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Saturday, March 29, 2008

The Electric Sitar

An electric sitar is in fact a kind of electric guitar designed to mimic the sound of the traditional South Asian instrument, the sitar. Depending on the manufacturer and model, these instruments bear varying degrees of resemblance to the traditional sitar. Most, in fact, resemble the electric guitar in the style of the body and headstock, though some have a body shaped to resemble that of the sitar (such as a model made by Danelectro).

The instrument was developed in the late 1960's, when many western musical groups began to use the sitar. The sitar is generally considered a difficult instrument to learn. By contrast, the electric sitar, with its standard guitar fretboard and tuning, is easy for a guitarist to play.

In addition to the six playing strings, most electric sitars have sympathetic strings, typically located on the left side of the instrument (though some do not have these). These strings have their own pickups (typically lipstick pickups are used for both sets of strings), and are usually tuned with a harp wrench (a difficult process). A unique type of bridge, a "buzz bridge" (developed by session musician Vincent Bell); helps give the instrument its distinctive sound. Some electric sitars have drone strings in lieu of sympathetic strings. A few models, such as the Jerry Jones "Baby" sitar, lack both sympathetic and drone strings, while still retaining the distinctive buzz bridge.

Vinnie Bell used the instrument on several songs, including "Green Tambourine" by the Lemon Pipers, "Band of Gold" by Freda Payne, and "She's A Heartbreaker" by Gene Pitney.

Because the tone quality and playing technique differ significantly from that of the sitar, it is not used by classical musicians, but typically by rock, jazz, fusion, and other pop music groups, notably Eric Burdon and the Animals in the song "Monterey", B.J. Thomas on "Hooked on a Feeling" in 1969, on the riffs to "It's a shame (song)" by the Spinners in 1970, and The Stylistics' frequent use of it in the 1970s. It has also been used by Yes, Todd Rundgren, Guns'n'Roses, Lenny Kravitz, Manic Street Preachers, R.E.M, Metallica, Steely Dan, Santana, Roy Wood from The Move, Steve Vai, Eric Johnson, Kaoru of Dir en grey, Pat Metheny, Sigh (band), Rory Gallagher, Mint Royale, and Steve Miller.

Versions of electric sitar were also developed both in India and Pakistan. Theses are smaller sized sitars that look like a sitar. These sitars are tuned the same way as the original classical sitar would be tuned. The difference between these sitars and the electric sitar mentioned above is that theses sitars have the same tone as a sitar.

The 'sympathetic' strings on most electric sitars do not resonant strongly enough to match the effect of an acoustic sitar. There are resonant chambers in the solid body instruments that have Masonite tops; however it is not enough to excite the 13 strings into true sympathy. The strings are tensioned over two rosewood bridges with fret material as saddles so the sound is more like an Autoharp than a sitar. Engineer/Musician Mark Smart commissioned a buzzing bridge for his electric sitar's sympathetic strings.

Click on the link below to see Vinnie's Electric Sitar Video - 1967


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