Equal Tempered Sitar

In addition to studying Hindustani classical sitar, and sort of playing it when I play solo at yoga classes, I also play at a fair amount of Kirtans, both locally in Boulder, CO but also a music/yoga festivals.

The sitar is tuned in just intonation as are most Indian instruments. Two notes in any just interval are members of the same harmonic series. To the ear, the intervals are very pure and there is no ‘beating’ between any two notes when played together. 

Prior to the invention of the ‘well-tempered’ clavier in Bach’s time, most if not all music used just intonation. However, this prevents key changes which ‘well’ or equal temperated solved. In equal temperament, an octave is divided into 12 equal intervals, each the 12th root of 2 apart. While the intervals are not perfect, since they don’t follow any harmonic series, and many intervals have noticeable “beats” when played together, this allows the musician to play in any key, without one key sounding worse than any other. Playing a melody or chord in the key of ‘C’ for example, sounds the same as the same melody or chord in another key, say F#, though obviously higher. Looked at another way, an interval of a 3rd in the key of ‘C’, the note ‘E’, is the same ‘E’ as the 2nd interval in the key of ‘D’. This may appear obvious, but in just intonation, a root note is recognized, say ‘C’ as in the example above and the 3rd is still ‘E’ and has a certain frequency. However if the root note is ‘D’, and the instrument is not retuned, then the 2nd interval has a different frequency than the ‘E’ in the key of ‘C’. This Wiki link explains it better than I can.

Since most Kirtan leaders use a harmonium or a guitar, both equal temperated instruments, a just intonation instrument like the sitar, or sarod can sound out of tune, particularly if the song is in a different root key than the instrument is tuned to. I tune my sitar to a root note (Sa) of ‘D’ and when playing in the Western key of D it sounds pretty in tuner. When playing in another key, such as ‘C’ or ‘G’, some notes can sound quite out of tune.

I brought up this problem to my friend and sitar player extraordinaire Ashwin Bastish and he showed me a sitar that was equal tempered and more or less chromatic. He explained that Bollywood sitarists have instruments like this to play in different keys.

His sitar had two modifications. The first was the addition of the komal (flat) Re and komal Dha frets, which are normally not present on the sitar. If a raga uses either of these notes, the suddah (normal or natural) Re and/or Dha frets are slid down into the komal position. The second modification moved the frets into equal tempered intervals. 

I took one of my sitars and made the same modifications, though I think his sitar also had additional frets in the upper register but I did not add these. I only added the komal Re and komal Dha frets which makes the sitar chromatic on the top or Baj string from the 4th (Ma) to the upper (Sa) or 1 1/2 octaves. The second (Jure or Jora) string is only really in tune for a fifth or sixth above its open note of Sa.

I also adjusted the fret positions using a chromatic tuner to an equal tempered scale which allows me to play in any key. While it sounds out of tune to me if playing solo in the Hindustani style, it sounds much better in Kirtan. This also allows me to tune on stage using a guitar tuner which is very convenient. I avoid the chikari and drone strings when playing in a key where those are ‘bad’ intervals. For example, in the key of ‘A’, the ‘D’ jora string and the two ‘D’ chikari strings are 4ths in the key of ‘A’ and generally don’t sound good.

When I first made this modification, I was frequently hitting wrong notes. I found that when the visual reference of the gap between the Sa and Re frets and the Pa and Dha frets was filled with another fret, I was getting ‘lost’. I’m sure a more experienced player would not have this problem but it showed that I was using this gap to find my way around. I also knew this because of similar mistakes when playing a raga with komal Re and/or Dha.

To solve this problem, I used dark stain to color the threads holding the komal Re and Dha frets on, which makes them much less visible. I also added white dots on the side of the neck as “fret markers’ on the Sa, Ga and Pa frets. With these changes, I make fever mistakes, and only occasionally, particularly when playing in a “difficult’ key, look at the neck and have to pause for a second to see where I am.