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2013
09.07

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.

Strings

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.

Here is a handy chart with the proper gauges of music wire.

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:

http://www.aacmstore.org/index.php?main_page=page&id=40

Frets

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 Bridge

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.

The sitar bridge, and accompanying taraf bridge. Notice they are flat with a slight curve from front to back.

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:

Jawari

Repeat

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.

Happy pluckin!

37 comments so far

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  1. Thanks for the info! I purchases a sitar about a year ago and have been taking lessons from an instructor in Houston. My problem has been with the strings. He gave me some strings. However, they do not seem to be measured in gauges, but in numbers (32, 34, etc.) Another challenge has been in the different types of stringing. He strings his with just six strings, leaving the top peg without a string. Anyways, I will probably order some strings from the site you listed and string it in that order. Keep posting!

    • Congrats on your new sitar. For the 6 string version (this is Vilhayat Khan Style), you would use 0.016 gauge phosphor bronze wire for the second and third strings, and .012 (or #3) steel wire for the 1st and 4th string. Your teacher should be able to show you the proper tuning. I’ve found this style of instrument usually sounds best tuned to a key of D. If you want to tune your instrument in Ravi Shankar style, there are tuning charts online.

      I haven’t come across wire gauges labeled in those sizes you mention, but I tune my instrument (Ravi Shankar style) like this, starting with the main string (baj or nayaki):

      1. steel .012 (#3)
      2. pb (phosphor bronze) .016
      3. Pb .0215
      4. Pb .028
      Chikari:
      5. steel .012 (#3)
      6. steel .010 (#1)
      7. steel .010 (#1)
      and then all tarafs (sympathetic strings) in steel .010 (#1)

      I’m using higher gauges on the chikari and tarafs then most, but I find the sound is better. I’m also tuning my instrument to D. Most tuning charts for some reason tune the instrument to C which is usually too low for most modern instruments. I would see how it sounds at C# at least.

  2. Hi Andrew! Great page with some fantastic advice. Can I ask a question though? I’ve had my sitar since October and I’ve only just snapped a string. Should I swap all the strings on the sitar for new ones (I’ve read this is quite daunting) and do some loving maintenance on the frets while I’m at it or just change the one snapped string?

    • Hi Craig, you should only need to change the one string but be prepared for others to break as time goes on. I usually do a full re-stringing once a year, and that’s after playing several hours a day. Along the way strings break now and then and I replace them as needed. If I need to file the jawari (which depending on the bridge material I will do once or twice a year) I will change the top 7 strings before doing that. It will always sound better with new strings, but so long as you keep them clean and avoid rust and tarnish, they should be fine. Also note that after changing all strings the sitar will take a few days to stay in tune as the strings will need time to settle. The most common strings to snap are the main steel string (Ma string) and the Jora or second bronze string (Sa).

  3. Hi Andrew,
    Me again haha. Since I live out in rural Scotland without direct access to sitar things my plan was to fill a toolbox with anything and everything I could need (string spools, pegs, chalk, coconut oil, tuning beads and swans, chikari posts and bridges) but when I had a look at the instrument workshop.com as you recommended for strings I couldn’t find the correct gauge of Phosphor Bronze strings for instance you recommend 0.0215 but they only stock 0.0225 I know it’s a small difference but would that still be okay? I’m sorry to be a bother but you’re blog is one of the few places I can get questions asked.

    Thanks Andrew

    Craig

    Ps also if I’ve forgetting anything else that could go in the toolbox of backup and maintenance things please let me know. All advice is gratefully appreciated.

  4. Hi

    I am a novice sitar player from Florida. I have been playing and practicing for about an hour a day for about 3 months, and I am beginning to notice a groove cut into the jawari. I cannot afford to buy several jawari to practice on, as they are quite expensive, and I am afraid of ruining the jawari I have now. I have sandpaper, a Dremmel tool and several knives and files, but having never filed a jawari down I have no idea where to start (I read the article on Buckingham Music).

    I was just wondering, is there was any way I could send it off to a craftsman or music shop to have t professionally filed? I’m assuming the answer is “no”, but I figured it wouldn’t hurt to ask.

    Sincerely, Brock

    • Hi Brock,
      It would be better to send the entire instrument, as the jawariwalla would need to test the string sound as he works. Jawari’s are typically filed with a wide flat file that they slowly and carefully glide lengthwise along the top surface of the bridge. As they glide it along they will also put a bot of pressure either toward the front or back of the bridge (depending on what sound they are trying to achieve) creating a subtle curve. I would advise against any use of Dremmel or power tools.

