grained oak panels is now visible behind glass, although the exhibition of 1997-98 at the National Gallery afforded a unique and unprecedented opportunity to closely examine its details, for those fortunate to be able to visit it.

For most of the 20th Century, the painting was obscured by over-varnishing, to which had adhered accumulated grime and muck; the recent restoration, whilst causing controversy and raging debate in the conservation and art history world, has nevertheless allowed us an unobstructed view of the surface of the painting, and to properly consider, evaluate and attempt historical attributution of the objects depicted - many of which were effectively obscured from study by experts and other interested parties - in probably as close to its original state as current techniques and research allow. The restoration team assure us that the colours we see now are pretty much as Holbein's brushes drew them.

A highly-recommended book, "Making and Meaning - Holbein's Ambassadors" by Susan Foister, Ashok Roy and Martin Wyld, published by National Gallery Publications (and distributed by Yale University Press) and available from the Gallery and other outlets, describes the painting and its restoration in considerable detail, for those interested in this superb and important work. Its ISBN number is: 1-85709-173-6.


Several interesting details emerge from a close study of the painting: the lute itself, seen in foreshortening and viewed from the pegbox end, is laying on its back on the lower of two shelves, in the lower centre of the painting, soundboard uppermost. It is a 6-course instrument which, judging from the size of the two figures and the other objects, would appear to be about the size of a g' or f'-sharp lute of, say, between 590-640mm. It is, of course, impossible to be precise about this, since the exact height of the two men - Georges de Selve (bishop of Lavaur) and Jean de Dinteville (French ambassador to the court of Henry VIII) is not known.

It is set up with 11 pegs, with the first course single, and the lower courses 4-6 clearly with octave stringing (the octave string of the 4th course is broken, and lies undulating across the belly). It is very blond in appearance, very probably a maple, its 13-rib back appears to be from a wood of similar grain to the maple we obtained in late 2004, probably lightly varnished or oiled; the colouring of the neck, fingerboard, pegbox, nut and back are very close in hue and tone, although the back is a little lighter.

Having wondered for many years if we'd ever find anything like this maple, we stumbled across it whilst searching for something else (in Romania); it is like a cross between a quilted maple, birds-eye and a burr, with a gentle but definite 'three-dimensional' character. The timber Holbein painted must have been of European origin, and not a North American maple, because birds-eye maple – which only grows in the north-eastern United States – simply was not known in Europe in 1533. Anybody familiar with the painting will know the effect, clearly seen in the images above, where it can be seen in comparison with the timber we recently obtained, used in the three lower images on a 10-course version of a Hans Frei lute, also from the early 16th Century (which would, of course, have originally been a 6-course itself).

The neck, which has a deep, 'parabola' section similar to that found on the only two surviving six-course lutes with their original necks intact (by Georg Gerle of Innsbruck and Magno dieffopruchar of Venice respectively, both working later in the 16th Century than the 1533 date of the painting) seems to be constructed in one piece with the fingerboard. The shape of the pegs is very interesting, in that it recalls the hilt design of what are usually referred to as "bollock daggers" (in armour collections such as the Tower of London and Schloss Ambras, Innsbruck, for example).

The pegbox of the Holbein lute, showing the distinctive and unique 'bollock' pegs; also visible is the first fret, a double-tied fret. The deep 'parabola' neck section is also seen in this detail, along with the gut strings – curiously very thin where the basses are concerned – (see the comments under ' Historical gut and metal strings – some observations and thoughts' further down this page).

Unfortunately for the modern lutemaker, the rose design is not fully recognisable, although it appears to be a version of the 'Tieffenbrucker knot', and the bridge design is similarly not easy to be absolutely sure about. The deep fluting of the ribs an effect caused by the shrinkage of parchment used as a lining over the rib joints (and one which manifests itself over a relatively-short period of time) is very accurately rendered, with the outer rib (bass side only visible) wider than the inner ones, as one would expect. There are 8 tied frets, relatively thin, in what appears to be a double-fret arrangement (ie each fret passes twice around the neck) and no soundboard frets on what looks like a very clean belly. The pegbox, of a very practical design, is provided with plenty of room to tie the strings; Stephen drew this design on the 6-course lute drawn for the Lute Society in 1982 as a possible pegbox design.

