7-course Orpharion
7-course Orpharion

The Orpharion was mainly a late 16th and early 17th century phenomenon. The name is a conflation of the famous Greek musical heroes, Orpheus and Arion. It has a suitably ethereal, resonant sound, and was a popular alternative to the lute. As far as we know, only William Barley published music specifically for it, but since it was tuned exactly like a lute, all the vast lute repertoire of that prolific period was (and is) accessible.

This instrument is based on an original by Francis Palmer, made in London in 1617, now in the Musikhistorisk Museum, Copenhagen, Denmark. The Palmer instrument has 9 courses, but I reduced that to 7, mainly to simplify construction and keep the price down. The other well-known surviving orpharion, by John Rose, has 6 courses.

Head and pegs
Head and pegs

The strings are a combination of brass and iron. That's what gives it its other-worldly tone. 16th century metallurgy had problems with getting sufficient range without strings breaking, so the orpharion resorts to the ingenious device of sloping the bridge and nut (and all the frets to correspond), to make the bass strings substantially longer than the trebles.

Even then, there is some evidence that it relied on a super-strong and secret wire developed by Jobst Meuler in Nurnberg. That hypothesis is disputed, though. It may be that the Palmer orpharion was simply at a much lower pitch than the G that's generally assumed.

In any case, an orpharion nowadays has to be able to operate with a top string at modern pitch G. Luckily, we now have steel strings which are quite happy and robust at that pitch, while retaining Palmer's original scale length. They work very well, and the sound is not drastically affected.

Back of Orpharion
Back view
Orpharion in case
Orpharion in case

Sound Clips

“Home again, market is done” from Margaret Board's Lute Book, c. 1620.
Played by Ian Pittaway

Untitled piece from William Mure of Rowallan's Lute Book, c. 1620.
Played by Ian Pittaway

Tarleton's Resurrection by John Dowland
Played by Ian Pittaway


7-course orpharion
More courses, different head, more inlay - please enquire.

To order or enquire, pleasecontact me


Cases - Excellent cases can be ordered from specialist manufacturers such as Kingham MTM, but they're pricy. I can supply an attractive, custom-built plywood case, black with chrome fittings, for £220 when ordered with an instrument.

Delivery - the price depends on where you live. Please enquire.

I hate it when websites say "Phone for a quote", so to give you some idea - getting a baroque guitar in its case to America, including insurance, is currently about £170. Getting one to Kent is about half that.

Waiting time, from placing an order to clutching your new baby, is currently about 16 months. It's very approximate, because the schedule often contains items that are somewhat experimental, and they may take more or less time to complete than anticipated. Usually more.

Deposit- I usually ask for £150 (non-returnable unless I'm dead, insane, incapacitated or incarcerated) to secure an order and cover materials. Once that's paid, your order is entered into my Magic Book. Nothing happens for several months, then you receive an email to tell you I've started construction. A few weeks later, a big parcel arrives, and you squeal with delight.

Anote on HUMIDITY - delicate wooden instruments are remarkably resilient, but they can have major problems with both high and low atmospheric humidity levels. I keep my workshop at the recommended humidity level, between 45% and 50%, and I strongly recommend that instruments are kept as close to that range as possible. Electronic humidity meters are available cheaply on the Internet. They're small enough to keep in your instrument's case.
Low humidity can shrink wood, resulting in cracks and distortion. Case humidifiers, again available quite cheaply, should prevent this.
High humidity can swell the wood enough to cause cracking and warping, but the main risk is the formation of water droplets, either from condensation or perspiration while playing. These can damage varnish and slowly dissolve glue joints. A silica gel sachet can be kept in the case, but use a humidity meter as well. Take care it doesn't reduce the case humidity too far.