Chris Mendez in Sitar

Tuning the Sitar

Technically, you can tune the sitar to be in any key but mostly it's in the Key of D.

The key of D has one sharp, F#, and this article will show you how to tune the strings accordingly.

Note: Similar to guitar tablature notation, my article assumes that the top string represents the bottom string closest to the floor.

Standard Tuning

In Western music, it's common to tune in C but the standard Indian tuning is in D. Here's what the tones look like:

Solfege: Sa  Re  Ga  Ma  Pa  Dha  Ni  Ṡa  
Note:   D   E   F#  G   A   B    C   D  

If you're curious to learn more about Indian Solfege, read this article.

Primary Strings

If you watch online videos, you will notice that people prefer to talk about tuning the sitar using the Indian equivalent of Solfege called sargam.

YouTube Sargam Source

This system is great but when I first started learning, I found it too confusing so the diagram below shows you both the note and the sargam notes side-by-side.

My sitar has 6 strings but if you were to have 7, you can just have two strings that resonate A Pa.

1st |-- G --- Ma -- 0.014 gauge  
2nd |-- D --- Sa -- 0.014  
3rd |-- F# -- Ga -- 0.022  
4th |-- A --- Pa -- 0.028  
    |ˇ Chikari Strings ˇ
5th |-- D --- Sa -- 0.009 (Medium octave)  
6th |-- D --- Sa -- 0.009 (High octave)  

Chikari Strings

In the diagram above, I wrote a note that says "Chikari Strings". These strings are accented strings tuned to a medium octave D and a high octave D. They are strings you primarily strum which is why their string gauge is thinner than the primary strings.

Sympathetic Strings

Sympathetic strings are used to enhance the sound of an instrument. They're sort of like a resonators. Within the sitar, there are either 11 or 13 strings. Below is the tuning for 13 strings.

If you only have 11 strings, just ignore 12 and 13.

1st  |-- D -- Sa  -- 0.008 gauge  
2nd  |-- C -- Ni  -- 0.008  
3rd  |-- D -- Sa  -- 0.008  
4th  |-- E -- Re  -- 0.008  
5th  |-- F -- Ga  -- 0.008  
6th  |-- F# - Ga  -- 0.008  
7th  |-- G -- Ma  -- 0.008  
8th  |-- A -- Pa  -- 0.008  
9th  |-- B -- Dha -- 0.008  
10th |-- C -- Ni  -- 0.008  
11th |-- D -- Sa  -- 0.008  
12th |-- E -- E   -- 0.008  
13th |-- F -- Ga  -- 0.008  

Sitar is not an exact science

Sitar tuning is not an exact science so if you're unsure what notes to tune your sympathetic string, it's totally fine to adjust them to your liking. As long as the notes are tuned in the right key, you'll sound fine.

Ravi Shankar Tuning

Ravi Shankar preferred to tune his instrument to the key of C#. Therefore, it's going to look something like this:

Primary Strings

1st  |-- C# -----  
2nd  |-- C# -----  
3rd  |-- G# -----  
4th  |-- C# -----  
5th  |-- G# -----  
6th  |-- C# -----  
7th  |-- F# -----  

Sympathetic Strings

Ravi Shankar performed a sitar with 11 sympathetic strings.

1st  |-- C# -----  
2nd  |-- C  -----  
3rd  |-- A# -----  
4th  |-- G# -----  
5th  |-- F# -----  
6th  |-- F  -----  
7th  |-- F  -----  
8th  |-- D# -----  
9th  |-- C# -----  
10th |-- C  -----  
11th |-- C# -----  


Tuning Apps

As a guitar player now switching over to sitar, I still have the habit of wanting to tune my strings using a tuner. Here are the three apps I recommend to help you tune your sitar.

  • iTablePro is currently the best app for iOS. It's great because also doubles up as a metronome (aka Tabla). Yes, it's $24 but it's seriously awesome.

  • Tanpura Droid for Android is pretty good and it's free!

  • Silvertune is fantastic for anyone coming from a guitar background. It's a guitar app that uses the microphone to help you tune your instrument. What I specifically love about this app is that the design is beautiful and it provides cents.