The sitar is a plucked stringed instrument, originating from the Indian subcontinent, used in Hindustani classical music.

The instrument flourished under the Mughals, and it is named after a Persian instrument called the setar (meaning three strings).

The sitar flourished in the 16th and 17th centuries and arrived at its present form in 18th-century India. It derives its distinctive timbre and resonance from sympathetic strings, bridge design, a long hollow neck, and a gourd-shaped resonance chamber. In appearance, the sitar is similar to the tanpura, except that it has frets.

Used widely throughout the Indian subcontinent, the sitar became popularly known in the wider world through the works of Ravi Shankar, beginning in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

In the 1960s, a short-lived trend arose for the use of the sitar in Western popular music, with the instrument appearing on tracks by bands such as The Beatles, The Doors, The Rolling Stones and others.

Delhi Sultanate origin

According to various sources, the sitar was invented by Amir Khusrow, a famous Sufi inventor, poet, and pioneer of Khyal, Tarana and Qawwali, in the Delhi Sultanate

Others say that the instrument was brought from Iran and modified for the tastes of the rulers of the Delhi Sultanate and the Mughal Empire.

World music influence

Vilayat Khan had been touring outside India off and on for more than 50 years and was the first Indian musician to play in England after India’s independence (1951) and to introduce the sitar to world audiences.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s Ravi Shankar, along with his tabla player, Alla Rakha, began a further introduction of Indian classical music to Western culture.

The sitar saw use in Western popular music when guided by David Crosby’s championing of Shankar, George Harrison played it on the Beatles’ songs “Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)“, “Love You To” and “Within You Without You“, recorded between 1965 and 1967.

The Beatles’ association with the instrument helped popularise Indian classical music among Western youth, particularly once Harrison began receiving tutelage from Shankar and the latter’s protégé Shambhu Das in 1966.

That same year, Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones used a sitar on “Paint It Black“, while another English guitarist, Dave Mason, played it on Traffic’s 1967 hits “Paper Sun” and “Hole in My Shoe“.

These and other examples marked a trend of featuring the instrument in pop songs which Shankar later described as “the great sitar explosion“. Speaking to KRLA Beat in July 1967, he said:

“Many people, especially young people, have started listening to sitar since George Harrison, one of the Beatles, became my disciple… It is now the ‘in’ thing.”

Before any of these examples, however, the Kinks’ 1965 single “See My Friends” featured a low-tuned drone guitar that was widely mistaken to be a sitar. Crosby’s band, the Byrds, had similarly incorporated elements of Indian music, using only Western instrumentation, on their songs “Eight Miles High” and “Why” in 1965.

Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page talked about his love of Indian music, saying:

“I went to India after I came back from a tour with the Yardbirds in the late sixties just so I could hear the music firsthand. Let’s put it this way: I had a sitar before George Harrison got his. I wouldn’t say I played it as well as he did, though…”

The East Indian scales used on the track “Friends” (Led Zep III) “Kashmir” (Physical Graffiti) are considered fine examples of the influence of the sitar in rock music.

The Doors extensively used Indian and near eastern scales in their psychedelic soundscapes. Robbie Krieger’s guitar part on “The End” was heavily influenced by Indian ragas and features melodic and rhythmic qualities that suggest a sitar or veena.

Fleetwood Mac’s Gold Dust Woman features the instrument, as well. Many pop performances actually involve the Electric Sitar, a solid body guitar-like instrument quite different from the traditional acoustic Indian instrument.

Psychedelic music bands often used new recording techniques and effects and drew on non-Western sources such as the ragas and drones of Indian music.

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