the sitar project  
last updated October 10, 2009
   
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Beginners
Fine tuning the baj
   

The sitar is a very sensitive instrument and therefore its pitch tends to shift with slight changes to temperature etc. In addition just playing the instrument tends to shift the pitch of the string slightly. Whilst you are practising or playing therefore, you can make fine adjustments to the pitch of the baj string either by pulling the string if it is slightly sharp - it is best to use two fingers to do this. Or with the manka at the bottom of the instrument if it is too flat or if it needs more adjustment than can be achieved by pulling.

 

There can be a problem with this, for example, if the bag strings peg is not tight then the string may go really out of tune when you pull it - there is then no alternative but to retune it from scratch.

 

Tuning baj and jora
   
You need a reference sound to tune your sitar - either a tanpura or a keyboard or pitch pipe. We normally tune sitar to C#.

Jora

 

First tune the jora string to the note C#. Some people get confused as to which octave they should be aiming for - it is helpful to remember this is quite a low note - in Viliyat Khan style sitar the lowest tuned string on the sitar. Listen to the reference sound and carefully turn the peg tightening the string to raise the pitch, slackening it to lower the pitch. As you turn the peg, push it into its hole to make it stable.

 

Once you have the string in tune it is a good idea to pull it a little to stabilise it - you may find this pulls it slightly out of tune in which case you will have to redo it until it stays stable and is in tune. If you have one, you can use the manka to fine tune the string.

 

Baj

 

The Baj string is tuned to the note Ma. This is approximately the same as the note F# on a keyboard - but only approximately because the keyboard is tuned to a 'tempered' scale rather than the 'natural' or 'harmonic' scale used by indian musicians.

 

To get started you can use a keyboard to help you find the right note but in the long run you should learn to hear the pitch in your head. A simple trick to get you started is to get the pitch roughly right tuning it to keyboard F# and then fine tune the baj so that the note Sa is exactly in tune but an octave above the Jora. Use the pulling technique/manka as described above to do this fine tuning.

 

It is necessary to pull the baj string quite strongly to stretch it and stabilise it - otherwise it will immediately go out of tune when you use meend - if pulling causes it to lose its pitch, you just have to retune and try again. Eventually it should settle unless something is wrong - usually the pegs slipping is the problem.

Knowing the parts of the sitar

The essential things to know the meaning of baj, jora, chikari and taraf. Other parts of the sitar are good to know - so you know what people are talking about, especially if your sitar needs repair - but not essential to being able to play. Here are some of the key parts:

 

Damping an overloud jora string
   

A very common problem with sitar is that the jora string is too loud and drowns out the sound of the baj. This means that the shape of the bridge is slightly wrong and it needs a little jawari doing to it (jawari is the process of filing the bridge to the perfect shape to make the sitar sound at its best - it is a skilled process not to be attempted by beginners).

A simple way to fix this problem, at least temporarily, is to damp the sound of the jora by folding a small piece of paper in half and in half again and then sliding it under the jora string until it is trapped there and reduces the sound of the string. You may need to experiment with thickness of paper and positioning to get the balance between the two strings right.

 

 


Improvers
Tuning the front strings

We learnt how to tune the baj and jora strings above. The other front strings in Viliyat Khan style sitar are 2 drone strings and 2 chikari strings.

The Chikari strings are always tuned to middle and high Sa. Beginners often find it confusing which octave to aim for in tuning these strings. The very top string is the highest tuned string on the instrument tuned to high Sa on the baj. The second chikari string is tuned an octave lower to middle Sa. This means that if you play the jora, then the low chikari and then the high chikari you should get three Sa notes from the lowest to the highest note.

The other two front strings are tuned differently for different rags. For Rag Yaman tune them to ga and pa. Use the frets on the baj string to help you find these notes.

Guitarists tend to turn the pegs too much - perhaps because they are used to the geared tuning mechanism on a guitar - you only need to turn the pegs a tiny bit to get a quite big change in pitch on the sitar.

