I Gotta Have More Theorbo!

Kenneth Kam playing his theorbo



Sounds like something you scream when someone drops a lute on your foot. 

Or a triple word score that makes the other Scrabble players eye you suspiciously.


While the etymology of the word is obscure — some theorize it may be Slavic or even Turkish, torba, meaning “bag” or “turban” — historical musicologists are reasonably certain the archlute that came to be known as the theorbo was developed during the late-16th century in Italy, inspired by the demand for extended bass range instruments for use in the then-newly developed musical style of opera.


We can only speculate what Italian lute players at the time said when they first laid eyes on Antonio Naldi’s (Naldi is just one of those who gets credit for inventing the instrument) oddly-shaped archlute with its giraffe-like neck, dual pegboxes and multiple string courses.


“Hey, Antonio, if it ain’t Baroque don’t fix it? Capisce!?” 


“Ah bellissimo, Antonio! I wish I could afford one, but sadly I’m Baroque.”


16th-century dad jokes aside, we sat down with lutenist and theorbo player Kenneth Kam to get his take on this most curious member of the lute family. We also discussed the program he’ll perform with Moshe Shulman, Anne Harley and others in their upcoming concert Baroque Dreams at Artpark on June 27 from 4 to 6 p.m. That set will include a few solo pieces for theorbo that might just have attendees screaming "More theorbo!" (no, seriously, please don’t do that if you attend, capisce? ;-). 


Artpark: What are a few things about the theorbo our readers might not know?

Kenneth Kam: The theorbo is a very unique instrument. You don’t come across it in concerts or music stores very often. There is a reason for this. The theorbo was not made to function as a solo instrument in the late-16th century. It functions mainly to be part of the continuo group; to play harmonies and basses to support other instruments. This is evidenced in the theorbo’s tuning. Unlike the guitar, the highest pitch, open string is not the first string (the top string). Instead, it is the third string. The theorbo’s tuning is related to the guitar’s standard tuning (E-A-D-G-B-E), but the first string of the guitar is similar to the second string of the theorbo, the second string of the guitar similar to the third string of the theorbo and so on. The difference is that the theorbo is tuned with re-entrant tuning: the second open string of the theorbo is E — similar to the guitar but an octave lower — the first open string of the theorbo is A, and it is lower than the second string, E. 

Also, there are diapasons basses on the theorbo, which the guitar doesn’t have. 


Given its long neck, is it hard to travel with it?

It is quite problematic to travel with, but I wouldn’t say it is very hard, because imagine you are a harp player — there is nothing more difficult to travel with than a big heavy harp! Recently, there is a new invention: a design for folding theorbos. If you type “folding theorbo” on YouTube, you’ll be able to find quite a few theorbo builders making them. They look very promising and I heard a lot of good things! However, I haven’t gotten to try one myself yet.


Kenneth Kam's theorbo stands tall alongside his lutes


What made you take up the theorbo?

I am always very curious and I have a strong interest in historical, plucked instruments. I remember when I was doing my masters at Florida State University, they had a room to store early instruments such as crumhorns. That was when I first got in touch with the Renaissance lutes and theorbo. I didn’t know how to play them at the time; I was just messing around, mostly like a little kid. It was so much fun and eye-opening!


What are some of the joys of being a theorbo player?

Personally, I wouldn’t consider myself, solely, as a theorbo player. I’m equally happy making music on the guitar, the Renaissance lute, the Baroque guitar and, also, on the theorbo. I think I’m happy to use ANY plucked instruments as a medium to express myself musically. In the case of the theorbo, I enjoy the timbre and the resonance of the instrument. It is very unique and special compared to all the other plucked instruments mentioned above. 


What is your favorite piece for theorbo and why?

Toccata arpeggiata by Giovanni Girolamo Kapsberger. This is the first solo theorbo piece I came across back in 2013. The music has a very rich harmonic language and it fits the theorbo very well. 


Kenneth Kam plays Toccata Arpeggiata by G. Kapsberger 

What solo piece will you be performing at Artpark?

I will be playing some solo pieces on the theorbo and also the Renaissance lute, including the Kapsberger I mentioned on the theorbo and some Dowland solo lute pieces.


What other pieces will you and the group perform that day?

I will also be playing some Vivaldi Trio Sonatas such as RV 82 (C Major) and RV85 (G Minor) and four Dowland songs with Soprano Anne Harley.


Have you played at Artpark before? 

No, but I have heard a lot of good things about Artpark. I am very excited to explore the greens and the environment there and, most importantly, to make music and share music with everyone there. It is definitely a great pleasure to perform at Artpark. Thank you so much for having me!  


Baroque Dreams will take place Sunday, June 27 from 4 to 6 p.m. on Artpark’s outdoor Emerald Grove stage.


Tickets: $12 - Click here to purchase



Artpark & Company, Inc, is a 501 (c)(3) non-profit organization whose mission is to produce and present excellence in the performing and visual arts, and create a unique cultural experience in a casual, natural setting. Artistic talent is nurtured and allowed to flourish in an atmosphere that is entertaining, educational and interactive for Artpark visitors.

Donate NOW

Learn More




Artpark Works funding for salaries of cultural sector workers at Artpark:





Join our E-List

Join our e-list and receive concert announcements, event info and special offers!