What in the World is a Sitar?

The sitar is a member of the lute family of stringed instruments; it is popular in northern India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan, and is used to play classical music in the Hindustani tradition. The word sitar is derived from the Persian word sehtar, meaning “three strings.”

Origin and Construction

The precise origin of the sitar is unclear. A western school of thought has the instrument evolving from the tanbur family of long-neck lutes, which were introduced to northern India by Muslim conquerors in the late 12th century. Indian tradition has the sitar evolving from the Tritantri veena, a long-neck lute that emerged from southern India in the 10th century. Perhaps the sitar can count both the tanbur and the veena among its ancestors.

The sitar is largely made of wood – teak or tun (a relative of mahogany) are used for the neck and the faceplate, which covers the lower gourd-resonator. The gourds are made from calabash, while the bridges can be ebony, deer horn or camel bone. Modern instruments may use plastic or another synthetic material for the bridges. Sitars generally measure about four feet in length, and are characterized by a long, hollow neck with moveable convex metal frets, a pair of gourd resonators – one on each end (although not all sitars have the upper resonator), and two sets of strings.

Strings and Tuning

Only one set of strings is actually played by the sitar player; this string set comprises five, six or seven played strings which run over the arched frets to tuning pegs at the end of the neck. The other set usually contains 13 sympathetic strings of varying lengths which vibrate in tune with the played strings and run beneath the frets to tuning pegs set along the upper edge of the neck. Each set of strings has its own bridge.

The strings are made of metal and played with a metallic finger pick called the mizraab. Most players use the index and middle fingers of the right hand to pluck or strum the strings, while some may include the ring finger as well. The strings may be fretted, touched between the frets, and/or bent with the left hand to create microtones. Tuning schemes vary widely; the sitar is usually re-tuned for each raga – a term referring to the melodic framework governing how a piece of music is played.

The two modern schools of sitar playing are the Ravi Shankar school and the Vilayat Khan, or Gayaki, school, each of which has its characteristic playing style, instrument (the sitars for each differ in shape, size, and number of strings) and tuning system.

Sitars have made their way into western popular music; some notable examples include “Norwegian Wood” by the Beatles (played by George Harrison), “Paper Sun” by Traffic (played by Dave Mason), and “Paint It Black” by the Rolling Stones (played by Brian Jones).

Great Sitar Players and Recordings

Following are but a few representative samples of sitar playing, both solo and with other instruments:


Photo credit: Photographer is Paul Stein. Photo is of John Kruth playing the sitar in Greenwich Village, NYC, taken on 9/11/2011. Found on Flckr.com. Photo is unaltered and used under Creative Commons license: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/



Tom is the Managing Editor here at MakingMusicMag.com. He has worked as an editor/writer for more than two decades and plays several musical instruments with varying degrees of proficiency.

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