The gittern: a short history

Angelic gittern player, from the Cathedral Saint Julien du Mans, France, c. 1300–1325. The gittern was one of the most important plucked fingerboard instruments of the late medieval period. Loved by all levels of society, it was played by royal appointment, in religious service, in taverns, for singing, for dancing, and in duets with the lute. Yet we know of no specific pieces played on this instrument. What we do have are many representations of it being played in a wide variety of contexts and one surviving instrument of the 15th century, and from this we can reconstruct something of the history and repertoire of this widely-loved instrument. This article begins with a video of a French estampie played on gittern.

(Click picture to play video - opens in new window.) Ian Pittaway playing a gittern based on the surviving Ott instrument, with Andy Casserley on simfony, together playing as The Night Watch. La Quinte Estampie Real (The Fifth Royal Estampie) is from one of the oldest manuscripts of French courtly repertory, Manuscrit du Roy, compiled c.1250 (songs) and c.1300 (dances). Both the gittern and simfony in this video were made by Paul Baker.
Click picture to play video – opens in new window. Ian Pittaway playing a gittern based on the surviving Oth instrument, with Andy Casserley on simfony, together playing as The Night Watch. La Quinte Estampie Real (The Fifth Royal Estampie) is from one of the oldest manuscripts of French courtly repertory, Manuscrit du Roy, compiled c.1250 (songs) and c.1300 (instrumental pieces and dances). Both the gittern and simfony in this video were made by Paul Baker.

What is a gittern?

First we need to be sure of which instrument we mean. In the 16th century, the 4 course renaissance guitar was referred to as the gittern in England and France, and this isn’t that. Much as various websites and even reference books would have you believe otherwise, the medieval gittern which is the subject of this article is not a type of guitar, nor is it related to the guitar. There was also a baroque gittern, which was a type of very small cittern, and this isn’t that, either. The seemingly haphazard same-naming of different instruments and multiple naming of the same instrument in the medieval and renaissance periods can be confusing, and many websites and even reputable books are suitably confused. In the case of the gittern, this isn’t helped by the fact that, until 1977, there was general confusion between the gittern and the citole, thus what we now know as the British Museum citole used to be called, in its previous home, the Warwick Castle gittern. The fog was lifted by Laurence Wright, whose research gave clear grounds for categorising the two instruments in his article, The Medieval Gittern and Citole: A Case of Mistaken Identity, published in The Galpin Society Journal, volume 30, May 1977. (For more detail about sorting through the repeated confusion over medieval and renaissance instrument names, click here.)

Formerly known as the Warwick Castle gittern, the British Museum citole, now accurately identified, was made 1300–1330. The reason for its survival is probably its exquisite decoration, and certainly its conversion into a violin at the request of Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, to give as a gift to Queen Elizabeth in 1578. (Photograph courtesy of the British Museum.)

So what exactly was the medieval gittern? The gittern was strung with gut, had 2, 3, 4 or 5 courses (single, double or triple strung), the strings almost always attached to hitch pins on the tail of the instrument, rather than tied to the bridge. It was played with a pletrum made from a single quill or several quills combined (both appear in iconography), and its bowl and neck was carved from a solid piece of wood. The sickle-shape pegbox was decorated with a variety of entertaining carvings, such as the head of a man, woman or animal, or an acorn, which you can see in the images on this page.

The increasing popularity of the gittern

Gittern iconography is a valuable source for the variety of its design and the way it was strung. There are many variations, according to time and place. The beautifully decorated Cantigas de Santa Maria, a richly-illustrated paean of praise to the Virgin Mary, was compiled in 1257-1283 during the reign of Alfonso X, King of Castile and other regions in modern day Spain and Portugal. The Cantigas is one of our earliest sources of gittern images (above), showing two gitterns, one being played, the other tuned. According to this representation, (some?) gitterns in Iberia had 3 single strings and D shaped sound holes. As we see below, gitterns in other times and places generally had a single rose, central to the body, sometimes with an additional smaller rose near the fingerboard.

Certainly by the 14th and 15th centuries the gittern was an important and popular instrument across Europe, loved by all classes of people. The 14th century French poet, Eustache Deschamps, gives evidence of the gittern’s rise in popularity, writing that “at royal courts everyone wants to play the trumpet, gittern, and rebebe.” (The rebebe was a bowed instrument – more information here under the heading, Origins: the rebab?) Late medieval Italian royal courts recorded the hiring of several gittern masters and Charles V of France’s court in the 14th century owned four gitterns. In his Canterbury Tales, written between 1387 and 1400, Geoffrey Chaucer makes regular reference to the gittern as a popular instrument, associated with the harp, lute and psaltery, with minstrelsy, with taverns and with popular music-making.