Images will appear here when the first lute is finished.

Definitely not in preparation:

101.  Prunklaute (formerly a 6-course lute . . .) 1593

(Stuttgart, Württemburgisches Landesmuseum, Inv. Nr. G14298)

11 ribs, in chased and gilded copper (Niello-work – probably made in Augsburg); Macassar ebony soundboard, surrounded by a brass rim with an engraved inscription; gilded brass rose.

String length: 680mm (its probable original 6-course disposition – please refer to description below)
Pitch: f'

This incredible object seems to have started off as a 6-course lute, intended for use in a pageant or a processional event (hence its museum description as a Prunktheorbe – its 13-course pegbox arrangement being mis-catalogued, as usual, as a theorbe); it has been suggested that this Wunderkammer instrument was possibly made for King James of England. Think of Dürer's engravings of the lutenists sitting in their splendid cart, in Maximillian's procession of 1515, and you'll get the idea. It was later rebuilt as a 13-course baroque lute, although the original instrument's 6-course neck disposition and fingerboard survive, surrounded by the later conversion, which has been carefully built around it (the chased metal 6-course fingerboard is framed by the later, wider 13-course conversion). Don't even think about it . . .

Engraved in gilded brass, around the edge of the ebony soundboard are these words:

The riches of Croesus' wealth, or the huge empires of this wide world are not superior to Music's sound and harmonies. On this mighty earth there is no pleasure more satisfying, nor are there any sweeter goods than those that Music offers in a most lovely fashion to the pure mind. As soon as her sounds arise, she banishes dark sorrow from the heart, she brings good cheer to the sad mind and soothes frayed nerves. And may the muses' eager throng on many occasions bring together Music, the servant of delightful song, with the other disciples of sublime art. In the year 1593.

This is engraved around the gilded brass rosette:

Just as every star in the entire firmament sings your praises, Christ, so may this lute lend sound to pleasing songs.

Note the two decorative 'hooks' for a carrying strap (each a stylised lion's head – one clearly visible in silhouette at the upper end of the body, near the lowest diapason in this view – the other centrally-placed along the central 'rib', near the deepest part of the bowl).

This instrument weighs almost as much as a Stratocaster (and probably sounds like an unplugged Strat). Amplify this, and all of your secret 'I-always-wanted-to-play-like-Bo-Diddley' fantasies could well be realised – you probably wouldn't have much choice, this baby would end up down by your knees anyway, due to its sheer weight, and you'd be duck-walking – perhaps an interesting if hitherto-untried HIP approach to playing a (heavy) metal lute.

Never mind the English lutenist Robert Johnson, or his namesake the Delta Bluesman who sold his soul at the Crossroads (reincarnation?): don't even think about "Where the bee sucks, there suck I" or "Nobody seemed to know me, everybody passed by" – it'd more likely (not to say appropriately) be: "Got a cobra snake for a necktie / Got a house by the roadside, made out of rattlesnake hide").

You could find yourself in lute Hades . . . but don't ask us to help you get there. Buy a proper Strat and a Marshall amp.

Ernst Gottlieb Baron, writing in Historisch, Theoretisch und Practische Untersuchung des Instruments der Lauten, (Nürnberg, 1727) seems to be describing an encounter with this astonishing instrument; having commented that:

"The learned Society of Trevoux assures us that it has heard from a reliable author that a lute made of pure gold had been seen in Paris, worth 32,000 Reichs-Thaler. It does not say who had the lute. I suspect that the aristocrat or master, whoever he is, was more galant than artistic, because such an instrument is more to be looked at than really used".

He goes on to tell the reader that:

"I once saw at Herr Hoffmann's in Leipzig an old lute of solid copper, heavily gilded on the back with many figures etched upon it, and the top was of black ebony. But when I examined it, I found that this instrument sounded more like an old pot than a true lute".

