I created this page because there have been some recent innovations to this very old instrument, and it's almost impossible to find any information about the changes. Although electric pick-ups have been installed in acoustic sitars for quite some time, only recently has this been combined with making sitars with a flat back instead of the traditional bulging gourd. This change might sound minor, but it opens up the acoustic-electric sitar to Western players in a way that was never before possible, and I am eager to encourage others who are of the experimental nature.

Qualifier: If your interest is the traditional Indian approach to playing sitar, this page is NOT for you. I don't pretend to know much about traditional styles and am unqualified to advise anyone on the matter.

HOWEVER, if you are looking for more of a fusion approach to creating modal music - particularly if you already play open-tuned guitar - READ ON. You might find that acoustic-electric flat back sitar adds just the color you need to help your sound leap to new levels of expression.

Enjoy! - Carter, www.LCarter.Com

I experiment quite a bit with instruments, and I'm attracted to East-West fusion music, so it's not surprising that I've wanted a sitar for a long time. Unfortunately, the less expensive acoustic sitars sold on the internet are more likely tourist-level wall hangings than playable instruments and, being on limited income, I simply couldn't afford a really good acoustic sitar. Acoustic-electric sitar, however, sounded like an option I could afford. After much hesitation and research, I took the plunge and purchased this instrument made by Bhargava & Co. of Mumbai, India. I like it!

This review provides my answers to questions I couldn't get answers to, so please bear in mind that these are just my little opinions.

1) How does it sound?
When played acoustically, the smaller resonance chamber provides little more than something to practice on. (Think of how those skinny acoustic-electric guitars sound when not plugged in.) HOWEVER, when plugged in it sounds good for my purposes, and if I ever decide to record I'll probably put a condensor microphone on it and mix that with the pick-up. I run the line through a compressor and reverb for more body & sustain, then adjust the EQ to fit my tastes. It doesn't have the full resonance it should from the sympathetic strings, but that might be a matter of doing finer adjustments to the jawari (the "buzz bridge"). As with almost any new sitar purchased, the challenge of getting the jawari just right is an art. (See HERE for suggestions on how to do it.) Buying one with dual pick-ups rather than a single one is also a good idea. Additional adjustments are also probably needed to get the frets better aligned.

2) How much do they cost?
Entry level for an acoustic-electric is around $350-$400. They are available for less on eBay straight from India, but some feedback says the instruments have arrived damaged and the guarantee doesn't cover shipping costs to get it back to India. I bought mine from www.InstrumentalSavings.Com for $358,shipping included.

3) Can you play it standing up - like a guitar?
YES! Now you're getting it. The traditional sitar has a gourd at the bottom, and it extends back so far that the only way to play it is sitting down in some kind of yoga position. Great if you're into that sort of thing, but terrible if you're not. The flat back acoutic-electric sitar eliminates the problem. I attached a guitar strap to the pick-up and to a string around the neck about halfway up the fingerboard. It puts the sitar in a perfect position and lets me play it Western style.

4) Do you use traditional tuning?
I'm currently choosing to not use standard tuning. Like guitar, there are a variety of alternative tunings to choose from besides just standard. I use an open tuning that is familiar to me from open-tuned guitar & cittern so I don't have to re-orient myself to the fretboard. I do suggest open tuning since that's how the sympathetic strings resonate best, but even that is up for consideration. I'm still experimenting with tuning, but the current one I use is 5-1-5-1 in C (from low to high, G - C - G - C for the main strings).

5) What's the deal with the guitar tuners at the top?
You've probably heard how hard it is to tune a sitar. Having guitar tuners at the top instead of wooden pegs takes much of the pressure off since you are mainly playing on these four strings anyway. The wooden pegs look cool, but are NOT fun to tune. With the guitar tuners at the top, it's no harder to keep the main notes in tune than it is for guitar. By the way, you WILL need an electronic tuner for all of those sympathetic strings. When in tune, they resonate to provide the funky sustain that identifies the sitar.
6) Where are they made and what is the quality like?
All the ones I've seen are made in India. As with most lower-priced Indian instruments, the quality is not very good by Western standards. I've seen worse. It is basically playable, but you have to be forgiving of imperfections. As with almost any instrument straight from a factory, I'd suggest finding a knowledgable luthier who can do an action adjustment. Mine was WAY too high.

7) What kind of wood are they made out of?
All the ones I've seen are made from either teak or dun, and I don't really know which is better. According to the internet, teak lasts longer but also takes longer to develop its best tone, whereas tun gives a better sound at the outset but doesn't last as long. I suspect the bottom line has more to do with how well-seasoned the wood is, the quality of the particular cuts, and the quality of the craftsmanship.

