It’s no secret that the sitar is an amazing and complex instrument. It can produce a wide spectrum of sounds, from deep bass notes to high-pitched twangs. But unless you’re a musician or someone who has studied Indian classical music in depth, it would be pretty difficult for you to know more than just a few famous people who play the sitar.
In this blog post, we’re going to look at 19 famous Sitar players that have championed this amazing and unusual instrument.
1. Ravi Shankar
If you’ve heard the sitar in Western music, it’s probably because of Ravi Shankar.
He was the Indian sitar virtuoso who helped to popularize the sitar outside of India.
He also is connected to many top sitar players.
Ravi had a distinct style and used unconventional rhythm combinations in his music.
He composed sitar pieces for orchestra and toured the world starting in 1956, both performing and teaching others how to play and appreciate the sitar.
You can hear his music on 76 albums and 18 films.
He also received around 30 awards, including governmental honors and five Grammys.
2. Anoushka Shankar
Anoushka Shankar is the daughter of sitarist Ravi Shankar and the half-sister of American singer-songwriter Norah Jones.
Anoushka began studying sitar and classical Indian music with her father at age nine.
She made her professional debut at 13, signed a record deal at 16, and started touring the world with her father as a fellow virtuoso at 18.
Anoushka has recorded seven albums, has been a part of five live albums, and has performed on 13 other albums.
She has won several awards, been nominated for six Grammys, and was the first Indian musician to present or perform live at the Grammys.
3. Annapurna Devi
Annapurna Devi was an Indian sitar virtuoso who only performed during the 1940s and 1950s.
She was the daughter of sarod-master Allauddin Khan and married one of his students, Ravi Shankar.
Annapurna performed duets with Ravi in the 1950s.
However, she stopped accepting payment for concerts because she felt she was selling Saraswati (the Indian goddess of music).
Annapurna made a religious vow to withdraw from the public eye to try to save her relationship with Ravi.
She then spent the next 60 years in her apartment.
George Harrison was reportedly the only outsider allowed to hear her play in her home after her retreat.
She also won two awards for her music during her seclusion.
4. George Harrison
British Beatles guitarist George Harrison was instrumental in popularizing Indian instruments in popular music throughout the 1960s.
George first discovered Indian music through an Indian music ensemble in the Beatles movie Help!
His subsequent 1965 release of “Norwegian Wood” marked the sitar’s entry into Western pop music.
George soon went to India to take sitar lessons from Ravi Shankar.
The documentary film of these lessons, Raga, along with George’s Indian-influenced music inspired other 1960 rock bands to create raga rock.
George’s use of the sitar on “Within You Without You” is still one of the best Indian-inspired pieces of Western pop.
5. Nikhil Banerjee
Nikhil Banerjee’s music features breathtaking speed, technical perfection, and clinical performance.
At age nine, Nikhil became the youngest musician to work for All India Radio.
After hearing him on the radio, Allauddin Khan (Annapurna Devi’s father and Ravi Shankar’s teacher) agreed to take Nikhil on as a student at age 16.
Nikhil first began touring outside India in 1954.
In 1968, he became India’s Outstanding Musician of the year and received the honorary title of Padma Shri.
Nikhil performed around the world throughout his life but had little interest in wealth and luxury from fame.
He had many musical disciples as a professor at the Ali Akbar College of Music.
6. Vilayat Khan
Vilayat Khan is famous for creating and developing the gayaki ang sitar technique, which mimics the human voice.
Vilayat’s Indian father and grandfather were both leading sitar players and taught young Vilayat to play in the Imdadkhani gharana style.
Khan released his first sitar recording at age six, performed concerts, and broadcast on All India Radio until his death.
Vilayat used his fame and sitar success to live like a king.
He collected fast cars, colognes, clothing, pipes, and guns.
He refused several awards, insulted that lesser junior musicians had already received them.
He did, however, accept being named “Bharat Sitar Samrat” (India’s Emperor of the Sitar) and “Aftab-e-Sitar” (Sun of the Sitar).
