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.


Sitar Buying Tips — 3 Comments

  1. This was posted a long time ago, but since it may help someone else i’ll leave a reply. If your sitar is from a reputable maker then you are guaranteed some level of quality (more expensive doesn’t always equal better, and even well known makers don’t get it right 100% of the time!). If you’re unsure of the maker or if it’s just an inexpensive one of unknown origin, then the chances of you getting an instrument that sounds awful or is worse completely unplayable, goes up exponentially. I made the mistake of buying an instrument from a very well known maker in delhi, only to find out when i got home that it had been damaged and repaired…and it sounded crappy and un-inspiring. i have to have an instrument that sounds exceptional, a pretty sitar (heavily decorated) doesn’t always mean it’s good either. of course if you can find a sitar that’s beautiful and has great sound then you’ve totally scored! Vilayat Khan sitars, which i personally prefer, aren’t usually very ornately decorated. i like this though, they can be beautiful in their simplicity. however, the VK style only has 6 strings, so the top peg is really there to provide aesthetic rather than functional symmetry. the ravi shankar style, however has 7 strings. they do sound different from one another. a vilayat khan sounds less buzzy and more “crisp?” if that makes any sense. listen to ustad vilayat khan play a raga and compare that to the sound of ravi shankar’s sitar. that’ll give you an idea of the sound difference. some people say they can’t hear much of a difference but i can. so when it comes down to it if an instrument sounds horrible, then it may be unsalvageable. if it wasn’t too expensive then it’s not too much of a loss…but completely frustrating all the same. if you decide to purchase a sitar in the future, then buy from someone in the us or europe (i recommend rain city sitars in the us). i’ll use rain city as an example…let the owner know what you want, sound wise VK or RV? and let them know how much money you want to spend, and what level of playing you want to achieve. if you play only occasionally then there’s no need to buy the most expensive sitar out there. but do realize a quality instrument from a known maker is going to cost a bit more, however you have an instrument that’ll last you a lifetime. the owner at rain city will even play the sitar for you! so you know what you’re getting beforehand. this is the sign of someone who isn’t trying to cheat you, Lars at rain city makes sure you don’t get a lemon. his website also has great information on sitars (how to tell a well made sitar from a not so good one). so there it is. hope this helps someone. there’s a million sitars out there and i had to learn the hard way a couple of times. so definitely do some shopping around, and if the seller is really good they should have no problem playing a potential instrument for you. namaste and good luck!

  2. HI, my question is that my sitar a V.Kahn sitar looks ok , feels ok but the sound is not ok. I bought it second hand and it really doesnt sound well, more like a guitar sound, there is no resonation, would it help to put on new strings and could I add a 7 th main string to have more resonation when playing , what seize of strings must this be, do i tune it in C sharp ? Could I use R.Shankar strings as well on my sitar ?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

HTML tags allowed in your comment: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>