Sitar Tutorial(s)

Contents copyright N. P. Cutchey 1999 through 2011 et al.

About this tutorial:

This is intended for people who like the idea of playing Sitar, but who haven't had much experience with the instrument before. This is also intended to be the beginning of a living document so other items will be added from time to time. There are also some advanced links below that can be really helpful if you really want to understand or even modify your sitar for performance beyond that available for purchase due to time investment required.

When I first came to the instrument I found it more difficult then it needed to be as there were so many basic things to find out that "someone" should have told me, and it took a long time to get the information I needed. In fact took so much time and effort that I was unable to really get playing properly for about 6 months. In these pages you'll find answers to these basic questions and be able to get playing right away.

The basics continue below but here is a list of advanced subjects so you do not need to read through the basics to find the subject:

The Basics:

If you find basic questions that this tutorial doesn't cover, or have something to add, please e-mail me

And, yes, we import and sell sitars. You may see these here.

Also, you may find it helpful to look through the new Indian Instrument FAQ.


Unpacking and general Sitar care:

If your Sitar was shipped to you, please carefully unpack and examine it for shipping damage.

If damaged, please contact your buying source within 24 hours so the supplier can begin work on the insurance claim. Keep the original packaging. It's not a good idea to return an instrument that has shipping damage before calling the people who sold it to you, as a second journey will complicate matters considerably, causing more damage and may invalidate any insurance claim or rights you may be entitled to.

A Sitar is a delicate instrument and should be handled gently 'like an egg' as it is all-too-easy to break one of the gourds (tumbas) or the hollow neck, peg holes, etc.


About tweaking
Every sitar we sell has been tweaked. New strings have been fitted where needed, frets have been polished, bridge has been adjusted for intonation, and frets have been moved into their proper position. The following three paragraphs concerning remedies are intended for an instrument that has come straight from India or sent out form a dealer without the needed adjustments having been made.
There are only two US instrument sellers I know of that inspect and tweak the instrument before sending it out. Most dealers lack the knowledge to do this and others just don't devote the time to this for reasons I don't care to go into here.
String changing and fret polishing needs to be performed from time to time as a part of routine instrument maintenance.

Sometimes the instrument has the top two pegs tied to the neck to minimize shipping damage. Untie the pegs. Place the peg with the steel (1st string) in the lower peg hole at the top of the Sitar and the other peg with the copper-color (2nd string) in the upper hole.

A word about the strings and frets: because your instrument is hand-made in a very humid country the top 7 strings may have become dulled during the instrument's long journey. We always supply a complete set of strings free with every Sitar bought from us. Please replace any strings that don't look bright and shiny .

It may be that the frets need polishing. The frets should look shiny, If they look dull or tarnished, slacken all the top strings, polish the frets using 0000 steel wool, rubbing this along each fret. Dull frets will shorten sustain and make note bending more difficult.

A word about really cheap instruments: I did try some of these, but these "bargains" were so badly made I stopped, deciding that if I didn't want to own it then I wouldn't sell it. Some are selling these citing "Volume" and "Wholesale" as reasons for the cheap price. Really, as with anything else, one very much gets what one pays for.

Treat the sitar as you would your own body. If you feel cold, so will the sitar, if hot, the same applies. Easy, really, just think about how you feel and you'll know if the instrument is comfortable or not. This info. doesn't apply to sun worshipers of cold freaks (grin).


Screwing in the top tumba:

The top sound gourd (tumba) is sometimes packed separately. Unpack this and carefully screw it into it's hole in the back of the top of the instrument.


Using the Mezrab:

This is the Sitar 'pick'.

Holding the Mezrab in the thumb and forefinger of your left hand extend the index finger of your right hand. Place the mezrab over your right hand index finger like this:

The long, pointed metal wire needs to run down over the nail of your index finger over the tip and underneath the pad of your finger. The wire 'V's at the sides need to be placed over your index finger's sides.

If you have the right size mezrab the side pieces will hook themselves behind the first joint of your index finger. This is important as if this lock behind the finger joint isn't achieved the mezrab may tend to fall off your finger and is sure to inconvenience you in your playing. We keep three sizes of mezrab, small, medium and large, so look at your right hand and mentally compare it with other people's hands to get a feel for what size your hand is.

