Last updated
String instrument
Hornbostel–Sachs classification 321.321
(Composite chordophone sounded with a plectrum)
Developed13th century
Related instruments
Sound sample
Samuel Corwin - A Man Approaches with Bowed Sitar, Rishikesh. Normally a plucked instrument, the first string may be played with a musical bow.

The sitar (English: /ˈsɪtɑːr/ or /sɪˈtɑːr/ ; IAST : sitāra) is a plucked stringed instrument, originating from the Indian subcontinent, used in Hindustani classical music. The instrument was invented in medieval India and flourished in the 16th and 17th centuries and arrived at its present form in 18th-century India.


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. [1] 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.


The word sitar originates from the Persian si [three] + tar [strings]. [2]


The history of the sitar is disputed, with Western scholars favouring West Asian origins and Indian scholars favouring local Indian origins.

Foreign origins

Sculpture de la facade (Temple de Karni Mata) (8424447300).jpg
17th century C.E. Sculpture of sitar with five strings at Karni Mata temple in Deshnoke, India.
Painting of a woman with a sitar.jpg
19th century sitar with 4 strings.
Sitar MET MIDP89.4.190.jpg
19th century sitar. This instrument does not have sympathetic strings.

The predominant western scholarly opinion of the sitar's origin is that, the sitar evolved from one or more instruments of the tanbūr family, long necked lutes which they argue were introduced and popularised during the period of Mughal rule. [3] Those favoring this view say that the evidence of indigenous long necked lutes in India is particularly lacking. [4] According to this view, when Muslim rule began in Northern India in 1192, the conquerors brought with them tanbur-family instruments, and other instruments in their "multi-national" army. In this early period, the Muslim instrument was linked to the tradition of Sufi ecstatic dance, "sufiānā rang". [3]

It was also theorized in Muslim tradition, that the sitar was invented, or rather developed by Amir Khusrow (c. 1253-1325), a famous Sufi inventor, poet and pioneer of Khyal, Tarana and Qawwali, during the thirteenth century. [3] [5] [6] [7] However, the tradition of Amir Khusrow may be considered discredited by some scholars. [8] Whatever instruments he might have played, no record exists from this period using the name "sitar". [6]

In the early Mughal Empire (1526-1707), tanbur style instruments continued to be used in court. They were beginning to change; in images from the period, an instrument resembling an Uzbek dutar or a tambūrā is being played on the shoulder, with the "deep bridge of the modern sitar and the tambūrā". Looking at the musicians (the way they played their instruments in surviving images, their identities that were recorded) led Alastair Dick to conclude that the instrument was being adopted for Hindu music by Hindu musicians. The instrument was used for "Persian and Hindu melodies". [3] According to Alastair Dick, the "modern view that...invading Muslims simply changed into Persian the name of an existing Hindu instrument...has no historical or musical foundation". [3]

In the late Mughal Empire (1707-1858), the instrument began to take on its modern shape. The neck got wider. The bowl, which had been made of glued lathes of wood was now made of gourd, with metal frets and a bone nut on the neck. [3]

By about 1725, the name sitar was used in the Hammir-raso by Jodhraj, a Rajasthan author. The instrument had 5 strings by this time. The beginnings of the modern 7-string tuning were present too. [3]

While current musicological studies have indicated an origin linked to tambur-family instruments, that doesn't mean that other instruments such as the veena had no effect on the development of the sitar. The vina may have been a source for adding sympathetic strings to the sitar. This allowed the sitar to expand into different musical traditions, the "repertoire and the conventions...of the long established system of rāg". [9]

The gourd mounted in the top of the instrument came from the stick zither tradition, in which the Veena is prominent.

Indian origins

Predominant Indian scholarship favours evolution of Sitar from Tritantri veena. [10] In the south of India, a long necked lute instrument appeared in the 10th century has been the basis of this view which is also favoured in Indian sitarist, Ravi Shankar. [4]

Physical description

Anatomy of a sitar Sitar parts.jpg
Anatomy of a sitar

A sitar can have 18, 19, 20, or 21 strings. Six or seven of these are played strings which run over curved, raised frets, and the remainder are sympathetic strings (tarb, also known as taarif or tarafdaar) which run underneath the frets and resonate in sympathy with the played strings. These strings are generally used to set the mood of a raga at the very beginning of a presentation. The frets, which are known as pardā or thaat, [11] are movable, allowing fine-tuning. The played strings run to tuning pegs on or near the head of the instrument, while the sympathetic strings, which are a variety of different lengths, pass through small holes in the fretboard to engage with the smaller tuning pegs that run down the instrument's neck.

