Introduction to Saz and other Middle Eastern Long-neck Lutes

by David Brown

History

One of the most ancient forms of lute is the family of long-neck lutes, which today includes the Greek (and Irish) Bouzouki, the Arab Buzuk, the many sizes of Turkish Saz, the Persian Setar, the Armenian-Persian-Central Asian Tar, the Afghan Tumbur, Dambura and Dutar, and even the North Indian Sitar. By definition any lute with a neck longer than the body is a long-neck lute, so even the American Banjo is technically in this extended family!

Three ancient instruments seem to be the earliest long-neck lutes in use. These are the Tanbur-e-Khorosan of eastern Iran and western Afghanistan, the Hittite lute found in Anatolia, and the similar lute from the Egyptian 18th dynasty, which was used over a thousand years earlier in Babylon and Sumeria.

There are several sizes of saz, but no single clear classification is standard. Virtuoso performer and teacher Adnan Ataman used this system as of 1961: Smallest to largest- ćura, baglama (strictest sense, for an old-style small instrument), cura baglama or tambura, bozuk, divan, and meydan. By this system, most common sazes are the bozuk; this word can be traced to the Iranian tambur-e bozorg, and would also be the root for the Arab buzuk and the Greek bouzouki. In many cases, if not most often, this bozuk saz is called baglama (don't pronounce the g).

These were all 3-course instruments, but by the 1950’s many players had followed the example of Manolis Hiotis and were using the 4-course bouzouki, tuned C F A D ( like the top 4 strings of a guitar down a step). This version , with the addition of a magnetic pickup and amplifier, became the standard. Now the 6 string 3-course bouzouki is much rarer, mostly found in the northern part of Greece.

In recent years student model bouzoukis have been made in Italy and offer a reasonable alternative at an affordable price, as Greek instruments have been more expensive and harder to find.

This small instrument is the Persian version of the saz, having a variety of body constructions, but all have the long tied-fretted neck and 4 strings in three courses. Setar means 3-string; the higher octave was added to the lowest string by the Sufi Moshtaq Ali Shah last century. The instrument is a favorite among both mystics and Persian classical theorists. A soft instrument, it was usually played alone, although there is a new custom of playing in setar ensembles that is growing in popularity.

The full name for this instrument is chahartar, or 4-string, but today it is a 6-stringed lute set up in 3 paired courses, the lowest having a high octave double. This is one of the instrument in this book with a skin resonator, in the form of two skins on an hourglass shaped carved wooden body. the larger skin is farthest from the neck and the bridge rests on this section. The neck has a large peg box with big turned wood pegs, tied frets, and often a light wood or bone strip inlaid the length of the neck. Fine instruments are well carved but sparsely decorated, and can fetch astronomical prices for a Yayeh or Sharoch instrument.

A curious style of older players was to hold the tar high on the chest with the right arm supporting the body; this facilitated standing and moving while playing.

The tar is tuned at many pitch levels, but written Iranian music gives the standard rast kuk tunings as C G C, D G C, C F C, Eb G C and CF G C (the 3rd course is not in unison/octaves!) for Shur.

A surprisingly good sounding alternative to the tar is the cumbus saz; it can be set up and played with a tar mezrab giving a very tar-like tonal color at a fraction of the price. The fretting is very close to the Persian and requires little adjustment if any. Also, like its sister instrument the yayli tambur, it can be bowed making it a very versatile string instrument.

Egyptian lute had a skin resonator and in many ways is similar to the Gimbri of Morocco, down to the round neck and method of attaching the neck to the body through a slit in the skin top. It’s very likely that the gimbri is a surviving variant and as such is one of the most ancient forms. The other lutes from Babylon and Khorosan ( and the Babylonian may well have been a development from the Iranian-Afghan prototype) had a wooden resonator; both were most commonly two stringed.

Today there are several instruments in use in the Middle East descended more or less directly from the ancestral forms, and each country of region seems to favor a particular variant. Certain places and time periods favored the short-neck lute, the descendants of the Persian barbat such as the ‘oud, and now for example it’s rare to see a long-neck lute in Egypt!