      Grooves naturally form under the strings in only a matter of days. The key is how is the sound? If it is super-buzzy then its time for jawari work. If not, I wouldn’t sweat it until the sound gets buzzier then you wish. Also, you can cut a slot to the right of the slot on the back of the bridge that supports the main string. This way, when the jawari wears out under the main string, you can shift it over for a fresh start. I have 3 to 4 extra slots cut in my bridges for the main string. These may reduce your meend range, but the change is slight and I rarely notice. You can cut this yourself VERY carefully with a razor saw, making sure you don’t cut into the face of the bridge.

      These days, I will do my own jawari, being careful to follow the existing curve with a file or flat sanding block until the grooves on my bridge are gone. This usually works, with possibly a slight tweak needed to restore the sound. The smallest amount of filing will have a big impact, so it takes a steady hand. Hope this helps!

  5. keep it coming chaps, I’m reading and learning. Now I’m a lot more confidant with my sitar when tweeking and fixing.even though it’s about forty years old. I might even have a go at that there bridge fixing thingy.regards Paddy.

  6. Is there any way to hang a sitar on a wall for easy access and storage? I can’t seem to find anything to do that. Thanks! 🙂

    • There are no real hangers for sitars like there are for guitars, mainly because there is no flange on the headstock for this type of mounting, but with a little elbow grease you can modify a guitar hanger/wall mount by bending the yolk to make it wide enough to accommodate the sitar neck. Another DIY option is to mount a coat hook or other strong hook into the wall, and ten wrap a thick wire around two of the main pegs and use that as a loop to hang it from the hook. Either way, it will put some pressure on the pegs and it’s not the ideal way to store your instrument.

      • Thanks much! We will look for another solution. 🙂

  7. Hi Andrew,
    I found this website very helpful and encouraging, I play sitar since I was 11, now I’m 26 and in the last 3 years I started to study more seriously and became very interested in matter of instrument maintenance.
    I have a few question, for you.

    First one: what should I espect from changing the gauge of the taraf strings from 0.009″ to 0.010″ wich you said suitable for VK style? I have an half closed jawari, between Nikhil Banerjee style and VK, and very loud sympathetic response 0.009, with very sweet sound. In your opinion a thicker string sounds better?

    Second one: with C# tuning i can pull a fifth from sa fret and lower to pa, with some difficulties, but On higher frets i cannot reach a full fifth (just a few microtones below ) due to the bridge position on the tabli, wich is very central and the Ma string slots, i have not enough space to pull the string as i will.
    Here comes the question: if I saw another slot about 3 milli eters backward the first Ma slot, I would gain the little pulling capacity I need on the main string? I have enough space between Ma and Jora.
    It would be influent in your opinion?

    I’m Italian, so, if something is wrong or not clear in my english expression, please, ask me and I’ll try to give you the better explainantions I can.
    For now, thank you very much for this website, go on!
    Greetings from Verona!
    Ciao!

    • Dejan,
      Changing the gauge of the taraf strings is really a matter of taste and may offer varying results on different instruments. For example, I have a Hemen sitar (Ravi Shankar style) that is made of teak and is a bit heavy. The tarafs at .009 gauge were very responsive, though not very loud. I switched to .010 gauge and the response was a bit less–meaning it took more time before the strings would respond (attack), but they were louder and cleaner sounding (less buzzy). I attribute this mostly to the fact that larger gauge strings will initially have a more closed jawari (rest more heavily on the bridge). One advantage to the thicker strings is they last a bit longer and break a bit less easily. On the other hand, I have another much older instrument that is much lighter and have decided to stay with .009 gauge tarafs on it to avoid any excess strain on the neck. So you may want to feel it out. My guruji actually uses wire of different gauges on his tarafs—.010 for the the lowest, longest ones, and .009 for the higher pitched ones.

      As for your second question, sawing an additional slot for the main string is a good option to increase meend, so long as there’s enough space between the Ma and Jora strings. I have done this on one of my instruments and it definitely increased my meend range. You will need the proper razor saw to cut this slot, and be careful not to twist at all when cutting it, as you can easily break the rail on the back of the bridge that the slots are cut into. Also be careful not to saw into the plane of the bridge.

      Another approach is to try shifting the entire bridge towards the left side of the tabli. Some players have repositioned the nut that holds the strings so that the resting place of the bridge is more to the left of center. These are just a few options.

      Good luck!

      • Thank you very much!!
        I’ve recently done all these cutting operations, and the meend range has increased of 1 note, so i can now reach the fifth!
        Taraf srings were already a .010 gauge, if i measured well, so i cleaned up the bridge and now i have a more stable and equal response on the whole octave.
        I’m so happy to perform instrument maintenance by myself, with some time and practice it becomes less odd, and i discover more and more things about my sitar.

        This eve with a lot patience, I’m going to fix my surbahar bridge on the tabli surface!

        Thanks Andrew!

  8. Hello

    Could you give a chart of the proper notes for each string including sympathetic strings for tuning a sitar in the key of D, with western notes?

    • There are many charts online that offer the Western notes for tuning the sitar. Here’s one: http://www.buckinghammusic.com/sitar/sittut/tune.html in a key of C#. To make it D just adjust everything a half-step higher. As for the taraf (sympathetic) strings, these are less set in stone, and change depending on the raga being played.

      I tune these to the scale of the raga, starting with the longest one tuned to the tonic (C# or D, or doe, as in a dear, or Sa as the Indian note is called), then the second longest would be one note lower (Ni, or ti in Western speak), then back to Sa for the third one, and on up the scale from there. This means the highest note I tune to for the shortest sympathetic is high Ga (or Me in western notation, or high F if I’m in a key of D). Most sitars have the pegs aligned in such a way that the third sympathetic peg from the top is right behind the Sa fret, and I tune that string to Sa. You will find that if you tune up the scale, most of these pegs should tune to the note of the fret just below it (if you were fretting the main string). In other words, I tune the fifth sympathetic (or fifth longest) to the note of Ga, and it happens to fall between the frets for flat and natural Ga.

      You will notice that with my tuning configuration there is an extra string in the middle as there are pegs under each Ma (Fa in Western notation, of G if in a key of D) fret. I either tune with two Mas, or if the raga has more than seven notes in the scale I’ll use the extra string to tune to the notes I need. Many ragas have both the natural and sharp or flatted versions of certain notes, so its useful to have an additiona string to tune to those.

      Anyway, hope this helpful.

  9. Dear friend please advice me about the actul callous mark positon that has to be made on left index finger. I HAVE A CONFUSION ABOUT THIS

    REGARDS

    • Hmmm. Callouses will form on your fingers with practice, but there is not to my knowledge a specific position. Rather they may vary depending on the player. The main thing is that you want to feel that you have a good amount of flexibility and stability where your fingers meet the string. If the string is slipping out from under your fingers, you may want to adjust your grip a bit. These marks form on their own, and often I notice a second mark forming right behind the first on both my index and middle fingers on my left hand. I personally like being able to switch from one groove to another, but I’ve spoken to some musicians who hate it when a second grove forms and will file their callouses off and start over when this happens (yikes!). I’ve also heard of some players who have three grooves (or more). You just want to make sure you can grip the string steadily and that you have dexterity for proper meend.

  10. Hi, it’s Brock B again.

    My sitar I purchased was a Banjira. It shows signs of poor craftsmanship and the sound quality is definitely not on par with a higher end model. Who is a maker that you would recommend in the $750 – $1000 range?

    • Hi Brock,
      So it is hard to say what makers to look for in the $750-1000 range as by the time they get to the US they tend to be more expensive. Manoj Kumar Sardar or P. and Brothers come to mind, however these can range between $1000-2000 for a good one. In India most good makers can make you a top-notch instrument for $700-1000. Best bet is to look for older models or used ones on Ebay with maker labels, or check out http://www.raincitymusic.com/sitar.htm as they usually have a good selection online.

  11. Is there some place where I can send my Sitar to for repair/ restringing ?

  12. Hello Andrew.. I have a Radha Krishna Shrama Medium grade sitar and i used for practice in the USA. I bought it for $250 in India and it sounds OK. But, all the time i play it, i wish i had access to a good grade Sitar. I spoke to Barun Roy and he said he can make me one in $700, but has asked for 12 months of making time. I also spoke to others, like Mangal Prasad etc..who recommend a timeline of 3 months.. I am visting india in few weeks.. do you think, i can also look for used ones? or should i always prefer to buy a Prof.Sitar from the excellent craft maker .
    I need a real good one. Do not want to compromise on the price, but empahsis is on the qlty.

    • Hi Kiran,
      I’m not surprised Barunji would have a 12-month wait. Hiren Roy is the most famous maker still in existence in India, so I imagine they have a back log of instrument orders. 3-6 months is the usual wait time for a custom instrument. Finding a used instrument is difficult in India, as most shops only carry new instruments, and these tend to be less desirable (if they were perfect sitars they would have been sold). However, if you are in Calcutta there are many makers there and you should definitely go to as many shops as you can and play as many sitars as you can. You’l know right away if it is better than your current ax. I also wouldn’t judge your RKS sitar too much. My first sitar was an RKS #2 model that I purchased back in the mid-nineties and it rivals many of the new sitars I’ve played recently. I’ve held on to it as a travel practice instrument. You might consider bringing it with you and having someone file the jawari and change the strings for you while your in India. Most of the makers there can do this kind of work, and sometimes they can make adjustments to improve the sound as well.

      Good luck!

  13. Hello Andrew.. me again. Since, i am determined to buy a new Sitar of better qlty. I am little confused whether to sell it or keep my current instrument Radha Krishna Sharma for myself. Becoz, I heard that as sitar ages it sounds good. But, also, I am little concerned that i may not use it and it will be allowed to dust and rust. What do you think is the ideal thing to do. Just to be more aware, what should we do, when you upgrade for new Sitar’s?

    • It is true that sitars improve with age, but they do require lots of maintenance. Most professionals I know stick with a single instrument and get to know it well, however there is an advantage to having more than one as it can be a backup in case one needs repair or maintenance. It is more a matter of what your budget is and if you have space to store it. If you keep a spare sitar in a nice case, it shouldn’t get too rusty.

  14. Hi Andrew, wonderful page! Thanks for the resources. A simple question, I just got a sitar, have been able to get the playing strings in tune and the resonant strings pretty close :), the issue is the fifth playing string — the peg just won’t hold when I tighten it. What can I do to make the peg stick?

  15. Check out the sound of it —

  16. One thing not mentioned here is the height of the main string at the twelfth fret. Most sitars in the medium price range come with a bridge that is way too high and the feet need to be sawn off and reshaped to fit the body. Makes a big difference when the gap at the twelfth fret is around 10 mm.

    • A WORD OF CAUTION: if done incorrectly, attempting jawari adjustment can lead to your instrument sounding really bad. It’s always best to have a professional do this for you. As for lowering the bridge action (shortening the legs), this can lead to the main string touching the multiple frets when playing, preventing the string from vibrating. If the action is lowered too much, you would need to carefully adjust ALL the frets (ie banging them violently with a mallet, hoping your delicate sitar doesn’t crack in half) until they are at the proper height, or shimming the bridge to raise the action once again. I once had my bridge lowered and it was a huge mistake. It sounded good the day it was done, but the following day I noticed the string catching on multiple frets making playing impossible. I ended up raising the bridge again to correct this.

  17. Here is a pdf by Brian Godden explaining the basic principals of Jawari, and bridge height adjustment.

    http://www.scribd.com/doc/7328283/Sitar-Jawari#scribd

  18. Hi Andrew,

    I have my sitar but I really want to take one to one lesson, any suggestions where I can find a great coach? By the way I live in NYC

    • Hi Sergio,
      My guru, comes to NYC in the summer months and holds group and individual classes. You can get more information at the Gurukul website.. I can also provide a primer to get you going.

  19. How much should I expect to pay for someone to restring and tune my sitar ?

    Thanks,
    Tracy

    • That’s a good question Tracy, though a bit hard to answer as it depends on who is doing it. I’ve seen music shops here in NY charge $50 for the service. I would highly recommend investing in a set of coils for your sitar and restringing yourself. Of course, this takes some skill but once learned it will save you thousands of dollars over the course of your playing. If you know of a place that can replace your strings, ask if you can watch them so you can see how it’s done. Otherwise, ask your teacher to show you. There are also several websites with detailed instructions on how to do it. Restringing a sitar is at first a daunting affair but with a little practice it becomes second-nature.

  20. I have a simple question which I can’t seem to find an answer to anywhere on the internet. I purchased an old sitar, and have just finished restringing it. Now I want to know where the frets need to be in order to produce the proper notes. I’m going to talk in terms of western notes because that’s what I’m familiar with. So let’s say my I’ve tuned my sitar to the Key of C. My main playing string is tuned to the 4th, F. So when I fret on the first fret, what note should this be? F#? G? I would like to know what note each fret is supposed to produce so that i can move the frets accordingly.

    • Each fret represents a half-step. so in your case the first fret would be F#. I typically don’t tune sitars below a key of C# because below that the strings tend to feel too wobbly and it can make the instrument sound more buzzy (Jawari too open). One thing to note is that there typically is a 1/2 step gap between the 7th and 8th frets, the 14th and 15th frets, and 17th and 18th, 19th and 20th. These gaps are where you would shift the frets (in your case the 8th fret can be shifted back to produce a B flat for example). Usually there are spaces between the sympathetic pegs to allow for the frets to slide up and down in these gaps. Some traditions have sitars with 24 frets (ie one fret per half step), but this is less common. Also note that the frets can be shifted slightly to help get the precise tuning of a particular note or microtone if necessary, unlike the set fret board of a guitar. You just want them to be secure enough that they don’t move around while playing. Good luck!

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