From The Pardoner’s Tale

In Flaundres whilom [once] was a compaignye
Of yonge folk, that haunteden [practised] folye,
As riot, hasard [gambling], stywes [brothels], and tavernes,
Wher as with harpes, lutes, and gyternes
They daunce and pleyen at dees [dice], bothe day and nyght,
And eten also and drynken over hir might

In The Miller’s Tale, Absalon the parish clerk knew 20 dances …

and as wel coud he play on a giterne.
In all the town n’as [there never was] brewhous ne [nor] taverne,
that he ne visited with his solas [= solace = entertainment to forget your cares] …
and Absalon his giterne hath y-take,
for paramours [lovers] he thoghte for to wake …
[and thought to wake one paramour in particular, the carpenter’s wife, so early in the morning he sings outside her window]
He singeth in his vois gentil and small …
Ful wel acordaunt to his giterninge.

The gittern and the lute

The gittern was smaller and therefore of a higher pitch than the lute, but we know from Johannes Tinctoris in the 15th century that they were identically tuned in relative terms. While they may look quite similar, the gittern and lute are distinguishable in three ways:

  • The backs of lutes were made of several ribs glued together, with a separate neck; whereas the bowl of the whole gittern, including the neck, was carved from a solid piece of wood.
  • The strings on a lute were attached to the bridge, which was glued to the soundboard, whereas gittern strings were attached to hitch pins on the edge of the instrument and passed across the bridge. The bridge may have been glued or ‘floating’, i.e. not glued but kept in place by the pressure of the strings. (As we see below, there were a few exceptions to this general distinction.)
  • The pegbox of a lute was bent back from the neck at an obtuse angle, whereas the gittern pegbox was a curving sickle shape.
Lute and gittern playing together from Pere Serra’s Virgin of the Angels, 1480s (detail), a section of an altarpiece now in the National Museum of Art of Cataluña.
4 course lute and 3 course gittern playing together from Pere Serra’s Virgin of the Angels, c. 1385 (two details combined), a section of an altarpiece now in the National Museum of Art of Cataluña.
Gitterns generally had hitch pins on the end to hold the strings, passing over the bridge. There were exceptions: occasionally gitterns had strings attached to glued bridges, like lutes, as we see above. Left to right: Firenze (Florence) Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale, Banco rari 38, 1270–1338 (lute above, gittern below); Monasterio de Piedra triptych, Spain, c. 1390; Pala di San Marco (Triptych of Saint Mark), Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, Venice, painted by Bartolomeo Vivarin, 1474. 

Surviving instruments

Just as iconography shows various sizes of lute, harp, citole, etc., we also see a variety of sizes of gittern. The actual sizes and therefore pitches of the instruments are virtually impossible to ascertain, since the relative size depends on how large we think the player is, and in any case, while much valuable information can be gleaned from art, medieval artists were not aiming for the minutely measured accuracy of a graphic designer.

Still, conclusions can be drawn, and we do have two surviving instruments: one a gittern, the other a kobza (cobza, koboz), the eastern European fretless relative of the gittern, and they appear to correspond to two of the sizes in art. The kobza is the earlier. It fell into a latrine in Elblag/Elbing, Poland (it’s been part of both Poland and Germany, and so has two names), presumably by accident, since the instrument was dropped intact, with even its strings recovered. It is dated 1350-1450 and has a vibrating string length of 30-33cm, depending on bridge placement (the bridge became detached on impact and was found beside the instrument). The only surviving western European gittern was made by Hans Oth of Germany, who operated Nuremburg from 1432 to 1463, with a vibrating string length of 44cm.

Above, the 4 course gittern excavated from a latrine in the city of Elblag / Elbing, southeast of Danzig, Poland, and dated to c. 1350. Also found were a recorder and fidel. Vibrating string length of around 31cm. Below, 5 course gittern by Hans Ott, who made instruments in Nuremburg from 1432 to 1463. This instrument is dated to c. 1450, and is now in Wartburg, Eisenach, Germany. Vibrating string length of 44cm.
Above, the 3 course koboz excavated from a latrine in the city of Elblag/Elbing, southeast of Danzig, Poland, and dated to 1350-1450. Vibrating string length of around 30-33cm, depending on bridge placement. Below, 5 course gittern by Hans Oth, who made instruments in Nuremburg from 1432 to 1463. This instrument is therefore usually stated as dating to the mid-point, circa 1450, and is now in Wartburg, Eisenach, Germany. Vibrating string length of 44cm.
Large gittern in the quire vault of Gloucester Cathedral, 1337-50.