Historical gut (and metal) strings – some observations and thoughts

Much has been written on the subject of the quality and type of metal wire which was available to the old instrument makers. In the early years of the 'Early Music' revival, wire-strung instruments such as citterns, orpharions and bandoras were generally strung with wire 'borrowed' from colleagues in the harpsichord-making world, who had the benefit of being able to call upon decades of research and experience during the 20th century, and who had persuaded various wire manufacturers to produce suitable brass and low-carbon steel music wire. Many experiments were conducted to try and arrive at a reliable and authentic range of wire strings; makers of plucked stringed instruments relied upon low-carbon steel – effectively iron – and brass (sometimes 'red brass', which had a high copper content) the brass bass strings being often twisted, according to what historical evidence suggested.

Many cities across Europe were famed as string-making centres; where gut strings were concerned, Venice was famous for its 'Catline' strings, Pistoia and Lyons for basses and Munich for trebles (Minikins); Thomas Mace mentions these cities in 1676, on page 65-66 of Musick's Monument:

"The first and Chief Thing is, to be carefull to get Good Strings, which would be of three Sorts, viz, Minikins, Venice-Catlins, and Lyons, (for Basses:) There is another sort of Strings, which they call Pistoy Basses, which I conceive are none other than Thick Venice-Catlins, which are commonly Dyed, with a deep dark red colour".

Nürnberg was a city famed for its metallurgical expertise: armour-making and goldsmiths' workshops were but two of the important trades which flourished here. Discovery and innovation characterised Nürnberg's ascendency in the metalworking trades and industries; for example, Kupferseigerung – the recrystallising of copper ore containing silver and lead to produce crude copper and silver – was one of many innovations that had been invented and developed in Nürnberg, a city that was a very important export and import trade centre, standing as it did on one of the two major crossroads of long-distance European trade. Nürnberg was a free Imperial City, which enjoyed the privilege of duty-free trade with over 70 other European cities.

Recent research has yielded that in the wire-string sphere, Nürnberg produced an innovative genius in the person of Jobst Meuler, a leading wire-drawer in a city that was pre-emminent where all of the metal-working arts were concerned. Meuler – who died in 1622 during the catastrophic Thirty Years' War – had invented a technique for making a steel wire of a far higher tensile strength than anything that had hitherto been produced. Meuler jealously guarded his discovery, and although his process seems to have died with him, his wire was in such demand and his fame so widespread that even the composer Heinrich Schütz wrote to his patron the Elector of Saxony in 1621 asking that an order be placed with Meuler for a quantity of steel music strings. It is likely, given Nürnberg's trading expertise and established lines of communication, that these strings of Meuler's were exported far and wide across Europe, and that any musical instrument maker worth his salt would have been familiar with them.

Meuler was simply continuing a long-established Nürnberg tradition of excellence and supremacy in the field of wire-making, a tradition which has been extensively documented, in both archive and iconography. In around the year 1494, the great Nürnberger Albrect Dürer painted a watercolour, Drahtziehmühle – The Wire-drawing Mill; in the detail shown below, the Spittler Gate of the city can be seen in the background on the left, and the mill and its associated outbuildings nestle by the river Pegnitz.


What is particularly interesting is that there is a large white 'drum' (or reel) standing against one of the buildings; its scale can be deduced by the size of the figure on horseback fording the river, the walking figure on the left, the figure in the doorway and the two animals walking across the yard nearby. The way Dürer has painted this object makes it unlikely that it is a mill-wheel, or some other mechanical device from the wire-drawing mill, it seems more likely that it is some sort of large reel for storing (and possibly transporting) wire; the artist has perhaps included this object in his composition, and placed it in the near foreground of the image, so that the contemporary viewer would immediately recognise a wire-drawing mill as the subject of the painting,

In the close-up shown here, the figure visible in the doorway clearly demonstrates that the drum leaning against the storage barn is around 2 metres in diameter. Wire for making music strings could well have been stored on such a drum prior to being cut into shorter lengths and spooled for further distribution and use.

