What is a Sitar?

What is a Sitar?

Although the sitar easily resembles a guitar from another galaxy, it is actually a part of the lute family of stringed instruments. The sitar is a classical Indian instrument that has a long, broad, fretted neck and a gourd-shaped body. The sitar has 7 strings, 11-13 sympathetic (resonating) strings and 20 frets. Melodies, rather than chords, are played on two strings; the other strings are drones tuned to the main chord of the “raga” or rag. Although some notes are played, the corresponding sympathetic strings react to and sound along with it. This creates what could best be described as a “natural reverb” or buzz. Listen to an Indian Raga.


This reverb sound is one of the key characteristics that encapsulate the sound of sitar music. This “buzz” is produced by the bridge, which is typically made of bone or animal horn and filed to an angle that will allow the sitar player to coax out that bright, reverberating buzz. The sitar’s signature sound is produced by the string vibrating on a flat bridge with a gently curved surface. This sound is known as jawari, which refers to the maintenance, which requires great skill, required to properly shape the bridge. Jawari translates to “glimmering” or “jewel-like”. How much of the string rests on the bridge, and how steep the curves in the back and front of that contact area are all affect how much buzz is emitted and how clear the sound is.

A key feature of the sitar is its curved, movable frets, which allow for a wide variation of tuning; they are also raised so that the 11-16 tarbs, or sympathetic strings, can run under the frets. Among its 20-odd strings are 6 or 7 playable strings which are situated over the frets. The Kharaj-Pancham, used by Ravi Shankar, has 7 playable strings. (The difference between the 6 and 7 string styles is that the latter has two extra bass strings, low pa and low sa, which give them an extra bass octave).Four of these strings, called the chikari, provide the “drone” while the remaining strings are used to play the melody, though most of the notes of the melody are played on the baj tar, or first string.


The sitar also has two bridges. The bada goraj, or main bridge, is used for the playing and drone strings and a chota goraj, or secondary bridge, is for the sympathetic strings that run beneath the main strings. The best bridges are usually made of horn- typically deer antler. With a sitar, as the string reverberates, its length changes slightly as its edge touches the bridge, which creates overtones and lends it a distinct, rich tone. Proper adjustment of the jawari promotes this fullness of sound. The “pick”, called a mazrab, is used by the player’s dominant hand to pluck the sitar. The thumb of the playing hand should be positioned on the top of the fret board just above the main gourd, and the sitar itself should be balanced between the player’s left foot and right knee, allowing the hands to move freely and not support the weight of the sitar.

Most quality-made sitars are constructed from a combination of teak and mahogany wood called toon wood. Teak is a rare wood, so a sitar built of one often has an air of mystique about it, and it also suggests that the sitar is old, as they are expected to last 30-40 years. Also, because the sitar is under a lot of tension from the strings, it will eventually start to bend, throw the frets off, and generally become harder to play. Even the best made sitars are prone to this, and will eventually require the neck to be replaced.