 

Replacing the front strings

Don't remove all the strings at once. If you do, you will never remember where the strings and the two bridges should go! If you do want to replace all the strings do it a few at a time. If you have to remove all the top strings, mark around the bridge supports with a pencil so you can see where the bridge was originally. If you don’t do this you will find it very difficult to get the sitar to play in tune.

Look carefully and make a note of where the string you are replacing goes before you remove it. For example, it may need to be threaded through a hole in the Aad (top bridge) before being threaded onto the peg. Similarly note if it has a manka and where that is and in what direction it is pointing.

Note whether the string was wound clockwise or counterclockwise. Strings will normally be wound counterclockwise. But the Jor string may be wound clockwise - for example to avoid touching the baj peg.

Remove the tuning peg the string belongs to and remove the old string. You may be able to untwist the string from the bottom of the instrument. If this is difficult (because other strings are on top of it), carefully cut the string off close to the retainer or post. When you eventually completely re-string your sitar you can then remove all the pieces of old strings.

Cut the string to length. Don’t make it too long - you need enough to wind round the peg, but not too much - otherwise you are winding for ever (and grinding away your pegs). And, if you buy your strings on a roll, using too much string is a waste.

Make a loop using a smooth cylindrical object (eg a pencil) that is a little larger that the string retainer or post at the bottom of the instrument. Loop the string around the pencil, leaving about 1" protruding from one end of the loop. Twist the pencil around several times to twist the string round itself. Carry on until it is sufficiently twisted to hold the string securely. This is what you are aiming for (obviously the twists should be all tight)


Slip the loop over the retainer or post, then place the string where the old string used to be. Take care not to kink the string in this process, otherwise it will almost certainly break.

Insert the string through the hole in the tuning peg. Let a piece about 2" long protrude from the other side of the peg. Thread this 2" length around the tuning peg again, and through the hole again. Pull the long end of the string fairly tightly to bind the string to the peg. For extra security trap the tail under the string as you wind it on to the peg.

Turn the peg to wind the string onto it and put the peg back in its hole. It is a good idea to hold the string slightly taught with your other hand whilst you are doing this. Again take care not to kink the string. Make sure the string is positioned in the correct place on the bridge.

Tune the string. It may take a while for the string to settle down. If it really doesn't then either the peg is slipping or the loop is not secure. Either remake the loop, or chalk the peg (with carpenters chalk not blackboard chalk).

 

Cleaning the sitar

Use a soft paintbrush to remove dust from the finger board. It helps to loosen some of the strings to get your paint brush in. You can also use a vacuum cleaner with a soft brush attachment to suck out the dust.

Try to avoid your sitar getting sticky or dirty by keeping it in its case when you aren't practicing.


Intermediate
Tuning taraf strings

Taraf strings are tuned to the notes of the rag.

Be careful tuning the taraf strings.  Taraf strings are often broken because you lose which string you are tuning and pluck the wrong one.  What happens then is you keep tightening the string even though the pitch isn’t changing, overdo it and the string snaps.  If you are not sure you are plucking the right taraf string then slacken the peg—if the pitch changes it’s the right one, if not, its the wrong one! But because you are loosening it there is no danger of breaking a string.

 

Knowing when strings need replacing

After a time of playing, strings need replacing. Grip a string lightly between finger and thumb and slide your hand up and down the string. A new string will feel perfectly smooth. A string that needs replaced will feel lumpy.

Equally, sometimes an instrument has been left for a long time and the strings have gone rusty - replace any string in this condition - particularly if it is your baj string, because a rusty string will hurt your finger.

 

Replacing taraf strings
   

This is basically the same as replacing the top strings except it’s a bit fiddly to feed the strings through the holes in the neck of the sitar.

 

Make a paper clip into a hook. You can buy or make a special tool for this. It works better if it is made out of slightly heavier wire than a paper clip.

Cut the string to length. As for the front strings don’t cut them too long. You want the string to wind round the peg about five or six times. Make a loop in the string by winding round a pencil, as for the front strings.

Thread the taraf string through the hole in the sitar’s neck where the old string was. Starting at this end (rather than the bottom of the sitar) makes it easier to keep the string free of kinks. Use the paper clip hook to pull the string through the hole in the Sitar's neck where the old string was. This is fiddly but persist! See diagram.