When you place the very the tip of the mezrab against a string you'll find that you can easily flick the mezrab backwards and forwards to produce a tremolo effect - a bit like a mandolin - this is how a Sitarist manages to pick notes so quickly. Naturally the left hand is also very busy selecting notes at the same time! This will come with practice...


 

Tuning the instrument - the top 7 strings.
See also the tuning page for graphic illustrations

As you tune your strings gently push each peg into its hole. This will tighten the peg and stop it slipping. If a peg still slips, remove it, apply chalk to the gripping parts of the peg and place the peg firmly back in its hole. Use sidewalk or carpenter's chalk for this, not blackboard chalk, as this has wax added to it as an anti-squeak ingredient and will only make your pegs slip even more!
If you have a peg that slips no matter how much you apply chalk to it, you need to use some coarse sandpaper to roughen the surface of the peg at the points that it contacts the sitar. With great deal of use, pegs can become worn and, eventually, they'll need this treatment.


Using the tuning beads:

Two of these will be found at the bottom and two at the top of most Sitars. Some are in the shape of a swan and some are egg shaped.
Note: Some student sitars come with only one tuning bead. This may be found to make fine tuning inconvenient, so we offer an option where we fit three more tuning beads here before sending you the instrument.
When you bend a string across the curved frets to obtain various notes the string may sometimes be pulled out of tune. A bead is used to re-tune a string quickly by moving it away from the bridge or top nut of the instrument, so putting more tension onto the string and bringing it back in tune.
The first string is usually the one that will need this form of adjustment as it is normally the one that receives the most pulling, bending, action. It helps if, when you tune your instrument, you firmly (not too hard) pull the top 3 strings one at a time, re-tuning them if their notes become flattened after pulling them. Naturally, when you tune the instrument the tuning beads should be almost slack (but not totally slack as they may rattle) otherwise you may find that you have no way of adjusting a string by moving its bead as there will be no distance left for you to adjust it.


The Tarb (resonant) strings:

These are tuned to the particular scale or raag you choose to play in so, as you play the notes of your scale, each tarb string produces an echo of the note you play, forming an acoustic reverb chamber vibrating in sympathy with your fingered scale notes. See The tuning chart

Note: all Tarb strings are normally of steel, gauge 34 or 33 (0.009 - 0.0085")

Stroking the tarbs:

Place the little finger of your right hand under the 7 main strings. Gently and quite slowly stroke the nail of your little finger from top to bottom over the tarbs. Assuming you have already tuned these strings you should hear that 'magic' cascade of notes so typical of the beginning of a traditional Indian raga. You may also do the same thing using your thumbnail, stroking the tarbs upward. This is unusual, and not used in Indian classical music, but produces another interesting sound,

Tip: If your thumb and little finger nails aren't long enough to produce 'clean' notes as you stroke the tarbs, you can get steel guitar finger picks and modify them so they fit your thumb and little finger, so substituting for your short nails until you grow them.


Oiling the strings

First you need to make up a good oil for this. Take equal parts of light mineral oil and olive oil and mix. Add a little cologne for a continuing pleasant scent.
Find a small round tin or a pill box. Remove the compartments from the pill box and place a layer of cotton wool inside. Pour a little oil on to the cotton wool
Push the tips of your left hand's first two fingers (index and middle) onto the cotton wool and rub it over your sitar strings. Try to be careful that the oil doesn't smear onto the woodwork. Play the sitar and notice how easy it is to slide your fingers up and down the strings - roller skates for your left hand! This technique is used by many sitarists, but for some reason isn't well known, sort of a semi-secret. As the oil gets on the frets you'll find note bending easier, too.
Please remember to wipe your top strings with a soft cloth after playing to remove any surplus oil, etc. Dried oil and sweat from your hands can make your strings sticky.

Adjusting the bridge and positioning the frets:

A sitar's bridge is adjusted by moving it towrd the neck to raise the note and away from the neck to lower the note. The frets are adjustable by sliding them up or down the neck of the instrument. When a sitar is manufactured the frets and bridge are only approximately positioned. It is up to you to refine this bridge and fret positioning so your sitar will play in tune up and down the fingerboard.
Note: Every instrument that comes from us has all this pre-done for you as part of our tweaking procedure.