Large gitterns are rare in surviving images, and indeed Johannes Tinctoris, De inventione et usu musicae, 1481-1483, compared the gittern with the lute, stating that the gittern “is much smaller”. Nevertheless, everything is relative and there are often exceptions to a rule. As we see below, The Ethics Of Aristotle, 1376, shows a gitternist accompanying a singer on apparently a large instrument with a long neck. My own scepticism about the veracity of this image was answered by luthier George Stevens, who found the striking large gittern in the quire vault of Gloucester Cathedral, dated to 1337-50, nearly contemporaneous with the French Ethics Of Aristotle image. The key question, then, is: is it original? George contacted Gloucester Cathedral Archivist, Mrs. Rebecca Phillips, who confirmed that the quire vault has been subject to repairs over time, but that the carvings are indeed original.


We have no music for the gittern, or for virtually any other specific medieval instrument, but we do have clear indications of its repertoire from iconography. Because it was played with a quill, we know it could only play single lines or adjacent courses. The fact that it duetted with and was tuned the same as the lute, but at a higher pitch, shows that it shared the lute’s repertoire. If the earliest surviving lute repertoire from the late 15th century is a guide, then the gittern’s repertoire was also a mixture of secular love songs, religious music, dance music and ricercares (semi-improvised pieces upon a musical theme). We know from iconography that the gittern was played in religious and royal service, for accompanying singing, for dancing and for tumbling (acrobatics). The fact that it was played by royal appointment must have meant that its repertoire included serious, artful and skilled music.

The many uses of a gittern. Left: Religious use, as seen on the Apostles’ Door, Valencia Cathedral, Spain, 14th century. Right: Royal service, a detail from Simone Martini, 14th century, Saint Martin is knighted.
A gittern played to accompany a singer, from The Ethics Of Aristotle, translated from Latin to French by Nicole Oresme in 1376 by order of King Charles V of France.
A gittern accompanying dancing and tumbling (left) and singing (right), a miniature from Romaun de la Rose (Romance of the Rose), France, c. 1230–1275. 
A gittern played for dancing, from the margin of a Flemish manuscript, 1338-44 (Bodl. Lib. 26).


How was the gittern strung: how many strings, configured in how many courses? According to the iconography, there was not a single standard way of stringing a gittern. There is such a high degree of consistency within diversity that I’m inclined to suggest we can draw firm conclusions, and that standardisation was not on the mind of the medieval gittern player. This was certainly true of the medieval vielle, with its variety of stringing and tunings.

The survey of 12 images below is in chronological order.

Click the picture to see it larger in a new window.

My formula below for the iconographical survey above shows number of courses = number of strings on 1st course + number of strings on 2nd course + etc., followed by the year and source.

Top row, left to right:

3c = 1+1+1 – 1257–83. Cantigas da Santa Maria, Iberia (modern Spain/Portugal).
4c = 3+2+2+2 – 1330. Master Juan Oliver, Cathédrale de Pampelune, Spain.
2c = 3+2 – 14th century. Ormesby Psalter, Bodleian Library, Oxford, England.
2c = 2+2 – c. 1412-99. Bayeux Cathedral crypt, France. The Bayeux Cathedral crypt instrument is problematic. Poorly depicted, it appears to be 2 courses, 2+2, but it may be a 4 string gittern or a 4 string lute.
2c = 2+1 – early 15th century. French translation of Giovanni Boccaccio, De Mulieribus Claris, originally 1374. Both this and the previous instrument appear to be fretless, in which case they may be kobzas.
3c = 1+3+3 – 14th century. Apostles’ Door, Valencia Cathedral, Spain.

Bottom row, left to right:
4c = 2+2+2+2 – 1312–1325. Simone Martini, Saint Martin is knighted, Italy.
3c = 2+2+2 – c. 1385. Pere Serra, Virgin of the Angels, Catalonia.
4c = 2+2+2+1 – 1400–1424. Church of Saint Bonnet Le Château, Loire, France. Like the instrument shown above in Boccaccio’s De Mulieribus Claris, this fretless instrument appears to be a koboz rather than a gittern: frets are not shown and, with this neck profile, tied frets would be impossible.
3c = 1+2+2 – c. 1450. Window in Saint Mary Magdalene Church, Newark, England.
5c = 2+2+2+2+2 – between 1432 and 1463. Gittern by Hans Oth, Wartburg, Eisenach, Germany.
5c = 2+2+2+2+2 – 1460-1490. Master of the Lyversberger Passion, Germany.

One image in particular is worth a closer look for what it may tell us about stringing and timbre: Simone Martini, Saint Martin is knighted, Italy, 1312–1325, below.

