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Questions: Fingerboard of Orpharion

Questions: Fingerboard of Orpharion

by Chris Goodwin

Originally published in American Lutherie #93, 2008


Wayne S. from the Internet asks:

Can someone tell me what the idea behind the layout of the fingerboard of the orpharion is?

Chris Goodwin from the Internet

The explanation lies in the limitations of metallurgy in the Renaissance. The basic problem of lute family instruments is that you are looking for strings which are all the same length to make a musical sound with open tunings ranging over two octaves. If you have a reasonably fine bass string that makes a good musical note and provides reasonable intonation when fretted, then the top string has to be very thin and under very high tension to sound two octaves higher. They couldn’t make wires strong enough in those days.

Orpharion, copy after Francis Palmer, made by Peter Forrester. Photo by Peter Forrester.

The sloping frets partially resolve this problem by making the bass strings longer than the treble. The treble string could be shorter, and so didn’t have to be at such high tension to sound at a high note, and the bass strings didn’t have to be fat and chunky (and produce a dull unmusical thud, instead of a clear note) because they were longer.

This is explained very well by Ian Harwood in an (English) Lute Society booklet on the Helmingham bandora. Purchase the booklet from the Lute Society: