Authentic (?) Renaissance right-hand fingerings

Authentic (?) Renaissance right-hand fingerings I have in the past taken a cavalier attitude to right-hand fingering when playing Renaissance music on the ukulele. Obviously, one tends to use the thumb on the lower strings and the fingers on the other strings, but apart from that I have followed no particular rule – but now I am thinking of plucking “properly” and “authentically”, although exactly what this means is not always clear.

Renaissance lute and guitar music had a pronounced rhythmic patterns, with obvious strong and weak beats (articulation). The Renaissance guitar was regarded as a little lute (or vihuela) in polite society, just as we can regard the ukulele as a little guitar, so playing techniques will be similar across the board.

Composers writing in French tablature often indicated RH fingering in a very concise way:
Unaccented notes are shown by a dot under the letter or numeral indicating the fret.
So, how was this applied in practice? And, do the experts agree?

Fig. 1. The first lines of the first piece in Adrian Le Roy’s first book of tablature for guitar (1551) – see my transcription posted here. The dots indicating unaccented notes are clearly visible, and especially important where the accents do not fall on the first and third beats. See Figs 3a, 3b below.

Christopher Page

Below is the RH procedure in a manual for 4-course guitar published in 1574, paraphrased by Christopher Page (for full references see Resources page):

1. “When a single letter appeared with a dot … below it, the note was to be struck upwards with one of the fingers, not necessarily the index but rather with the finger ‘as shall best fit it‘.”
2. “If there were [no dot] the player used the thumb.”
3. “Where a single dot appeared beneath two or three letters, the strings were to be plucked with the fingers alone…”
4. “… absence of a dot [beneath two or three letters] indicated a ‘grip’, meaning that the thumb struck the lowest course … downwards, and the first two or three fingers struck upwards.”

Diana Poulton

In her lute tutor, Diana Poulton gives an exercise (Fig. 2) in which a pair of notes (dyad), consisting of a lower and higher note on the first (strong) beat, is played with the thumb and middle finger. The index finger is used on the weakest beats. What is unusual to modern players is that the thumb is brought up to the high string, and is not reserved for the lower string. This must be harder on the lute with its great number of courses than on the contemporary guitar or the ukulele.

Fig 2. An extract from an exercise in Poulton’s A tutor for the Renaissance lute, adapted to the Renaissance guitar or ukulele. The full marking system is on the left, the simplified equivalent (single dots only) in the middle, and the modern system on the right. The symbols pi and m refer to the thumb, index and middle fingers. 
The strong first beat has the middle finger plucking the 1st string and and the thumb plucking the 4th.  Note that in the first bar (measure), if one counts “1 & 2 &“, the weak beat is on the “&“, whereas in bar 2 (count “1 & a  2 &“) the first “&” is a strong beat and it is the the “a” that counts as the weak one. So, in a pair of notes of the same length, the second is normally weak. Where syncopation was required, however, the “unusual” weak notes would be indicated


Rob MacKillop

The following summary is given by Rob MacKillop in his lute tutor:    

“Thumb and middle [finger] play the strong beats, index plays the weak beats.”
 This elevation of the second finger to strong status seems at odds with Page’s point 1.


Lute Society

In her second lesson on the Lute Society website, Linda Sayce presents a simple piece consisting of two-part counterpoint (in the form of dyads or 2-note “chords”), and writes:

“Start by using the thumb and middle finger on every chord: it is easiest to get good contact and a good sound with this combination of digits. When you have that totally under control, play the piece again with thumb and index. Finally, for the ultimate in sophisticated plucking, use the thumb on every lower note, and for the upper notes alternate the middle finger on the strong beats (the first chord of each bar), and the index finger on the offbeats.”

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Ben Salfield

In his The lutenist’s handbook, Ben Salfield writes extensively on right hand technique. He points out that when Spanish vihuelistas such as Fuenllana in the mid 16th century played the upper strings, the p-i pattern was replaced by m-i.

He states “… the middle finger replaces the thumb on the treble courses and plays the heavier beat”.

The advantage of the middle-index system increased as the instruments gained more courses and the bass strings became even further from the treble. With the ukulele this is hardly a problem.


Perhaps we can summarise all these instructions and rank the digits thus:
     thumb > middle finger > index finger.


Worked example

In the examples below (Figs 3a & 3b) I show three extracts from Adrian Le Roy’s “Fantasie première” (see Fig. 1 for the original) to show the range of possible fingerings. The extracts have been converted from French to modern tablature, and show the original dot system, plus my interpretation of RH fingering following the alternative systems:
Fig. 3a: p-i, relying on the thumb for most of the strong beats on the treble courses.
Fig. 3b: m-i, where the middle finger takes the strong beats on the trebles.
Fig. 3a. Three extracts from Adrian Le Roy’s “Fantasie première” in modern tabs. The dots reproduce those in the original, and the letters beneath give my guess of what would have been played, using the p-i system for scale passages. 

Extract 1 starts with a canon of one, then two, then three voices. Bars 1 & 2 alternate strong and weak stress; in bar 3 all beats are strong; the stresses vary in pattern through the piece. It ends at a cadence using 4-note chords. 
Extract 2 shows a duet of upper single notes or duplets alternating with the bass line; the accent is not on the usual first and third beats. 
Extract 3 is the first part of a scalar passage, with the thumb venturing to the first string à la Poulton.

Fig.3b. The same piece as above, but with right-hand fingering with emphasis on the use of m-i fingering rather than p-i for scalar passages on the treble strings. I have also followed the Lute Society advice (above) that dyads (2-note chords) be played p+m on the strong beats and p+i on the weak beats. The thumb is largely reserved for the lower voice.

I now face three challenges:
1. To mark up transcripts as above, and play the music accordingly, which doesn’t come easy after many years of a laissez-faire right hand;
2. To be able to use the “correct” RH finger just relying on Le Roy’s dots;
3. To do the same when there aren’t any dots.

Tags: #authentic #fingerings #renaissance #right

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