Adjusting the bridge:
  1. Lay the sitar on the floor with strings upwards.
  2. Tune the first string to F or F# (open, not fretted with the fingers).
  3. Gently place the index finger of your left hand on the first string just ahead of the 11th fret of the first string. Don't push the string down to the fret - just gently place a finger on the string.
  4. Pluck the first string with your right hand and quickly lift your left hand finger from the string.
  5. Do this a few times moving your left hand index finger slightly up and down the string. When you have this right you will hear a high note quite softly ring out like a bell chime (harmonic). Press your finger gently (pressing hard will cause the note to be higher than it should be) down on the 11th fret and pluck the string to sound a note. This should be an octave below the bell-like harmonic..
  6. Move the bridge so the 11th. fret's note is an octave below the harmonic - you can keep 'pinging' the harmonic and moving the bridge until it is exactly in tune with the harmonic.
Adjusting the frets:


Caution: move the frets gently and always move the fret and the material tying it to the neck as a unit, otherwise the tying material may become loose or even broken. Re-tying frets is a total pain!

This illustration is reproduced from "Play Sitar" by Ram Avatar Vir. This book is available here".

Fret tuning is performed using the 1st string.

Some Sitars have less than 22 frets, in these cases the missing upper frets may be ignored.

Leave the sitar on the floor with strings upwards, same as you did when adjusting the bridge.

Ping a harmonic just ahead of the 7th fret and test the note by pressing the first string down onto the 7th fret.

Move the 7th fret so it is an octave below this note - you can keep 'pinging' the harmonic and moving/fretting the seventh fret until it is exactly in tune with the harmonic.

Repeat this procedure for the 11th (you'll find this is also an octave above 1st string open) and 17th frets.

Now you can smooth out the position of the other frets so they are in tune with the master frets.

Note: You'll find a good sitar tuning chart here.

Sitting with the instrument:

Some westerners may find sitting cross-legged is the easiest way to play. The right elbow presses the Sitar's bottom tumba close to the body leaving the left arm, wrist and fingers free to move up and down the sitar's neck to finger the strings.

Here's more traditional Indian way of sitting - the one I use.


This illustration is reproduced from "Introduction to Sitar" by Harihar Rao. This book is available here

Bending (pulling) the strings:

Most of this action is performed on the first string. Instead of going to the next fret for a note, try pulling the string across the wide expanse of curved fret to find the note in that way. Now you may begin to experiment and see how far and how truly you can bend this string to achieve various notes - practice, practice, practice!

Please don't practice hard, with grim determination, but let the music flow through you - as you become one with your instrument and the music flows, hours may seem to pass like minutes as you float down the river of your creative imagination. Let the instrument sing for you. In Zen one would say "Let IT play". If this seems a little too poetic as a description to some that's because this is very much what Indian music IS! Once swimming in the musical river one often transcends normal existence and find time suspended. I often find I've been sitting and playing for hours only noticing time's gone by when I try to stand up... Oh my goodness, all my joints have stiffened into place where I've been sitting in the same position for so long! This "Meditational workout" is a very beautiful thing to experience. Some Indian students actually play for 12 to 18 hours at a time. It has been known for them to tie their hair to a branch of a tree to keep them awake so when the head nods forward the hair pulls and wakes them up!

The upper 3 "Chikari" strings:

These are generally used as high drones as an alternate to the other fingered strings. They reinforce the rhythm of a particular piece of music. You'll hear them on Sitar records as the repetitive 'ching-ching' sound sometimes present as the instrument is played. Some Westerners prefer to use a thumb pick for these strings but this is incorrect for Indian classical sitar where all four fingers of the right hand are moved back and forth as one e.g. the index finger that wears the pick (mezrab) contacts the string, but the other three fingers generally move with the index finger in unison.

Replacing strings:

Caution: please don't remove all the old strings from a Sitar and try to replace all of the strings at once until you have become very familiar with the instrument and its setup. Having 17-19 strings and two bridges the Sitar is quite intricate and sometimes people who are unfamiliar with Sitars take all the strings off to replace them and find they are unable to remember exactly where the new strings should go. Make note about where the strings go first if you feel the need.
If you have to remove the top strings, mark around the bridge supports with a soft pencil. This way you can be sure the bridge is back where it originally was before you removed the strings. If this isn't done you may find it difficult to get the sitar to play in tune after replacing the strings.

First note where the old (or broken) string is located then, if it is a Tarb (resonant) string find a paper clip and band it into a hook as shown below.

