What makes a good cittern? — Compiled by Chris Goodwin.

Last updated Wednesday, July 19, 2017.
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From Lute News: The Lute Society Magazine 57 (April 2001), pp.14-15. Reprinted by permission of The Lute Society.

Unable to afford a good quality cittern from a professional maker, I decided to have one of the kits from the The Renaissance Workshop Ltd (formerly sold as Early Music Shop kits) made up by a professional luthier who offered to assemble it for me. But the maker, or rather makers, who made the kit up, Stephen Haddock and Alexander Batov, with over-the-telephone consultancy kindly provided by Peter Forrester, were able to improve the finished product dramatically by the following series of inexpensive modifications. I should stress that I mean no criticism of the The Renaissance Workshop's product, which is perfectly acceptable as supplied — indeed I only wanted one because I had heard one or two of these played over the years and liked the sound — the point of these short paragraphs is to point out that a bit of extra craftsmanship in "finessing" the kit as supplied may be repaid handsomely.

1. The fretboard

On some, though not all, historical instruments the end of the fretboard is not glued on to, or otherwise in contact with the soundboard any more than is structurally necessary, presumably to allow the soundboard the maximum freedom to resonate. If you wish, you can sand or lightly plane the underneath of the projecting end of the fretboard, to give a couple of millimetres of clearance for the last 5 cm or so of the fretboard.

2. Strings and pegs

The kit includes phosphor bronze wires, but you may care to buy slightly more expensive ones instead. Suitable strings can be obtained from Northern Renaissance Instruments (first course: Rose Iron 11 thou; second: Rose Brass 12 thou; third: 2 Low Twist Brass 12.5 thou, plus octave string: steel 9 thou; and fourth course: Rose Brass 14 thou). You may find the strings rather closely spaced; a good spacing is about 3 mm between the strings of each course and 6-7 mm between courses at the bridge, and about 1 mm less between courses at the nut. It is very important, however, if you wish to adjust the spacing of the strings to align the neck correctly in such a way that one could draw a centre line running the whole length of the instrument; the nearer the strings come to the edge of the fretboard, the less margin there is for poor workmanship in fitting the neck. If you cut into the top of each peg to make a "heart" shape it gives the fingers extra purchase on the end of the pegs when tuning.

3. Tuning and temperament

All those theoretical problems of tuning and temperament that we have all read about really come home to roost in the cittern. Studies of surviving historical instruments and paintings, carried out by scholars such as Peter Forrester and Ephraim Segerman, do not apparently suggest that any one single system of temperament was universally adopted to solve these problems, though all are in some sort of meantone tuning. The Renaissance Workshops kit includes a fingerboard with pre-cut slots for the brass frets supplied, but to my ears at least the second and third frets did not seem to fret the strings very truly; though whether this is because of the temperament system used, or the positioning of the nut, or the action pulling the strings out of tune, or for some other reason, I have absolutely no idea. (I had not noticed this problem on other peoples built-from-a-kit citterns). After hours of empirical experimentation with taped-on moveable wooden frets, Alexander Batov moved the second fret 2 mm, and the third fret 2.5 mm nearer the nut, which, to his and my ears, gave a good working solution. The vacant pre-cut slots in the soundboard were then filled in with slivers of wood. If you wish to adjust the spacing of the frets by this empirical method, it is a good idea to test the fretting by playing through the repertoire you intend to play when the instrument is completed. The finished instrument is tuned up by frets: having tuned the first course to a meter or tuning fork, tune the second string at the second fret to the first string open; tune the third to the first string stopped at the third fret, and the fourth string at the third fret to the second string, open. (In fact, the only surviving tuning instruction for cittern apparently advocates tuning from the bottom string, but no matter.)

The other tuning problem with citterns relates to the action: the physics of the instrument is such that merely holding the strings down on the frets tends to pull them out of tune. So it is essential to have the action absolutely as low as possible. A low action also makes the instrument much easier to play. By shaving a little off the bottom of the bridge and fretnut (which has a brass fret in front of it to set the height of the action at the nut end), and then filing down all the frets together after they have been set in, it was possible to produce an action with a height of just over 0.5mm at the first fret, rising to about 1.5mm at the 17th fret, giving an instrument which is easy to play and frets pretty truly. To increase the clearance between frets, "scallop" out the surface of the fingerboard between the frets, perhaps by nearly 1mm at the deepest point. The desired effect is one where, seen sideways on, the frets look like the crests of a series of waves. The original purpose of the "scalloping" may have been to increase the possibilities for the player to "bend" the tuning of individual notes in specific chords, to overcome the intrinsic tuning problems of the cittern. So there always was an element of knowing your own instrument, and tuning procedure. Obviously, getting the action right is a careful and patient job, but really necessary if you want an instrument that is fun to play. And then, hey presto! Sprightly and cheerful music!

A cittern specialist responds . . .

We are grateful to Peter Forrester for the following.

