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Lute Tuning: Tackling the World’s Oldest Tuning

October 21, 2009

from Crash Course on Guitar Tunings

This is the oldest tuning in the book; in fact, it’s probably the world’s oldest tuning. It dates back to the 1500s and the guitar’s predecessors – the lute, viola da gamba and vihuela of the European Renaissance. Considering that it’s such a challenging tuning to use, it may come as a surprise that it only differs from regular tuning by one note.

Lute tuning is rarely used in rock and blues, but you do occasionally find it in folk music. English fingerstyle player John Renbourn’s track "Bicycle Tune" is one notable example; the guitar transcriptions of Renaissance lutenist John Dowland are also, unsurprisingly, in lute tuning.

Lute Tuning - hear it
How to tune it (from regular tuning):  

Fret the fourth (D) string at the fourth fret. Tune the open third (G) string down until it matches.

For those used to regular tuning, lute tuning is actually more confusing than something more heavily altered such as open D or DAD-GAD, because the chord shapes are so nearly familiar. Indeed, sometimes this alone can throw up its own ideas. Try a regular ‘A’ chord shape at the second fret – you’re actually playing A major 7.

The best way to get your brain round the tuning is to think one string across. Play a normal ‘D’ chord shape, but move it to the fourth, third and second strings (one string across). Do the same with a normal ‘A’ shape, then simply strum between the two shapes. You’re actually playing chords of A and E. OK, so this example doesn’t actually sound any different from normal tuning, but it might help you to get started. The real benefit, of course, comes from that lovely open F# note in the middle of the guitar. The song I’ve written for this tuning makes deliberate use of this note, with a cascading harmonics effect.

Because of the deep register and simple open chord shapes, the tuning would lend itself well to punk or grunge rhythm parts, but no-one’s done it yet…







Hit page 2 for a song using this tuning...

‘Beechen Cliff’
Here, I’ve created a cascading effect known as ‘harping’ using beautiful open harmonics – the riff remains the same throughout the first section; only the bass note changes, so do take time to master the technique before moving on. The second section uses more straightforward techniques, where open strings ring on against fretted notes to create the melody, before returning to the first section. The piece finishes on two high harmonics at the fifth fret.

Listen to an audio track of the song