Trying the Sitar

I’ve always been entranced by the sound of the sitar, and wanted to try it for myself. If you do some research on beginner sitars, you will find a lot of people pontificating in a most discouraging way, e.g. by saying that it’s incredibly hard and painful to play, that every sitar costing less than $1000 is rubbish, and so on. You get the picture.

Casting these admonitions aside, I ordered a 1/2 size sitar on Amazon. It’s probably about 3-4 feet total length.

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The 1/2 size sitar. This has 7 main strings, and 11 sympathetic strings. There are two toombas: one at the base (the big, round object that is made from a gourd/pumpkin), and the one on the neck, which looks a bit like an upturned salad bowl. Never rest the sitar as shown!

Although it was advertised as “blemished”, what I got was an unblemished model. It arrived well packed, inside a soft carry bag, and complete with a set of new strings, some mezrabs (the little wire things you put on your forefinger to pluck the strings), a learning sitar book, and another soft cloth bag.

There are seven main strings that are played, and a set of 11 “sympathetic” strings, which lie underneath the main strings, and aren’t played, but vibrate in sympathy with the main strings. I spent quite some time tuning *all* the strings to the Ravi Shankar C# settings, which you can find online. I used an Android tuning app to do this. Take extreme care, as it’s easy to over-tighten a string when tuning it, and thus create a crack around the tuning peg hole (I did this on the third main string, and had to repair the crack using wood glue and clamps overnight – now it is fine). Another thing that can happen is that a string can break – this also happened on mine, just after I started tuning one of the main strings. Replacing it was easy, but make sure you replace the string with one of the correct gauge (I used a micrometer to measure the snapped string diameter, and then selected a new string of the same diameter from the set sent with the sitar).

Another tuning tip is to remove each tuning peg carefully and rub some pavement chalk on it, before carefully reinserting it – this helps to avoid the peg slipping. After tuning all the strings, the effect is striking – if you pluck any of the main strings, the whole instrument resonates and produces that very characteristic buzzy sitar sound. With the strings un-tuned, the sound is dull and lifeless.

What is great about beginning the sitar is the fact that it sounds good even when a novice is plucking it, unlike most other instruments (the violin is a particularly bad offender). So, you can sit plucking and strumming and bending notes randomly on the sitar and it actually sounds very pleasant.

One other issue I’ve found is that the strings dig deeply into your finger ends, when you press them against the fretboard. It’s like playing an egg-slicer! The first main string (tuned to F# in the Shankar tunings) is the one that sees most finger pressing action, and it is thin! After a while of playing, it becomes almost unbearable, so I’m hoping that I develop some callouses soon.

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