Tuning the Sutton Hoo Instrument

by Master Orrick of Romney

Since the original builders of the Sutton Hoo instruments were not considerate enough to leave an owner's manual, any stringing or tuning of the reconstructed instruments is a guess. What follows, however, is reasonable.

Much folk and traditional music, from cultures as disparate as England and Japan, is a 5 note or pentatonic scale. (The pentatonic scale corresponds to the black keys on a piano. Songs in this scale include "Comin' Through the Rye", "Sakura", and Singin' in the Rain"). Since the Sutton Hoo lyre has six strings, it is plausible that it may have been tuned to a pentatonic scale, plus an octave doubling of the low note of the scale. Hence plausible tuning slow to high are D-E-G-A-B-D, E-G-A-B-D-E and G-A-B-D-E-G. (There is no reason not to begin on an A or B, but few folk songs fall into these ranges.

It is widely believed that the Sutton Hoo instruments were used to fill in blank spaces in bardic recitations. If you wish to follow this there are two schools of thought. One is arpeggiation: just about any flowing combination of notes in this scale sounds okay, and with a bit of practice one can sound like he has been at it for years. The other is chords. The combinations of G-B-D, G-B-E, A-D and A-E together with octave substitutions, sound good.

As for stringing, perhaps the best choice is (low to high) two third or C, two second or B and two first or E guitar strings. Nylon strings are probably best, both for avoiding stress on the instrument and for approximating the original sound. If metal strings are chosen, use as light a gauge as possible.

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