 

Run the string under the frets and under the main bridge to the bottom of the instrument. Place the loop on the string retainer or post. Make sure the string is running in the right groove on the taraf bridge. Tighten the peg counterclockwise and tune the taraf string.

 

Take care throughout not to kink the string, otherwise it will almost certainly break.

 

Moving frets

The frets need to be perfectly placed for the sitar to sound in tune. Before you start this exercise, make sure the bridge hasn’t shifted - there should be a mark on the face of the tabli showing where it should be. If it has moved, then move it back. There is no point in trying to get your frets in tune if the bridge is out of place.

Use the harmonics on the string to help you get them in place. Switch off your drone or tanpura machine for this operation - you are trying to get the sitar consistent with itself - tuning it to a particular pitch is a separate activity, though it is as well for it to be roughly in tune at this stage. Touch the string lightly just above each of the low Sa and high Sa frets and pluck it - if you are in the right place a clear harmonic should sound - keep moving your finger until you hit on it. Use this harmonic to get both the Sa frets exactly in tune with the relevant harmonic. Do the same with the Ma fret. There is a similar harmonic just above this fret. Once these frets are right, use them as reference points to get the other frets in the right place - you have to use your ears for this.

When sliding the frets up and down, try to minimise the loosening effect on the ties. By sliding the strings as well as the frets.

You also need to move some of the frets when you are playing particular raags. For example if a raag uses komal re then you will need to move the re fret down. The only frets that ever need to move to accomodate different rags are

 

Knowing when jawari is needed

After you have played sitar for a time, the vibration of the string will cut into the bridge. This makes the sound of the sitar dead and unsatisfying. The bridge will therefore need filing to restore the perfect surface. This is not a job that can be done at home.

You can check if your bridge needs jawari doing on it by simply pulling your baj string to one side. If you see the string has cut a groove into the bridge then you will know that jawari is required.

 

Chalking pegs

If your pegs start to slip then chalking them can solve the problem. Simply put chalk around the pegs where they fit into the peg holes on your sitar. It is however very important to use the right sort of chalk. Do not use ordinary blackboard chalk, because this contains wax to stop it squeaking on the board - you need carpenters chalk.

 

Polishing frets

It is important to keep your frets clean - this can make a big difference when you are playing meend. You should use fine grade wire wool to polish each fret. This is a bit easier if you loosen off some of your front strings, so that you can reach the whole of the fret. Don't loosen all the strings off at the same time unless you are confident of being able to put them back on. Once you have polished all your frets, use a soft paint brush and a vacuum cleaner to remove the small bits of wire wool.

 


Higher
Retying frets

Occasionally the string tying your frets on can work loose. This is exacerbated if you are not careful when you move your frets about. Retying frets is a bit fiddly, but it is worth learning how to do this.


The first time you do this, get a friend to help hold the fret and help you tie the knot at the end. The most important thing is to keep the string as tight as possible at every stage. You can buy special fret tying string - ordinary cotton is not strong enough - alternatively fishing line can be used.

Tying the frets is much easier if you loosen the front strings and move them out of the way first - trap them to one side of the bridge or tape them with masking tape. If you do loosen the strings make sure you know where your bridge should be positioned. It is possible, however, especially if you have someone to help, to do this job with the strings on.

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Preparing the string ready for tying.
Take a piece of fret tying string about 4 feet long. Make a tail about 6" long and make a loop in it. Hold the loop with your right hand thumb. Put the string in the slot of the fret and over the loop to trap it.   Take the string under the neck and place it in the slot on the fret on the far side. Bring the tail back and put it back into the near side slot.   Repeat until you have three strands on the right and two strands on the left.  
 
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Tying the fret on.
Now bring the tail back to make the third strand on the left. This time put the tail under the fret (not in the slot). Put the tail through the loop as shown.   Pull on the tails. You will feel the string click as it is pulled under the near side of the fret. You need to pull quite hard to get it to pull through.   Tie off the fret with several knots.