With a sitar comes many technical challenges that must be mastered in order to keep the instrument in good condition. Maintenance requires courage and ritualistic commitment—you will bleed, but you will come away a deeper understanding of what your instrument needs to sound its best. It is an important part of the practice, and will lead to a better understanding of how to achieve the best sound from your instrument. Here are the rules.
1. Respect Your Instrument
If you think that you can throw your sitar in your closet for weeks at a time (in a case or not) or hang it on a wall and then pick it up every now and then for a strum and it will sound great, you are kidding yourself. The average instrument, with it’s 17-19 strings, takes time to tune. The wood is particularly sensitive to the humidity and temperature and over time the pegs tend to slip. The strings, made of raw steel and phosphor bronze wire can succumb to rust and corrosion if not regularly played and/or cleaned. The frets can tarnish causing squeaks when the strings are pulled across them, and they can become loose.
If you want the instrument to give you its true voice, you must show it respect and care on a regular basis. You must see your instrument as a living thing, born of sweat and intricate craftsmanship with a single purpose of making music. Tuning and playing are the best forms of devotion. Otherwise weekly cleaning is the way to go.
Alright I’m going to come out and say it: wash your hands before picking up the instrument. It is going to collect dirt, dust and oil from you no matter what, you should at least keep the possibility of soiling your sitar to a minimum. Do not play with shoes on. It might sound weird to some, but you would never step on a fine guitar or a cello. The sitar is played resting against the left foot. Resting it against your shoe is just as obscene as resting anything or anyone you care about against the bottom of your shoe. It’s gross and your instrument will never open up to you if you do it. The more care and attention you give it, the more your sitar will give back to you.
2. Don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty
Playing the sitar is but one aspect of the life-long journey that sitarists undertake. You must not only know how to tune the instrument (which takes quite a bit of practice), but how to change the strings—ALL of them, not just the 6 or 7 easily accessible ones that run along the top. You need to know how to tie the frets. You should even be familiar (and even try your hand at) the very delicate business of filing the bridge—known as jawari.
The reason all these skills are necessary is that when things go wrong or need repair, you will likely be thousands of miles from anyone who could fix your sitar for you. Being able to make minor fixes is not difficult, but it does require some practice.
Unlike guitars and violins, sitar strings do not come in ready-made packs that you can simply slot into your instrument. There are some string makers out there who sell sitar string sets, but they are so expensive, and based on how often some strings need to be replaced, they’re just not worth it. It’s much better to invest in coils of music wire in the proper gauges.
There are many music stores and online resources for buying coils of music wire. It is usually cheapest to buy these online. One of my favorite sites is The Instrument Workshop, as they have quality phosphor bronze coils at reasonable prices. The cool thing about coils is you only need to buy them once a decade, as they contain quite a lot of wire. To keep them fresh, place them in a sealed pouch with some dry, raw white rice (preferably in a mesh bag), to keep the moisture away.
The wire for the main string, chikari and sympathetic strings are steel music wire, while phosphor bronze is used for the Jora (second) Laraj and Kharaj (3rd and 4th) strings. You cut the wire to the length you need and then tie a loop to one end to attach to the tailpiece (which holds the strings at the base of the instrument). The loop is simple, but the sharp ends of the freshly cut wire will cut you from time to time. Think of the blood you spill as a tiny sacrifice to making better music.
The sympathetic strings are a little trickier because you need to pull the string though the eyelets in the neck and then out through the peg hole in order to attach them to the pegs. A simple metal hook can be used to pull these strings through (I use a large paperclip that I’ve straightened out and made a small hook at the end). There are many resources online for instructions on making loops and changing strings. Here are a few online tutorials:
The frets are prone to tarnishing if not played regularly. You can polish them with metal polish, though a rubbing them down with the ultra-fine steel wool will also do the trick. Shiny frets will allow for smooth meends (pulling of the string).
Fret tying is an important skill as the frets tend to come loose over time and will eventually need to be retied. Here is a great little video on how to tie the frets.
I use a different method where I start with a knotted loop in the string and attach that to the fret first and loop around the neck. Its basically the same method as above, but allows me not to have to hold the loop in place while keeping tension on the thread. Fret tying is not easy, but once you figure out the method that works best for you, and you do a few rounds of tying an entire sitar, it gets easier. It’s not the most crucial skill to have, but it will save you in the off-chance a fret comes loose.
The most common occurrence with the bridge is that it might shift from it’s placement on the tabli (the sitar face). You can usually find impressions on the tabli indicating where the legs of the bridge are supposed to be. Some musicians use a tiny amount of glue, or a mixture of clear nail polish and nail polish remover (in a two-to-1 ratio) to secure the bridge in place. Even moving it a millimeter out of place can effect the sound, so having it secure is important.
The most difficult adjustment to the sitar is by far the filing of the bridge (known as jawari). The jawari should need maintenance every 4 months or so, depending on how much you play. This is best left to a sitar maker or experienced sitar repair expert. There are several online guides for this, but it is not for the faint of heart. The jawari demands a subtle parabolic curve across the face of the bridge that allows for an even sound no matter where the string is fretted. The slightest change in the curvature of the bridge surface can have a huge impact on the sound of the sitar. Plus, you can have the jawari adjusted to be more open (buzzy) or closed (less buzzy), but there are many intervals between these two options.
As a newbie, you will lack the skill to get this right, but if you can begin to learn the process somehow, filing your own jawari and being able to adjust the sound to your liking is a huge advantage. One way to get the idea of the process is to take an old bridge with worn grooves in it and file it, carefully following the curve, until the grooves disappear, and then filing the back side a bit more to close off the sound. Here are a few online guides:
In the end, having an instrument that is in good shape, that sounds good will only encourage you to play it more. You just have to be willing to get in there and fix things when they need attention. Of course the more often the sitar is played, the less you will need to make major adjustments. It all may seem overwhelming, but like all aspects of the music, the more you practice these concepts, the more natural they become. You just have to keep working on it.