Above we see 4 courses, double strung. From our vantage point, each of the upper strings of each course appear to be lighter in colour, and the upper string of the fourth course is thinner than the lower string. This may suggest octave stringing throughout, the darker strings being weighted, i.e. denser, and therefore of a lower pitch. If so, the downward plectrum would strike the higher octave first, with the effect of emphasising the upper octave. Two other details are noteworthy. Firstly, there are two roses rather than one, not unusual on some gitterns, though the openness within the rose design is a distinctive feature. Secondly, the eight tied double frets are unusual in that the two strands of the fret are placed apart rather than tightly bound together. Being a minstrel in royal service, this cannot be a musician who is careless about his frets, and the precise spacing of the gaps within the double frets shows it to be a deliberate act. One explanation is that this is a bray gittern. Bray harps, played from around 1400, had L shaped pins at the base of the strings, which acted practically to hold in the string, and were turned so that the strings vibrated against them, creating an effect like an Indian sitar or the distortion of an electric guitar. This buzzing frisson of sound was standard on harps of the 15th, 16th and 17th century. The same effect is mentioned for Italian lutes in the early 16th century in the Capirola lute book; Italian writers of the 16th and early 17th century describe the arpichordo, a buzzing keyboard, a cross between a harpsichord and a bray harp; and the renaissance Flemish and northern European keyboard, the muselar, had the same buzzing effect. On a fretted instrument such as a lute, the buzz of the strings is created by having double or triple frets, tied separately, of different diameters and spaced slightly apart, so that the string stopped on the fret also vibrates against the slightly higher adjacent fret. On this gittern, this method to create fret buzz – if that is the reason for the spacing – was not used: the single knot under each double fret shows that the same fretgut is wound around twice. A single strand of fret gut, wound twice and spaced apart, may still create a buzz with an accurately angled neck. The bray effect works better on longer string lengths than shorter, so I experimented on a gittern of this size to see if the buzz would be effective, creating the sound by weaving a thin strip of paper between the strings at the bridge (same effect, much shorter route to get there). I can report that it sounds magnificent. This gittern of 1312–1325, then, may be an example of a buzzing bray instrument. An alternative explanation is that these double frets may be spaced apart to give alternative notes in two unequal temperaments: the tiny spacing between frets would not be a problem for a skilled musician, and indeed the third finger of the left hand appears to be placed exactly in the gap between the two strands of the third fret. (Temperament refers to the spaces between notes. Modern instruments are in equal temperament, meaning the gaps between all semitones are the same. In the medieval, renaissance and baroque periods there were several ways of tuning in unequal temperaments.) Futher evidence is lacking to ascertain which of these suggested explanations is correct.

We see from this survey that:

  • 3 string gittern in Coronation of the Virgin by Fra Angelico, painted 1434-1435.Gitterns could be strung in single, double or triple courses, sometimes mixed. Iconography shows that single- and double-strung gitterns both continued into the 15th century, as we see on the 3 string gittern in Coronation of the Virgin by Fra Angelico, painted 1434-1435 (right).
  • A mixture of single, double or triple string courses were in use from the 14th century, the triple string course appearing on any of one or more courses, including the top course; with the single string appearing either on the top or the bottom course.
  • In the 14th century (and at other times?), some gitterns may have been tuned in octave courses, and there may have been bray gitterns, or gitterns fretted so as to be able to play in more than one temperament.
  • Into the 15th century, 2, 3 and 4 course gitterns were played contemporaneously, the 2 course gittern becoming obselete in the early 15th century.
  • The first evidence of the 5 course gittern is the surviving instrument by Hans Oth, not earlier than 1432 and not later than 1463.
  • The arrival of the 5 course gittern did not supersede 3 and 4 course gitterns.

What we make of this variety of stringing in terms of playing styles can only be speculative. The existence of the triple-string course is intriguing: was this 3 unison strings, 2 lower octaves and an upper octave, or 2 upper octaves and a lower octave? This may have depended on the course. It may be that a 3 string course was always in unisons on the first course, but possibly in octaves for lower pitches; or it may have been that octaves on any triple course, including the first, were there to enlarge the sound and introduce an element of re-entrant tuning. We lack evidence either way: the iconography is too imprecise and writers are silent on the issue. Johannes Tinctoris, composer and music theorist from the Low Countries, in his De inventione et usu musicae, 1481-1483, wrote of the “thinness of sound” of the gittern: the triple-string course may have been an attempt to thicken the timbre.

