Playing The Sitar

The sitar is one of the most famous instruments in the Indian subcontinent. Yet, if you venture further north, it is relatively unknown. Many are unaware of what it looks or sounds like, yet alone know how to play it. Let’s break it down to better understand its role and influence today.

Getty Images/Moment/Mayur Kakade

The sitar is a plucked stringed instrument that originated in the Indian subcontinent, playing a key role in Hindustani (North Indian) classical music. It has significant similarities with a typical guitar but accompanied by a unique continuous buzz sound that is often linked with Middle Eastern music. One of the most commonly performed solo instruments in the region, it has a surprisingly large body (Tumba), a long and hollow neck and tuning pegs for each string. It usually has around 18 strings, which strongly vibrate to produce calm, melodious music. The tuning process is often complicated, due to the many number of strings involved, but there are many resources online (videos, courses etc) to help learn how to play.

It is worth mentioning that while the sitar is very popular in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, its influence is not just limited to the East. George Harrison played it “on the Beatles’ tracks “Love You To” and “Within You Without You”. It was also featured on the Rolling Stones’ song “Paint It Black”. Led Zeppelin’s founder Jimmy Page would often mention his love for Indian music, reportedly 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.” Nowadays, there is a fusion between classical instrumentals and modern synth, with many pop performances incorporating the electric sitar, a guitar-like instrument which adds a completely different dimension to the music.