8) Do they fit in a guitar gig bag?
YES! And that's great because the case I got with it is awful - a heavy box that is way too big for the instrument and has no padding, resulting in the sitar banging around inside. Using guitar tuners in the top means the instrument is slightly shorter and there aren't any wooden pegs sticking up so it is close to guitar length. It probably wouldn't fit in a guitar case, but I haven't tried it yet. For extra padding, put the sitar into a guitar bag, then put the whole thing into the sitar case.

9) What about sitars that are based more on Western instruments like guitars & citterns?

Yes, there are some exciting innovations happening here as luthiers continue experimenting with how to get a sitar sound out of Western instruments. Here is the most exciting one I've seen - the Pygmy Sitar being manufactured in the UK by Pygmy Instruments. The scalloped neck on the two top strings is designed to allow for easy bends on the melody, while the remaining six strings create the sympathetic drone. The body looks to be from a cittern, so it has natural acoustic resonance. The combination of a piezo pick-up with a condensor mic pointed right at the adjustable buzz bridge makes for an excellent amplified sound. It doesn't look as exotic as the regular acoustic-electric sitar and it lacks the full range of sympathetic strings, but it appears to be more stable and easily mastered for those who already play guitar or cittern.

10) What about those "electric sitars" sold by Rogue (STR-1) or Agile that are basically electric guitars with sympathetic strings and a buzzing Gotoh bridge?
As is obvious from these reviews at MusiciansFriend.Com, opinions are all across the board on this one. Here is mine. If you're looking for a retro-60s sound (Rory Gallagher, Byrds, etc.) these are a great deal. They make it possible for a guitarist to create unusual sounds that you won't find from any pedal. Just be careful not to buy one of the OLD models that lack the sympathetic strings and expect to spend at least a couple of hours adjusting the Gotoh bridge to make it as playable as possible without compromising intonation.

As "electric sitars," however, I think they suck. I went through two Rogue Electric Sitars from Musicians Friend before I finally gave up. Although I haven't seen an Agile, I suspect it is the same instrument as Rogue but with a different label & price tag. Despite hours of adjusting, the sympathetic strings just don't resonate the way they should and the Gotoh bridge just makes it sound like you have a serious neck warp. I even tried running it into a pedal that replicated sitar so I could mix the two, and it still sucked. The more expensive instruments (Jerry Jones, Coral) probably sound better (although some say not), but they cost twice as much as an acoustic-electric sitar and I'd bet they don't sound half as authentic.

Let's be truthful, folks; THESE ARE NOT ELECTRIC SITARS! They are ELECTRIC GUITARS with a buzzing bridge and sympathetic strings. Would you call a synthesizer with a bending wheel an "electric trombone" just because it can kinda-sorta replicate the sound?

HOWEVER - I think these make GREAT electric harp guitars. Try replacing the buzzing Gotoh bridge with a standard electric guitar bridge. You might even be able to sell the Gotoh bridge on eBay. The electric harp sound from the sympathetic strings is very cool! You can even play harp melodies by slipping a guide under the strings so you'll know which is which. This is a delightful variation on electric guitar - but "electric sitar" it ain't.

11) What about G Rosul electric sitars?
Now, here we have an actual electric sitar. The main difference between this and a Rogue STR-1 is the sitar frets instead of guitar frets. I haven't seen one of the new fusion models made in India by G Rosul that combine a sitar top with a solid-body. At $700-plus for an entry level instrument, I'm unlikely to see one very soon either. It is an intriguing idea. If the pick-ups are clean enough and the sympathetic strings sensitive enough, it might work. I will withhold judgment until I actually hear one.

G Rosul

12) What about sitar pedals for electric guitars?

OK, now we're really digging down there. Like the Rogue STR-1, reviews of sitar pedals differ widely. Some people like them. I'm not one of those. The only one I've tried is the new one by Digitech, "The Weapon," that includes a sitar setting, but I assume it is similar to the 60s-era "Sitar Swami" by Danelectro, etc. In my opinion, they are hideous combinations of flanger, chorus, echo, distortion, and who-knows what. However, I'm looking for the most authentic sitar sound possible for solo or small ensemble playing, so this type of guitar pedal might work great in a rock band.

I'm curious to hear about your experiences with acoustic-electric sitars. If you own one, please write me:
Larry "at" LCarter.Com (obviously substituting @ for "at")

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since September 18th, 2009