The name “lute” encompasses a wide variety of plucked string instruments with long or short necks and rounded backs. Such instruments have an extensive history in many parts of the world. Varieties were known in Egypt, Greece, and Rome. European lutes and the Oud of the Middle East are likely to share common ancestors.
The image of the lute is well engrained in our minds from depictions in medieval and Renaissance art. There was no standard form of the instrument, however. Lutes were continually evolving. The instrument now called the “baroque lute” is essentially a form of lute known to have been widely used during the baroque era.
In order to understand the baroque lute, the instrument should be discussed in connection with two related instruments, the earlier theorbo and a contemporary called the archlute. Both of these instruments are specialized variants of the basic lute.
The theorbo appeared during the Renaissance. While the typical Renaissance lute provided sound in the tenor range, the theorbo provided the bass range. A theorbo has a very long neck and two sets of strings, making it considerably larger and more complex than the lute.
The archlute was something of hybrid, combining aspects of the lute and the theorbo. It too has a long neck and two peg boxes like the theorbo, but with a tonal range more like that of the lute. The archlute was often preferred over the baoque lute in many musical settings, especially in Italy.