About materials

A couple of words about materials…

Of the 141 lutes listed in the Raymond Fugger inventory (1566) we  know the materials from which the shells of 101 were made  and  only 38 of these are of European origin. The various  imported  materials used (whalebone and cane, ebony and ivory,  snake-  king- brazil- guaiac- and sandalwood) are almost all to be  found in surviving instruments from throughout the lute’s long history, and  well reflect the taste for the exotic of one of the  richest and most  powerful families in Europe.

But the use of  European woods speaks  a different language and reflects a  solidly established tradition  which only occasionally allowed some  exceptions: maple and yew, together with the spruce  employed for soundboards,  were the  basic materials of alpine  origin for generations of lutemakers who  themselves stemmed  from a well defined alpine area, plus, south of the Alps, cypress, which for a long time was the  most widely used wood for Italian plucked  string  instruments – lutes and guitars, psalteries, harps and harpsichords.
Cypress, by the way, is the best wood for making ‘uds, according to Ibn-at-Tahhan, 11th century, confirmed by an anonymous source from the 14th century, from the Isfahan region.

Beyond these, we know that Lucas Maler used ash, and walnut  occasionally appears in guitars and Neapolitan mandolins. That in  spite of the wide variety of available suitable materials the old  masters stuck to these few (we, modern lutemakers, are obviously  more prone to experimentation) may partly be due to  conservative traditionalism, but this praxis was definitely justified  by the fact that they well knew which materials would give constant  high quality results. Bird’s eye maple seems somehow to find a  place between two tendencies, satisfying at once aesthetic  and acoustical needs. All in all, the feeling is that a  distinction was made between instruments for playing and for  exhibiting, where the workmanship quality was, indeed, constant,  but the discriminating factor for the lute player was not necessarily  the rarity or the exoticism of the materials employed.

…and my philosophy

Painstaking research, in the field and in the workshop, and lutebuilding proper always were for me constantly evolving processes and, after over three decades of ‘work in progress’, still quite stimulating.

The models I have developed along the way result from careful study of available historical instruments able to reveal sufficient reliable information about inner construction and creative concept. These results were then tempered with the experience gathered over the years in order to try and satisfy both my own expectations (I, too, was an ‘amateur’ musician for quite some time) and the needs of a modern lute player in terms of sound quality and playability.

To call our instruments after the names of the ancient masters is certainly a practical way to generalize some constructional features, but it can also be a label with a not quite clearly defined content, requiring a couple of deeper thoughts. It was mostly chance that determined which instruments should survive through the centuries, very often on aesthetic and/or commercial grounds – which at least partly explains the disproportion existing today between ‘leuti ordinarii’ and ‘leuti de pretio’, as described in historical sources. But the latter represent, in fact, the less significant part of the whole historical production. On the other hand, the fact alone of being ancient is no guarantee that these instruments are the very best ones worth reproducing. Lutes have always been specialized ‘working tools’ for musicians and if we do not try and understand and, as far as possible, reproduce the historical context in which they were employed, we risk creating a deformed perspective of the historical facts. True enough, this issue invests more directly other categories of specialists, but indirectly regards us lutemakers, too. Only a limited number out of the many surviving instruments has been studied in depth and we often possess only more or less accurate information about their outer physical aspect. Only in a few cases X-rays exist, which can give us a reasonably accurate insight of the inner details. The number of instruments that have actually been opened and accurately described in their crucial features and measurements is, in fact, rather limited. Even when we have determined the original state of all the components we can not always realize true copies, especially where the original sizes are concerned, since they often do not fit modern pitch standards (or musicians’ idiosyncrasies), and we often have to reduce the original dimensions, with no negligible consequences in terms of sound.

A chapter on its own deserves the question of historical strings, which were the one single factor affecting the whole constructional concept, whether we are conscious of it or not.