The instrument has two bridges: the large bridge (badaa goraa) for the playing and drone strings and the small bridge (chota goraa) for the sympathetic strings. Its timbre results from the way the strings interact with the wide, sloping bridge. As a string reverberates its length changes slightly as its edge touches the bridge, promoting the creation of overtones and giving the sound its distinctive tone. The maintenance of this specific tone by shaping the bridge is called jawari . Many musicians rely on instrument makers to adjust this.

Materials used in construction include teak wood or tun wood ( Cedrela toona ), which is a variation of mahogany, for the neck and faceplate (tabli), and calabash gourds for the resonating chambers. The instrument's bridges are made of deer horn, ebony, or very occasionally from camel bone. Synthetic material is now common as well.

Construction styles

There are two popular modern styles of sitar: the fully decorated "instrumental style" (sometimes called the "Ravi Shankar style") and the "gayaki" style (sometimes called the ""Vilayat Khan"" style).

Close-up of the pen work on a "Ravi Shankar style" sitar Sitar mogara.jpg
Close-up of the pen work on a "Ravi Shankar style" sitar

The instrumental style sitar is most often made of seasoned toon wood, but sometimes made of Burma teak. It is often fitted with a second resonator, a small tumba (pumpkin or pumpkin-like wood replica) on the neck. This style is usually fully decorated, with floral or grape carvings and celluloid inlays with colored (often brown or red) and black floral or arabesque patterns. It typically has thirteen sympathetic strings. It is said that the best Burma teak sitars are made from teak that has been seasoned for generations. Therefore, instrument builders look for old Burma teak that was used in old colonial-style villas as whole trunk columns for their special sitar constructions. The sources of very old seasoned wood are a highly guarded trade secret and sometimes a mystery.

Preferences of taraf string & peg positioning and their total number Sitar taraf pegs layout.jpg
Preferences of taraf string & peg positioning and their total number

There are various additional sub-styles and cross mixes of styles in sitars, according to customer preferences. Most importantly, there are some differences in preferences for the positioning of sympathetic (taraf) string pegs (see photo).

Amongst all sitar styles, there are student styles, beginner models, semi-pro styles, pro-models, master models, and so on. Prices are often determined by the manufacturer's name and not by looks alone or materials used. Some sitars by certain manufacturers fetch very high collectible prices. Most notable are older Rikhi Ram (Delhi) and older Hiren Roy (Kolkata) sitars depending upon which master built the instrument.

Tuning of sitar

Tuning depends on the sitarist's school or style, tradition and each artist's personal preference. The main playing string is almost invariably tuned a perfect fourth above the tonic, the second string being tuned to the tonic. The tonic in the Indian solfège system is referred to as ṣaḍja, ṣaḍaj, or the shortened form sa, or khaṛaj, a dialectal variant of ṣaḍaj, not as vād, and the perfect fifth to which one or more of the drones strings are tuned is referred to as pañcam, not samvād.

(The last three in the upper octave). The player should re-tune for each raga. Strings are tuned by tuning pegs, and the main playing strings can be fine-tuned by sliding a bead threaded on each string just below the bridge.

A black ebony wood Jawari Sitar jawari.jpg
A black ebony wood Jawari

In one or more of the more common tunings (used by Ravi Shankar, among others, called "Kharaj Pancham" sitar) the playable strings are strung in this fashion:

There is a lot of stylistic variance within these tunings and like most Indian stringed instruments, there is no default tuning. Mostly, tunings vary by schools of teaching (gharana) and the piece that is meant to be played.


