The Sitar: From Ancient India to the Beatles
Image Credit: Flickr (twm1340), Filckr (kathleenjoyful)

The Sitar: From Ancient India to the Beatles


When Ravi Shankar, sitar virtuoso, passed away last December there was an international outpouring of tributes and writings on his life and contributions to world music. The Indian maestro, who was shredding the sitar strings until his death at the age of 92, almost singlehandedly brought Indian classical music into the Western consciousness. He did so by collaborating with a bevy of artists across a vast range of styles, from American violinist Yehudi Menuhin and composer Philip Glass to jazz greats like John Coltrane and Bud Shank.

Perhaps Shankar’s most famous link with Western pop came through George Harrison of the Beatles, who studied under Shankar and would later call him “the godfather of world music.” The sitar has been assimilated into the Western auditory palate – if nothing else as a bit of “exotic” seasoning – but for many their first exposure to its sounds came via Harrison.

Describing the sounds of Harrison’s sitar and the instrument itself, Paul Saltzman wrote in his book The Beatles in India: “I was struck by the exquisite beauty of the instrument…A rich, reddish-brown color, George’s sitar was visually a beautiful piece of art in and of itself…the sitar has a haunting, multidimensional voice that can be both exciting and soothing, meditative and other-worldly, all at the same time.”

While Shankar via Harrison may have helped bring the sitar into popular consciousness, the instrument’s roots are in the distant past. The sitar is a member of the lute family and is popular in northern India, Bangladesh and Pakistan. Named after a Persian instrument called the setar (“three strings”), Sufi musician Amir Khusrow laid the groundwork for the instrument’s development in the 13th century during the Delhi Sultanate period. It would later flourish in the 16th and 17th centuries, but it was not until the 18th century that it took its present form.

Saltzman described Harrison’s sitar as having “intricately inlaid ivory designs, and large side and front tuning pegs…with five melody strings, five or six drone strings and between nine and thirteen sympathetic strings.” The sitar is up to four feet in length, it has a large gourd sounding box at its base and sometimes a smaller gourd up top. Twenty arched movable frets overlay up to 13 sympathetic strings that are tuned to match the notes of the raga (melodic framework) being played.

“It’s improvisation. I like to use the analogy like a game of chess,” Brian Q. Silver told NPR. “Every raga – and there are hundreds of different ragas – has its own set of rules…you have to follow the rules. But in that limitation, you’re intimately free.”

He added, the sitar “is a wonderfully expressive and challenging instrument. It is an instrument, unlike the Western string instruments, which usually play up and down the neck only; you can play up to five notes pulling the string to the side.”

Flickr (kathleenjoyful)Undaunted by these complexities, Harrison was not the only Western musician entranced by the exotic twang of the ragas of this singular instrument. A sitar craze swept over pop music in the 1950s and 1960s, beginning with the Yardbirds’ song “Heart Full of Soul,” followed by the Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown),” “Within You Without You” and “Love You To”; as well as the Rolling Stones’ “Paint it Black.” Others have also spiced up their music with the exotic sounds of the sitar, from Shakira (“Gypsy”) and Tool (“4 Degrees”) to Stevie Wonder (“Signed, Sealed, Delivered, I’m Yours”) and Elton John (“Holiday Inn”).

The sitar’s pop heyday has come and gone, but it is still a vital force in music. Shankar is not the only one who has carried the torch. Today his spirit lives on in his own voluminous output as well as in the music of his daughter Anoushka Shankar, renowned in her own right. Other sitar greats include the late Nikhil Bannerjee and Vilayat Khan, as well as Shahid Parvez who is still living.

“The exciting thing and the terrifying thing about this music is you don’t have music to play from,” Silver added. “You sit down to play. And whatever you play comes from your education and from your heart.”

For a sample of what this unique instrument can do, when accompanied by the tabla (an Indian hand drum), listen here.

Editor’s note: The text has been updated from the original version.

Frank Levine
August 25, 2013 at 15:02

they ended up NOT using the sitar in Heart Full of Soul because the sound was 'too thin.'

Phil Grabar
August 25, 2013 at 12:55

"See My Friends" – 1965 by the Kinks deserves a mention.  They didn't use a sitar in that song, but achieved a droning sitar sound which preceeded most of the songs mentioned.  


From wiki:   it is credited by Jonathan Bellman as the first Western rock song to integrate Indian raga sounds, being released six months before the Beatles' "Norwegian Wood".

Dr. Tim Maher
August 24, 2013 at 19:22

The Coral Electric Sitar was indeed used on many of the pop songs of the 60s and 70s rather than the Indian sitar, but calling it a "different instrument altogether" (as Mark Turnbull did in his reply) requires some explanation.


I'd characterize it as an electric guitar with special modifications to automatically produce sitar-like sounds. Specifically, a bank of "sympathetic strings" (which "echo" the current note) was added along with a special "buzz" bridge that provided a jangly sound to simulate (albeit crudely) the effects of the sitar's bridge . Most significantly, the Coral Electric Sitar was played like a guitar,with the sympathetic strings and the buzz bridge automatically providing the sitar-like effect.


In contrast to the "buzz" bridge, the bridge of the Indian sitar is a marvel of acoustic engineering, being hand-honed out of deer horn to achieve a complex shape that can produce a myriad of fantastic "fuzz tone"-like effects–without using electricity!


The Coral Electric Sitar emerged because the average pop band of the era had more interest in producing a reasonable facsimile of the exotic Ravi Shankar sound for the six note solo on their next hit record than in struggling with a fragile and unwieldy instrument to achieve a better sound.


By the way, despite impressions created by photos of pop stars hugging sitars, many of the tracks featuring (real) sitars in the British pop songs of the 60s and 70s were actually played by classically trained Indian musicians living in London, such as my own first sitar guru, the late Dr. Nazir Ali Jairazbhoy (formerly of the UCLA Ethnomusicology Dept.).


I'm glad that several great sitarists of the Indian classical tradition were mentioned in Jonathan DeHart's article, to facilitate the reader's further explorations of this wonderful musical tradition. In addition, I'd like to assure the reader that Indian and non-Indian sitarists alike are still exploring the use of the Indian sitar in Western popular music. Ashwin Batish is one of the most energetic and creative examples of this genre.


Mark Turnbull
August 23, 2013 at 13:53

Not very well researched. Most of the recordings mentioned in the "sitar craze," with the exception of George Harrison's work, were made with the Coral Electric Sitar, a different instrument altogether. Plus, in the last paragraph, it's "tabla" not "table."

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