Monday, 5 December 2016

New Work, and a Bit Unusual, Too

I see that it's been a very long while since I posted anything here about my new work.

I can't write about everything that's gone on in the shop over the past year, but I want to give some highlights that will show the kind of work I've been up to and the kind of challenges my clients have set for me. I want to talk specifically about two people, both of them excellent musicians who have very clear ideas about the kind of music they want to play, the kind of performing circumstances they'll encounter, and the kind of lute they need to fit the bill.

First up is Evan Plommer, of Sarnia, Ontario. This is the second lute that I've made for him, and just like the first, with this one he set me an interesting task. Again, he was looking for a 12 course lute to explore the world of accords nouveaux or 'transitional' tunings; this time out, he wanted a larger-bodied lute with a longer string length and lower pitch level to explore some deeper sonorities. (The lute has a string length of 79cm.)

Mug shots!


I think the body itself may have been the germ of this idea for Evan. It is that of a bass lute originally designed by Ray Nurse--he built an 8 course version of it a number of years ago, which Evan admired very much, so he asked me to design a 12 course lute around it. (The design is from a lute body dated 1589 by Magno Tieffenbrucker, in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.) Ray kindly lent me the mold, and I completed the lute in the late autumn of 2015.

As you can see, the body has a quite flattened profile--Ray's concept in designing the bass lute with this shape was to enhance its projection. I think it works very well--the combination of string length, body shape, and the material of the back (11 ribs of honduras rosewood) give the lute a mellow yet robust tone.

One of the challenges of building a lute like this is the stepped extension. I've made a few of these lutes now, and I think I've found quite a secure way of attaching it--secure in the sense that it's not likely to separate from the neck unless there is some kind of impact (and let's just utter a small prayer right now that such an event will never come to pass), and secure in the sense that it doesn't bow an inordinate or unpredictable amount due to the tension of the strings. (I will share my method of attaching the extension in a future blog post, so stay tuned.)

I've found that this deflection due to string tension is more of a concern the bigger the lute gets. The string tension itself doesn't change much whether the lute is big or small. Instead, the problem seems to be that the longer the bass strings, the more room one must allow between the strings at the extension end of the lute so that they don't clash against each other when the basses are played.

The amount extra that one must allow between the courses is minute--less than 1mm extra for each course--but when it's added together over the four courses of the extension, it becomes a relatively substantial amount.  The main problem is that the more space there needs to be between courses, the more the extension must skew outward, that is, must point toward the bass side. The strings pull to the side, as well as forward, meaning there could be problems if the extension isn't built robustly and attached securely.

But everything seems fine so far, and the lute's been under tension for over a year. I hope to see it again sometime soon--I'd love to take some measurements and see how much the extension has deflected during that time.

On to the second player, and the second lute. The player is Ronn McFarlane, one of the best-known and best-loved lute players on the scene. I've been listening to Ronn for years, and enjoying his concerts and the classes on lute technique that he's taught at the Lute Society of America Summer Festivals. So it goes without saying that I was thrilled when he contacted me to see if I'd be interested in making him a new lute.

Now, I knew that Ronn had been playing one main lute for a lot of years--a 10 course that Ray Nurse built him I think in the early 2000s--and that it had been a long time since he'd commissioned a new lute. And indeed, once we started discussing the design features that Ronn wanted in this new lute, it became clear to me that he had done a lot of thinking about the kind of instrument that he would need in his career from this point forward. The result for me were a lot of small but crucial challenges in the design and the building of the lute.

Let's have a look first--then I'll tell you about some of those challenges.
This is a 10 course lute as well--I expect that this number of courses gives Ronn the maximum flexibility he needs to use the lute in all the different playing situations he encounters as a professional lutenist.

