The Sitar and Famous Musicians Who Incorporate It Into Songs

A Plucked String Instrument of Indian Origin

Group of people playing sitar while sitting on a stage.

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A sitar is a plucked string instrument common to classical Indian music, particularly in the Hindustani (northern Indian) classical traditions. Mechanically, the sitar is a fairly complicated musical instrument. It bears sympathetic strings. These are strings which are tuned, but not plucked, and instead vibrate and hum when the strings nearby are played. The sitar also has movable frets and over 20 strings!

The sitar is tuned to a classical raga, or scale, and is played with a pick called a mezrab. It gained popularity in the western world when Beatle George Harrison learned to play from master Ravi Shankar and incorporated the instrument into several Beatles songs, though it has existed for centuries in traditional Indian melodies.

Origins of the Instrument and How It's Played

Developed as early as the 7th century, the instrument we modernly know as the sitar may have derived from the Hindustani musical instrument the veena, adjusted for the Mughal rulership of India in the 16th through 18th century. Traditionally used in concerts for royalty and special religious ceremonies, the sitar remains a large part of Indian culture today. 

The sitar is typically played by balancing the instrument between the player's opposite foot and knee. For instance, a left-handed player might hold it against his right foot and stretch it over his left knee. This allows for the hands, which will tune the frets and strum strings, to move freely without having to bear the weight of the instrument — which can be quite heavy.

The player then uses the mezrab, a metallic pick, to pluck individual strings, adjusting tone with a thumb (which remains on the fretboard). Although more adept players can employ some techniques to give the performance flair, many of the frets are already preset to play microtonal notes, allowing the seamless and flowing transition between notes the sitar is most known for. 

Role of Sitar in Raga and World Music

It wasn't until the rapid globalization of music in the 1950s that the sitar truly went global. As early as the 1950s, rock artists like Ravi Shankar began using the instrument on world tours to give a bit of flair to their music, sparking a newfound interest in this popular Indian instrument.

This led to the 1960s short-lived fad of using sitars in Western pop music. The Beatles famously used a sitar on their hit songs "Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)," "Within You Without You," and "Love You To" in the late 60s. The Rolling Stones used one on "Paint it Black." 

The psychedelic rock community especially liked the Middle-Eastern melodies the sitar could produce. The Doors famously used mostly Indian scales in their albums, often using other instruments, along with the sitar to provide a groovy, enchanting backing track to their brand of trippy rock.

Today, electronic musicians, pop artists, world music ensembles, and even YouTube-famous guitarists use the sitar to evoke Middle Eastern melodies in their performance.