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New tuning varieties for Liuti forti in g, e & d


In the process of renewal undertaken by Liuto forte for the complete lute family it was natural to take a critical look at traditional tunings. It soon became clear that with only minor modifications, demanding no major rethinking, definite technical and musical improvements were possible.These can considerably relieve players of the Renaissance lute as well as the guitar and D minor lute.

Players of the Liuto forte have the choice to keep to the traditional tunings or to try any of the newer and refined tuning variations here presented. These enable not only the easing of technical difficulties but also the extension of musical possibilities, as can be shown in the lute works of J. S. Bach.


It should be stated here right away that there is no absolutely “ideal” tuning. Tuning patterns are always an approach to the music intended, and all have their drawbacks and advantages. The 4th tuning of the Renaissance lute (and modern guitar), most common until about 1620, came under increasing criticism at the beginning of the 17th century. Anyone who is familiar with the works of Dowland, for example, will recognise what Thomas Mace criticised in the confoundedly uncomfortable fingerings commonly demanded by this tuning.

Between 1600 and 1650 a large variety of tunings were tried, including the d minor chord – (A)d f a d f – which then became a kind of new standard tuning north, west and east of the Alps. This d minor tuning gives immense ease to the left hand while opening up unexpected musical possibilities. It approaches very close to an ideal tuning.

One particular flaw of the tuning in 4ths used on renaissance lutes and today’s guitars is the fourth between the 5th and 6th courses or strings. Such an interval in this position makes no sense in terms of fingering. As long as the little finger of the left hand stays shorter than the other fingers, the interval between the strings would need to begin to get less at least by the fifth string.

Guitarists will see what this means by glancing at bar 6 of the Villa-Lobos Etude No. 1. Imagine what this fingering would feel like if the sixth string were not tuned to E but to F#, and the G# could be stopped on the second fret. This would naturally demand an additional 7th string in E. The new 6th string in F# would be tunable to F or G depending on the key of other pieces and this development would lead to ease and improved tone on both guitar and renaissance lute. On the French baroque lute with its d minor tuning, the interval of a fourth between the 5th and 6th string could be filled in by a course in B or B flat, depending on the key. The A would thus become the 7th course. This insight is due to no other than J. S. Bach, who unmistakably demonstrates the advantages of such a tuning in several works for the lute which have been long been considered “unplayable” in their exact notated form. (See www. bach-lautenwerke.de).

The Bellocq Tuning (Tuning in Thirds)

Not uninfluenced by Bach’s lute tunings, which my research has shown to only retain a single interval of a fourth – between the second and third string – the French lutenist Eric Bellocq developed in 2008 for his Liuto forte a completely new tuning consisting in solely major and minor thirds. The top six strings of the instrument are tuned in the following manner, c - e flat - g - b flat - d' - f'. The instrument includes a full set of bass strings in a diatonic scale which can also be stopped on the fingerboard when necessary. The tuning offers tempting new possibilities in the arrangements of chords. Moreover, the agreement of its top strings with the lines of the treble clef brings the reading from staff notation very close to the practice of reading from tablature. (Anyone wishing to discover more are invited to directly contact Eric Bellocq in French or English: www.bellocq.info).

The “Paganini Trick” for guitarists

When playing together with an orchestra it is always a real challenge for guitarists to remain clearly heard above and through the other instruments. This is due not only to the guitar’s darker tone, but to its deep pitch. The guitarist’s chances are particularly poor when the pieces are in keys which allow the use of unstopped, particularly resonant strings, not only on the plucked instrument but also on the bowed strings. A prominent example would be the rather popular, yet hardly advantageously orchestrated in terms of interaction with a plucking instrument, Concierto de Aranjuez in D by Joaquin Rodrigo.

Guitarists should not rely too heavily on the supposition that constant use of mutes will increase the stringed players’ musical enjoyment. Nevertheless, it seems necessary to somehow hold the bowed instruments back if a satisfactory balance is to be achieved with the plucked solo instrument. A natural method to achieve this would be “Paganini’s Trick”.

In order to lend an added brilliance to the solo part in his Violin Concerto in D the legendary violinist came up with the electrifying idea of tuning his instrument up a semitone while keeping his D major fingering. The orchestra, however, keeping to their usual tuning were obliged to accompany the virtuoso in a dampened E flat, allowing the sound of Paganini’s Guarneri fiddle – he liked to call it his “cannon” – to even more outshine the ensemble.

Guitarists would also enjoy the effects of this more natural “muting” of the accompanying strings and winds, by means of sufficient sharps or flats, provided that they were prepared to perform their chamber music a semitone higher and convince their fellow musicians on more powerful instruments to accept the need to transpose their parts. Tuning the guitar higher and thereby using thinner strings would also improve the carrying capacity of their instrument for solo recitals in larger halls.

Another solution to this problem would be - while applying the same principle - to leave the guitar in its original tuning but to play with an ensemble whose instruments are tuned to a' = 415 Hz.