Lute vs Guitar – What’s the Difference?

The biggest difference between a lute and a guitar is their shape, as the guitar has a flat back while the lute has a deep round back. In addition, guitars have only 6 strings while lutes have as many as 15 to 24 strings. Lutes are also much lighter and have a different tone than guitars.

Despite these differences, it’s easy to confuse the two instruments as they belong to the same string family. In fact, the guitar evolved from the lute and they share much of their construction. In addition, they are played in the same manner, with their strings being strummed or plucked using fingers while being held in a similar position. However, they sound quite different, with the guitar greatly superseding the lute in popularity in modern times.

Differences between a Lute and a Guitar

The biggest difference between a modern guitar and a lute is the shape: the lute has a pear-shaped body with a round back while the guitar has a flat back. A lute may be fretless or have animal gut frets that are movable, unlike a guitar which has fixed, usually metal, frets. In addition, a lute will have an angled neck while the neck of the guitar is straight.

A typical lute would have between 15 to 24 strings compared to the 6 strings of most guitars. In addition, a lute is strung with ‘courses’ of two strings while the guitar typically uses a thicker single string. The classical guitar only uses nylon strings, which are also used in the lute. Additionally, animal gut or synthetic gut called Nylgut may be used to make the strings of a lute.  

A further physical difference is that the lute is very light, with even the largest one being much lighter than the guitar. This is because the lute is built with thinner strings which exert less tension than guitar strings on the instrument.

Lutes and guitar sound very different, with lutes producing a brighter, crisper sound than the guitar. Despite not going as loud as guitars, lutes are more responsive with greater tonal depth and beautiful bell-like clarity. 

Similarities between a Lute and a Guitar

Since guitars evolved from lutes, they share many similarities. Both have fingerboards with strings stretched between tuning pegs and a bridge. They are also held in a similar position, with the instrument being placed on the player’s lap if seated or attached to a strap around the neck when standing.

The instruments are played by plucking the strings, either using fingers or a plectrum made from wood or metal. Both lutes and guitars have many different variations and can play a melody as well as an accompaniment at the same time.

History of the lute

The lute is a development of the Arabic ‘ud, and was introduced to Europe during the Middle Ages. At the time, it had five pairs of strings and was played with a quill. In the late fifteenth century, people began playing the lute with their fingertips and its popularity greatly increased. Further developments at the time included the addition of an extra pair of strings and the overall shape of the instrument changing to a more elongated, pear-like form, resulting in the lute developing into its classic form.

The classic lute became one of the most popular instruments in Europe, particularly in royal courts where skilled lute players commanded extremely high salaries. Reaching the peak of its popularity in the 16th and 17th centuries.

As more and more music was written for the lute, it continued to evolve to reflect changing musical tastes. More and more strings were added until the lute ended up with fourteen pairs. A second, longer neck was added to cope with the extra strings. Different variations of the lute began to appear. 

By the 18th century, however, the lute had gone out of fashion due to the difficulty of playing it and its inability to generate enough volume to fill a large room. Superseded by the guitar in popularity, the lute became a rather niche product that is enjoyed by a select group of music lovers.

Development of the guitar

The guitar originated in the early 16th century, most probably in Spain, and is closely related to the Spanish variant of the lute. The first guitars were narrower and deeper than modern ones and had four courses of strings that were attached to a violin-like pegbox. Over the years, the guitar evolved considerably. Two courses were added and the pegbox was replaced by a flat head with rear tuning pegs. The fingerboard was raised so that it was higher than the belly and lengthened so that it reached the edge of the soundhole. The frets became metal or ivory,

By the late 18th century, the courses were replaced by single strings. In the 19th century, the body of the guitar became broader and shallower while the neck became a brace. The tuning pegs were replaced by metal screws while the transverse bars were changed to radial bars.

This instrument is referred to as the classical guitar. As the lute declined in popularity in the 17th century, the use of the guitar became more commonplace. It was during the 20th century that the guitar became the popular instrument that we know today. It is widely played in popular, folk and, jazz music. 

Guitars used today often have significant variations. Electric guitars are typically used for pop and rock music and depend on an external amplifier and speaker to amplify the sound. They may also have a guitar pedal. Acoustic guitars, 6-string guitars, cello guitars, metal-strung guitars, and steel guitars are some of the other variations of the guitar that are used for different musical styles.


Despite belonging to the same family, lutes and guitars are different instruments that offer two distinct types of sound. The delicacy and harmonic beauty of the lute made it the most popular instrument in Europe for two centuries, but it has been effectively replaced by the guitar which has proven to be a far more versatile instrument that is able to meet the demands of modern music.

Brian Clark

Brian Clark

I’ve been a writer with Musician Wave for six years, turning my 17-year journey as a multi-instrumentalist and music producer into insightful news, tutorials, reviews, and features.

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