SHLOMO PESTCOE  שלמה פּסטקאָ

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Please note: This is not a commercial site. I do not sell or appraise musical instruments. Please do not contact me to request that I identify and provide background information on a specific instrument in your possession and/or evaluate its worth. That's a job for an accredited professional appraiser, which I'm not. That said, I'll be glad to answer questions and discuss any subject I present here, so long as that one proviso is respected.  

 

 

From Oud to Uke: A Lute by Any Other Name


Guitar, banjo, mandolin, ukulele, oud, saz, tar, bouzouki, lauto, cuatro, charango, sitar, setar, sanxian, shamisen, gimbri, xalam, akonting, violin, rebab, erhu....

The list goes on and on....

All these disparate musical instruments share one thing in common: They're all members of the lute family of string instruments. And of all the myriad different types of string instruments found the world over, those of the lute family are, perhaps, the most widespread and popular.

The English word lute and the various other cognate European terms (e.g. luth [French], laute [German], lauto [Italian], lad [Spanish]) are all derivations of al-'ud, the Arabic name for the oud, the quintessential plucked string instrument of the Near and Middle East. The oud was introduced into Western Europe from North Africa in the 8th century when the Moors invaded both Spain and Sicily. It served as archetype for the classic Western European lute, which first emerged in the Middle Ages and developed further in the Renaissance (14th - 17th centuries).

According to the Hornbostel-Sachs (H-S) system of classifying musical instruments (the universal standard of modern organology since its first publication in 1914), a lute must be a composite chordophone -- that is, a string instrument on which "a string bearer [neck] and a resonator are organically united and cannot be separated without destroying the instrument." What makes a composite chordophone a lute is the fact that "the plane of the string runs parallel with the soundtable."

When Erich von Hornbostel (1877-1935) and Curt Sachs (1881-1959) first published their Systematik der Musikinstrumente (Zeitschrift fr Ethnologie, 1914), they specified several different categories of lutes. In addition to the guitar-like plucked string instruments we mostly associate with the term lute, they also included:

  • Bowed Lutes (fiddles). Bowed string instruments, like those of the violin family, which are played by drawing a bow across the given instrument's strings.

  • Bow Lutes (pluriarcs). Basically, plucked string instruments that are comprised of several musical bows mounted in a single resonating body. They are unique to sub-Saharan Africa.

  • Yoke Lutes (lyres). Harp-like plucked string instruments on which "the strings are attached to a yoke which lies in the same place as the soundtable and consists of two arms and a cross-bar."

  • Harp-Lutes (bridge harps). Very distinctive forms of harp found only in West Africa. They're distinguished by having an upright bridge over or through which the given instrument's strings pass or to which the strings are affixed.

Over the years, scholars and researchers have expanded on the parsing of the term lute as expounded in Hornbostel-Sachs. As a result, two main headings have emerged under which most of the lutes (both historical and contemporary) found throughout the world are now filed: plucked lutes and bowed lutes (fiddles).

Aside from the fundamental requirements specified above, plucked lutes and bowed lutes share  distinguishing physiological characteristics that make them distinct from the other aforementioned genera of lutes specified in the Hornbostel-Sachs system:

  • A distinct string bearer (neck) emanating from its resonator. (Note: This is a feature shared with harp-lutes.)

  • Different notes are produced on the given instrument by stopping its melody strings at various points up and down their length.

Examples of plucked lutes include guitar, banjo, mandolin, and ukulele, as well as their kin:  pipa (China), tanbur (Near East), shamisen (Japan), sitar (India), ekonting (Senegambia),  xalam (Senegambia), to name but a few of the myriad kinds .

All types of fiddles (e.g. violin rebab [North Africa and Middle East], erhu [China], goje [Nigeria], etc.) are classified as bowed lutes.

-- Shlomo Pestcoe


Next: The Origins of the Lute Family

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* Yummie * Musical Styles * Instruments * Features * News * Contact * Links *

* Banjo Roots: Banjo Beginnings *

* Banjo Roots: West Africa *

* The Ekonting: A Link to the Banjo's West African Heritage *

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Copyright 2005 Shlomo Pestcoe. All rights reserved.
Last modified: 02/01/09