The instrument is balanced between the player's left foot and right knee. The hands move freely without having to carry any of the instrument's weight.[ citation needed ] The player plucks the string using a metallic pick or plectrum called a mizraab. The thumb stays anchored on the top of the fretboard just above the main gourd. Generally, only the index and middle fingers are used for fingering although a few players occasionally use the third. A specialized technique called "meend" involves pulling the main melody string down over the bottom portion of the sitar's curved frets, with which the sitarist can achieve a seven semitone range of microtonal notes (however, because of the sitar's movable frets, sometimes a fret may be set to a microtone already, and no bending would be required). This was developed by Vilayat Khan into a technique that imitated the melisma of the vocal style, a technique known as "gayaki ang" [12]

Adept players bring in charisma through the use of special techniques like Kan, Krintan, Murki, Zamzama etc. They also use special Mizrab Bol-s, as in Misrabani. [13]

World music influence

Ravi Shankar in 1988 Dia5275 Ravi Shankar.jpg
Ravi Shankar in 1988

In the late 1950s and early 1960s Ravi Shankar, along with his tabla player, Alla Rakha, began a further introduction of Indian classical music to Western culture.

The sitar saw use in Western popular music when, guided by David Crosby's championing of Shankar, [14] George Harrison played it on the Beatles' songs "Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)", "Love You To" and "Within You Without You", recorded between 1965 and 1967. The Beatles' association with the instrument helped popularise Indian classical music among Western youth, [15] [16] particularly once Harrison began receiving tutelage from Shankar and the latter's protégé Shambhu Das in 1966. [17] That same year, Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones used a sitar on "Paint It Black" [18] while another English guitarist, Dave Mason, played it on Traffic's 1967 hits "Paper Sun" and "Hole in My Shoe". [19] These and other examples marked a trend of featuring the instrument in pop songs which Shankar later described as "the great sitar explosion". [20] [21] Speaking to KRLA Beat in July 1967, he said: "Many people, especially young people, have started listening to sitar since George Harrison, one of the Beatles, became my disciple ... It is now the 'in' thing." [22]

A Star's electric sitar Star's Electric Sitar RD.jpg
A Star's electric sitar

Led Zeppelin's Jimmy Page talked about his love of Indian music, saying: "I went to India after I came back from a tour with the Yardbirds in the late sixties just so I could hear the music firsthand. Let's put it this way: I had a sitar before George Harrison got his. I wouldn't say I played it as well as he did, though ..." [23] Robbie Krieger's guitar part on the Doors' 1967 track "The End" was heavily influenced by Indian ragas and features melodic and rhythmic qualities that suggest a sitar or veena. [24] Many pop performances actually involve the electric sitar, [25] which is a solid body, guitar-like instrument and quite different from the traditional acoustic Indian instrument.

The Kinks' 1965 single "See My Friends" featured a "low-tuned drone guitar" that was widely mistaken to be a sitar. [1] Crosby's band, the Byrds, had similarly incorporated elements of Indian music, [14] using "only Western instrumentation", on their songs "Eight Miles High" and "Why" in 1965. [26] Psychedelic music bands often used new recording techniques and effects and drew on non-Western sources such as the ragas and drones of Indian music. The Electric Prunes appeared in early ads for the Vox Wah wah pedal, which touted the effect's ability to make an electric guitar sound like a sitar. [27]

Sitar gharanas

See also

Related Research Articles

Ravi Shankar Indian musician and sitar player

Ravi Shankar, whose name is often preceded by the title Pandit (Master), was an Indian sitar virtuoso and a composer. He became the world's best-known exponent of North Indian classical music, in the second half of the 20th century, and influenced many other musicians throughout the world. Shankar was awarded India's highest civilian honour, the Bharat Ratna, in 1999.


A fret is a space between two fretbars on the neck of a stringed instrument. Frets usually extend across the full width of the neck. On most modern western fretted instruments, frets are the spaces between the metal strips (fretbars) that are inserted into the fingerboard. On some historical instruments and non-European instruments, frets are made of pieces of string tied around the neck.

The fingerboard is an important component of most stringed instruments. It is a thin, long strip of material, usually wood, that is laminated to the front of the neck of an instrument. The strings run over the fingerboard, between the nut and bridge. To play the instrument, a musician presses strings down to the fingerboard to change the vibrating length, changing the pitch. This is called stopping the strings. Depending on the instrument and the style of music, the musician may pluck, strum or bow one or more strings with the hand that is not fretting the notes. On some instruments, notes can be sounded by the fretting hand alone, such as with hammer ons, an electric guitar technique.

Tanpura Indian drone instrument

The tanpura is a long-necked plucked string instrument, originating from India, found in various forms in Indian music. It does not play melody but rather supports and sustains the melody of another instrument or singer by providing a continuous harmonic bourdon or drone. A tanpura is not played in rhythm with the soloist or percussionist: as the precise timing of plucking a cycle of four strings in a continuous loop is a determinant factor in the resultant sound, it is played unchangingly during the complete performance. The repeated cycle of plucking all strings creates the sonic canvas on which the melody of the raga is drawn. The combined sound of all strings, each string a fundamental tone with its own spectrum of overtones, supports and blend with the external tones sung or played by the soloist.