There is also a question of identification. As we have seen from the Elblag find, eastern Europe had (and still has) the fretless cousin of the gittern, the koboz or kobza. Some of the instruments shown above – from the Bayeux Cathedral crypt, De Mulieribus Claris, and the Church of Saint Bonnet – appear to be fretless kobozs rather than fretted gitterns, suggesting that the koboz was also played in the west, as other images definitively show. Criteria for identification will be explored in a dedicated koboz article, to go online around March 2021.


The tuning of the citole and gittern, as shown in the Berkeley Theory Manuscript, written before 1361.

There is only one piece of surviving evidence for 4 course gittern tuning, in a puzzlingly neglected source. The Berkeley Theory Manuscript was probably written by Johannes Vaillant, a 14th century Parisian music teacher, who died in 1361. His manuscript is a compendium of music theory, including drawings and tunings for the citole, gittern, harp and psaltery. The drawing of a gittern gives a tuning of e b f’ c’’, which is most odd, and is clearly wrong, since it is contradicted by the text. The citole is shown with a tuning of c’ d’ g’ c”, followed by the comment that the gittern tuning is the same, but with the 4th course loosened to a fourth below the adjacent course, clearly giving a tuning of a d’ g’ c”. How was the mistake made on the drawing? If the e b f’ c’’ tuning is reversed to c’ f’ b’ e” then we have a tuning entirely in fourths, as described in the text, if we also flatten the b’ and e”. It appears that the author knew the gittern was tuned in fourths but became confused: in the drawing, he forgot that in the text he had written c’ d’ g’ c” for the citole and therefore the tuning a d’ g’ c” for the gittern; calculated the gittern tuning in fourths from the top c” as if it was bottom c’, giving a tuning of c’ f’ bb‘ eb”, but then omitted to write the flats and again reversed the tuning, writing it backwards as e b f’ c” on the drawing. Reading the text alone makes gittern tuning unequivocally clear.

Gittern tuning in fourths concurs with the anonymously authored Summa Musice, c. 1200 (probably French), which stated that fingerboard instruments were “tuned in the consonances of octave, fourth and fifth”. Since we do not know exactly what size of instrument the Berkeley Theory Manuscript author had in mind, and both citoles and gitterns came in a variety of sizes, it is possible that the citole tuning was an octave below that stated above, making it c d g c’, and the gittern tuning likewise an octave below at A d g c’. Intermediate size instruments between these octaves would have had a relative tuning at a different pitch, so the important point is that, at whatever pitch, the 4 course instrument was tuned entirely in fourths, as presumably were 2 and 3 course gitterns.

This changed with the addition of a 5th course on the gittern, as it did on the related lute. In the early 15th century, the lute gained a 5th course. The evidence from manuscript witnesses indicates that some added the extra course at a higher pitch, some at a lower pitch. The adding of lower and lower pitches was a trend that was to continue for the next 2 centuries. By the time Johannes Tinctoris wrote his De inventione et usu musicae, 1481-1483, the gittern had also gained a 5th course (as we also see on the earlier Oth gittern, 1432–1463) and the lute occasionally now had a 6th. Tinctoris stated that the gittern had “the same tuning and method of playing as the lute, though it is much smaller”. He described the tuning of 5 and 6 course lutes as fourths, except for an interval of a major third between courses 3 and 4, which was to be standard renaissance lute tuning. This, then, is also how the 5 course gittern was tuned. This means that both gitterns and lutes were tuned entirely in fourths until the advent of the 5th course, which added the ‘new’ interval of a major third between the third and fourth courses or, occasionally, between the second and third courses.

The end of the gittern

The gitterns in the detail on the left from a painting by the Master of the Lyversberger Passion, Germany, 1460-1490, have glued bridges rather than floating bridges and hitch pins. On the right is another example of a gittern with a fixed bridge, carved in wood in France, 1450–1500; and a third is below, painted by Bartolomeo Vivarini in 1474, a detail from the Pala di San Marco (Triptych of Saint Mark), Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, Venice, also seen above. Since these examples are from the twilight of the gittern, when the lute was eclipsing it, the preponderance of the fixed bridge may represent a desire to make the gittern more lute-like in its last days. (As with all pictures, click to see it larger in a new window.)

The gittern was played into the last third of the 15th century and retained its high status in some places, as we see in the depictions above from Germany and France and right from Italy. However, Johannes Tinctoris testified in 1481-1483 that by then the gittern was “used most rarely” in the Low Countries “because of the thinness of its sound”, and the lute was now beginning to be played in a new way, with the fingertips. The fingertip method displaced quill technique on lutes almost entirely by around 1500, though some lutenists did play with quills into the early 16th century. This reflected a radical change in music-making, from the quill playing of either a single line, or a melody with a drone, or polyphony on adjacent courses, to complex and delicate polyphony and counterpoint on any course now possible with the freedom of independently playing fingers.