We've long wondered if something is missing here, from the picture modern makers and researchers of historical instruments have formed of early string-making – something that might explain a thing or two, once the circumstantial evidence is looked at with an open mind. Modern attempts at making gut basses for lutes have always started from the assumption that the strings must have been made only from gut, or 'loaded' in some way. The red colour of strings in paintings and description has led some to conclude that since Pistoia in Italy was one of the centres of gut string making, and it is near Europe's largest cinnabar deposits, that – ipso facto – the red colouration was derived from the use of mercuric compounds to densify or 'load' the string; of course, the health hazard implications of using mercury-derived compounds to densify gut strings have prevented modern string makers from attempting to go down that path. Killing your customers off is not exactly a sensible business plan, although such strings might be marketed under the slogan 'To die for'.

But are we all overlooking something here? Strings are very perishable items – certainly gut strings – which is why nothing has survived; also, string-making was a strictly controlled, guild-regulated activity, often kept within the same families for generations (and a very messy business too – lower down the social order than even lutemakers . . .). And in the 21st Century, we really have no idea what the old gut strings from the 16th and 17th Centuries sounded like, let alone how they were made.

But ask yourself this: would composers like Francesco Canova da Milano, Luis de Narváez, Albert de Rippe and John Dowland (to name a very few) really have written such beautiful and challenging music, which implied perforce a balance of sound from treble to bass, if all they heard was a nasty dull 'thud' in the bass register? It really doesn't seem very likely.

Also consider for example the iconographical evidence presented by the Hans Holbein painting The Ambassadors of 1533: those three bass strings (4th 5th and 6th) look more like modern Pyramids or Kürschners than 'catlines', they're actually unexpectedly quite thin – even compared to the strings of courses 1-3 and the octaves of 4th 5th and 6th on the lute in this painting – so what are they? What has Holbein – a consummate draughtsman – painted? They certainly aren't anything like the fat 'catlines' that were being hawked around 25 or so years ago, nor do they resemble 'loaded' strings. And they are not red, they look like plain old gut – but they are relatively thin, so what are they?

This is a close-up of the pegbox of the lute in the 1533 Holbein painting The Ambassadors (London, National Gallery). The bass strings of the 4th, 5th and 6th courses are shown here to be quite thin – hardly thicker, in fact, than the third course. They must be gut strings, so what did Holbein (and 16th Century players) know that we don't? And will we ever re-discover how to make good gut bass strings which look like these strings? Modern string makers such as Nick Baldock, Mimmo Peruffo and Dan Larson have managed to produce excellent bass strings for 6-course lutes which work very well, but they are much thicker than the strings in this painting. Note the broken octave string of the 4th course – supposedly an allusion to the transitory nature of life, and the double-tied first fret.

Given the documented status of Nürnberg as a leading European centre of the various metalworking arts, and particularly as the acknowledged leaders in the techniques of wire-drawing – thereby ensuring the availability of high-tensile steel wire which must have been used for plucked as well as keyboard instruments – and also Nürnberg's renown as a centre for gut string making – it isn't much of a leap of the imagination to propose that string-makers were not only producing plain wire and gut strings, but also could well have combined the two materials to produce bass strings for lutes, as modern string-makers like Bernd Kürschner, Nicholas Baldock and Dan Larson do. OK, we don't have any known surviving evidence from the 16th Century to back this idea up, but the technologies existed side-by-side to have made such strings possible, and it's such an obvious thing to do to solve this particular problem. What was effectively a technique to make overspun metal (or gut) strings certainly existed and was known in Nürnberg in the late 15th Century, as the same method was used to make fine gold threads – both plain and overspun – for heraldry, flags and banners.

It seems obvious that makers of early wire-strung instruments had at their disposal strings of a vey high quality, strings that allowed reliable stringing to relatively high pitches, which clearly produced a good sound; why would they have settled for inferior bass strings? The usual solution proposed for bass strings – twisted brass wire – is notoriously incapable of playing in tune much above the first fret or two; if makers and players of early wire-strung instruments went to the trouble of setting frets in a meantone temperament (presumably because they wanted the instrument to play in tune) it makes no sense at all that they would then fit their instruments with bass strings incapable of playing in tune on any temperament of frets. Furthermore, were early experiments conducted to densify gut strings by the addition of metal, either twisted into the gut or overspun? The technology certainly existed.

