Guide to Buying a Sitar
Buying any instrument without playing it first is nervewracking for anybody. We encourage anyone who can to visit our Store in person. There are practice rooms upstairs where you can sit and play any and all sitars to your heart's content. For some people this might well be worth the price of plane fare and car rental (we are 1 hours drive from the San Francisco Airport). If you can't do that, we will help you find an instrument to match your needs.
Buying a new sitar
Many things go into making a good sitar. The quality of the materials, the wood for the face and neck, the gourd for the body and the bone for the bridge are all important. More important is the skill with which they are all put together. Most of the best instrument makers are small, family operations. The knowledge and tricks of the trade are passed from father to sons or a few chosen workers. (We see this with sarodes, too. Many craftsmen try to make copies of a Hemen sarode, but none sound like a Hemen sarode.) You will pay more for a sitar from a well-known maker. Yet you are assured of a certain quality and resale value.
Naturally then, the pedigree of the instrument is important. Below are brief biographies and descpritions of the makers we deal with. There are thousands of sitar makers all over India. Certainly some that we have never heard of are capable of making a great sitar. This is simply a crystallization of what we have learned in 40 years of importing, selling, playing and talking with professional players in India and the U.S. We have no exclusive arrangement with any maker nor a vested interest in pushing one over another. All feedback is welcome.
What to look for in a new sitar
Most importantly, hold the instrument, tune it and play it. If you are a beginner, hopefully someone can tune it for you. Feel how well the sitar fits your body. Check to see that there are no cracks in the gourd and that the neck is not bowed. Observe the grain of the wood on the face. There are different theories about what to look for; some say to look for a nice hourglass shape, others say to look for a straight grain. Either way, an attractive looking piece of wood is a good sign.
You can often tell the character of an instrument just by plucking the open strings. A good sitar will resonate nicely if you gently tap the bottom of the main gourd a few inches below the tailpiece.
Since sitars have moveable frets, you can almost always get them to play in tune. Make sure all the frets (including the moveable Re and Dha) are in, or can be moved to the right place. One hallmark of a cheap sitar is that the sympathetic pegs interfere with correct fret placement.
You should be able to pull a fifth on the Ma string of any sitar. Play middle Re on the fret and see if you can pull it up to Dha. If you can't, that's a problem, but, if the sitar has other virtues, perhaps one you can overlook.
You can often tell the quality of a sitar by how much the overtones ring out on the Kharaj (bass) string. Tune the sitar nicely and pull a Ga or Ma on the low string. On a good sitar you will get whole bouquet of overtones ringing out.
Check that the jawari is even over the whole instrument. Pull a note a third or fourth up on one fret, and see if that sound is same as the fretted note sound. Do this all up and down the neck. Strike a note on the fret, pull a meend up several steps and then back down. Hear that you come back to the exact same pitch.
Check the action. There should be about a pinky's width between the highest fret and the Ma string. If there is more space than that, the action is too high, and it could be sign that the neck has come forward some.
One problem that is endemic to all sitars, is that when you pull a note on the Ma string, the lower open strings go out of tune. On a good solid sitar this problem is slight. On a badly made sitar this can be a fatal flaw.
If you are just looking at pictures then you are on thinner ice. Fancy decoration does not make a good sitar.To assure yourself of quality, we urge you to buy a sitar made by a known maker with a reputation in India. These days there are many internet dealers selling sitars with fancy names like "Professional Deluxe Model #1" that they say are made especially for them. Now, some of these could very well be decent instruments. And some of them could very well be generic sitars with fancy names. If you order such a sitar, make sure the seller has a return policy so you can return it if it is not what you expected.
Buying a Used Sitar
Obviously all the same things apply. If you can find a makerís name, you will know something of the pedigree. If not, you should check for: