Music Lute, Vihuela, and Early Guitar
John Griffiths, Paul Kieffer
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 November 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199757824-0251


Lutes, guitars, and vihuelas were the principal plucked instruments in use in Europe until around 1800. Ancient forms of the lute existed in many parts of the ancient world, from Egypt and Persia through to China. It appears to have become known in Europe, where its earliest associations were with immigrants such as the legendary Persian lutenist Ziryab (b. c. 790–d. 852), who was established in Moorish Spain by 822. The origins of the various flat-backed instruments that eventually became guitars are more difficult to trace. The vihuela is one such instrument that evolved in the mid-15th century and was prolific in Spain and its dominions throughout the 16th century and beyond. Very few plucked instruments, and only a handful of fragmentary musical compositions, survive from before 1500. The absence of artifacts and musical sources prior to 1500 has been a point of demarcation in the study of early plucked instruments, although current research is seeking to explore the continuity of instrumental practice across this somewhat artificial divide. In contrast, perhaps as many as thirty thousand works—perhaps even more—for lute, guitar, and vihuela survive from the period 1500–1800. The music and musical practices associated with them are not well integrated into general histories of music. This is due in part to the use of tablature as the principal notation format until about 1800, and also because writers of general histories of music have for the most part ignored solo instrumental music in their coverage. (For example, the Oxford Anthology of Western Music, Vol. 1 (2018), designed to accompany chapters 1–11 of Richard Taruskin’s Oxford History of Western Music, does not contain a single piece of instrumental music prior to Frescobaldi [1637]). Contrary to this marginalized image, lutes, vihuelas, and guitars were a revered part of courtly musical culture until well into the 18th century, and constantly present in urban contexts. After the development of basso continuo practice after 1600, plucked instruments also became frequent in Christian church music, although the lute was widely played by clerics of all levels, particularly during the Renaissance. It was also one of the principal tools used by composers of liturgical polyphony, in part because tablature was the most common way of writing music in score. From the beginning of music printing, printed tablatures played a fundamental role in the urban dissemination of music originally for church and court, and plucked instruments were used widely by all levels of society for both leisure and pleasure. After 1800, the lute fell from use, the guitar was transformed into its modern form with single strings, and tablature ceased to be the preferred notation for plucked instruments.


There is no single-volume general history of plucked instruments to 1800. Smith 2002 (cited under Current Studies) provides a comprehensive general history of the lute until the end of the Renaissance, with abundant music examples. The article Ness and Kolczynski 2001 (under Current Studies) in New Grove gives an authoritative overview of the surviving sources of lute and vihuela music—effectively a history of lute music in its own right. Despite not including the guitar and vihuela in the title, Schlegel and Lüdtke 2011 (under Current Studies) does provide a global account of European plucked instruments, even though its emphasis is on the instruments themselves. The book includes a broad social and organological history, with a conspicuously large number of color plates, but it does not venture into questions of repertoire and musical style. First published in 1976, Pohlmann 1982 (under Current Studies) provides a useful catalogue of information about instruments of the lute family, repertoire, and related literature. The most complete overview and detailed study of the guitar until 1800 is Tyler and Sparks 2002 (under Current Studies). Due to the paucity of global studies, some of the older histories, such as Chilesotti 1891 (under Legacy Works), are still useful and are occasionally cited, along with Grunfeld 1969 and Tonazzi 1974 (both under Legacy Works). Many of their observations remain valid despite the research that has been conducted subsequently.

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