7. Prem Joshua
Prem Joshua was born in Germany and learned to play the flute and saxophone as a young child.
At 18, he traveled to India to study the country’s folk music.
In India, Prem studied the sitar from third-generation sitarist Usman Khan.
He also shed his family name, adding Prem (meaning “love”) as his first name.
Prem mixes the Hindustani music of the East with contemporary lounge trance music of the West.
Prem has since released over 16 albums.
He plays sitar, flutes, soprano sax, and vocals, accompanied by a world fusion band.
8. Gabby La La
American Gabby La La describes her music and personal style as “fun, unique, crazy, and kooky.”
Gabby has classical training on the sitar.
She also plays ukulele, accordion, theremin, and toy piano.
Gabby is a “mashup of Hello Kitty and Yoko Ono.”
She presents a childish persona and voice to accompany her childish, fun music.
When not dancing around the stage in brightly colored wigs, she teaches young girls to play rock music (currently via Zoom).
Gabby’s mainly a solo artist but has also sung with Weapon of Choice and Les Claypool’s Fancy Band.
She’s also written, arranged, and performed in seven albums.
9. Reenat Fauzia
Reenat Fauzia comes from a famous family of Bangladeshi musicians.
Her parents, brothers, paternal uncles, maternal aunts, and grandfather are all renowned musicians.
Reenat’s cousins Hossain Khan and Khurshid Khan provided her sitar training.
She also spent five years studying sitar at the Chhayanaut music institute in Bangladesh, developing a distinctively repetitive playing style.
Reenat started playing sitar on Bangladesh Television in 1987.
She has also taught sitar at Chhayanaut and makes appearances on stages around the world.
She won the Anannya Top Ten Award in 2009 and has released three musical albums.
10. Brian Jones
Brian Jones was a British musician known best as the founder of the Rolling Stones.
He played various instruments, including guitar, sitar, piano, harmonica, Mellotron, keyboards, and several wind instruments.
Brian first picked up a sitar at George Harrison’s house.
It wasn’t long afterward that The Rolling Stones released one of the most famous Western songs featuring the sitar, “Paint it Black.”
Brian played sitar on The Rolling Stones’ “Street Fighting Man.”
He also played sitar for Jimi Hendrix in “My Little One” and “Ain’t Nothin’ Wrong With That.”
11. Shahid Parvez Khan
Shahid Parvez Khan comes from a musical Indian family and received training from his father, grandfather, and uncle.
He’s a 7th generation sitar player of the most ancient school of Indian music, Gwalior gharana.
Shahid uses vocalistic phrasing at the end of his notes and a slow then accelerating improvisational style.
He also uses plucked string tantrakari techniques, allowing him to explore rhythm patterns with his right hand.
Shahid has played sitar at music festivals in India and around the world.
He has also received the Padma Shri and Sangeet Natak Academy Awards for his distinguished playing.
It’s currently possible to study the sitar online one-on-one with this sitar master.
12. Rais Khan
Although Rais Khan was initially from India, he became a famous sitarist as an immigrant to Pakistan.
Rais belonged to the classical Mewati gharana musical lineage.
He learned his beenkar style from his father and gayaki ang style from his mother.
Rais was known for becoming jealous of any pupils who started to show talent and terminating lessons with them.
He had several hit songs related to his association with film composers.
In fact, film composer Madan Mohan would never compose a ghazal without him.
In 2017, Rais also received Pakistan’s third-highest civilian honor, the Sitara-i-Imtiaz (Star of Excellence).
13. Al Gromer Khan
Al Ghromer Khan is a sitar player, composer, author, and visual artist from Germany.
He creates contemplative ambient, world, new age, and electronic music for radio, television, and film.
Al first traveled India, Tangier, and London as a jazz musician and beat poet.
However, after hearing Vilayat Khan at a concert in London, he spent the next seven years mastering the sitar under Imrat Khan.
He was also the first outsider accepted into this Gharana.