Sarod Indian musical instrument

The Sarod is a stringed instrument, used mainly in Hindustani music on the Indian subcontinent. Along with the sitar, it is among the most popular and prominent instruments. It is known for a deep, weighty, introspective sound, in contrast with the sweet, overtone-rich texture of the sitar, with sympathetic strings that give it a resonant, reverberant quality. A fretless instrument, it can produce the continuous slides between notes known as meend (glissandi), which are important in Indian music.


Surbahar, sometimes known as bass sitar, is a plucked string instrument used in the Hindustani classical music of the Indian subcontinent. It is closely related to the sitar, but has a lower tone. Depending on the instrument's size, it is usually pitched two to five whole steps below the standard sitar.

The music of Central Asia is as vast and unique as the many cultures and peoples who inhabit the region. Principal instrument types are two- or three-stringed lutes, the necks either fretted or fretless; fiddles made of horsehair; flutes, mostly open at both ends and either end-blown or side-blown; and jew harps, mostly metal. Percussion instruments include frame drums, tambourines, and kettledrums. Instrumental polyphony is achieved primarily by lutes and fiddles.


The esraj is an Indian stringed instrument found in two forms throughout the Indian subcontinent. It is a relatively recent instrument, being only about 300 years old. It is found in North India, primarily Punjab, where it is used in Sikh music and Hindustani classical compositions and in West Bengal. The esraj is a modern variant of the dilruba, differing slightly in structure.

Raga rock

Raga rock is rock or pop music with a pronounced Indian influence, either in its construction, its timbre, or its use of Indian musical instruments, such as the sitar and tabla. In addition, rock music from the 1960s and 1970s that incorporates South Asian musical influences and instruments, along with Western ideas of the Indian subcontinent, is often regarded as raga rock.


A setar is a stringed instrument, a type of lute used in Persian traditional music, played solo or accompanying voice. It is a member of the tanbur family of long-necked lutes with a range of more than two and a half octaves. Originally a three stringed instrument, a fourth string was added by the mid 19th century. It is played with the index finger of the right hand.

Saraswati veena Plucked string instrument

The Sarasvati vīṇa is an Indian plucked veena. It is named after the Hindu goddess Saraswati, who is usually depicted holding or playing the instrument. Also known as raghunatha veena is used mostly in Carnatic Indian classical music. There are several variations of the veena, which in its South Indian form is a member of the lute family. One who plays the veena is referred to as a vainika.

Rubab (instrument)

Rubab, robab or rabab is a lute-like musical instrument originating from Afghanistan. The rubab is one of the national musical instruments of Afghanistan and other areas inhabited by the Pashtun, Baloch and also played by Sindhi people in Sindh and by Kashmiri people in Kashmir. It proliferated throughout West, Central, South and Southeast Asia. It derives its name from Arabic rebab 'played with a bow'; in Central Asia, however, the instrument is plucked and is distinctly different in construction.

<i>Raga</i> (film) 1971 American film

Raga is a 1971 documentary film about the life and music of Indian sitarist Ravi Shankar, produced and directed by Howard Worth. It includes scenes featuring Western musicians Yehudi Menuhin and George Harrison, as well as footage of Shankar returning to Maihar in central India, where as a young man he trained under the mentorship of Allauddin Khan. The film also features a portion of Shankar and tabla player Alla Rakha's acclaimed performance at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival.

<i>In Concert 1972</i> 1973 live album by Ravi Shankar and Ali Akbar Khan

In Concert 1972 is a double live album by sitar virtuoso Ravi Shankar and sarodya Ali Akbar Khan, released in 1973 on Apple Records. It was recorded at the Philharmonic Hall, New York City, in October 1972, and is a noted example of the two Hindustani classical musicians' celebrated jugalbandi (duet) style of playing. With accompaniment from tabla player Alla Rakha, the performance reflects the two artists' sorrow at the recent death of their revered guru, and Khan's father, Allauddin Khan. The latter was responsible for many innovations in Indian music during the twentieth century, including the call-and-response dialogue that musicians such as Shankar, Khan and Rakha popularised among Western audiences in the 1960s.

