How to Improve a Bargain Lute

1) change the strings: the strings that come with the lute are all nylon, and the gauges aren't right. They aren't tied on correctly, so they'll tend to slip if you try to bring them up to tune. Also, the 4th course strings are much thicker than is practical, and they'll break before they get near tune. I recommend you get a whole new set of Nylgut strings (synthetic gut strings -- they sound like gut, but are reliable like nylon) from www.aquilausa.com - my lower strings are Nylgut wound with copper, rather than real gut.



Here is a photograph of my lute's Nylgut strings. Note how the unwound strings are opaque white, which the copper-wound ones are copper-colored.

Aquila USA recommended Nylgut string gauges for this lute (measurements in hundredths mm)
1 - 42 Nylgut
2h - 54 Nylgut
2l - 54 Nylgut
3h - 68 Nylgut
3l - 68 Nylgut
4h - 85 Nylgut
4l - 85 Nylgut
5h - 112D Type D, Multifilament Nylgut wound with copper wire
5l - 112D Type D, Multifilament Nylgut wound with copper wire
6h - 73 Nylgut
6l - 145D Type D, Multifilament Nylgut wound with copper wire
7h - 82 Nylgut
7l - 165D Type D, Multifilament Nylgut wound with copper wire
8h - 97 Nylgut
8l - 195D Type D, Multifilament Nylgut wound with copper wire


2) change the frets: the frets are made of nylon, which is bad: they need to be made of fret gut. The nylon frets don't want to stay put, so they're always moving out of place (which makes it very hard to play in tune). Buy a set of fret gut from www.aquilausa.com and find somebody to show you how to tie on frets. Here is a page about tying on new frets.


Here is what my newly tied-on gut frets look like.

Michael Peterson , a friend of mine and the Bay Area lute evangelist, helped me learn how to tie frets on, and he recommended these fret gut gauges (hundredths of mm): 110, 100, 95, 90, 85, 80, 75, 70.

Aquila USA sent me this package of recommended fret gut gauges (hundredths of mm): 100, 95, 95, 90, 90, 85, 80, 75.


3) Buy a tuner and pickup
Invest in an electronic tuner, and a clip-on pickup, such as the one tuner and pickup sold by www.mid-east.com. After you tune the open strings of your lute, use the guitar tuner to find the right placement for each fret (by fretting each note and making sure it's in tune. When you find the right place for each fret, you will notice that this correct position is way off (about 1/2") from the position that the frets came in when they were shipped to you. This is one major reason the instrument was initially unplayable: the intonation was completely out of whack.


I like the Korg CA-20 digital tuner, as it does a good job with soft signals, can handle sympathetic ringing strings (which occurs on the lute), is fairly inexpensive (about $30) and the needle doesn't "jitter" like analog tuners do.



I own a "Signal Flex SF-30" clip-on pickup, which I originally bought to tune my lute with. It is very inexpensive (about $15) clips onto my Pakistani lute's bridge, and on the bridge it produces a fairly strong signal that the tuner can use fairly well. However, with most lutes you clip the pickup on a tuning peg, and the signal is noticeably weaker there. The clip-on pickup's sound, when listened on headphones, is not very good, so I don't recommend using it for anything but tuning.

4) sand the nut down: the nut on the mid-east lute is fairly roughly made. The string height was quick a bit higher than it needed to be, and the edges of the nut went over the sides of the next. Luckily, the nut comes out when the strings are slack, so I removed mine and sanded it down to be flush with the sides of the neck, and for a better string height.


Here is what the nut looks like on the neck now that it has been sanded to be even with the next.


5) soap the tuning pegs: the tuning pegs are stiff and uneven in movement. Take each peg out, and rub a little bath soap around the peg, where the peg will meet the peg-box. Reinsert the tuning peg and turn it so that the soap rubs into the peg box. Instead of soap, you can use "Peg dope" (which is the "right" way to do it, though many pros use soap). "Peg dope" which is sold at violin stores, as well as at the Boulder Early Music Shop.


A photograph of Hill brand peg dope.

6) redo the nut. The nut that comes with this lute large gutters for the strings, which tends to cause sticking while tuning, as well as buzzing. Redo the nut by obtaining a nut blank from a lute or guitar builder, and then use files to shape it correctly. Notch the string positions using an X-acto knife to initially set the positions, then when you're happy with the string position, use a very small round file to put a groove in.


I used my teacher's Paul Thomson's nut as a guide. Thomson's lutes put more space between the first 4 courses, and less on the lower 4 courses -- this makes it easier to play the faster more demanding passages. Above is a scan of a paper-trace of the nut from the Thomson lute. You can use it as a guide, so you see where the strings should go.

