Don’t know a raga from ravioli? Here’s a place to start.
• Gain insight into one of the world’s most intriguing guitar styles.
• Expand your awareness of melodic embellishment.
• Awaken to new musical possibilities. Click here to download a printable PDF of this lesson's notation.
Hindustani classical (North Indian raga) is one of the oldest and deepest ongoing musical traditions in the world. To the Western ear, tones of the sitar and tamboura may evoke impressions of a far-off landscape, or a place in the distance that stretches out beyond space and time. And with good reason, as the sounds of Indian raga have existed for thousands of years.
Within the arc of history, instruments like the sitar and sarod are relative newcomers, having existed in their current form for only several centuries. In this context, the guitar is a new and exciting addition to the raga landscape.
Developed by Pandit Brij Bhushan Kabra in the 1950s, the instrument referred to as the Indian slide guitar has evolved alongside those who have come to master it, as many of the pioneering artists have created their own designs. Although conceived as a lap-style instrument, it can also be played with a bottleneck, and a new model exists for non-slide playing with a scalloped fretboard.
For more information, check out “The Secret World of Hindustani Slide,” and for pictures of my personal instrument (the 22-stringed Chaturangui designed by Pandit Debashish Bhattacharya), see “The World’s Weirdest Guitar Mods.”
It takes years of study to learn and perform a single raga in full. Today, let’s begin with simply learning what a raga is.
A raga might be thought of as a sequence of five or more notes that follow a prescribed pattern of ascent and descent. This makes for something richer than a scale, but less fixed than a song. Each raga also has its own set of characteristic phrases, which create a distinctive mood. In India, this may evoke associations for the listener that include times of day and seasons in which the ragas are meant to be heard.
With a focus on melody and rhythm, there are no chord changes in Hindustani classical. The harmony is supplied by the drone of a tamboura, which has a buzzing sound not unlike a sitar. For the examples below, the drone has been supplied by an app called iTablaPro, which provides rhythmic accompaniment as well.
For these exercises, use a bottleneck or tone bar to slide. If you are playing lap style without a square neck, try the Grover “Perfect” conversion nut to raise the strings.
These examples feature a nighttime raga called Jog. We will work with the aaroh (ascent) and avaroh (descent) to get a glimpse into some of the elements that make Hindustani classical so intoxicating.
In our notation, we will incorporate the Indian sargam system, which is comparable with western solfège. For raga “Jog” in the key of C, this means:
C = Sa (S or Ṡ at the 12th fret)
E = Ga (G or G for Eb)
F = Ma (M)
G = Pa (P)
Bb = Ni (N and Ṇ for the b7 below middle C)
In a sound that may be familiar to blues enthusiasts, “Jog” features both the natural and komal Ga (b3). As a general rule, the natural 3 is played on ascent and the b3 may be approached from the tonic below or from the 4 in descent.All the examples will be played in open-C tuning: (C–G–C–E–G–C).
One of the important things an aspiring student should do is establish a connection with a teacher who has mastered the art form. This is the means by which the tradition continues. I have been fortunate to experience sitting at the feet of masters such as Pandits Debashish Bhattacharya and Warren Senders, both of whom teach in person and online.
In Ex. 1 we will ascend and descend without embellishment. While these notes wouldn’t be performed this way in concert, this phrase allows us to hear the melodic form more clearly.
When we incorporate slides (Ex. 2), it begins to convey the sound of “Jog.”
A presentation of a raga begins with a section in free time called an alap. The alap expresses the melodic contours of a raga with slow, deliberate phrases. In Ex. 3 we have a two-note opening phrase played straight for reference, followed by a similar line with embellishments. Allow yourself to be flexible with the fluidity of the music. This is part of what makes raga so dynamic.
With Ex. 4, we introduce the b3 (Eb).
The lines in Ex. 5 expand from the lower 5 up to the 4 and include a characteristic phrase from Jog: ascending through the 3 to the 4 and descending from the b3 to the b7 before resolving to the tonic.
Next, we add embellishments in the descent (Ex. 6) to begin getting a feel for the curves of Hindustani melody. Look for the pattern in five-note clusters.
Now we add the tabla (Ex. 7), which is playing a 16-beat rhythm cycle (known as a tala) called teental. The notes enter on beat 9 of 16 (called kali). Kali is where compositional phrases typically begin when playing over teental.
In Ex. 8 the notes are played double-time against the tabla to build dexterity.
Finally, we have Ex. 9, where we use the same embellishments (and a few additional lines) with the ascent in teental.
To both newcomers and experts, raga offers a mesmerizing beauty, full of rich melodic and rhythmic complexities that continue to reveal themselves further over time. For practitioners, Hindustani classical instills values of focus and discipline, fostering a way of life that parallels the music in depth and intention. The practice of raga is in itself a yoga of sound that leads to a greater awareness, as well as a wider understanding of music.