Debu Chaudhuri Indian musician

Pandit Devabrata (Debu) Chaudhuri was an Indian sitarist and teacher. He was conferred the Padmabhushan and Padma Shri awards. He was the writer of six books, composer of eight new ragas and numerous musical compositions. From 1963 he has appeared in numerous radio broadcasts, and he was a disciple of Mushtaq Ali Khan. He is considered a leading sitarist of Post War era. He is regarded as one of the leading proponents of Senia Style. He was the former Dean and Head, Faculty of Music, University of Delhi. His music is noted for its sweet singing ringing tone. He lived with his son, daughter-in law and niece at Chittaranjan Park, New Delhi.

Veena family of chordophone instruments from the Indian subcontinent

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Anant Lal, often referred to by the title Pandit, was an Indian classical musician who played the shehnai. He worked for All India Radio and played with artists such as Ravi Shankar and Debu Chaudhuri in addition to recording under his own name. Lal was one of the leading exponents of the shehnai in Hindustani classical music. In 1989, he received the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award, the highest recognition afforded artists in India.

<i>Tana Mana</i> 1987 studio album by Ravi Shankar

Tana Mana is an album by Indian musician Ravi Shankar, originally credited to "the Ravi Shankar Project" and released in 1987. The album is an experimental work by Shankar, mixing traditional instrumentation with 1980s electronic music and sampling technology. Shankar recorded much of Tana Mana in 1983 with sound effects innovator Frank Serafine, but it remained unreleased until Peter Baumann, head of new age record label Private Music, became attached to the project. The album title translates to mean "body and mind".

<i>Concerto for Sitar & Orchestra</i> 1971 studio album by Ravi Shankar with the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by André Previn

Concerto for Sitar & Orchestra is a studio album by Indian musician and composer Ravi Shankar with the London Symphony Orchestra (LSO) conducted by André Previn. It was premiered at London's Royal Festival Hall on 28 January 1971, and subsequently released in Britain and America.

Rijram Desad, often credited as Rij Ram Desad, was an Indian classical musician, multi-instrumentalist and teacher, based in Bombay. Beginning in the early 1940s, he performed on many Indian film soundtracks and in ballet presentations. He was known for his versatility as a musician and his ability to master a wide range of percussion and string instruments. According to cultural historian Naseem Khan, his skill on the jal tarang had become "legendary" by the mid 1970s.


  1. 1 2 Julien Temple (2011-07-18). "BBC Four – Dave Davies: Kinkdom Come". Retrieved 2012-06-15.
  2. "si·tar". Archived from the original on 19 January 2014. Hindi & Urdu sitār, from Persian, a three-stringed lute, from sih three + tār string, thread First Known Use: 1828
  3. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 Alastair Dick (1984). "Setār". In Stanley Sadie (ed.). The New Grove Dictionary of Musical Instruments. London: MacMillan Press Limited. pp. 392–400. ISBN   0-943818-05-2.
  4. 1 2 Miner, Allyn (2004). Sitar and Sarod in the 18th and 19th Centuries. Motilal Banarsidass. p. 17. ISBN   8120814932.
  5. Kapoor, Subodh (2002), The Indian Encyclopaedia, p. 2988, ISBN   9788177552676
  6. 1 2 James Sadler Hamilton (1994). Sitar Music in Calcutta: An Ethnomusicological Study. Motilal Banarsidass. p. 50. ISBN   9788120812109. Due to the absence of any mention of the sitar in the writings of Amir Khusrau (1285-1351) or in those of his contemporaries it is unlikely that any musical instrument with this name existed at that time.
  7. Allyn Miner (2004). Sitar and Sarod in the 18th and 19th Centuries. Motilal Banarsidass Publ. pp. 17–24.
  8. Allyn Miner (2004). Sitar and Sarod in the 18th and 19th Centuries. Motilal Banarsidass Publ. pp. 17–24. Popular books on music nearly all recount this story. Admit Khusrau's role in the creation of the sitar in India has gradually been discredited by historians, but social motivations and the tenacity of the tradition cause the idea to persist...
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  18. "The first No. 1 hit to feature a sitar". MPR News . Retrieved 17 September 2020.
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  25. HypWax. "Odd Pop: Pop Sitar". Hyp Records. Retrieved 16 March 2021.
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