Even though the shape of the alto guitar may lead our thoughts to the lute of renaissance and baroque times it’s actually a modern instrument developed during the 1960s. Swedish guitarist Per-Olof Johnson was looking for a way to perform lute repertoire more authentically without the necessity of transcriptions and arrangements. To play the lute requires a different right hand technique and as its double strings are best plucked with finger tips rather than finger nails used on the guitar there are major issues attempting to play both the lute and the guitar. Instead Johnson needed a guitar with single strings, lute tuning and extra basses to allow him to play lute repertoire as close to the original as possible.
He began to work with luthier Georg Bolin and they developed an instrument in 1962 that had a shorter neck and 3 extra bass strings. In 1965 Bolin built another version with a total of 10 strings and the following years versions with 11 and 13 strings as well. The most common alto guitar today has 11-strings and this is also the instrument I’m playing.
The tuning of the alto guitar can be divided into the first 6 strings which are tuned with the same interval although a minor third higher than the standard classical guitar, and the 5 extra bass strings that are tuned in a diatonic scale. The 3rd string can be tuned down a semitone to an f# when playing lute music and the bass strings are tuned according to the key signature of the piece.
With the alto guitar I as a guitarist get a fantastic possibility to play music written for lute in a much more authentic manner without taking the big step of learning to play the lute. But the alto guitar is not only a modern way of interpreting early music; its wider range and reverberant sound really extend my freedom when playing contemporary compositions and working with my own arrangements.