Wanna buy a (new) sitar ?
How to check a sitar thoroughly before you eventually buy it ? Here are some practical tips:
1) Listen carefully. Tune the sitar nicely. Listen carefully and judge the sound. Do you like it ? Pay attention to the bass strings. Speak out what bothers you !! But realise that concerning a new sitar the sound will evoluate and can vary according to the sitar’s musical life. It is absolutely necessary to play a lot before a sitar starts “opening” and the full soundpotential is revealed.
2). Check the frets positions. The frets (pardas) of a sitar are moveable. When perfectly in tune, check all the frets actual positions by simply playing the notes on the fret one by one. If the note is not correct, then adjust this fret’s position and have a close look on the neck’s side to make sure that the fret’s binding wire is not coming too close to the nearest tuning peg. If the sitar is well-made the frets binding wires should be located in the middle between 2 tuning pegs. Also check if the fret’s bindings are loose?
3). Measure the action. When in tune, check the height between the main playing string and the fret which is positioned closest to the bridge. This should be about 8 – 11 mm (about the thickness of your forefingers point). If this is more, then leave the sitar. There will be a problem with the neck or with the joint.
4). Play meend. When in tune, and only with a positive check of point 3) play full meend (gliding tone) on all the frets. Listen carefully and try to check that the playing string is never touching the fret adjacent to the one you are pulling meend on !!
5). Intonation check. When perfectly in tune, check the other main strings intonation. Specially the second (jora) string might not be sounding at the right pitch when playing the note by just hitting the fret (no meend). Very frequently you might notice a slightly lower pitch. This can be put right by playing some meend on the fret. But if the actual pitch sounds too high, then the note is not adjustable and thus unplayable…
6). Tuning pegs. Try out all the tuning pegs. Check if they are running smooth and don’t get stuck after a short turn. In case of doubt, take out the tuning peg and check if it is nicely round and perfectly straight.
7). Solid test. Knock on the soundboard with the back of your forefinger (your knocks?) and listen carefully to check if the soundboard, or other parts, are solid and well glued. You should hear a clear response. When something is loose you will hear a rather dull or even buzzing sound. Try to find out where it comes from. Discuss it with the salesman. Also knock on the tumba (pumpkin) to try to detect some loose parts, cracks or some more thinner regions. The sound should be equal everywhere on the tumba.
8). Watch the joint. Check the joint. This is the region on the back of the sitar where the neck is meeting the piece of wood which holds the tumba. No gap, or even no crack should be seen there !! This is a weak point on many sitars.
9). Heavy sitar. Check the overall weight of the instrument. It should not be too heavy, but also not too light…
Difficult to judge for you, but maybe try to compare with other sitars in the shop ?
10). Neck bending? When in tune, also have a look along the neck’s lenght to see if the neck is not bending too much. Also this is rather difficult to judge for an unexperienced potential buyer. Let’s say that a common eye should have the impression that the neck is nicely straight. While in reality it will be bending a very little bit. So, if you can discover a “noticeable” bending of the neck, then be carefull !!
After all, and very important, please take your time to check all these points. Don’t hesitate to ask questions about things you are still unsure of. I guess that the shopkeeper will be impressed about your extended and severe checking and might be reconsidering to try to sell you a bad instrument …?? Talk to the man, and watch his behaviour and listen to his explanation(s)…
It is very difficult to judge if it will be a good sitar or not. So, if in doubt, discuss, and try to lower the price. Like this one can feel better if it turns out to be a bad instrument, and then it might be possible to resell it for what it’s really worth.
If you really want to minimize the risk, then always go to a shop yourself. Buying a sitar online, with only a good looking picture and dito description on a fancy internet shop is often looking for trouble. Sitars are always handmade and the overall quality varies too much. They are also very fragile. Unless you invest in a good fiber case, shipping a sitar by air or sea will almost always end up with a broken tumba (pumpkin) on arrival and / or broken kutis (tuning pegs), or even worse… Inform yourself about the handling of these risks before you buy.