Types of Lutes

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A lute is a musical instrument that generally refers to a plucked string instrument. Lutes are characterised by their deep round backs, necks and strings. The exact origin of the lute is uncertain, but it is thought to have made its way into Europe as early as the 8th century, when the Moors first occupied Spain.

During the Middle Ages, the Arabian Ud was introduced to Italy, where it evolved and gained popularity throughout Europe. Many paintings and sculptures of the era depict men and women playing the lute as it became the most popular musical instrument of the times. Many cultures around the world play some variation of the lute, and there are many popular types.

Arabian Lutes

The Ud or Oud is the most important musical instrument of the Arabian culture. The Oud is pear-shaped and has at least one string attached to the small neck. For centuries, the Arabians made music with this instrument and later brought it to Europe, where it evolved into many variations of the string instrument.

Several variations of the Arabian lute exist today in the Middle East.

European Lutes

Between 1400 and 1800, lutes were the most popular instrument in Europe. Medieval lutes had a body that was normally quite rounded, which was made of thin strips of wood glued together on a mould to form the ribs of the instrument. The neck was made of a separate piece of wood that was glued onto the body. Most medieval lutes had five or more strings, but more were added over the years.

During the Renaissance era, the lute morphed into a more elongated body consisting of seven to 11 ribs. A dark wood was often used for the fingerboard and more strings and courses were added during this era, up from five to as many as 10 courses. The lute continued to evolve throughout the Baroque period, adding courses until the instrument reached 14 and included 26 to 35 strings for musicians to play. Modifications to the instrument were necessary for musicians to reach so many strings and make the range of sound.

African Lutes

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Many people in West Africa incorporated the music of the lute into their cultures. Several types of lutes are played, depending on the geographic region. The xalam is a traditional stringed instrument that is constructed of a wooden body in an oval shape. The xalam is a simple instrument that has anywhere from one to five strings for musicians to play. The xalam is thought to have originated in ancient Egypt and is played in Burkina Faso, Gambia, Ghana, Mali, Niger, northern Nigeria, Senegal and the Western Sahara.

Other lutes of Africa include the goje, kouco and the kountougi.

Asian Lutes

Many cultures of Asian origin incorporated the lute musical instrument in their cultures. The biwa is a fretted, short-necked lute played in Japan. There are seven variations of the biwa, which are characterised by their sound and number of strings. The biwa is the chosen instrument of the Japanese Shinto god, Benzaiten.

The dramyin is a lute played in Himalayan folk music. The seven-stringed instrument has a long neck, double waist and no fret and is normally made out of a hollowed out piece of wood. The dramyin is specific to Tibet, Bhutan, Sikkim and West Bengal.

The pipa is a four-stringed Chinese lute with a wooden pear-shaped body and frets ranging from 12 to 26. The pipa first came to the Qin Dynasty in the 3rd century and became more developed during the Han Dynasty.

The dutar is a type of lute that is commonly found in South Asia and Central Asia. The dutar is a two-stringed lute with a long neck and pear-shaped body. After the coming of silk, the dutar's strings were made of twisted silk, instead of the traditional gut that was used by shepherds in the 15th century.