Gittern players did not make the transition from quill to fingers and the fuller sound of the lute was favoured, thus the gittern in the latter part of the 15th century gave way to the lute in this new style. The changeover was complete by 1500: there would be no more royally appointed gittern masters, as that role in the 16th century was bestowed upon royally appointed lutenists in the courts of Europe.

Was this the end of the gittern? Yes and no. The gittern as such was no more by 1500, but there are good grounds for believing it continued in a modified form, as the renaissance and baroque mandore.


© Ian Pittaway. Not to be reproduced in any form without permission. All rights reserved.

19 thoughts on “The gittern: a short history

  • 15th October 2016 at 5:48 pm

    I made an attempt to write the mandore article on Wikipedi and to improve the gittern. I can’t say I am satisfied with the articles, but editorial limitations dictated I put in only what could be properly sourced. I was blown away by the beauty of your articles on the gittern and mandore. I just wanted to say that I have a new favorite place to read online.

  • 16th October 2016 at 4:15 pm

    Jack, thank you so much – that’s very much appreciated. I agree that the mandore and gittern articles on Wiki, better now, have been hopelessly confused in the past, the sorts of articles that need starting again rather than rewriting, including the sorts of entirely erroneous statements that one could see someone would logically make if they didn’t know the subject properly. Thank you for the compliment and please keep up the good work. My best wishes. Ian

  • 22nd October 2016 at 4:51 pm

    Ian, the history is fascinating, thank you. However this question is from a player, not an historian. Some years ago Paul Baker, who pointed me in your direction, made me a large 5 course gittern. After some debate I had it tuned ddaad’d’g’g’a’a”. It works, but my other string instrument is guitar and I have never become a fan of dad’g’a’ (and swapping between two string tunings and my wind instruments confuses my poor brain). I am about to restring and would like to get as close to conventional guitar tuning as I can. Assuming I keep the three middle pairs as they are, do you think it would work if I went for a lower e and an upper b’, i.e. ead’g’b’? Or are there any other possibilities? I pose the question without first trying it because nylgut strings are neither easily available nor cheap.
    My apologies to any purists who read this, but my understanding is that medieval musicians had a pretty cavalier attitude towards tuning.

  • 23rd October 2016 at 8:11 pm

    Hello, Gordon.

    The dd aa d’d’ g’g’ a’a” tuning (is that final a” correct?) is close to the one I developed through experimentation – dd’ aa d’d’ g’g’ a’a’ – before I discovered that 5 course gitterns were in lute tuning, as indeed were 4 course gitterns, the difference being that 4 courses were entirely in fourths and 5 courses also had a third, as you’ll see below.

    You can, of course, tune a gittern in any way you want, but I can’t recommend this for a historical instrument. Your suggestion of e a d’ g’ b’ – guitar tuning – is close to lute tuning, as we know 5 course gitterns were tuned. Your historical choice on 5 course gittern would be between putting the third between courses 2 and 3 or between the more usual 3 and 4. On Paul Baker’s larger Ott size gittern with 5 courses, the pitches make more sense, I think, dropped a tone below your suggestion, i.e. d g b’ e’ a’, with the third between courses 3 and 4 and the rest in fourths. It’s likely that the bottom course, possibly the bottom 2 courses, was tuned on octaves.

    Nylgut strings are not especially expensive and are easily available from who can also advise on gauges if you give them the vibrating string length. Decent strings are a good investment. I’ve almost never had a nylgut string break or go untrue. Those that have – very rarely – are the thinnest strings, which won’t apply in this gittern tuning. For thicker strings, such as the 5th course in this case, I would avoid overwounds at all costs, which neither look right nor make the right sound. Instead, go for the Savarez KF synthetic gut basses, which are excellent, and couple it with an octave string.

    I wouldn’t say it’s true that medieval musicians had a cavalier attitude towards tuning. From what we know, plucked instruments had standard tunings, based around various formations of fourths, fifths and octaves, depending on the particular instrument, and a range of scordatura, non-standard alternatives for particular pieces.

    If, like me, you’ve never been able to successfully slice a quill into a plectrum, I would highly recommend using an oud risha, which are available from several places, including Ebay. They provide just the right amount of flexibility and produce much better sounds from my gittern than either a whole quill or a guitar plectrum ever did in my earlier days of gittern experimentation.

    All the best with the stringing.


    • 23rd October 2016 at 9:46 pm


      I confess that my ddaad’d’g’g’a’a’ tuning was based on yours. I was then a little wary of strings in octave – at that time my only experience of non-standard guitar tuning was to drop the bottom string to d to play the Sarabande. I have an old guitar that owes me nothing so I’ll tune that dgb’e’a’ and see where we go from there. It will be single strings and will sound different but it will give me some idea of how the tuning falls under my fingers.

