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If you want to learn how to play an instrument, the guitar is a logical place to start—it’s widely available, portable, and relatively inexpensive. But once you’ve mastered the guitar, you may want to branch out into other stringed instruments

Enter the lute family of instruments. There are hundreds of different kinds of lute instruments, all with their own unique history, sound, and playing style. If you feel it’s time to diversify your instrument repertoire, here’s a crash course in the lute.

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What Is a Lute?

lute
Source: Thomas Quine via Flickr
This Renaissance-era European lute was popular in Baroque music.

Historians estimate that the lute got its start in ancient Mesopotamia as early as 3000 BCE. These stringed instruments were made by using a turtle shell as the body, which accounts for the characteristic rounded back that the lute still has to this day.

As the lute traveled east into Central and Eastern Asia and west into Egypt, Greece, and Europe, it evolved into many different shapes and styles, each with its own unique name. The lute family has come to include any stringed instrument with a neck and tuning pegs.

Most people are probably familiar with the more modern European lute: a hollow, pear-shaped body and rounded back, doubled strings, and a bent pegbox that is usually played by plucking the strings.  

Types of Lutes

There are so many different kinds of lute instruments. Some you may have never seen, while others you may be familiar with and just didn’t know they were part of the lute family. Here are just a few examples.

Mandolin

mandolin
Source: Ted Sakshaug via Flickr
The modern mandolin is one of the closest lute relatives of the acoustic guitar.

The mandolin evolved in Europe from an Italian lute called the mandola. It usually has a teardrop shape and doubled strings and is played with a plectrum—a flat tool, like a pick, used to strum a stringed instrument. It is often used in folk and bluegrass music, but it also makes appearances in rock bands like Led Zeppelin.

Cavaquinho

cavaquinho
Source: Carla Arena via Flickr
The cavaquinho is a Portuguese staple.

The cavaquinho is a lute cousin but also a broad term used to describe a variety of Portuguese guitars that have slight differences based on their regions. They have four strings but often are shaped like traditional acoustic guitars.

Ukulele

uke
Source: Mark Banks via Flickr
Tiny Tim’s preferred instrument.

The ukulele is a type of cavaquinho and has a Portuguese origin. However, it has become most associated with Hawaiian music after being brought there by Portuguese explorers. Typically, the ukulele has four nylon strings and comes in several sizes.

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Vihuela

vihuelas
Source: wie-wolf via flickr
Modern vihuelas are still produced in certain areas.

The vihuela evolved in Spain as a lute with 12 paired strings. There are two traditional versions of the vihuela—one that is played with the hand and one that is played with a bow. 

Tiple

vihuela
Source: Peter Jackson via flickr
Notice the common thread of doubled strings in many of these instruments.

The tiple is a version of the vihuela that evolved into its own instrument after it was brought to Central and South America by Spanish explorers. It is currently the national instrument of Colombia.

Charango

charango
Source: Mark Rowland via flickr
A 14-stringed charango.

The charango is another vihuela variant that became popular in the Andean areas of South America, particularly with the Quechuan population. The earliest versions of the instrument were made from the back of an armadillo, and it has doubled or sometimes tripled strings. 

Oud

oud
Source: Mohammed Nairooz via flickr
The oud is one of the oldest lutes still used today.

Commonly used in the Middle East and Central Asia, the oud is the closest ancestor to the European lute. It has all the distinctive trademarks of its European counterpart, except it has a fretless neck. 

Tanbur

tanbur
Source: Xavier Serra via flickr
The tanbur has one very long difference between most lutes.

The tanbur represents a unique classification of lutes that have long necks. They can be played with either a plectrum or a bow, and they are traditionally used in the music of Central Asia, particularly in Turkish and Kurdish folk music.

Pipa

pipa
Source: Roel Wijnants via flickr
The pipa has existed in China for 2,000 years.

The pipa is a mainstay of traditional Chinese music and has one of the most interesting looks in all of the lute family. Experts believe that it was the progenitor for many other Eastern lute instruments, like the biwa from Japan.

Banjo

banjo
Source: Kenny McCormick via flickr
Hard to believe, but this is also a member of the lute family!

The banjo has become a quintessential instrument in American music history, but it has its origins in lute variants from Western Africa. As slaves were brought to the Americas, they brought with them many of their cultural traditions, including music. The banjo is an evolution of those instruments.

The Difference Between Lute and Guitar

Would it surprise you to know that the modern guitar is the current evolutionary form of the lute? Well, it is! Despite that, there are a few notable differences between the two.

First is size: Most lutes are smaller than guitars, due to their shorter necks and stouter bodies. Additionally, the body of a guitar has a flat back, while a variety of lutes have rounded backs. And most guitars have six strings, whereas lute varieties can have anywhere from four to 14.

The biggest difference between lutes and guitars is their sound. Guitars have warm, full tones, while lutes tend to be much brighter and higher pitched. When played at the same time, this allows the lute to play melodies that sing out above a guitar. 

AbsoLUTE Fun

Whether you are a beginner or an expert, there’s always something new to learn when it comes to music. Expanding your interests to the lute family of instruments will not only help you learn about other music cultures, but it’ll also make you a better musician overall!

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