Remove the old or broken string entirely by first removing the tuning peg that this string belongs to and detaching the string from the peg. Directing your attention to the particular string attachment at the bottom of the instrument you may find that you can untwist the string so it comes away from the rest of the strings that are already wrapped around the retainer or post. If this is difficult, you may choose to carefully cut the string close to the retainer or post and remove it. When you eventually completely re-string your Sitar you can then remove all the pieces of old strings from the retainer or post.

Find a smooth cylindrical object, a pencil or the like, that is a little larger that the string attachment post at the bottom of the instrument. Loop the string around the object, leaving about 1" protruding from one end of the loop. Twist the cylindrical object around several times until you feel this is enough to hold the string securely around the string attachment post. Remove the string from the cylinder, slip the loop over the post, then place the string where the old (or broken) string used to be.
Later on your may find that you're able to form the loop using your first finger and thumb, then twist it without the pencil or whatever.

Main (top) seven strings only:

Insert the string through the hole in the tuning peg so a piece about 2 inches long protrudes from the other side of the peg. Thread this 2" length through the tuning peg hole again and pull the long end of the string fairly tightly to bond the string to the peg. Holding the string with the right hand, use your left hand to twist the peg in a counter-clockwise direction until it is ready to be inserted back into its hole. Place the tuning peg into the hole fairly firmly (not too hard) and wind the peg counter-clockwise (or clockwise in the case of the first string only) to put a little tension on the string. Now tune the string and you're finished.

Tarb or tarraf (resonant or sympathetic) strings:

If the broken string went through a hole in the Sitar's neck before joining the tuning peg, as in the case with the Tarb strings, thread the string through the hole where the old string was. Put the paper clip's hook through the empty tuning peg hole, hook on to the new string and pull it through the peg hole in the Sitar's neck.
Note: To clarify; in the case of a tarb or tarraf (resonant or sympathetic) string the loop is made first, the string is threaded into the neck through the snall white grommet and is hooked out through the peg hole. Then it is fitted to the peg and the peg is inserted. The string is then run under the top strings, frets and main bridge and the loop is placed on the string retainer or post. Doing things in this order allows the string to be free of kinks.

Note: If you find that a peg has become a little loose and slips back when you try to tune the string, remove the tuning peg and rub a little carpenter's or sidewalk chalk (not blackboard chalk) on to it where it bears on its peg holes and you'll find the peg tends to stay where you wish it to.

Cleaning and maintenance:

The sitar should be leaned in a corner, front facing in, when not in use. Don't put it on a soft surface, such as a bed or couch where it may roll off and break. Every 2 weeks or so slacken the top strings and let your sitar rest in a corner for a couple of days. Or, if you generally play every day, do this for a couple of days for the time that you may not be using the sitar.

The sitar's top seven strings should be changed regularly but can last a surprising length of time if cleaned regularly. If the strings become tarnished and/or a bit grungy you may brighten them up by using Scotch Brite - the reddish brown color (fine grade). Cut off a strip about 1" wide. Slacken a string. Fold a corner under the string and rub it up and down the string until the it is bright again. Be sure to brighten the part that goes over the bridge and second nut (the one the strings go over at the top of the sitar). A badly pitted string needs to be changed. A set of strings may last from 3 months to a year, depending on the player's perspiration makeup and whether the strings are wiped off after playing or not. Since a sitar's strings are not wound (unlike guitar) they do not go dead through debris collecting under the windings.

Rub the finish down with a soft cloth to keep it shiny. Never use furniture polish on the sitar, use canuba wax from your local auto parts store. You may use a soft artist's brush to whisk away dust, etc. from the area under the strings.

After some time of playing the large bridge may become grooved and need re-surfacing. This is called Jawari and should be done by a professional. For this you may contact Vijay Verma tel.: (630) 971-8875 (Home) e-mail: sitar_maestro@yahoo.com.

Treat the gourds like eggs - very fragile. A knock will break them. Carry the sitar in a hard case or, if you don't have this, carry it with the head forward and the bottom gourd behind you so your body protects it.

Always wipe the strings and the frets over after you finish a playing session. This will save you much trouble in the long run as your strings will last longer and the frets will need cleaning much less often. The top steel string is particularly prone to rusting and may become hard to play if it isn't wiped over after each playing session.

Because the frets are made from nickel silver they need cleaning periodically. You'll see that with time they become less bright-looking, notes are less clear, less sustained, and shorter - the instrument may begin to sound a little 'dull' and lifeless.