One of the main stipulations he had when we were initially talking about the design of the lute was the string length--59cm. As you may know, that is a fairly short string length for a 10 course lute. (My usual model for a 10 course lute tuned to g', a shrunken Tieffenbrucher C45, comes in at around 63-64cm.) Now, it's easy to find a model of renaissance lute with a string length of around 59cm--the 1592 Venere and the Hieber lute both come to mind--but a 10 course lute would not work on these models, for a couple of reasons. First, those bodies are a little too compact to handle 10 courses--they don't really have the resonant capacity to deal with all that sound. Second, their necks have room for only 8 tied frets--and Ronn was adamant that this 10 course lute have room for 9 tied frets (and he wanted the ninth to "tie easily," he said.)

So, that sent me back to the drawing board. The solution I came up with for a lute with a relatively large body, relatively long neck, and relatively short string length, was a Sellas archlute--the same small liuto attiorbato that I had used for the first 12 course lute that I made for Evan Plommer, in 2012.

As you can see in the pics above, the body of this lute is quite broad and short--almost as if the folks in the Sellas workshop in the early 17th century had taken the outline of a small-bodied 7 or 8 course lute, and just inserted a spacer or wedge in the middle to broaden it (Robert Lundberg talks about this  design concept in his book Historical Lute Construction.) At the same time, as you can see in this side view, the back of the body is quite flattened--which enhances sound projection, but also, fortunately, makes the lute more comfortable to hold and play.

Even with this rather squat body, however, getting the ninth fret to tie easily was a bit of a trick--I had to raise the position of the bridge by a few millimeters, and change slightly the profile of the lute's back, right where the middle ribs meet the back of the neck, making them gather in a slightly steeper curve. I got it to work, though--as you see here, a most relaxed ninth tied fret.
One other important design consideration was the peg box. Ronn is very much a travelling musician, and often that means he needs to be able to take his lute into the cabin of an airplane as hand luggage--and the case needs to fit into the overhead bin. A 10 course lute of the usual design has a long peg box, and a deep case to fit it--too deep for Ronn's needs. The solution: make a shorter peg box by having a chanterelle tuner, a main peg box that carries 7 double courses, and a bass overrider that carries courses 9 and 10.

As you may have noticed, the overrider is not based on any particular historical design. The idea of basing an overrider on some ancient 13 course lute where you'd normally find such a thing (an Edlinger, say, or JC Hoffmann) seemed quite anachronistic to me, so I followed Ray Nurse's lead in the lute that he build for Ronn in 2000: I designed a functional (and hopefully attractive and natural-looking) piece of equipment that will get the job done with a minimum of fuss.

Two final features to mention: I installed a set of Pegheds, the geared, mechanical tuning pegs; and I installed a K&K Pure Classic pickup inside the lute. Both were Ronn's special requests, and I consented to them without question.  The Pegheds make a lot of sense for Ronn's situation: I cannot imagine anyone playing a lute more, and needing to tune a lute more (and more quickly and accurately) than he does. As for the pickup, Ronn plays many gigs in many different situations--solo, with the Baltimore Consort, or with Ayreheart, electric or acoustic as the case may be. The pickup allows him maximum flexibility to use this new lute in any situation.

So that's it for me for this week. I 've suddenly realized that throughout this blog post I've been typing the words "Ray Nurse" quite a lot. Who is this mystery man, you may be asking? Well, I'm sure many of you have met him, or perhaps seen or heard his work--he's been an amazing lute maker, musician and scholar for many years. This is what he looks like, standing in the doorway of my little shop. Ladies and Gentlemen: Ray Nurse!


  1. Hey Travis, I have been looking forward to your return. I'm glad you're back with some fascinating projects you articulate so well as usual. Not to mention the exquisite work you present each time. Your work has a profound effect on me and many other luthiers. That's it, I just wanted to express the joy of seeing you back and thank you for what you are doing.

    Au revoir


  2. Thank you so much for this, Jean! I'm very happy to hear that you enjoy reading about my work. It will encourage me to write more!

    Cheers, Travis