A publication of the Batish Institute of Indian Music and Fine Arts
Sitar Lesson #5
Sitar Adjustments, Sitar Tuning issues, Tuning the Sitar using Harmonics, Correcting the sitar's action
by Ashwin Batish
In this lesson I would like to address an email I received on sitar adjustment. This is a difficult adjustment to make and should be handled with great care as changing anything without being sure will result in catastrophic results. I invite more such emails.
I recently stumbled upon Raganet, and have found your articles on
the sitar quite informative.
I have been using a book by Ravi
Shankar which includes a sitar tutor, but i think my sitar might
need some adjustment.
I think perhaps the nut, the ivory piece
between the main tuning pegs and the fingerboard, might be adjusted
too high. In order to get accurate intonation I was required to
move the frets toward the nut, and the first fret appears visually
to be too close to the nut.
How high above the first fret should
the strings, and especially the melody string, be? I would
appreciate your suggestion.
I'm glad you are enjoying our RagaNet articles on the sitar!
Taargahan - the "nut"
Note: For the sake of some of our readers, a "nut" is the part of a guitar, before the begining of playing frets. Upon this rest all the strings. In a sitar it is called a "taargahan". There are two of these. Through one are drilled 5 holes, at the appropriate points, and the sitar strings rest on the other. They are made of a flat (about 3/16th thick) bone piece. Light groves are cut into the top of the second one to ensure the strings lock down. Five of the main strings rest on this. In many sitars, the sitar makers will forget to cut these groves. This can effect the seperation between strings and many times if you try to pull the string for meend, it slides on the nut, creating a scratchy noise and loosing intonation. Also, if the grove is not deep enough, taking a 4 or 5 note meend will make the string snap out of its groove and in many cases give you an unexpected jolt.
Now back to answering this gentleman's query.......
If you had to move your sitar fret so drastically then there is a definite problem, and this has effected your fret placements. This is a common problem associated with the overall intonation and is easily fixed. But you do need to have a good ear. If you're unsure of whether you can hear the proper notes a note reader (e.g. an electronic tuner) will come in handy. The unfortunate problem here is that the Western tuners are in equal temperament so they won't be true to the pitch of natural harmonics. But, they will get you close to the correct notes. So go ahead and use it as a starting point. Latter I will show you how to fine tune the frets.
What is your problem?
The sitar intonation problems can happen in a variety of ways. It's good to look into all the possible reasons before you start making permanent changes to any aspect of the instrument. The proper setting of the frets is critical. Many instruments shipped from the maker unfortunately do not heed the harmonic accuracy of the frets. They tend to slap the instrument together and if it sounds decent they'll sell it and concentrate on making the next one. This ofcourse is not true for all the makers. If you pay them handsomely you'll get the perfect instrument. But the real life scenerio is that for every 10 sitars, one might suffice. I've seen $1500 sitars being sold in the States that totally are mis-aligned! Some of my students wonder why, in comparison to my sitar, their's sounds so horrible. And I somehow find myself voluteering to correct these mistakes :-(
Anyway, the point I'm trying to make is that you need to be your own best critic and repair man. That is the goal of my initial articles on the sitar. So let me start by recommending these steps.
First, the electronic tuner with a tone generator. They can be a bit expensive (around $130.00). If you don't have one then you can look at, I think Sitar Lesson #3. I give the midi tones via my web site. The main tone I want you to use is Sa (The western C). It is arbitrary which key you tune your sitar to. If you like to tune to the key of C# then by all means tune to that note. The frets are basicly set to a relative harmonic ratios in relationship to the Sa drone note. I hope you understand this point. If not let me know.
Frets of Importance
2nd, physically locate your 7th fret (Sa) your 11th fret (Ma) and your 17th fret (Sa, an octave higher) and your 20th fret (Ma, an octave higher from the 11th). These are the ones we'll adjust first.
