May 2, 2023
Blog by Thomas Lack
With its intricately carved body and resonating strings, the sitar makes a great addition to any track. Deep Sampled with precision and love, the Soundpaint Sitar offers a versatile range of tones that will add new colors to your compositions.
Among world instruments, the sitar is relatively well-known in the West: an instrument from India that looks similar to a guitar. But if you’ve never looked beyond the surface, there’s a lot to discover about the instrument.
The word sitar comes from the Persian word sehtar, meaning "three-stringed". However, the modern sitar has quite a few more; it usually has five or six melody strings, one or two drone strings, and up to thirteen sympathetic strings that vibrate in resonance with the played notes. The sitar also has a large resonating gourd at the bottom, a smaller one at the top, and a long neck with movable metal frets. The sitar is played with a metal plectrum called a mizrab, worn on the right index finger.
The melody strings are played with the mizraab and are tuned to the notes of the raga, or musical mode, that is being played. The drone strings are used to provide a rhythmic pulse and a harmonic base for the melody. They are usually tuned to the tonic (root) and dominant (5th) notes of the raga. The sympathetic strings are not played directly, but vibrate in sympathy with the melody strings. They are tuned to the notes of the raga as well, and add depth and richness to the sound.
The origins of the sitar can be traced back to the Mughal period in India (16th-19th centuries), when Persian culture and music had a strong influence on Indian art and society. It is said that this instrument was developed from Persian lutes such as the tanbur, which were commonly played in the Mughal courts. Some sources credit an 18th century musician named Khusrau Khan as the originator of the sitar, while others attribute it to Amir Khusru (1253-1325), a famous Sufi poet and composer who is also regarded as the father of Hindustani classical music. However, there is no conclusive evidence to support either claim, and the exact origin of the sitar remains a matter of debate.
What is clear is that the sitar underwent several changes and modifications over time, adapting to different musical styles and preferences. The sitar was initially used as an accompanying instrument for vocal music, especially in the Sufi tradition of qawwali. Later, it became a solo instrument for instrumental music, especially in the dhrupad and khyal genres. The sitar also developed different schools or gharanas, each with its own style of playing, tuning, and construction. Two of the most prominent schools are the Imdadkhani gharana (also known as Etawah gharana), founded by Imdad Khan (1848-1920), and the Maihar gharana, founded by Allauddin Khan (1862-1972). The former school emphasizes melody and finesse, while the latter school emphasizes rhythm and technique.
The sitar was introduced on the world stage in the 20th century by some of its greatest players. The most influential of them was Ravi Shankar (1920-2012), who collaborated with many Western musicians such as George Harrison, Yehudi Menuhin, John Coltrane, and Philip Glass. Ravi Shankar's performances at international festivals such as Monterey Pop (1967) and Woodstock (1969) exposed millions of people to the beauty and diversity of Indian music and culture. Ravi Shankar also taught many students from different countries, including his own daughter Anoushka Shankar, who continues his legacy today.
The sitar also inspired many Western musicians to incorporate its sound and style into their own music. Some of them used an electric sitar, a modified guitar that mimics the timbre of the sitar but is easier to play. It made its way into a number of pop songs over the years, such as "Paint It Black" by The Rolling Stones and "Norwegian Wood" by The Beatles. Other songs utilizing the sitar include "Wherever I May Roam" by Metallica, "Within You Without You" by The Beatles, "Love You To" by George Harrison, and "Tomorrow Never Knows" by The Chemical Brothers.