The ultimate raga-rock tool returns—at a price less affluent seekers can afford.
When the Coral electric sitar appeared in 1967, it was not outlandish to think Indian classical textures might become as common as Appalachian or African sounds and rhythms in pop and rock. “Paint It Black” and “Norwegian Wood” soared on sitar-based hooks. And The Byrds’ “Eight Miles High” helped demonstrate that the fusion of raga and rock could be a quite intoxicating—and very lucrative—hit-making brew.
None of this was lost on opportunistic music producers downstream from the Beatles/Byrds/Stones axis of hip. Nor was it lost on New York session man Vinnie Bell, who suddenly faced an uptick in requests for quasi-raga guitar parts. Bell (whose exploits as a technical wiz and session ace are well-documented elsewhere) was crafty, and with the help of Danelectro (who sold guitars under the Coral brand) he developed the first electric sitar. The Coral was cool, but it was a handful—with an impossible-to-intonate “buzz bridge,” an array of 13 sympathetic strings, and three Danelectro “lipstick” pickups. It wasn’t cheap either—at least by Danelectro standards. Still, Dano saw promise in the concept and released a simpler streamlined version, sans sympathetic strings. That Danelectro sitar lives again as the Baby Sitar. At $499, it’s the most accessibly priced electric sitar we’ve seen since the originals started populating pawn shops.
Raga Rock Revisited Danelectro isn’t the first to revisit the electric sitar concept. Jerry Jones built gorgeous versions of the original Coral. More recently Italia added a Coral-influenced model to their Modena line. But neither was or is inexpensive—especially relative to the limited use most will have for the instrument. The new Baby Sitar, however, achieves affordability via the same design simplicity that put the original within reach.
The key to the Baby Sitar is the Gotoh “buzz bridge.” It’s a small, subtly harp-shaped piece of plastic that’s burnished to a texture approximating bone. It has six gently scalloped “saddles” ranging from about 43 mm in length for the lowest string to about 48 mm in length for the highest string. The manner in which the strings vibrate over the bridge creates the buzzing sitar sound, not unlike a real sitar or tamboura.
Enterprising tinkerers already know that the Gotoh unit can be purchased as an aftermarket item for around 100 bucks and fitted with relative ease to most Danelectro guitar reissues. But a replacement tailpiece is also required to complete the conversion. And unless you’re working with a spare Dano or managed a second-hand score, the Baby Sitar will cost less than a conversion.
The Baby Sitar has a few other design advantages over a conversion, depending on your perspective. The pickup is situated a little closer to the bridge than it would be on a conversion—which provides more trebly, sitar-like attack. The baby sitar is also incredibly compact and light, so taking it on a gig or tour for a song or two isn’t much additional hassle.
Other design quirks are less advantageous. For starters, it’s very difficult to play without a strap. Lacking waist contours, it will slip off your leg if you try to hold it in a typical seated playing position. You’ll likely have to hold the Baby Sitar in something closer to classical guitar playing position.
Ghosts in the Machine Intonation obsessives will struggle with the lack of intonation that the buzz bridge can cause. Me… I like the way the slightly out-of-kilter intonation mixes with the sitar-like tonality to create ghostly, odd harmonic overtones. But players and recording engineers that are sticklers for near-perfect intonation may wrestle with the Baby Sitar’s intrinsic imprecision. (This quirk of the electric sitar also begs this question: How did notorious tuning and intonation freaks Walter Becker and Donald Fagen of Steely Dan survive tracking Skunk Baxter’s electric sitar solo for “Do It Again”?)
For all its idiosyncrasies, the Baby Sitar is very well put together. The fretwork is flawless; the neck is dead straight and feels great. Even details like the glue-on binding (which was often sloppy on the early Danelectro reissues) are without flaw.
Unless you’re a fearless Brian Jones-level musical adventurer, it takes a minute to get comfortable with how the Baby Sitar wreaks havoc with picking and touch dynamics that work on a 6-string. But the less-immediate way that individual notes rise and decay are the essence of the Baby Sitar sound. If you have the rhythmic precision of Skunk Baxter or Steve Howe, you can play a pretty ripping lead on the Baby Sitar. If you don’t, the Baby Sitar is no less satisfying or useful. Lazy, languid lead lines sound fantastic—particularly with a little delay and reverb to enhance the droning qualities of the instrument. The same goes for folky, arpeggiated chord melodies. The Baby Sitar excels at doubling guitar parts in this context.
One of the coolest ways to extract more sitar-like exoticism from the Baby Sitar is to use alternate tunings heavy on fifths, octaves, and doubles. Here, again, you’ll run into limitations in the Baby Sitar’s design: Slack tunings render the buzz bridge ineffective. But there are work-arounds. I used E-A-E-A-A-E for many of my sessions and found a lot of room for melodic invention amid all the droning, swirling goodness. Open E (E-B-E-G#-B-E) presents even more melodic possibilities and infuses chords and melodies with a cool blues-raga feel.
The Verdict You have to be open-minded, sonically curious, and into unconventional six string expressions to get the most out of the Baby Sitar. Extracting the best sounds demands a little musical resourcefulness. But if I may risk sounding a little like, well, a guru, this instrument will yield unexpected—and very cool—rewards if you dedicate yourself to the search.