- Sitar FAQ
1) Who are the main sitar players I should listen to?
There are many great sitar players in India and around the world. Most people consider three musicians, Ravi Shankar, Vilayat Khan and Nikhil Banerjee to be the pivotal sitarists of the last half of the 20th century. Sitar playing, like Indian classical music in general, is on old form, yet dynamic and always evolving. Each of these musicians in his own way was a strict traditionalist and an innovator. They represent the two main gharanas of sitar. Vilayat Khan was the foremost exponent of the Etawa or Imdadkhani gharana. Ravi Shankar and Nikhil Banerjee were students of Ustad Allaudin Khan of Maihar, and represent the Maihar Gharana. Ravi Shankar died in 2012 at the age of 92. Vilayat Khan died in 2004 at the age of 76. Nikhil Banerjee died a tragic early death in 1986, but left a legacy of recordings coveted by music lovers worldwide. Their students, followers and many talented other players too numerous to mention, continue in their footsteps.
2) What are the differences between Ravi Shankar and Vilayat Khan style sitars?
The main difference is that the former have two extra bass strings (Low Pa and Low Sa) thus giving them an extra bass octave. There is some dispute about the where and when of this innovation, but it is usually attributed to Allaudin Khan, who wanted to add a surbahar-like dimension to the sitar. RS style sitars usually have the upper tumba, VK sitars never do. Also usually VK style sitars are more simply (or not at all) decorated. Since the VK sitars are going for a treble only sound, they usually have a different, slightly harder jawari. For differences is tuning please check our Sitar Tuning Page.
3) What do the terms “Kharaj Pancham” and “Gandhar Pancham” mean?
“Kharaj Pancham” refers to the Maihar style sitars. They have the two bass strings – Low Pa (Pancham) and low Sa (Kharaj). “Gandhar Pancham” refers to the Imdadkhani style sitars. They are usually strung with an extra chikari string usually tuned to Ga (Gandhar).
4) What difference does the upper tumba make?
The upper tumba can be made of a natural gourd or from wood spun on a lathe like a wooden bowl. It adds some volume to the sitar, especially for the bass strings. It easily screws in and out so it can be taken off for transport (i.e if you have a single gourd fiberglass case) or just preference. Most people prefer it on for the balance that it gives the instrument.
5) What is Jawari?
The characteristic buzzing sound of a sitar or tanpura is produced by the string vibrating on a flat bridge with a gently curved surface. “Jawari” literally means “glimmering” or “jewel-like”. The art of jawari is the shape, the angle, and the curve of the angle at which the bridge is filed. How much of the string rests on the bridge, and how steep are the curves in the back and front of that area of contact all affect how much buzz there is and how clear the sound is.
We usually think of there being three kinds of jawari.. There is the “open” jawari sound of Ravi Shankar, which is the most “buzzy”. There is the more closed sound of Nikhil Banerjee, which is less “buzzy”. And there is the very closed sound of Vilayat Khan, which is the least “buzzy”. As you play, you wear grooves in the bridge and start to loose whatever original jawari sound you had. This is the biggest bugaboo of sitar players. The ratio of sitar players to artisans capable of doing jawari is thousands to one. Ravi Shankar used to bring Nodu Molluck on tour with him to do jawari. Some sitarists try to get around this by having several grooves on their Ma string, one for practice and one for playing. Hardcore practicers put something (plastic, film negative) under their bridge when practicing scales to save their jawari. The point is that the jawari of a sitar can radically affect the sound. A mediocre sitar with an excellent jawari can sound good. An excellent sitar with a worn or badly done jawari can sound bad or uninspiring.
6) What materials are used for the main bridge?
Traditionally the best bridges are made from horn (deer antler). Bone is a cheaper option, but bone bridges are harder and don’t give as sweet a tone. Nowadays horn has become increasingly hard to get. In fact, the government of West Bengal has made it all but impossible for the craftsmen in Calcutta to use horn at all. So, by necessity they have been developing synthetic bridges. Plastic is common and there have been experiments with a softer, more plaster-like material. You will occasionally see some black bridges which are usually ebony. In our experience ebony bridges are very inconsistent. At their best they give a soft sound, not as bright as the horn bridges.
7) Are these synthetic bridges as good as the originals?
This is a subject of much debate. We have talked to professional, touring musicians who actually prefer the plastic because the jawari lasts much longer. Basically these bridges are now a fact of life.
