Dubbed as one of the most popular Indian musical instruments, the sitar, derived from the Persian word sehtar, is a guitar-like stringed instrument with a signature reverberating buzz. It’s often associated with South Asian and Middle Eastern music, frequently appearing in classic and “old-time” movies.
The sitar is filled with historic and familial significance. Here are some of the most interesting facts about the sitar you might not have known!
1. The Sitar Is Over 700 Years Old
Although still popular to this day, the sitar is believed to have been invented in the 13th century, over 700 years ago.
This makes the sitar older than the piano, the guitar, and the violin.
2. No One Knows Where the Sitar Originated From
The origins of the sitar are still up for debate to this day.
Indian scholars claim it’s of Indian origins, but Western scholars believe it’s more likely to have originated from West Asia.
In Muslim tradition, some scholars believe the sitar was invented—or, much accurately, developed—by Indo-Persian Sufi singer Amir Khusrow (c. 1253-1325).
Amir Khusrow is an iconic figure in the cultural history of India and is believed to have pioneered some of the major forms of Hindustani classical music. This includes the Tarana, Khyal, and Qawwali.
It’s likewise likely that the sitar is an evolved version of the Tritantri veena, a long-necked lute instrument that appeared in the 10th century.
Ravi Shankar, one of the world’s most famous sitarists, favors this theory.
3. The First Sitar Only Had Three Strings
Early versions of the sitar only had three strings. In fact, the Persian word sehtar quite literally means “three-stringed.”
During the 1700s, the sitar went from three to five strings, as was used in the Hamir-Raso by Rajasthan author Jodhraj.
Today, however, the instrument can have 18, 19, 20, and even 21 strings.
Despite there being up to 21 strings, the sitar player only plays one set of strings.
The “playable” set comprises five to seven played strings, which pass over rounded frets and tuning pegs at the tip of the neck.
The other set contains about 13 to 15 sympathetic strings of different lengths.
These strings run under the frets of the tuning pegs at the top edge of the neck.
The sympathetic strings vibrate in tune with the played strings. Each set comes with its own bridge.
4. The Sitar is Extremely Difficult to Master
The sitar is one of the hardest classical instruments to master. It’s significantly more difficult to play than a guitar.
The pedagogy, the tuning, the fret count, and the entire musical system greatly differ from the latter.
Although the basics aren’t particularly back-breaking, there’s a lot of interesting “rules” players must follow.
When playing the sitar, players must glide from one note to another while tuning the sympathetic strings.
Even the very act of fretting is challenging.
The instrument is even tougher by the scope of the subject matter (Indian classical music). In a way, it’s like martial arts.
It takes years of lessons from respected masters to truly learn and master.
5. Ravi Shankar Is India’s Most Popular Sitar Player
In India, Ravi Shankar was (and still is) considered the most virtuosic player of the sitar, so much so that the fully decorated “instrumental style” sitar is dubbed the Ravi Shankar style.
He, along with his famous tabla player, Alla Rakha, is believed to have been responsible for introducing the sitar in Western culture in the 1960s.
6. George Harrison Learned the Sitar From Sitar Player Ravi Shankar
Throughout the 20th century, Ravi had influenced musicians across the world—including the lead guitarist of The Beatles, George Harrison.
Harrison used the sitar in The Beatles song, “Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown),” which contributed to the popularity of Indian music.
Despite the song’s popularity, Shankar wasn’t impressed when he first heard Harrison playing the sitar.
“I couldn’t believe it,” he said, in a BBC interview, “It sounded so strange, like an Indian villager trying to play the violin.”
Harrison didn’t take offense to this, saying that the sitar on Norwegian Wood was, indeed, “very rudimentary.” He later visited India to master the sitar under Shankar.
After several months of lessons, Harrison concluded that if he wanted to be acknowledged as a decent sitar player, he’ll have to take decades of lessons.
This further proves that, while anyone can play the sitar, not anyone can play it well.
7. The Sitar Was Popularized in Pop Music in the 1960s
The 1960s Beatles song, “Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown),” is the first pop music that featured the sitar.
Thanks to its booming popularity, other famous bands started using the instrument to add a little flair to their songs.
This includes The Rolling Stones and The Doors.
8. The Sitar is on of the Most Expensive Musical Instruments in India
The cost of the sitar is determined by the instrument’s appearance, material, and manufacturer.
Depending on the quality, a sitar can cost anywhere between $300 to a whopping $15,000.
Some of the best sitars by Indian Musical Instruments Maker Heman & Co range from $3,600 to $14,000.
George Harrison’s sitar, which he had bought for only a couple of dollars in the UK, was sold for $62,500 in the US as a collectible.
9. The Sitar Comes in Multiple Types
There are multiple types of sitars, with the most popular being Kharak Pancham, Gandhar Pancham, and Surbahar.
The Kharak Pancham, also known as the Ravi Shankar style, is a sitar with several playable strings and two extra bass strings.
It’s the most popular type of sitar, often decked in jewels and other decorations.
The Gandhar Pancham, otherwise known as the Vilayat Khan style sitar, contains four drone strings, two melody strings, and 11 sympathetic strings.
It doesn’t contain any bass strings.
Finally, the Surbahar, also known as the bass sitar, comes with three to four drone strings, four playing strings, and 11 sympathetic strings.
The Surbahar’s strings are thicker than the former two.
It also has a longer neck.
10. The Sitar Is Made Out of Four Primary Parts
The sitar is approximately four feet long and made out of four primary parts: the Dand, the Tabli, the Gulu, and the Tumba.
The Dand, also known as the fingerboard, is made out of Sheesham wood.
The Gulu is a block of wood that connects the Tabli, the sitar’s fundamental source of the sound, and the Tumba, the reverberating part of the sitar.
In a way, the sitar looks fairly similar to the Tambura, another popular long-necked stringed instrument in India.
11. Sitars Can Last up to 45 Years in Good Condition
Sitars have an average life expectancy of 30 to 45 years, depending on the quality of care given to the instrument.
High-quality sitars can last up to 75 to 100 years, but they’re more of a collectible than a playable instrument.
Over time, the sitar’s neck will bend due to the tension from the strings, making it harder to play.
The neck and the strings of the sitar will have to be replaced every 20 or so years for it to be in playing condition.
12. The Sitar IsisCommonly Played With a Mezrab
The mezrab is the sitar equivalent of a guitar pick.
The mezrab is made of stiff steel and is worn on the index finger of the sitar player.
Some players wear a second mezrab on their middle fingers to assist them with playing.
13. The Sitar Takes Hours to Make
Not only is the sitar difficult to play, but it’s also difficult to make.
Most sitars are made by hand to preserve the quality and integrity of the instrument.
On average, it takes up to 12 hours to make a single sitar from scratch.
David Courtney, a teacher of Indian music, wrote a simplified guide for making the sitar.
Needless to say, I’d rather buy the sitar instead of making one myself!
Summing up our list of Sitar Facts
The sitar is a beautiful instrument with an equally beautiful history.
The instrument plays a vital role in Indian culture, and it’s almost always used in older-themed Bollywood movies.
Even today, modern musicians continue to experiment with the sitar’s unique sound.
Although it’s fairly challenging to play, the sitar has millions of active learners across the globe.