A publication of the Batish Institute of Indian Music and Fine Arts
Sitar Lesson 3
by Ashwin Batish
Sitar size selection, sitar tuning tones, fret moving tips
Is it the right one baby? Sitar that is!
An important issue facing you when you start playing the sitar is the condition of your sitar. To start with, it has to be the right fit for you. Sitars come in various sizes. By size I mean not just the overall length of the sitar but also the size of the gourd and the width of the fretboard.
If you are looking for sheer acoustic volume, you need to have a sitar which has a large gourd. But this might not be practical. If you are a small person you'll have a terrible time trying to hold it in the playing position. The opposite is also true for a large person. In this case, if the gourd is too small, I've seen people leaning excessively to keep the sitar stable. This bends their backs un-naturally and eventually they can have back problems.
Nothing to fret about?
The width and curve of the sitar's fretboard is also important, depending on your hand size, if this is not a good fit you'll have a hard time playing fast and doing meend (producing notes by pulling the string). Also, your hands will get un necessarily tired trying to hold the sitar and grapple with the note production process.
The next thing you need to check is the condition of the frets. Look for frets that feel loose. They'll usually wobble excessively when you hold them between your thumb and index fingers and try to move them. There should be some movement but if they feel wobbly then it is possible that the thread tying them has stretched or is unravelled. Many times the sitar wallas (makers) will tie the sitar frets while the varnish is wet. I have no idea why they don't wait. But the end result is that the thread digs into the varnish and dries hard.
This is a major problem because, and I know you'll have to do this, by the very nature of requirement of playing ragas on this instrument you will have to move these fret to get the right notes. Having these tying threads imbedded in the varnish means you'll have to pry them loose and then move them. This prying process might result in the thread becoming unraveled or even breaking. If it's any consolation, even my sitar had this problem. I eventually removed all the frets, sanded the embedded marks in the varnish and revarnished the sitar. But this was a lot of work! Don't attempt this yourself unless you are good at this sort of thing.
The only recourse is to re-tie the frets. If you have already brought a sitar and are experiencing this problem then call our Institute or visit our catalog by clicking here. We have some of the original tying threads available in rolls.
As a replacement, you can also use fishing line to tie the frets. Don't go above the 25 pound variety as it is too hard to pull over the frets. Although it does not look exotic, it lacks friction so it slips during the tying process, and it can be difficult to install, it is inexpensive and works well. It can also be very hard on the wood especially where the knot is tied. This can damage the wood surface under the knot. Therefore make sure you do this knot over the plastic decoration piece and not the wood.
The next thing you need to do is invest in a good quality tone generator. Above are two of the ones we carry. The Sabine is less expensive but the Seiko is the one I like due to its VU meter that is more visual. For many years I was using a mouth blown pitch pipe. That's the cheap way out. If you are tuning to the key of C then get that one. But tuning the sitar for a beginner is a bear. So you might have a bit of a struggle. If you can dish out the funds, get a guitar tuner from a music store in your area. These days there is a lot of variety. What you need is a tone reader and a generator. Many of the newer, less expensive, tuners are only readers. They make the task of tuning visual. You see a little led light that tells you when your instrument has the true note. Click here to view the tuner I recommend. We have these available in our store incase you wish to order one.
My personal feeling is that we are working with an audio medium so while the reader is a nice tool for an accomplished musician, the new student will find this can be very difficult. It will also not cultivate your ears to read and react to the necessary tuning proceedures. So buy the tuner with a tone generator. Hear the Sa note and then try tuning it on the sitar. But to save you some money, I've devised a bunch of midi files taht you can use for tuning your sitar. Now aren't you happy you've joined the Internet?
Here's how you go about tuning your sitar.........
One thing to remember is that the tuner is set to the Western Equal Temperament tuning. There is a work around to this. In Indian music the concern is to play harmonically pure intervals. Some refer to this as just intonation. I personally use harmonics to set my strings. This process can be intimidating especially to the untrained ear. But believe me, your sitar will sound celestial if you tune it the way I'm going to show you.
If you have a tone genertor that allows for alternate tunings then pick the "Just Intonation," setting. For everyone with only an equal temperament module, I'll show you a way to correct the intonation in another lesson. For now, go ahead and tune to the notes your tone module produces. It'll atleast give you a good head start. If you intend to play your sitar with other Western instruments, you might actually have to tune it to play equal temperament. Otherwise there will be a distinctive intonation compatibility problem when you start playing together.
Tune your first wire to the fourth note, Ma (F). Now the first fret is Ma tivar (f#), the second is Pa (G) and so on.
Next tune your 2nd wire to Sa. Here is a tone to help you do that.
Now tune your third wire to Pa (5th). Here is a tone for this. Remember this note is in the lower octave called the Mandar Saptak.
Now tune your 4th wire to Sa. This is the same note as in #2 above. The two strings should be the same gauge in most sitars. But in some sitars this string is of a thicker gauge. It is used for slow meditative improvisations. The problem with having this string is that in faster movements it flops around and is distractive. Sitar with this string sometimes has a little metal latch installed on the last fret (the one closest to the bridge) so one can tuck the string onto the latch when the faster movements are anticipated.
If you have this thicker gauge string installed then tune it to the lower octave Sa also called "Ati Mandar Shadaja - Sa (C)". Here is a tone for that
The fifth string is also tuned to Pancham (5th note) but it is an octave higher then #3. Here is that note
The sixth string, is tuned to the tonic, Shadaja, but is an octave higher than #2. It is also called the "Taar Shadaja". Here is that note
The seventh string, is also tuned to the tonic, Shadaja, but is two octaves higher than #2, or an octave higher than #6. Both the 6th and the 7th strings thus sound in unison. This note is also called the "Ati Tar Shadaja". Here is that note
There can be further variations between the 5th, 6th and 7th chikari strings. Try experimenting with them for example:
#5 - Ga below middle C
#6 - Sa an octave above the #2 Sa String
#7 - Pa above middle C
The Chikari tonal landscape aids in the swaroop of the raga being played. So pay heed to this and create your combinations to match!
So now you should have all your top string in tune. But before you go any further check all of them again. As you tune your sitar, it is quite possible that the changing tension will detune some of the strings. So you might have to do this a few times before the strings settle in. A new set is most succeptable to this problem. Proper stretching is recommended after a new string set install. I have released a sitar tutor DVD that is specifically targeted to "Changing Your Sitar Strings" that covers thoroughly this labor intensive task with special attention to creating proper loops and precautions. This link will also take you to our catalog.
Tuining the sympathetic Strings of your sitar, How to hold the sitar, Proper Hand Positions and fingering, Sitar String Gauges, Proper Sitting Position, Let's produce some music, and much more so come on back.....