      It is a long time since I bought any nylgut, they do seem to last forever and I probably did it the hard way getting them from Italy. I’ll use the people you suggest. Quills are not a problem. My neighbour is a falconer and keeps me supplied with Eagle quills. However, when playing for my own pleasure I have been using a soft guitar pick, so I’ll get an oud risha. Cavalier attitude to tuning was badly phrased – my thought was that instruments were evolving and were locally made with corresponding local variations.
      Thank you for your response. It was very useful. The next few weeks should be interesting.

  • 24th October 2016 at 4:52 pm

    My pleasure, Gordon. Yes, getting nylgut from Italy can be a long wait! I’m glad to be of service. If there are any further questions along the way, please do ask.

    All the best.


  • 24th October 2016 at 6:49 pm

    Going well so far – that tuning is much more natural for someone who started as a classical guitarist. Thanks


  • 26th October 2016 at 11:34 am

    That’s great, Gordon. You’ll probably find that the interval relationship between the third course and those either side – the equivalent of taking a guitar string from g to f# – makes some figures in 15th century music (as this is a 15th century tuning) much more logical to play.

  • 14th July 2018 at 7:11 pm

    In, thank you for this article. My musical training began as a vocalist, specifically with in the early music traditions. I am a bass/baritone. As the years progressed I picked up instruments as well but not within the early music genre. Now after almost 20 years of playing fretted instruments, most notably the mandolin and it’s cousins, I am thinking of returning to early music as an instrumentalist as well as a vocalist. Is it inconceivable to tune a gittern like one would tune a five course mandolin beginning with the c? cc-gg-dd-a’a’-e’e’?

    In the article and in some of the above comments you mention we can tune a gittern any way we choose. And yet…

    …your thoughts?

    • 16th July 2018 at 6:43 pm

      Hello, Tripp.

      How you tune the gittern depends on what you intend it to do. You could tune it in fifths like a mandolin but then it would be a mandolin-gittern hybrid and wouldn’t work like a gittern. There are two schools with early instruments: (i) how do I get this instrument to do what I want, knowing what I am already familiar with?; and (ii) what does the evidence suggest medieval players did, and what can I learn from this unfamiliar information? Your question suggests the first school, modern people playing early music in a modern way, and I am in the second, trying to base playing practice on the available evidence. There is great value in going with the evidence about tuning (as in the article above), which will take you far beyond what you already know about the mandolin, on an instrument that was played before mandolins were thought of.

      All the best.


      • 18th August 2018 at 1:57 am

        And you sold me on the latter. I was tinkering on a four-course instrument today and the ancient tuning is really intriguing. I spend most of my musical life playing and sing Christian liturgical musics. As an instrument to a company voices, it’s actually quite subtle and lovely.

  • 9th January 2019 at 9:21 pm

    Dear Ian,
    In my opinion you’re right with regard to the instrument from Elblag. It does resemble more the Arabic qanbus (gambus) than the gittern stricto sensu. And the qanbus is a likely descendant of the Turkic kobuz (kobiz). At the same time the qanbus is a very plausible ancestor of the gittern especially if compared with the mandora (gittern) ?? from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. On the other hand the Elblag instrument seems to have descended from the Turkic kobuz directly without any intermediation. Thus the gittern and the koboz (?) do resemble very much each other.

  • 11th January 2019 at 9:07 pm

    Hello, Iaroslav.

    There is an article to come on the Elblag koboz / kobza – it’s been a long time intended but hasn’t yet risen to the top of the list. The koboz was certainly played in eastern Europe (and western Europe, too, as my article will show). I don’t have any evidence in medieval or renaissance Europe for the other instruments you mention, qanbus and kobuz. Of course, there are some similarities between them, but I am quickly giving up the idea of families of instruments unless there is real evidence of lineage. Often relationships are stated by authors based on design or name which is impossible to prove and based on conjecture. So the qanbus, koboz and gittern may be related in an ancestral line, but they may have arisen quite independently in different places. Either way, the statement requires evidence which, as far as I know, is lacking. I don’t think anyone knows what the one-off instrument in the Metropolitan Museum is! I have seen iconography that resembles it, but it appears to be a particularly rare specimen, at least in surviving records.

    All the best.


  • 12th January 2019 at 5:52 pm

    Dear Ian,

    Thank you very much for the reply. I perceive your approach, although, in this case, it invites some questions. In order to avoid, at least, a part of them I’ll wait for the article announced.