Did string makers in Nürnberg in the late 15th and early 16th Centuries solve the problem of how to make gut bass strings work by combining them in some way with metal wire? Did they make overspun wire-on-wire for the basses of bandoras and orpharions? Just a thought . . .

Bone fingerboard edgings

This is a detail first developed by Stephen back in 1975, in order to provide a hard and durable surface at the edge of the fingerboard and neck, which would resist the tendency of tied gut frets to dig into and dent a timber fingerboard edge; even ebony can become scored over time, making fine and accurate adjustment of gut frets difficult.

This original, practical design detail has been shamelessly copied by numerous other makers ever since it first appeared on an instrument from this workshop, although we consider it to be one of the design characteristics original and individual to our six course lutes.

**Six-course lute peg design

Heart-shaped pegs are stylistically and historically appropriate for six-course lutes, and original pegs of this type (made from dark-stained plumwood) are found on the Georg Gerle lute.

Many 16th Century paintings and intarsie show lutes whose pegs are heart-shaped and made from two contrasting woods; a six-course lute, for example, would typically have six dark-coloured pegs and five light. This is helpful when tuning, as well as being an attractive stylistic device.

We usually use either pernambuco, or a combination of ebony and pernambuco, but we can also offer black oak and brown oak. Black oak, sometimes called 'bog-oak', is semi-petrified, quite often several thousand years old (our current stock is actually 10,000 years old) and is extremely hard; it was widely used in Europe in the early Renaissance period as a naturally-occuring, native black timber. The contemporary Antwerp harpsichord makers Ruckers typically used black oak and bone for their key coverings. Brown oak is a naturally-occuring variety of common oak which is also very hard and has an attractive deep brown, almost purplish-colour.

They are more expensive to make than ordinary pegs because they are carved as well as turned, but we absorb the extra cost and do not pass it on to the customer.

The 5-course lute in the intarsia above is fitted with the heart-shaped peg design characteristic of 15th and 16th Century lutes and viols. Its deep, thick neck – rendered by the intarsio artist with contrasting stripes – is reminiscent of the neck of the Magno dieffopruchar lute (No. 8 above) as is its elegant, slender pegbox. Photographed in the Palazzo Ducale, Urbino (below) by us during the 1994 Strumenti della Musica Antica festival. This annual festival is the longest-established of all the European early music festivals, and Urbino is a setting which ravishes the senses in every way; we'd wholeheartedly recommend attending the festival, the lute teacher on the course in former years was usually Andrea Damiani, more recently Paul O'Dette has taught on the faculty.

The Facciata dei Torricini (the two-tower facade) of the Palazzo Ducale, Urbino, seat of Duke Federico di Montefeltro (1444-1482), whose famous profile portrait – painted by Piero della Francesca in 1466 – hangs in the Uffizi, Florence.

Urbino was – from early in the Renaissance – a centre of the arts and music: Raphael (Raffaelo Sanzio, 1483-1520) was born and worked there, as well as Federico Barocci (1526-1612). One of Italy's oldest universities was founded in Urbino; artists and artisans converged on Urbino, including instrument makers. Many readers will be familiar with the famous, beautifully-carved tenor cittern – usually called the 'Urbino' cittern – in the London Victoria & Albert Museum's collection, made by Augustinus Citarædus in 1582, in Urbino (identified by the painted inscription on its neck: Augustinus Citarædus Urbinas MDLXXXII – V&A 392-1871). It was drawn for publication by the V&A by Stephen in 1981.

The Ideal City (curiously devoid of people) by Luciano Laurana.

This painting – one of the most interesting paintings from 15th Century Italy, expressing as it does ideals of Renaissance architecture – hangs in the Room of the Angels in the Palazzo Ducale, Urbino.