Since it’s usually a musical tradition passed to sons, he added Khan to the end of his name.
Al currently lives in Germany but travels throughout Europe and India performing classical Indian music.
14. Nishat Khan
Nishat Khan blends classical Indian music with Western genres, such as Western classical music, Flamenco, jazz, and Gregorian chants.
Nishat is a member of the prestigious Etawah Gharana musical families and schools.
He studied under Imrat Khan, the nephew of Vilayat Khan.
He started playing sitar at age three and gave his first concert at age seven.
Throughout his career, Nishat has composed and produced music with other musicians such as John McLaughlin, Phillip Glass, Evelyn Glennie, and Paco Peña.
He has 15 albums and has composed two film scores.
Nishat has performed in many major venues around the world, including at the Vatican.
15. Imrat Khan
Imrat Khan and his famous brother Vilayat Khan learned sitar from their uncle Wahid Khan.
Their Indian family can trace its Etawah gharana musical roots back 400 years.
IImrat performed worldwide but spent part of each year teaching classical sitar to students at Washington University in St. Louis.
He also released several musical albums and has music in films by Satyajit Ray and James Ivory.
Imrat’s brother Vilyat’s musical career somewhat overshadowed his own career.
He refused to accept the Padma Shri award from the Indian government since several musicians Imrat trained had already received it, saying it was “too little and came too late.”
16. Anjan Chattopadhyay
Anjan Chattopadhyay was born into a Bengali aristocratic family in India.
He initially learned to play sitar from his brother Pandit Gourisankar Chattopadhyay.
Anjan wanted his sitar to sing like a vocalist and studied under various teachers such as Vidushi Kalyani Roy.
He was also one of Vilayat Khan’s rare disciples.
Additionally, he studied vocals and the tabla.
His style is soft and serene classical Indian music.
He blends technical skills with a gentle touch and musical symmetry.
Anjan has performed hundreds of concerts in India and worldwide, received 11 awards, released eight albums, and helped develop the multimedia Sangeetpedia.
17. Lowell George
Lowell George was an American musician and songwriter.
His music covered multiple genres, including rock, blues rock, Southern rock, country rock, R&B, blues, and funk.
He sang and played guitar, harmonica, flute, saxophone, and sitar.
Lowell played with several bands, including Zappa and the Mothers of Invention and Little Feat, and was a session player for various artists.
He was a musical perfectionist, always trying to improve upon any music he made.
Lowell was another of Ravi Shankar’s Western students.
He studied sitar at a Los Angeles school Ravi ran.
Unfortunately, Lowell died from a heart attack after an accidental cocaine overdose at age 34.
18. Justin Hayward
Justin Hayward is a British musician who was the lead singer, songwriter, and guitarist for The Moody Blues.
While he mainly played guitar, he also played mandolin and sitar.
He also had a solo career after the band broke up.
The Moody Blues album In Search of the Lost Chord contains several songs in the raga rock style.
One of the most popular ones in which Justin plays the sitar is “Om.”
Justin said of the Moody Blues, “everything the Beatles did, we did 24 hours later.”
After that album, though, Justin rarely played the sitar, and it eventually ended up in the Rock & Roll Museum in London.
19. Emily Robison Strayer
Her primary genres are country, alternative country, bluegrass, country rock, and folk music.
Emily started playing violin at age seven and the banjo at age ten.
Then she started trying to master every instrument she could, including guitar, dobro, bass guitar, mandolin, lap steel, sitar, and accordion.
However, she considers herself primarily a banjo player.
She has released eight studio albums with The Chicks and two with her sister in Court Yard Hounds.
Summing up our List of Famous Sitarists
Sitar players have a huge influence on the world of music with the instrument being used by traditional Indian classical musicians all the way to Western rocks stars, sitar masters are revered for their virtuosity and cultural significance.
We hope you’ve enjoyed learning a bit more about the instrument and the musicians that play it.
We’ll be updating this article with some more sitarists so let us know who to add next!