Slacken all 7 top strings so you can push them away from the frets easily. Obtain some 0000 steel wool and polish the frets using an along-the-fret cleaning action (across the neck - from side to side).

Suggested books to read, sounds to listen to, Tutorial video:

NOTE: Some of these may no longer be available as I have had them in my personal collection for some years, but perhaps you may locate them on other labels with different numbers.

Books:

Introduction to Sitar by Harihar Rao. This 37 page large format book has much good information for the beginner. Please go to our sitar tutorials page to see it.

Learn to play on sitar by Ram Avtir 'Vir", New Edition. 63 pages in smaller format to the Rao Book. You'll find more info. on this, too, sitar tutorials page.

Ravi Shankar: My Music, My Life. This book is out of print, but the Ravi Shankar Foundation are saying that they are making arrangements to have it re-printed. When they do, we'll make arrangements to have this in stock. Please keep an eye on our sitar tutorials page for this.

Videos:

Introduction To Sitar by Ashwin Batish. Sitar Tutor #1. Program duration 65 mins.

All about beginning to play Sitar. Very informative - too much info. to list here. Worth every penny to the beginner. Helps with many things.

Sitar Tutor #2 by Ashwin Batish. Program duration 65 mins.

After you've gone through the basics here's some more advanced material.

Details: Tutorial pages.

Recordings:

Indrajit Banerjee. "A sitar Recital" A privately issued CD featuring this wonderful player and Tabla Maestro Gourisnkar. You may view Indrajit's bio and purchase this CD on line here.

Ravi Shankar - The sounds of India. Colombia CD #CK 9236. On this CD Pdt. Ravi Shankar explains various points about Indian Music as well as showing some remarkable playing examples. You may be able to special order this from CD Now.

Ravi Shankar. Raga Khamaj, Raga Lalit: Slow, building in tempo to a great finish as is traditional for so many ragas. Listened to carefully the slower parts will give you valuable clues as to the scale, etc.

EMI Music from India series 4 #ASD 2341

Ravi Shankar. Improvisations: Here the young Ravi plays music he has composed for Indian movies, etc. Somehow these tracks seem clearer to Western ears then the more involved classical ragas.

Liberty #LBL 83076

Ananda Shankar: Fabulous modern, non-classical Sitar with Moog. Features Jumping Jack Flash, Doors' Light My Fire, and Indian Dances, traditional music, etc. - a 'must have'.

Reprise #K 44092

Debarata Chaudhuri. Sitar Music Meditations: One of the world's finest and fastest, most inspired players...

EMI-MFP #MFP 2101

Please note: many books, CDs and videos may be purchased on line from Amazon.com. We have a fairly good selection of these here

To Sitar Pages

Note: This tutorial and all of its contents are copyright N.P.Cutchey 1999 through 2011 etal. All rights reserved.

Electric-acoustic sitars

This is the result of many experiments in R&D to find the optimum transducers to fit the particular wide tonal and musical range particular to sitars. The result is our 'Blue Spot™' transducer setup that is perfectly tailored for both response and sensitivity.

Unlike most transducers these piezo-electric lattice devices provide fairly natural warm tone. They may be plugged into and equalized by any guitar or bass amplifier for personal/recording use and only require linearization/preamplification when used at very high volumes in stage concerts.

We recommend the use of an amplifier that has built-in spring reverberation, or the use of a good external reverb. unit, to provide that extra 'sparkle' to the sitar's sound. Personally I use an SWR Redhead amplifier for practicing at home with an external Ibanez AD-150 Electronic Delay (echo) unit. This unit is out of production but may be purchased from Pawnshops here and there. I have tried many different delay units but find this one produces a nice warn, natural, sound.

Amplifying a sitar in this way is truly amazing as not only is it louder, but subtle overtones that become lost when playing acoustically, appear almost magically when the instrument is plugged in. By using these specially designed Blue Spot transducers instead of magnetic pickups the natural tonality of the instrument is preserved as well as enhanced. Magnetic guitar type pickups can not be used with normal sitars because the non-metallic 2nd, 3rd and 4th strings aren't picked up by these. Microphones, too, are difficult to use because they feed back too easily and sitar is generally "lost in the mix" when use with a mic. and other electric instruments.

A set of these "Blue Spot™" transducers, complete with instructions, may be purchased from us for $66.00 plus $5.00 postage and packing. You can buy these on line via secure e-commerce by clicking the Buy Me button here: