Sitar, Tambura, Esraj, Tabla
by Gregg Miner, as part of


The Little Drummer Boy
(Katherine Davis, Henry Onorati, Harry Simeone, 1958) EMI Mills Music, Inc. & International Korwin Corp.


Sitar - India

- India

Esraj - India

Tabla - India (owned and played by M. B. Gordy)


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Disclaimer to Internet readers:  The following text is a humorous essay written for the layperson. It originally appeared in a companion booklet to my 1995 Christmas Collection CDs. The information, while factual, is presented in a personal, unorthodox manner. No offense is intended toward my fellow musicians or fellow musicologists.

OK – let’s see a show of hands – how many of you out there listen to Indian sitar music? . . . that’s what I thought. Yet the sitar is probably the most recognizable of all exotic stringed instruments to Westerners – this huge red thing with a gourd body and a large flat neck, with inlay and carving and strings all over it – a singular conversation piece for your office or den. But let’s face it – Indian music is something of an acquired taste. I, for one, just can’t seem to fathom their strict system of ragas (melodic scales or modes) and talas (rhythm structure), over which they improvise at great length. And this is their classical music!

So you can imagine the challenge of “Westernizing” this instrument, let alone fitting it into a Christmas album! But actually, that was the fun part – learning it was another matter. It’s not just that the sitar is difficult to play, but that at my age it’s physically impossible to get down into that cross-legged position on the floor, holding the base of the instrument with the sole of my bare left foot. The sitar is several centuries old, its name meaning “three” (si) “string” (tar) - which is absurd since as long as anyone can remember it’s had about a zillion strings. More precisely, it typically has four main melody strings (tuned C,G,c,f), plus three chikara “drone” strings (c”,c’,g) which lie off the neck. The chikara are periodically strummed between pauses in the melody with a special wire plectrum on the index finger (I strum the lower melody strings also). In addition, under the main strings are eleven or more sympathetic strings, tuned to the raga (scale) of the piece, creating an unusual resonance (they are also strummed once at the opening and close of the piece). The wide, delicately calibrated bone bridges supporting the two sets of strings cause the “buzzing” effect, the essential ingredient of the sitar’s sound. The body is still made from a large gourd, which is quite fragile, I have to say (don’t ask).

Similar to the sitar in appearance is the tambura (or tanpura), a simple drone instrument with only four strings and no frets. This the largest version, normally used for male vocal accompaniment. The tuning is usually C,c,c,G, the open strings continuously plucked in a repeating pattern. Bits of thread placed under the strings at the bridge are strategically fine-tuned to provide the maximum amount of “buzz” which creates subtle but wonderful oscillating overtones, the vital background element of Indian music (not unlike our own modern synthesizer effects).

Moving into stranger territory, the esraj is not one of India’s several bowed fiddles, but, rather, a sort of bowed sitar – with the same frets, melody strings, and sympathetic strings. It is played upright in the lap and has a skin or parchment belly stretched over a carved-out wooden body. The skin head gives it a banjo-y flavor, while the fifteen sympathetic strings resonate like crazy, even more so than the sitar. Using the same sitar technique of pulling the strings sideways to “bend” the notes to assorted intervals and adding the bowing action thus gives a sound one would expect if a banjo were played with a bow while fretting with a slide bar in a deep cave. Unearthly!

An indispensable component of Indian classical music are the tabla – the plural form for a pair of drums consisting of the baya, a low-pitched metal drum, and the tabla, a taller wooden drum tuned to the tonic note of the instruments. I neither own them nor would presume to play them, for they are an art unto themselves. With ingenious multi-membrane heads, a seemingly limitless repertoire of sounds can be obtained, while exceedingly complex rhythms can be created. I engaged the services of percussionist extraordinaire, M. B. Gordy, who, in his delightful portrayal of “the little tabla boy,” became the star of this piece.


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