    Best regards, sincerely yours
    Iaroslav Iashchuk, Kyiv, Ukraine

    P.S. 1) The Great Hungarian Plain became many times the last asylum of nomadic people from the East. In the historical epoch the first were Iazyges in 44 B.C. and the last ones Cumans (Polovtsians) and Jasz people in the 13th century. 2) The role of Yemenis in the Islam power expansion was crucial. They were everywhere from Talas on the East to Spain on the West, both on land and sea (the first Arabic fleet in Mediterranean was built in Alexandria just by Yemenis).

    • 16th March 2019 at 10:44 am

      Thanks Ian, this is all very interesting and I think I’ll try tuning my guitar to C D G C

      • 17th March 2019 at 11:42 am

        Hello, Baz. Do you mean your guitar or your citole? The citole in this tuning works extraordinarily well, and makes playing in the dorian, mixolydian and ionian modes a doddle. The French estampies of c. 1300, in particular, just fall under the fingers in this tuning.

        All the best.


  • 21st January 2021 at 9:13 pm

    Dear Ian.

    First of all, thank You for the articles at Early Music Muse, they are really great sources of knowledge.

    I would like to ask You for some advice concerning the positioning of the frets of the gittern:

    I assume Pythagorean pre-1400 “Eb x G#” tuning, as described in , and gittern with chromatic fretboard.

    Then let’s have for instance the D and G strings. To get the proper tuning, on the first fret on the D string there should be Eb, so a minor semitone higher, whereas on the first fret on the G string should be G#, which is a major semitone higher. Therefore we have a conflict, because the fret should be at two distinct distances from the nut at one time.

    From what I’ve found (in the context of lutes), there are following options how to solve this problem:

    1) Use tastini as auxiliary frets under some strings (not applicable to tied frets).
    2) Use angled frets, not perpendicular to the strings.
    3) Use “double” frets (noticed in Your article too), so one is able to play all sharps and flats.
    4) Simply decide between minor and major semitone and put one fret just at the “minor”, or just at the “major” position. For some of the strings it will be at the correct position, for some not. And just live with it.
    5) Somewhat depart from the Pythagorean tuning and put one fret somewhere between the “minor” and “major” position.

    What would be Your opinion on this issue?

    Thank You for the answer.


    • 22nd January 2021 at 10:44 pm

      Hello, Radek. Thank you for your appreciative comment and your excellent question. Here are my thoughts.

      Pythagorean tuning can only be theoretical on a fretted instrument, for exactly the reason you state: all courses played on a particular fret must have the same semitone spacing as the others, so compromises in the tuning system simply must be made. I don’t know of any evidence for tastini or angled frets in the medieval period, but the evidence base on this matter is vanishingly small, so nothing can be stated with certainty.

      Paintings and other iconography can be really helpful to build up a picture of how an instrument was played, but such images are not detailed or reliable enough for such a precise question as tuning by fret positions: artists are not draftsmen. As I state in the article above, there is a potential clue in the prised-apart double frets of the Martini gittern, which may have been for the purpose of creating alternative semitone spacings. The painting suggests it was a deliberate act, but it is the only depiction I know of that shows this manner of fretting. Was this an individual player’s idea, or widespread practice only shown clearly here? Or were the prised-apart double frets there for some other reason – the only one that seems credible to me is to make the instrument bray? The evidence, alas, is lacking, as far as I know.

      We are left, then, with the clues of surviving instruments, extremely few in number from the medieval period, and those that survive cannot give us an answer. Since the Oth gittern had tied frets, we cannot know where those frets were originally placed. Since the British Museum citole was converted into a violin in the 16th century, we have lost the original fingerboard with fixed frets. Had the frets survived, they would have been such a treasure, the only extant evidence of medieval fingerboard tuning, but even so it would have told us only about that one citole: we could not assume other instruments or even other citoles made the same set of fretted tuning compromises.

      We do have clear evidence of fretted tuning compromises on the Francis Palmer orpharion of 1617, the details of which are here: The fingerboard is a mixture of 1/4, 1/5, 1/6 and 1/8 comma meantone and equal temperament. I have played several copies of the Palmer orpharion and can report that the Palmer fret placement works beautifully and produces a pleasing sound. This 17th century instrument can’t tell us anything specific about the fretted tuning of a 13th or 14th century instrument, of course, but it does demonstrate that a fretted instrument can made a large number of compromises to a tuning system and arrive at a perfectly workable set of fret positions including, in principle, a system based on Pythagorean tuning that is not purely Pythagorean.

      I wish I could give a more definite answer, Radek, and I’d really value your thoughts.

      With my best wishes.



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