Video Lesson: Dig into a Lute Work by the English Renaissance Composer John Dowland

As a fingerstyle steel-string guitarist, you might assume that your instrument precludes learning classical literature. But this isn’t actually the case.

As a fingerstyle steel-string guitarist, you might assume that your instrument precludes learning classical literature, which is traditionally performed on the nylon-string guitar. But this isn’t actually the case. You might not have the appropriate timbre in tackling a classical piece on, say, your OM. But you can enjoy a refreshing change of pace from your normal repertoire while absorbing techniques and ideas that you can use in your own music—regardless of your genre of specialty. 

In this lesson, you’ll do just that with a guitar arrangement of “Lord Willoughby’s Welcome Home,” based on Renaissance composer John Dowland’s lute arrangement of a traditional English ballad. Work through the examples, which highlight some of the concepts at work in the piece, before tackling it in its entirety. Use that OM, dreadnought, or even resonator­—whatever works.

The Components at Play

“Lord Willoughby’s Welcome Home” is commonly played in A minor in standard tuning on the guitar, but I have arranged it in a non-standard tuning. Lower your third string a half step, to FG from G, and place a capo at the third fret. Your guitar’s open strings will now match that of a Renaissance lute. You’ll finger the music in the key of A minor, but everything in the notation—and in this text—will sound a minor third higher than written, in the key of C minor.

As for your pick hand, don’t worry about classical techniques like the free stroke and the rest stroke. You can approach the music as you would any fingerstyle piece: Using your bare fingers, or even a thumb pick and fingers, pick the notes on strings 6–4 with your thumb and those on the higher string with your index, middle, and ring fingers. 


Renaissance music predates harmony as
it is thought of today—that is, in terms of vertical structures. But that’s not to say it can’t be analyzed on your own terms.

On the lute, Dowland’s music is historically played with such ornaments as grace notes. These aren’t always shown in notation, but are included here for your convenience. Often the grace notes involve a pair of notes before the main note, as shown in the small notes of Ex. 1. Start by fretting the C on string 2; quickly hammer on the D and pull off to the C, squarely on beat 1. Repeat the process, but using the first-string A and B, on beat 3. In both instances, make sure that you cleanly articulate the grace notes. Try playing them with other pitches, and on other strings as well. Not only can ornaments like this spruce up any melody, they provide a good workout for your fretting fingers.

Renaissance music predates harmony as it is thought of today—that is, in terms of vertical structures. But that’s not to say it can’t be analyzed on your own terms. For example, in Ex. 2, a i­–V–i (Am–E–Am) progression is implied. On beats 1 and 3, the A’s suggest the i chord, while on beat 3, the E­–GG pair forms the V chord. The takeaway here is that you don’t need four, five, or six strings to make a chord. Just two notes make for a nice uncluttered sound that’s appropriate for many styles.

On the guitar, the melody is often played on the top strings while supportive voices fall on the lower strings. But in a Renaissance piece like “Lord Willoughby’s Welcome Home,” different registers take on equal weight. In the first bar of Ex. 3, for example, the melody falls on the top two strings. It’s then passed to the middle and lower registers before returning to the upper strings in the last measure.

While much popular repertoire for fingerstyle guitar is harmonically predictable, there are unexpected moments in “Lord Willoughby”—namely the occasional appearance of an A-major chord in place of A minor, like in the second measure of Ex. 4, adding a hint of brightness. This harmonic technique is known as mode mixture—the A-major chord is borrowed from A minor’s parallel major key, A major. It’s an excellent tool to have at your disposal for composing or improvising in any style.

The Whole Hog


Once you’ve worked through Ex. 1 through Ex. 4, try “Lord Willoughby’s Welcome Home” in its entirety (Ex. 5). If you’re up for it, do a little harmonic analysis of the piece before playing it. Bar 1 implies an A-minor chord; bar 2, E minor; bar 3, F; bar 4, E; and so on.

Given the lowered third string, take things slowly—and bar by bar—when learning the piece. Experiment with fingerings to find out what works best for you. For example, in bar 1, on beat 1, you might play the third- and first-fret notes with your third and first fingers, respectively, doing the hammer-on and pull-off with your fourth finger. Try measure 3 with a partial first-finger barre at fret 3, your third finger on the fifth-fret A, and your fourth finger handling the sixth-fret C.

Throughout, remember to play the grace notes quickly, slightly before the main notes. Make sure that the grace notes don’t disrupt the rhythmic flow of the piece. If they prove problematic, you can simply omit them, as is often done in modern performances of lute arrangements like this.

Experiment with dynamics as you see fit—you might play gradually louder during phrases with ascending motion and more quietly during descending passages. And, as directed by the fermata signs (semicircles with dots), give the last note of certain phrases a little extra duration.


Your next task is less straightforward, but potentially more rewarding: Take some of what you’ve come across in learning “Lord Willoughby’s Welcome Home”—whether the lute tuning, the chord voicings, the mode mixture, or any of the other ideas—and apply it to your own acoustic-guitar music.



This article originally appeared in the March 2017 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.

Adam Perlmutter
Adam Perlmutter

Adam Perlmutter holds a bachelor of music degree from the University of North Carolina-Greensboro and a master's degree in Contemporary Improvisation from the New England Conservatory. He is the editor of Acoustic Guitar.

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