What Is the Sitar?
The sitar is a plucked stringed instrument used mainly in Hindustani music and Indian classical music. The instrument is believed to have been derived from the veena, an ancient Indian instrument, which was modified by a Mughal court musician to conform to the tastes of his Mughal patrons and named after a Persian instrument called the setar (meaning three strings).
The sitar flourished in the 16th and 17th centuries and arrived at its present form in 18th century India. It derives its distinctive timbre and resonance from sympathetic strings, bridge design, a long hollow neck and a gourd-shaped resonance chamber. In appearance, the sitar is similar to the tanpura, except that it has frets.
Used widely throughout the Indian subcontinent, the sitar became popularly known in the wider world through the works of Ravi Shankar, beginning in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
In the 1960s, a short-lived trend arose for the use of the sitar in Western popular music, with the instrument appearing on tracks by bands such as The Beatles, The Doors, The Rolling Stones and others. By membership, the largest practitioner body of sitar experts is Sitarico (est. 2015), which is composed of more than two hundred sitar practitioners internationally.
As a stringed instrument, a sitar may have as few as 18 or as many as 21 metal strings. There are usually five or six played strings, one or two drone strings, and as many as a dozen sympathetic strings. The drone and sympathetic strings resonate along with the played strings, giving the sitar its characteristic sound.
The sitar is usually played while seated, with the player holding the instrument at a 45-degree angle in the lap. The right hand is used to pluck the played strings with a metallic pick, called a mizraab. The left hand is used to create specific notes by putting pressure on or between the frets.
Most sitars are carefully hand-crafted out of a variety of different materials. The neck and faceplate are usually made from either teak wood or a variety of mahogany known as tun (pronounced “toon”) wood. Gourds are used for the resonating chambers, and the bridges can be made from ebony, deer horn, or even camel bone.