The premier Indian court instrument of the 17th and 18th centuries was the rudra vina, of the stick zither family, and this became the model for some of the distinctive characteristics of the Indian sitar, most notably its raised metal frets, platform bridge, and gourd resonators. Some scholars attempt to identify the sitar with the medieval tri-tantri "three-stringed" vina mentioned in Sanskrit texts, but current scholarship traces the Indian sitar to eighteenth century Delhi. Since the nineteenth century, the sitar has been one of the predominant instruments of Hindustani music. It is also used in film and other light music and in accompaniment to dance. Regional versions of the sitar are found in rural north India, Bangladesh and Pakistan.
The sitar became known in the western world through the work of Pandit Ravi Shankar beginning in the late 1950s. It became a youth phenomenon in the 60s after Beatle George Harrison took lessons from Shankar and played sitar in songs including "Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)," "The Inner Light," "Love You To," and "Within You Without You;" and the droning sympathetic strings can be heard in the background of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. The Rolling Stones also used sitar in "Paint It, Black" and the legacy of sitar in pop culture was begun. Much later, it was also used by heavy metal band Metallica for the intro to "Wherever I May Roam".
The instrument has two bridges; the main bridge (the bada goraj) for the playing and drone strings and a smaller, secondary bridge (the chota goraj) for the sympathetic strings that run beneath the main strings. The sitar may or may not have a secondary resonator, the tumba, near the top of its hollow neck. The sitar's distinctive sound is a result of the way the strings interact with the wide, sloping bridge. This is in contrast to the bridge on a guitar which resembles a knife edge. In a sitar, as a string reverberates, its length changes slightly as its edge touches the bridge, promoting the creation of overtones and giving the sound its distinctive, rich tone. The maintenance of this specific tone by shaping the bridge is called jawari. Adjusting the jawari requires great skill. Many professional musicians will rely on professional instrument makers to perform this task. For years, Ravi Shankar toured the West with his sitar maker so that the tone of his sitar was always perfectly adjusted.
The materials used in construction include teak wood or tun wood (Cedrela tuna), which is a variation of mahogany, for the neck and faceplate (tabli), and gourds for the kaddu (the main resonating chamber). The instrument's bridges are made of deer horn, ebony, or very occasionally from camel bone. Synthetic material is now common as well. More insight as to the building process of modern sitars can be found here
The tuning of a sitar varies depending on the sitarist's school or style. Generally, the main playing string is tuned to C - D# and the drone strings are tuned to the Sa note (the root of the scale) and the Pa note (the fifth degree of the scale, unless the raga being played omits the fifth degree, in which case we would tune the drone strings to the closest note below to fifth in the raga). The specific tuning for each raga is determined by tradition and each artist's personal preference. The sympathetic strings are tuned to the notes of the raga being played, although there is slight stylistic variance as to the order of these. The player will typically re-tune the sitar for each raga.
The strings are tuned by turning the tuning pegs that hold the strings. The main playing strings are fine-tuned by sliding a bead, that is fit around each string just below the bridge. The nature of the sitar's tuning pegs and its many strings, as well as the nature of Indian music theory, make it very difficult to tune.
In one or more of the more common tunings (used by Ravi Shankar, among others, called "Kharaj Pancham" sitar) the playable strings are strung in this fashion:
In a "Gandhar Pancham" (Imdadkhani, school of Vilayat Khan) sitar, the bass or kharaj strings are removed and are replaced by a fourth chikari which is tuned to Ga. By playing the chikari strings with this tuning, one produces a chord (Sa, Sa, Pa, Ga).
The sympathetic strings (taraf) are tuned depending on the raga, although for most purposes, they are tuned: Sa, Ni, Sa, Re, Ga, Ma, Pa, Pa, Dha, Ni, Sa, Re, Ga, with the last three in the upper range.
If you were to tune it to raga Kafi for example you use tune as follows: Sa, ni (lower case denotes flat or, more properly, komal) Sa, Re, ga, Ga (Shuddh or natural), considering that in Kafi you will come to Shuddh Ga when descending or "Avarohi"), ma, Pa, Dha, ni, Sa, Re, ga. In the raga Yaman Kaylan you will tune the tarif strings to Sa, Ni, Sa, Re, Ga, ma (Yaman Kaylan asks for a sharp, or tivra) Ma, but often will touch shuddh ma on the descent or "Avarohi"), La, Da, Dna, Pi, Rho, Sig, Ja. Once more, however, there is a lot of stylistic variance within these tunings. An artist will develop a particular tuning for a particular piece and it may be idiosyncratic. There is no guarantee that other musicians will choose the same tuning even if they perform an identical raga.
Traditional approaches to learning the sitar involve a long period of apprenticeship under the tutelage of a master during which the apprentice would accompany the master with a tambura, providing a drone for the sitar's melody. Nowadays it is possible to purchase books and videos to assist home learning.
The Batish Institute of Indian Music and Fine Arts in Santa Cruz, California, USA, has produced a number of video tutors for the sitar. The reader is directed to a link on the Batish site for a growing bibliography of some of these videos and books. Also available are advanced training videos through Rain City Music.
Learning to play the sitar is a difficult process. The entire 3-octave range of the instrument is achieved by sliding the index finger of the left hand up and down the neck of the sitar over a single melody string, while the mizrab on the index finger of the right hand strikes the string. Thus it demands a very high degree of technical mastery to play even simple melodies with clarity and accuracy. It is also a rather painful process for the beginner until the hard calluses and black grooves on the tips of the index and middle finger, which typify the sitar player, begin to develop. A specialized technique called "meend" involves pulling the main melody string down over the bottom portion of the sitar's curved frets, with which the sitarist can achieve a 7 semitone range of microtonal notes.