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Find out how many strings a Sitar has
Learn about two types of sitars: RS and VK
We explain all about the drone, played, and sympathetic strings
The sitar is one of the most prominent plucked string instruments in Hindustani Music (also called Indian Classical music). It derives its name from the Persian term seh-tar, which translates to “three strings.” But the name no longer represents how many strings a sitar has.
This centuries-old instrument, 700 years according to some music historians, has undergone numerous changes to optimize its structure and tonality.
In our context, the sitar went from three, to five, to twenty-one strings during its evolution in the Indian sub-continent.
There were dozens of variations of the sitar until the 1940s. It was impossible to point to any one type as the standard, making it difficult to tell you how many strings a sitar has.
Luckily, the instrument was eventually narrowed down to two standardized variations named after prominent sitar players of the 20th century:
The Ravi Shanker Model: a bigger and longer sitar used for instrumental music.
The Vilayat Khan Model: a smaller sitar used for ‘gayaki’ or accompanying a vocalist.
How Many Strings Does A Sitar Have?
A sitar can have between 18 and 21 strings depending on the type of model. The 21-string version includes three sub-categories: drone, sympathetic, and played strings.
Each set has its own bridge. Drone and sympathetic strings can only be strummed. Playable strings can be fretted.
Here, we discuss how many strings standardized models of the sitar have and how they are used.
All about: Strings on the Indian sitar
A sitar is a long-necked instrument, generally four feet (1.2 meters) in length. It can be divided into two parts: the neck (called the ‘dand’) and the resonator (called the gourd). We will focus on the neck as it houses the many strings of a sitar.
The dand is a long, hollow wooden neck made from a single piece of Sheesham (Indian Rosewood), Toon (Mahogany family), and/or Burma Teak. It has a 3 to 3.25-inch width and 20 frets. Sitar frets are metal inserts with a curved or crescent shape.
As for the strings, they are a combination of the following:
1 or 2 drone strings
11 to 13 sympathetic strings
5 to 7 playable strings
Each set of strings has corresponding tuning pegs called “kuntis.” The pegs can be simple (nail-like), fluted, or lotus-shaped while expensive sitars can have elaborately carved tuning pegs.
The tuning pegs for the played and drone strings run on or near the head of the sitar. With the played strings featuring larger ornate tuning pegs.
Sympathetic strings have small, plain tuning pegs. They are located along the fretboard, running down the instrument’s neck.
The two types of Sitars: RS and VK
As mentioned earlier, Sitars are divided into two basic types based on their string configuration, ornamentation, and construction. Let’s look at the two most common designs:
The Ravi Shanker style sitar (RS)
The RS Sitar derives its design from the instrument played by Pandit Ravi Shanker. He was a sitar virtuoso in the North Indian tradition of Hindustani Classical Music.
Ravi Shanker was a highly decorated musician, considered to be the best sitar player of the 20th century.
A Ravi Shankar sitar is also called a Kharaj Pancham sitar in many parts of India. It has 20 strings, three of which are drone strings, four melody strings, and 13 sympathetic strings.
However, it also features an additional soundbox, ornate decorations, and two extra bass strings called “Kharaj.” The strings are tuned to a Low Pa and Low Sa (lower fifth and root), giving them an extra bass octave.
The Vilayat Khan style sitar (VK)
The Vilayat Khan sitar, also called the ‘gayaki’ style. It is a simpler, less ornate, and smaller version of the sitar.
These only have one resonator gourd as they lack the upper gourd. They also have no bass strings and fewer sympathetic strings compared to an RS sitar.
In some parts of India, these are referred to as Gandhar Pancham. VK-style sitars have 17 strings: 11 sympathetic, 4 drones, and 2 played strings. However, they have an additional drone string (chikari) for rhythmic accompaniment.
These sitars are modest-looking instruments without decorations. Instead, they have other modifications to make them sound more rhythmic and to emphasize the treble.
The three types of sitar strings
Most off-the-rack sitars have 18 strings. Sitar strings are available in both music stores and online retailers, the string gauges can also vary based on the preference of the instrumentalist.
However, all these strings don’t get the same playtime. Let’s understand the three categories of strings and their role/function in Hindustani music:
1. Drone strings or Chikari(s)
Every sitar has drone strings, called chikari, that are adjacent to the played strings. A sitar can have one or two drone strings based on the model. These strings share a bridge (badaa gora) with the played strings, but they cannot be fretted.
Drone strings continue all the way down the neck. But they are elevated on special bone or synthetic pegs to raise them above the neck. A sitar player will pluck them periodically to reinforce the Sa (read: tonic or root note of a raga). They are useful to maintain the rhythm.
Drone strings are normally tuned to a pitch and played consistently throughout a musical piece. They are prominently used by the jhala style of sitar player. It is a rhythm-heavy and fast-paced component of ragas towards the conclusion of a performance.
2. Sympathetic strings or Tarab
A sitar has 13 sympathetic strings, although some may have only 11 or 12 sympathetic strings. They are also called tarab, taraf, or tarafdar.
These strings run under the frets and are never played. In other words, you can only strum them but you cannot fret them to create a melody.
Sympathetic strings run over a smaller bridge called chota gora. Sitar players tune them to the notes of whatever raga (melodic framework) they play.
They are rarely played and vibrate automatically based on the notes being played on the playable group of strings.
3. Played strings or Baj Tar
Despite having 18 to 21 strings, only one set of 5 to 7 strings on a sitar can be actively played. Playing strings is the combination of one or two melody strings + drone strings. Only the melody strings are fretted and can play notes/create melodies.
These main strings of a sitar are fretted with the left hand and plucked or struck using a mizrab with the right hand.
A mizrab is a sitar plectrum made from brass or steel wire. It is worn on the tip of the right hand’s index finger.
Tuning sitar strings
The sitar produces the widest variety of pitches among all the existing stringed instruments. There are several mechanics to change the tone and pitch and it’s a little more involved than you’d find on your standard 6 string electric.
The tuning pegs can be tightened or loosened to raise or lower the pitch of a sitar string.
The curved metal frets of a sitar are moveable and you can also reposition them to achieve a variety of pitches.
The played strings can be further fine-tuned by sliding a bead on each string near the bridge.
Every sitar player and teacher develops a tuning preference based on the sitar school and/or sub-tradition that they are a part of.
So, there is no standard or default sitar tuning. It varies heavily based on the school (gharana), raga (melodic framework), and stylistic variance.
In the Indian solfège system, the tonic is called the Sa (short for ṣaḍja). In most styles, one played string is tuned to ‘Sa’, and the second is tuned to a perfect fourth above the tonic, ‘Pa’ in Indian and ‘Fa’ in the Western solfège system.
The Ravi Shanker Sitar, used for instrumental performance, has a tuning frequently used across styles and schools. It is as follows:
The three drone strings are tuned to Sa (high), Sa (middle), and Pa
The two bass strings are tuned to Sa (low) and Pa (low)
The played strings are tuned to Sa and Ma
What are sitar strings made of?
Sitar strings are made from metal. They can be made from steel, bronze, brass, or copper ranging from 0.22 mm to 0.85 mm.
The tone for each metal is distinct and it’s common to mix and match gauges and metals.
But professional sitar players generally order single strings that suit their preferences and playing style.
In this article, we covered the two most commonly used types of sitars. They are fully decorated and standardized gayaki models.
It’s also common for sitar players to custom-order individualized instruments with distinctive features and personalized decoration!
We hope you’ve found this bit of insight into a less commonly talked about instrument both interesting and insightful!