8) Where are sitars made?
There are sitar makers all over North India. The biggest concentration of quality makers is in Calcutta. Rikhi Ram, of course, is in Delhi. There are good makers in Varanasi, Pune and Miraj
9) How long do sitars last?
The climate in India, especially in Calcutta, is terrible for instruments. The heat and humidity take a big toll. The reality is that a sitar can be expected to last 30 or 40 years. There are exceptions of course, especially if the instrument has spent most of its life in a different climate. We have seen 75 year old sitars that have been in the US since the 30s. The other thing to keep in mind is that the neck of is a sitar is under a lot of tension from the strings. Over time it will start to bend, throwing the frets off, making the action higher and generally becoming harder to play. Eventually the neck will need to be replaced or the sitar junked.
10) What type of wood are sitars made from?
Almost all sitars are made from toon wood. This has been described as a combination of teak and mahogany. Some older sitars are made of teak. Teak wood has become very hard to get, so these sitars are becoming more rare. There is a certain mystique about teak sitars, which we believe is not really warranted. Most makers will tell you that toon actually sounds better. At their best, teak sitars take a long time to open up and have any volume. At their worst, they never open up.
11) How high should my action be?
As a rule of thumb, you should be able to put the fingernail of your pinky on the highest fret and feel the ma string gently touching your finger. Usually this translates to about 7/16 of an inch. The range can be from ¼ to ½ of an inch depending on action desired and fret shape/symmetry. Lower action can cause buzzing on the frets, especially when you do a meend (pull), if the frets are not correctly balanced. As with any stringed instrument, higher action may give you more volume, and sharper attack, but be harder on your fingers.
If you have to, it will get you in the ballpark, but not onto the playing field. Indian music does not use the tempered scale, so if you tune your frets and sympathetic strings with a guitar tuner, you will not get the sweetness and ringing overtones that you will get from pure tuning. Lessons from a good teacher, and diligent practice (vocal practice is the best) will develop your ear so you can tune to the correct intervals.
13) I hear a rattling inside the gourd when I move my sitar. Is that common?
Yes. The gourd is a natural, organic thing. It is perfectly common for small pieces to come off and rattle around inside the instrument.
14) How do I wear the mizrab?
On your index finger like this (picture here soon).
16) Why are my frets not in tune on the low string?
It is just a fact of sitar mechanics that to get the notes in tune on the low sa (Kharaj) string you have to pull the notes (meend, mir) from the fret below. Some sitars (mostly Hiren Roys) have a small added bridge by the nut of just this string to try and correct the problem.
17) What is the difference between "student", "concert" and "professional" sitars?
In a way these are artificial distinctions. We believe that it is 90% the musician that determines how an instrument sounds. A master can make even a simple sitar sound great. And the best sitar in the hands of someone who can't tune it or play it is wasted. Most makers make a range of instruments, with a variety of decorations and from a variety of materials. We try to reflect this with our classification of #1, #2 and #3. As to “professional” sitars, the bottom line is that almost all concert artists in India play a Hiren Roy or Rikhi Ram sitar.
18) What is the difference between your #1, #2 and #3 sitars?
#3 sitars are the simplest model that any given maker makes. They usually have swirl pegs and simple decoration. #2 sitars are slightly more ornate, with lotus pegs and carving halfway up the yoke. Calcutta makers usually call these sitars “golapatta”. #1 sitars are the most ornate, with lotus pegs and carving all the way up the yoke. This design is called “angurpatta”. #1 sitars will be made of the nicest, usually aged, wood.
All sitars, even the very best, go slightly out of tune when you do a long meend on the Ma string. This is especially noticeable in the bass strings of a Ravi Shankar style sitar. When you pull 4 or 5 notes, this puts extra pressure on the bridge, which then sinks down slightly into the tabli (face), and slightly changes the string tension. If the tabli were thick enough for this not to happen, the sitar wouldn't sound good. That is the dilemma faced by all sitar makers. So the problem (in a good sitar) really has nothing to do with the neck. On a cheap sitar, a warped or loose neck might exacerbate this problem.
Yes, all sitars do this. There is a lot of tension on the neck and when it is lying down, that tension is lessened, thus changing the pitch of the strings. You should always do your final tuning with the neck up off the floor, ideally in your playing postion.
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