Buying a theorbo
Here are some suggestions for anyone trying to obtain an instrument.
I'm a little reluctant to include a list of every theorbo maker I can think of. It would, of course, be subjective and incomplete, and there are already several lists available, compiled from the memberships of various lute societies. It will be obvious which makers' work I play on from other pages on this site, and there are links to the websites of those who have them on my links page. However, the best way to choose an instrument for yourself is to listen to as many as possible, both live and on recordings, and to try as many as you can get your hands on. If you play lute already you will probably know at least one maker, and you will be in a good position to evaluate the work of others. If you are looking for your first lute-family instrument, I would urge you to invest plenty of time in market research, especially if you don't yet play and can't evaluate an instrument for yourself. Most makers are happy to talk about their work, and to put you in touch with players who are using their instruments, and most players are also happy to give advice and feedback. A consultation lesson with a lute teacher (all of the lute societies have lists of teachers) is also a good starting point. Please be considerate in approaching makers and players: people will be more willing to give advice at their convenience, rather than if they have been disturbed in the middle of a tricky glueing job, or whilst trying to tune up before a concert. Don't be put off if you contact a maker only to be told that he or she has no instrument currently available for viewing: that is the normal situation with good makers, because they build instruments to individual order and their customers will usually collect them the moment the varnish is dry enough to travel. In such cases, the best option is to try and talk to players who use that maker's work. Aside from factors such as waiting times, prices, models offered, and the appeal of a particular maker's work to you, another factor to consider is that virtually every new theorbo will require a trip back to its maker within a few months, for small adjustments to its set-up as the instrument acclimatizes to string tension. You may not live near a maker, or you may not like the work of the closest ones, but it makes sense to avoid buying a theorbo from the other side of the world unless it is really special. Another point is that a theorbo (especially a big one) is a much more challenging construction than simple single-pegbox lutes. An experienced maker who has built many theorbos is more likely to produce a good, reliable instrument than one who is building his or her first theorbo. However, makers have to start somewhere, and a young or inexperienced maker may take an unusual amount of care over a first theorbo, may offer it more cheaply and/or quickly, and may be more willing to modify it if necessary. So here are some ways to find out who's making theorbos...
Via the lute societies:
The British lute society website lists all makers who are members of that society: just click on 'makers'.
The German lute society also has a list of makers: click on 'Linkliste' and then 'Instrumente / Gewerbe'.
The Dutch lute society has a list of makers; click on 'Links' and then 'Bouwers'.
The French lute society also lists makers.
There are several exhibitions devoted to early music, either sporadic or annual, including major events in London, Utrecht, Paris (Musicora), Bruges, and Boston, Massachusetts. (The London exhibitions are organized by the Early Music Shop.) Some makers regularly exhibit at these, and instruments are available to try. These exhibitions are usually organized in conjunction with an early music festival, and are invariably heavily advertised in early music journals.
From recordings and concerts:
Many early music CDs credit the makers of the instruments used on the disc, and sometimes even include the date and model of each instrument. This can be a good way to gain an idea of the quality of a maker's work. Personal preferences aside, virtually all professional players will be playing on instruments of a high standard.
Sources of second-hand theorbos
Most makers have waiting lists, often quite long. If you want a theorbo more quickly, then a second-hand instrument is the best option. There are usually not huge numbers of them for sale at any given moment, but most are listed in one of a handful of places. One is the 'for sale' list on the British lute society website. In the US, Wayne Cripps administers a large lute list, including a page with lutes for sale. If you live near a city whose music college or university has an early music department, the college noticeboards may also be fruitful sources of instruments for sale. In the UK, the Early Music Shop, with branches in London and Bradford, occasionally has a second-hand theorbo for sale. Otherwise the chances of finding a playable theorbo via other outlets such as music shops catering for mainstream modern instruments, or eBay, are very small. The majority of instruments advertised as theorbos on eBay are early 20th century German guitar-lutes with some extended bass strings. I would advise against buying a cheap student theorbo such as are advertised through commercial outlets, unless you can have the instrument checked out by a professional player; they often require a massive amount of rebuilding in order to make them work.
Hiring a theorbo
The British lute society has a fleet of hire instruments, including a theorbo: these are available for hire to members only. In addition they maintain a list of a few privately owned instruments whose owners are willing to hire them out. Otherwise the opportunities for hiring a theorbo via an existing hire scheme are few.
The DIY option: building a theorbo
This is definitely not for the faint-hearted. However, if you have instrument-building experience already, or at least some considerable skill in woodwork, you might consider it. British luthier David Van Edwards offers lute-building courses run via the internet. At the time of writing (January 2014) he has completed one to make a renaissance lute and another to make a baroque lute. Visit his website for details. These courses cover basic and not-so-basic lute-building skills in considerable detail, and the procedures are heavily illustrated and minutely described. Most of the processes are basically the same as those required to build a theorbo, and these courses would provide a good grounding in the skills needed. In addition to these practical skills, you would also need information, which is chiefly acquired in the form of a working drawing of your chosen instrument. The British lute society sell a working drawing of a Buchenberg-style theorbo, drawn by Stephen Gottlieb. This is a large, early 17th-century-style instrument, especially suitable for continuo playing. A list of published drawings of instruments in public collections is available on the CIMCIM website, though they do not sell these drawings: they are normally sold through the museums which hold the instrument on which the drawing is based. Some of the plans are described using rather outdated terminology. The only complete theorbos on the list are:
1) the Vvendelio Venere in Vienna (a very small Paduan instrument of 1611, with a stopped string length of c.76cm).
2) The slightly larger Sellas instrument in Brussels, number 255, which has a stopped string length of c.78cm but much longer bass strings than the Venere.
3)The Sebastian Schelle of 1728 in Nuremberg, which is a beautiful instrument but very late, and rather specialist; its stopped string length is c.88cm, and it has a hinge in the upper neck, which is a mixed blessing! You don't have to make it with the hinge, but I would suggest that you avoid this one unless you particularly want to play 18th century German music from the very end of the theorbo's life.
There are several other instruments on the list which are described as 'theorbo' or 'chitarrone' but which are actually archlutes (the Tieffenbrucker in Vienna, C45) or German swan-neck baroque lutes intended for D minor tuning.