The oud is one of the oldest stringed instruments still in play today. Arabic tradition traces the oud back to Lamech, a descendant of the Biblical figures Adam and Cain. Indeed, oud-like instruments have been discovered at archaeological sites in Egypt and Mesopotamia (located between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in what is today Iraq). Arabian musicians often refer to the oud as “the king of instruments.”
The Arabic word “oud” (pronounced “ood” as in “food”) refers to a thin piece of wood. The origins of the oud are not completely clear as it is such an ancient instrument – literally thousands of years old. One school of thought has it evolving from the original Persian barbat, a skin-topped stringed instrument that dates from the first century BC. Some music historians view the oud as a precursor to the lute family of instruments.
The oud’s hollow body is shaped like a gourd or a pear, with a soundboard (top) made of a soft wood, such as spruce, for enhanced resonance. The soundboard generally features three sound holes – one larger and two smaller, which are usually adorned with purfling or rosettes. The sound holes may be either circular or oval.
The resonator (back) of the oud is bowl-shaped and constructed of multiple (15 to 25) staves of wood glued together to form a rounded back, similar to that of a Neapolitan mandolin, a bouzouki, or a balalaika. Common hardwoods used include walnut, maple, padauk and mahogany.
The oud features a fretless neck, allowing the player to play the numerous microtones for which Middle Eastern music is noted. The oud’s headstock is tilted backwards at 45 or 90 degrees to increase string tension and keep the instrument in tune. The tuning pegs are usually wooden friction tuners, not unlike those on a violin, but geared tuners such as those on an acoustic guitar are sometimes used as well.
The modern oud is strung with 11 strings, with one bass string as a single course and five courses of two unison strings each comprising the higher strings. The oud is played with a long pick, traditionally made from eagle feather quill, bone or wood; nowadays plastic picks are common.
Tuning schemes vary; the most common are Arabic tuning and Turkish tuning. Arabic tuning, from low to high, is D2 G2 A2 D3 G3 C4, with F2 sometimes substituted for the G2 strings. Turkish tuning, again from low to high, is C2 F2 B2 E3 A3 D4; a popular alternate Turkish tuning scheme is, low to high, D2 A2 B2 E3 A3 D4.
Types of Ouds
- Arabic: This oud is played throughout the Arabic-speaking world. Arabic ouds are generally larger in size and have a longer scale length than Turkish or Persian ouds, which creates a deeper, fuller sound. Arabic ouds are played with a pick called a risha. Egyptian, Iraqi and Syrian ouds fall under this category. The Syrian oud features a slightly longer neck and a lower pitch. The Iraqi oud is similar to the Syrian but produces a more guitar-like sound.
- Turkish: Features a smaller body and shorter neck, producing a higher pitch and a brighter timbre. This oud also has lower string action, and its string courses are closer together. Turkish-style ouds are also played in Greece and Armenia. The Turkish oud is played with a long pick called the mizrab.
- Persian: Also known as a barbat. This oud has a smaller body and a longer neck than the Arabic oud, along with a slightly raised fingerboard. Traditionally, the barbat’s body was carved from a single piece of wood; modern instruments feature staves of mulberry or walnut molded into a rounded shape and glued together.
Negar Bouban, playing “Chahar Mezrab Abu Ata” by Hossein Alizadeh: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d0Zn3_mriXM
Nooshin Pasdar, Iranian Maqam: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yT98epQh2aI
“Gurbet O Kadar” by Yildirim Gürses, Performed by Ara Dinkjian on the oud, Tamer Pinarbasi on the qānūn, and Glen Velez on the bodhrán: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aQ2Q7PZXx4U
Ara Dinkjian, “Aglama Yar Aglama”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RuSSgqXkBAg
Nooshin Pasdar, “Bahare del Neshin” (an old Iranian song): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7oNZV1sEl7s
Note: Oud player photo courtesy of FreeImages.com