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I've given my Pakistani lute to my former lute teacher Dan Winheld, who's made some more modifications to it.

He's used a small wood chisel and taken a lot of wood off the bridge off the rear of the bridge, as well as tapering the ends. Removing a lot of the wood from the bridge helped remove stuffness on the top and has improved the tone.

He also put a thin alll-back wood laminate on the back of the tuning head. This is purely for decoration.

. . .

Fernando Kurka, a reader of this page, sent me a description of the modifications he made to his Pakistani lute, along with many photographs.

1) Leveled the fingerboard. When it arrived the fingerboard was uneven. I used an electric sander with a large flat sanding surface.



Fretboard after leveling

The outer edges are rosewood and the inner piece is a wood that the Venezuelan indians use for making bows, dark with a very longs straight grain. Actually, I just didn't have a wide enough strip of anything. I'm a collector of useful bits of wood. The lute is glued using hide glue.

I tell myself that I replaced the fingerboard because it wasn't all that good, but, to tell you the truth, I just didn't like the looks of it. One of my favorite flea market finds is a guitar in need of work.I'm a frustrated luthier.

I eventually replaced the fretboard as pictured below (notice the "beards" where the fretboard meets the body)



New fretboard

2) Thinned the soundboard. I left it on the instrument. Initially, I used a scraper, which allowed me to judge the depth of the cut, and finished it with sanding paper.(I'm pretty sure that they used synthetic glue. I'll find out when I replace the fingerboard, some time in the future.)

3) Replaced the nut, frets, and strings, also the wood frets.

4) Cleaned up the rosette, added some decoration, and strengthened it by soaking it with crazy glue.



Cleaned up up rose

5) Reshaped the tuning pegs a bit. They where rather badly turned. This was a bit make-shift: I wound sewing thread around the areas where wood met wood, soaked these in crazy glue, and forced these into the holes while the glue was dry, but still pliable, managing to get a tight fit (a bit of talcum prevents the
glue from sticking). Works.

6) Drilled new holes in the pegs so that the strings would have room to wind towards the side of the pegbox.

7) I shaped the pegbox a bit so that the outer strings have room to get into the pegbox. Although some lutes have strings that wind outside, these usually have a little extension for the peg.



Pegbox

8) Got rid of that weird golden trim on the case.



Cleaned up case

9) There's a seam under the golden tape, so I used some gaffer's tape to cover this, sealed the edges with glue, and painted the case black.

10) Fitted a little cigar case as a drawer to put strings, etc.



Small box inside the case

11) Put in some elastic on the interior of the top of the case to hold
music.

12) Installed corner reinforcements on the case.

13) Refinished the lute; I used shellac.

In the future, I plan to replace the fingerboard.


Full picture of the final product

. . .


There is a further modification that I found extremely helpful in making these lute playable. I found I could improve the action of the strings and the look of the bridge with a little work. Let me describe the process.

First I went out and bought some flat galvanized sheet - the type you would use to make heat ducting. I also got some tin shears and an inexpensive jointers saw. This is a thin saw with different sized teeth on either edge of the blade and with no ridged support.

The galvanized sheet was a piece large enough to cover the width of the belly/top and about half its length. I drew a square-ish slot, (slightly larger than the size of the current bridge), and drilled an starting hole and snipped the slot out.

With the strings removed I then placed the sheet on the belly of the lute and using the jointers saw I removed the bridge I then shaped the bridge in the fashion of historical lutes and reglued it to the belly. The sheet metal made it easy to saw-remove the bridge (and cut its height some at the same time) without damaging the soundboard surface. It was the cheap way to go. I don't have a shop or proper luthier tools and did all my work in a studio apartment. Stringing up resulted in a much better look and action.



The end of the newly shaped bridge.



String side of the new bridge. Note the lowered profile and shape.



Rear side of the new bridge.

I have done this to two of these cheap P-Lutes one I made into a seven course by modifying the peg box and neck bowl width. And there were differences in both.

The seven course came out with great action but the original manufacturer did not glue the sound bars completely around the middle of the belly and so It developed a nasty buzz when the top vibrated. rather than steaming off the top I cut a slot in the side rib and did the repair through the hole. The other lute's action was still too high after lowering the bridge so I had to steam off the end pieces and the back end of the belly and remove material from the bowl and re-glue. This I do not recommend that "just anyone" do. But the results were wonderful.



Strings above rose. Note the close height of the strings to the rose.

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Other Lute pages at this site:

- The Lute Beginner web home page

- Lute beginner music and exercises: free tablature downloads to learn by.

- how to replace your lute frets: directions on tying new gut frets.

- lute pickup FAQ: inside or outside the lute?

- Lute related web sites