I have not examined the cittern kit referred to, but suspect that the tuning problem may not have been with the frets but rather with the position of the nut, or nut ("open") fret. [Alexander Batov says that in this particular case he is sure this was not the problem-Ed.]. All fretted instruments require some adjustment of the distance between the nut and the frets because of the additional sharpening incurred by bending the string when it is fretted. This results from both the height of the action and the height of the frets (or depth of the scallops), and is very much more obvious with wire strings than with nylon or even gut. The effect of action height can mostly be adjusted by moving the bridge away from the nut. That of fret height is corrected by moving the nut towards the frets. Most, not all, extant original citterns have an additional fret at the open position at the nut. This is usually slightly higher than the other frets and simplifies setting out the fingerboard.

My own method is as follows, aiming to produce a scalloped fingerboard. If using fret wire omit the first stages. [1] The fingerboard surface must be absolutely flat, or better, slightly curved longitudinally to match the shape of the vibrating string. [2] This will be the final upper surface of the frets, and can be checked by fitting the nut and the bridge, placing a piece of spare wire (0.25 mm approx.) at the theoretical open position, and stringing up. This will show whether the action and bridge height are suitable. If not, the fingerboard can be planed to suit. The nearly correct bridge position can also be determined, by tuning from the octave fret position. Any slight bumps likely to cause buzzing later can be found and eliminated. As the soundboard (and action) is going to sink it is useful to leave the instrument at pitch for a couple of weeks. This becomes almost a necessity for bandoras and orpharions where the bridge is fixed.

When the fingerboard surface is satisfactory it is marked out [3] and frets inserted flush with its upper surface. Scalloping is achieved by routing away most of the surface and finishing with a small gouge and files adjacent to the frets. The essential thing is that the depth should be constant. I now mostly use a Dremel router attachment, alternatives are an "old woman's tooth" or strips of emery or sandplate glued to a small sheet of perspex. Original instruments vary considerably in both the shape and depth fo the scallops. Mine are basically flat-bottomed, with a depth of approximately 0.6 mm for a 43 cm string length, increasing 0.75 mm at 61 cm, 0.8 mm for a bandora. An area in front of the "open" fret is left at present.

The instrument is strung up before with the wire at the theoretical "open" position, and with the bridge as determined previously. The wire can now be moved, usually about 2 mm towards the bridge, until the instrument is frets correctly. I find it easiest to work with the brass second course [4] using a meter. Finally the "open" fret is inserted at this position (or the nut moved up to it), filed to the height of the false wire fret used, and scalloping completed.


1 Scalloping gave way to fret wire (a flat strip until the 19th century) towards the end of the 17th century; colour-coded "wedges" disappeared at about the same date. Its disadvantage is the time required to make it. Its advantage is more accurate intonation because of the slope up to the fret, provided the fret is positioned correctly. Fret wire, if used, should be the very smallest obtainable - mandolin intonation is helped by the higher string tensions not available on the cittern. See FoMRHIQ July 1983, comm. 466, by Peter Forrester.[back]

2 See FoMRHIQ July 1982, comm. 420, Lawrence Brown; FoMRHIQ April 1993, comm. 1168, Ephraim Segerman, FoMRHIQ January 1999, comm. 1621, Ephraim Segerman. This should not be exaggerated if there is a risk of buzzing above the twelfth fret. About 0.5 mm is sufficient for a 43 cm string length. [back]

3 Citterns do not really work in equal temperament. A good average, which might well be standard today, is 1/6th comma meantone, although some Italian citterns approximate to 1/5th comma, whilst the Rose orpharion (probably originally a small bandora) is closer to equal temperament. (The Palmer is around 1/6th comma). None of the fingerboards that I have measured fit exactly to a set of calculations. Perhaps only those dismissed as unplayable have survived; or more likely fret placement was dictated by the local repertoire, so copying from an original fingerboard will not suit a different time or place. One frequently occurring deviation from measurements is that the nut-to-first fret distance seems too large. I would welcome explanations. Encouragingly, sawing the slots needs to be no more accurate than for equal temperament, indeed less so, because any movement of a fret position from equal temperament towards meantone results in better chords. Holborne, Robinson and Virchi reveal no enharmonic problems except for the eleventh fret which is better (and authentically) averaged with a fret factor of .4736 to give better C# on the second course. The other fret factors are given in: The Lute, 1982, vol. 1 (Eugene Dombois' paper) and Lute News 41, March 1997 (Martin Shepherd's paper). Spaces between frets should follow the following pattern: 0 large 1 small 2 large 3 small 4 large 5 large 6 small 7 large 8 small 9 large 10 equal 11 equal 12 etc. [back]

4 Citterns around 1600 were strung with a mixture of iron, brass and twisted brass. The small range of their open tuning does not necessitate this variety. It seems to have been used to aid intonation in higher fingering positions. [back]

How to cite this page: Goodwin, Chris and Peter Forrester. "What makes a good cittern?" Renovata Cythara: The Renaissance Cittern Site. Ed. Andrew Hartig. 19 July 2017. 23 March 2023. <http://www.cittern.theaterofmusic.com/articles/good.html>.


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