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Lute vs Mandolin: Find Out The Differences and Similarities

Lutes share several physical characteristics with the mandolin, and the untrained eye might easily mistake one for the other.

However, the two instruments sound nothing alike, and that’s where the significant difference lies.

This guide breaks down both instruments, giving a comprehensive comparison between lutes and mandolins.

Comparison Between Mandolin and Lute

  Mandolin Lute
No. of Strings 8 15 – 24
String Material Hard Steel Strings Gut and Nylon Strings
String Length 300 – 335 mm 700 – 750 mm
Body Shape Flat, Streamlined Design Deep, Bowl-Like Design
Playing Technique Plucked Strummed
Size Smaller Bigger
Tuning Tuned To GDAE Varies
No. of Sound Holes 2 1
Sound Acoustically Loud Softer and Quieter
Learning Curve Easier to Learn Harder to Learn
Price Lower Priced Higher Priced
Origin Naples, 18th Century Europe, 12th Century

What Are the Similarities Between Mandolin and Lute?

  • Both the lute and mandolin are classified under chordophones, which in essence refers to instruments that produce sound when a stretched string is plucked.
  • Both the lute and the mandolin have a gourd-shaped wood body with a sound hole at the front.
  • There is a bridge on both instruments. This bridge is what’s responsible for carrying the sound from the strings into the wood.
  • Both instruments are pretty light and portable, but the lute is bigger in size compared to the mandolin.
  • Both instruments are fretted.
  • Both instruments have strings set in pairs called courses, as opposed to having single strings.

What Are the Differences Between Mandolin vs Lute?

History & Heritage

Mandolins are actually a distant descendant of the small soprano lute. The instrument traces its origins back to Italy and Germany in the 18th Century. It was in Naples, however, that the form and proportions of the instrument were refined to the modern mandolin that we know of today.

The lute was the most esteemed and admired musical instrument throughout the Renaissance era, and as such, it is rich in repertoire and symbolism. Originating from the Arab Oud, this instrument dates back to the 12th Century in Europe.

Lutes became particularly prominent in European popular arts during the Renaissance and Baroque periods between 1450 and 1800.

Body

Mandolins have a deeply vaulted round or pear-shaped body. However, the mandolin used in American bluegrass is shallow and has a flat back.

The mandolin has a straight neck, and the pegs stick out to the side like how they are on a violin.

The bridge is set at the widest part, where the instrument angles downward. This design is meant to increase the pressure of the strings on the bridge, thereby allowing for a brilliant tone that has excellent carrying power.

Lutes have a pear-shaped body that’s rounded in the back. The instrument has a uniquely bent L-shaped neck, where the tuning pegs face backward.

Strings

Mandolins have 4 pairs of strings, giving them 8 strings in total. These mandolin strings are hitched to the instrument’s end, and they are commonly made of metal wrapped in bronze.

Lutes have a varying number of strings depending on the style of the instrument.

  • Renaissance lutes are the most common. They typically have 6 courses of strings except for the top solo string, thereby having 11 strings in total.
  • Baroque lutes typically have more strings than their Renaissance counterparts, and the two upper courses comprise a single string.
  • Medieval lutes commonly only have 5 courses of 10 strings.

As such, a 13-course Baroque lute will have 24 strings, while an 8-course Renaissance lute will have 15 strings.

The solo string on a lute is called the chanterelle, and it is the highest-pitched course.

A lute’s strings are made of gut or nylon plated with a metal like silver. These strings are hitched to the bridge, which is glued to the instrument’s belly.

Tuning

A mandolin is tuned using a machine head, like a guitar, and the instrument is tuned to the violin pitch G-D-A-E.

A lute is tuned in 4ths, with a central 3rd similar to the modern guitar. The tuning varies depending on the style of the lute, but a 6-course Renaissance lute will typically be tuned to G-C-F-a-d’-go.

One thing to note is that it is very difficult to keep a lute in tune. One renowned lutenist even remarked that a lutenist is either tuning his instrument or playing out of tune.

Sound hole

Some mandolins have an oval sound hole, while others have two f-shaped holes like a violin.

You will often find a shell plate around the oval sound hole, and this is meant to protect the belly of the instrument from being damaged by the plectrum.

Lutes have a large circular sound hole, and this is often ornamented with a perforated rose carved from the belly’s wood.

Playing Technique

A mandolin’s strings can be played by plucking, strumming, or by using a sustained tremolo.

A lute is held and played much like a guitar. Instead of plucking, however, the low-tension gut strings of a lute are strummed.

The medieval lute, however, was played with a plectrum.

Sound & Music Styles

The mandolin has a somewhat metallic sound. The instrument popularly features in old-time country, bluegrass, and folk music.

The lute is a quiet instrument with a soft sound like the classical guitar. It is used as a harmonizing instrument and typically features Classical, new age, and Celtic music.

Besides the soft sound, a lute has an enchanting tone. This is due to the peculiar resonance resulting from the hollow body of the instrument.

Cost & Maintenance

Lutes are typically quite expensive, and that’s because these instruments aren’t mass-produced.

All lutes are custom-made instruments, and so if you want one, a luthier will have to make one specifically for you.

Not to mention the fact that lutes are very high maintenance instruments, whereby the gut strings and gut frets require constant care and tuning.

When it comes to a mandolin, the typical rule is that you get what you pay for. You can for a mass-produced mandolin costing about $100 or less, or you could have a hand-crafted professional instrument setting you back well over $10,000.

Mandolins require frequent restringing, and so their maintenance cost is high as well.

Which One Is Easier to Play: Lute or Mandolin?

It is easier to play the mandolin than it is to play the lute.

A well-made lute will have a fragile eggshell-like body, requiring fine and delicate techniques to hold and strum the instrument.

Because the strings on a lute are set in courses, the player’s right-hand technique needs to be very gentle and precise.

As a matter of fact, the lute’s difficult learning curve is one of the reasons why this instrument was surpassed in popularity by the guitar.

FAQs About Mandolin vs Lute

Does a Mandolin Sound Like a Lute?

No, it does not.

A mandolin has a high-pitched metallic sound, that can get quite brittle if you are not careful.

A lute has a soft sound that’s rich and delicate.

How Many Strings Does a Lute Have?

Lutes have a varying number of strings depending on the style of the instrument.

Medieval lutes typically have 5 courses of ten strings which is the least number of strings a lute can have.

Renaissance lutes can have 6, 7, or 8 courses of strings, with the first string being a single string. As such, a 7-course Renaissance lute has 13 strings in total.

Baroque lutes can have 11, 13, or more courses of strings, with the two upper courses comprising single strings. As such, a 13-course Baroque lute has a total of 24 strings.

The more the number of strings, the higher the range of the lute. This, in turn, means that the lute can play in a low register, such as to accompany a male singer, for instance.

Why Do Lutes Have Bent Necks?

The bent neck design is meant to help maintain the tension of the strings, and it also helps keep the lute in tune.

Conclusion

On the one hand, you have an instrument that’s perfect for the rhythm section of an ensemble. On the other hand, you have a harmonizing instrument that’s enormously versatile.

Lutes and mandolins might look somewhat alike, but the two instruments couldn’t be more different from one another.

Lee Cardwell
Owner and Chief Editor of Music Tech Hub. I play banjo, mandolin and I am currently learning how to play the harmonica.

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