3rd, and this is critical, place the index finger of your left hand lightly on the 1st string, Ma (F), at roughly the mid-point of the string's length. Now with your right strike the string with a downward stroke of your mizrab. If your left finger is in the correct spot you'll hear a harmonic overtone which will resonate an octave higher than the main pitch. THis harmonic will be produced even with your finger touching the string.
This is a very special place on any string. This is where it is split in a ratio of natural resonance.
You have probably seen guitar players producing these harmonics or atleast heard them. They sound very beautiful and have a resonant, sustaining, and a soft tonal quality. Here our purpose is to use this natural overtone to locate your center fret, the middle note, called Madhyam or Ma for short. This 11th fret should be the same pitch as this overtone.
Ma Fret Adjustment using Ma Harmonic
Now press the string down on this 11th fret and strike it. Produce the overtone to see if indeed the notes produced match. If they don't, move the fret to match. Do this a few times until the Ma overtone and the Ma fret produce the same pitch. That's it! But wait......
A possible problem to note here is if the fret placement has changed excessively. If you look at the back of your sitar you'll note that there are marks on the varnish that were placed when the tying thread dug into the varnish at some point during the making of the sitar. This is actually a flaw in the design of most sitars. But, in this case, I will show you how you can benefit by this.
Locate the thread lines behind the 11th fret. Make a note of where you've moved your fret while setting it according to the harmonic method I'm describing. Ideally, the Ma fret should lie right on the old string marks. This is where the maker intended it to be. If they are not, here's what you should do.
If the fret is excessively off from the ideal placement (note that I say excessively.... meaning a little difference is immaterial. But if it is bad enough so that the fret thread placements clash with the sympathetic peg holes, then we need to do this adjustment) you might have to either increase the length of the string from (nut to bridge) or decrease this length.
To do this you have to move the main bridge forward or backward.
Now stop right here. You have to make a very important decision here and if you're unsure, email me.
Check this before you do anything else.....
Look at the main string. Is it sitting too high above the frets? Do you have to make an excessive effort in pressing the string to produce the notes? Especially on the higher notes? If you feel like the string is acting like a knife on you playing fingers, you might need to adjust the action of your strings before you attempt to move the bridge.
In a sitar the strings are much more slinkier than a guitar so the action is much higher than the guitar. But like any fretted instrument, the optimum fret-to-string distance is the point where none of the frets buzz. For instance if the action is kept too low, the playing will result in the strings buzzing on the fret in front. So the optimum height will be such that the string clears just enough to avoid this. And this should be true for all the frets.
Finding this can be a difficult task. Ideally it should be left to the sitar wallas as they have the resources to handle correcting mistakes. So be very careful in this adjustment. Basicly you can either lower the bridge by filing the extra wood or raise the frets. The nut side should be lowered or raised to the optimum also. Filing the bridge excessively can be corrected by shims. IF you have a sitar that is buzzing at the frets then this is your answer.
Once the action is corrected, do the harmonics and adjust the Ma fret as shown above. Now you are set to proceed to the next level.
The other Main Frets
You have now set the four main frets of your instrument to the optimum positions! This should be a proud moment. This problem has plagued many a sitarist. Many students have been doomed to play mis-adjusted sitars because they have been unaware of this setting. So give yourself a pat on the back and let's journey to the next level of adjustment, setting the other frets.
- The 7th fret (Sa) should be tuned in a similar manner. With your index finger about 1/3rd of the way up from the Taargahan side (the nut discussed above), strike the strike and produce the Sa overtone. Move the fret until they match.
- The 17th Fret: With your index finger about 2/3rds of the way up from the Taargahan side or 1/3rd of the way from the main bridge side, produce a Sa overtone an octave above the one at the 7th fret. Move the fret until this is matched.
- Now adjust the 20th fret with its overtone. This is Ma but an octave higher from the 11th fret and should be roughly the mid-point between the 11th and the main bridge.
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