Sitar in popular music

Ravi Shankar, a master of the instrument, was the first to make inroads into Western culture with the sitar.

While the sitar had earlier been used in jazz and Indian film music, it was from the 1960s onwards that various pop artists in the Western world began to experiment with incorporating the sitar, a classical Indian stringed instrument, within their compositions.

Early uses in Western pop music

The first known use of the sitar in a rock music recording session was made by the Kinks for their song "See My Friends". However, the Yardbirds were more notable when they hired a sitar player to play the main riff for their single "Heart Full of Soul". However, the version with the sitar riff was not released at the time and George Harrison is now recognised as having introduced the instrument to pop music. During a break in the filming of The Beatles' second movie, Help!, Harrison picked up a sitar left on the set as a prop and attempted to play it. His initial interest eventually led to his taking lessons from Pandit Ravi Shankar and Shambhu Das. He subsequently played the instrument on the Beatles song "Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)" on the LP Rubber Soul in 1965, which became the first released Western pop song to feature the sitar.[1]

George Harrison went on to play the tambura, a long-necked plucked lute, on both Revolver and Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, as well as laying down sitar tracks for both albums on the songs "Love You To", "Tomorrow Never Knows", and "Within You Without You". A later Beatles song, "Across the Universe", also featured the sitar. Additionally, Harrison made great use of the sitar on his first solo album, 1968's Wonderwall Music.

In early 1966, Rolling Stones guitarist Brian Jones played the sitar on "Paint It, Black", having taught himself to play after visiting his friend George Harrison. Jones also played sitar on some tracks of Between the Buttons and Their Satanic Majesties Request. In early October 1967, he again played sitar on "My Little One" in a recording session with Jimi Hendrix as well as the tambura on "Street Fighting Man".

A fad for sitars in pop songs soon developed, facilitated by the Danelectro Company's 1967 introduction of the first "electric sitar", known as the "Coral Electric Sitar." This instrument was an electric guitar with a distinctive sitar-like sound, rather than an acoustic sitar of the type traditionally made in India. Despite producing similar sounds, the two instruments are completely different. As the electric sitar was much easier to play than the traditional version it quickly became the preferred choice of most rock musicians. The Coral instrument was an inexpensive item for its time however production only continued for a few years, making them relatively rare and expensive instruments today.

The late 1960s saw the release of songs featuring the sitar that included The Monkees' "This Just Doesn't Seem To Be My Day", Ricky Nelson's "Marshmallow Skies", Scott McKenzie's "San Francisco", The Cyrkle's "Turn-Down Day", The Cowsills' "The Rain, the Park, and Other Things", John Fred and His Playboy Band's "Judy in Disguise (With Glasses)", The Turtles "Sound Asleep", The Stone Poneys "Evergreen", First Edition "Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)", The Chocolate Watch Band's "In the Past", The Box Tops' "Cry Like a Baby" (electric sitar), The Lemon Pipers' "Green Tambourine" (electric sitar), Traffic's "Paper Sun" and "Hole In My Shoe" Tomorrow's "Real Life Permanent Dream", July's "The Way" and The Kinks' "Fancy".

Elvis Presley had several recordings that prominently featured the electric sitar. These included a 1967 cover of Tommy Tucker (singer)'s R&B classic "Hi-Heel Sneakers," Mort Shuman's "You'll Think Of Me," (1969), Percy Mayfield's "Stranger In My Own Home Town" (1969) and a cover of the Anne Murray country classic, "Snowbird" (1970). In the instances of "Hi-Heel Sneakers" and "Snowbird," Nashville, Tennessee session musician Harold Bradley played the electric sitar. For "You'll Think Of Me" and "Stranger In My Own Home Town," highly regarded Memphis, Tennessee and Nashville, Tennessee session musician Reggie Young played the electric sitar.[2]

The Mamas & The Papas used the sitar on various tracks such as "People Like Us", "Snowqueen Of Texas', "Lady Genevieve", "I Wanna Be a Star" and "Grasshopper", and Sergio Mendes & Brazil '66 used it on “Chove Chuva”. Eric Burdon and the Animals played the instrument in the songs "Winds of Change", "No Self Pity", "Orange and Red Beams", "All Is One", "We Love You Lil", and "Monterey". The Strawberry Alarm Clock use the sitar in songs such as "An Angry Young Man", "Black Butter-Present" and "Sit with the Guru". Although often overlooked, some of the most extensive users of the instrument in contemporary music were Mike Heron and Robin Williamson of The Incredible String Band, combining folk, psychedelia with eastern influences in the songs "The Song Has no ending parts 1-9", "The Mad Hatter's Song" and "The Iron Stone". Steve Miller Band used sitar in their popular song "Wild Mountain Honey".

Art-Rock bands such as The Moody Blues used the sitar on a few albums and particularly on In Search of the Lost Chord while The Pretty Things' album S.F. Sorrow also featured the instrument on a few tracks, as did Procol Harum's epic song "In Held 'Twas In I" on the segment "Glimpses of Nirvana". Jethro Tull used the sitar on "Fat Man" and "Skating Away on the Thin Ice of the New Day". The Strawbs used it on many recordings while Genesis used the electric sitar on their song "I Know What I Like (In Your Wardrobe)" from their fifth album Selling England by the Pound. Steve Howe of Yes used an electric sitar on the band's album Close to the Edge, and the band Family used the instrument in the song "Face In The Cloud", recorded on their 1969 album Family Entertainment.

Donovan's hit song "Hurdy Gurdy Man" used a tanpura, which can also be heard on songs such as "Sunny South Kensington", "Breezes of Patchouli", "Celeste", "Guinevere", "Three King Fishers", "Ferris Wheel", and "Fat Angel". Richie Havens made extensive use of the sitar in the title song of his second album, "Something Else Again". Blue Cheer used both sitar and tabla in their song, "Babji (Twilight Raga)".

Although the sitar 'craze had died down by 1970, its distinctive sound had become an indelible part of pop music. Tom Petty and Mike Campbell used a guitar fitted with a harpsichord-device to simulate a sitar for their hit Don't Come Around Here No More while John Renbourn used the instrument prominently during his time with the folk band Pentangle, on songs such as "Once I Had a Sweetheart", "House Carpenter", "Cruel Sister", "Rain And Snow" and "The Snows". Roy Wood from The Move played sitar on "Night of Fear" using the same riffs as Tchaikovsky's "1812 Overture", as well as the electric sitar on "Open up said the world at the door". Moreover, the Dutch band Shocking Blue used the sitar in many of their songs, most prominently in "Love Buzz", "Acka Raga", "Water Boy", "Hot Sand", and "I'm A Woman".

Examples of sitar in songs of other genres

See also


  1. The instrument made an early appearance on the US release of Help!, in an instrumental called "Another Hard Day's Night" – a George Martin-created medley of "A Hard Day's Night", "Can't Buy Me Love", and "I Should Have Known Better". This track was re-released on CD as part of The Capitol Albums, Volume 2.
  2. "Elvis Presley: A Life In Music" St. Martin's Press, July, 1998 Ernst Jorgensen, Foreword by Peter Guralnick. Pages 234-236, 264, 269, 275, 316-317
  3. Page about Metal Heart on Discogs
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