Instruments covered in this volume:
Saz family; particularly Baglama and Cura, but also Divan and Meydan;
Turkey and Armenia.
Tambur (Turkish) Wooden body staved-back lute with very long neck, and
many frets rendering the Turkish Classical intonation system of nine
possible Pythagorean comma divisions of the whole step.
Buzuk (Buzq); Arab version; Lebanon, Syria and some of the other countries
Bouzouki; somewhat Westernized version of the saz/buzuk;Greece
Setar; Iran Tar (properly Chahartar); Iran, Armenia, Azerbaijain, Caucasus

Due to the rarity, scarcity of instruments and other factors the Afghan Tumbur, Dambura and Dutar, some comments about each instrument will be made but this volume will only include a general description of techniques and musical examples.

The Saz Family

Saz means musical instrument (among other meanings) in Persian; the 'oud is often called "sultan-e-saz" or king of the instruments. In Iran, though no instrument is called saz (the tar is sometimes referred to as the "amir-e saz", or prince of instruments), but in Turkey, the saz is a long-neck lute of several sizes. All share common features; Metal strings, long thin neck with tied nylon (formerly gut) frets, wood (or plastic composite) pegs, often without a hole for the strings (the special way of wrapping the strings suffices to hold them on the peg), three courses with the 3rd (and often the 1st) course doubled in octaves, Almond-shaped hemipyriform body carved from a single piece of mulberry, or more common now than ever, lute-type staved wood, and a soundboard with small "wings". Over the years the gross design features have changed little, but some details have been altered to suit changes in taste, manufacturing methods, tuning patterns, etc. Formerly the tops were strongly curved, but now they tend to a flatter shape.

Although most instruments are 3 double courses, Turkish players also distinguish between instruments on the basis of the number of strings per course and total number. The maximum seems to be 4 on the oniktelli saz, but this is very rare. Most common are altitelli (2+2+2), and for baglama(bozuk), yeditelli (3+2+2), where the Ist course has an added low octave string.

The method and type of stringing has changed a bit since the 1950's. Semsi Yastiman, one of the largest and best-known of saz makers, sold standard strings consisting of 4 steel strings of 20 gauge for the 1st and 3rd courses, and 1 27 gauge brass and 16 gauge steel for a pair in octaves for the middle course. This has changed quite a bit- now the current practice is to have the lowest course doubled in octaves, the middle course unisons, and the first course either in unison or in octaves. The basic tuning has not altered, though. In rural Turkey a bewildering number of tunings were used, and the folksinger tunes his instrument to match his voice and the maqam employed. Fortunately, in urban centers the has been a move towards standard sizes of saz constituting a family, or consort, and the use of standardized tunings. The most common baglama tuning today in towns and the countryside is called bozuk duzen, and is G D A from 3rd to 1st course. Other tunings (at this pitch level) would include E D A, G D G, A D A, A E A, A D G, G C G, E D A, F# DA, and many others.

Playing techniques include using the right hand fingers to hit the soundboard in a rhythmic fashion, use of the left hand thumb to fret notes in a manner similar to balalaika playing ( there may well be a connection through central Asian lute techniques.) A common ornament is the rapid trilling of a note a 1/2 step above the pitch; thus even if a B is used melodically, the player will often use a Bb above the A being ornamented.

A recent development is a baglama body with a neck only a bit longer than the body, tuned A G D. There were two such instruments used by the Saz ensemble at the 1994 Middle Eastern Camp in Mendocino. Ergin Tamer showed me these after I asked about the "odd-size" sazes. Also used in the ensemble was a classical tambur, regular bozuk-tuned baglama, and very small ćura tuned GDA one octave above the baglama, with no low octave courses. Although the traditional way of playing the cura was with the fingers, all of the Turkish players used a plectrum on the ćura...and almost all had contact pickups on their sazes.

This is the long-neck lute of the Arab-speaking countries. It has a rather 'oud-shaped staved back, ‘oud-style rosette soundholes, but a long neck with tied frets like a saz and usually a mandolin-style peghead with machine tuners. The stringing pattern is of an ancient sort, with only two paired courses tuned G C, with the G course having a low octave string in the pair. The neck is fretted to provide all useful options of the Arab-Persian scale after Safi-al-Din. Lebanon and Syria seemed to be the main areas of use, being rarer in Egypt and other Arab states. Some sources consider the nomads/gypsies to be among the finest players.

Harder to find than sazes, a small baglama or large cura can be set up can be set up like a buzuk by altering the stringing pattern. Although the key note may transpose up or down the 4th tuning is constant, and GC gives rast as C, its real pitch.

Bouzouki

Around the turn of the century in Athens and Piraeus musicians adapted the Turkish saz to their needs, replacing the tied frets with metal frets like those of mandolins and guitars, and in the process abandoning the Oriental 1/4 tone system for the Western tempered tuned chromatic scale. By the 20's they had further changed the construction from solid carved saz bodies to mandolin-like bowl backs and had also added machine pegs, and settled on D A D as the tuning of the paired courses, the lowest pair including high octave double. The instrument was played with guitars and a miniature version of itself tuned an octave higher. Turkish origin of these instruments is confirmed by the names, the larger version called bouzouki and the diminutive baglama. Other sizes have developed and include the Tzouras, smaller in size than the standard, and the larger Koumpouzi.

The repertoire is the same as the radif of the tar as is the left hand technique; the difference in playing setar is that only the index finger of the right hand is used, a technique brought to India with the setar by Amir Khusrow. There the instrument was altered into the Hindustani sitar. Tunings are identical to those of the tar and will be covered in the next section.

Setars

Setars are rare in the US, and like all Iranian instruments expensive. I have successfully altered larger ćura sazes to make acceptable setars. The easiest way is to make the 1st and 2nd courses single, and to add a few frets to complete the scale as most curas have fewer frets than a classical setar.

The tar is a major Iranian classical instrument with an extensive radif; one version was written down and published in 1963 in Tehran by Musa Ma'aruffi and consists of hundreds of pieces of music, both free rhythm and measured. Yet it is not a native Iranian instrument, appearing in miniature paintings no earlier than the 1700's. It seems that the tar is of central Asian origin, and is also played in Armenia, the Caucasus, Azebaijan, and other places in this region.

Many of these tars, not primarily intended for Iranian use, have additional paran or payan strings set on a raised bridge and offset from the neck. Like the chikari strings of the sitar and sarod, these are for rhythmic drone use. All types are played with a long oval shaped piece of brass in a small ball of wax.

The full name for this instrument is chahartar, or 4-string, but today it is either an Iranian 6-stringed lute set up in 3 paired courses, the lowest having a high octave double, or the Azerbaijani style with similar playing strings but the addition of 3 drone or paran strings that are played rhythmically as the chikaris are on a sitar.

This is one of the instrument in this book with a skin resonator, in the form of two skins on an hourglass shaped carved wooden body. the larger skin is farthest from the neck and the bridge rests on this section. The neck has a large pegbox with big turned wood pegs, tied frets, and often a light wood or bone strip inlaid the length of the neck. Fine instruments are well carved but sparsely decorated, and can fetch astronomical prices for a Yayeh or Sharoch instrument.

The tar is a major Iranian classical instrument with an extensive radif; one version was written down and published in 1963 in Tehran by Musa Ma'aruffi and consists of hundreds of pieces of music, both free rhythm and measured. Yet it is not a native Iranian instrument, appearing in miniature paintings no earlier than the 1700's. It seems that the tar is of central Asian origin, and is also played in Armenia, the Caucasus, Azebaijan, and other places in this region.

Many of these tars, not primarily intended for Iranian use, have additional paran or payan strings set on a raised bridge and offset from the neck as mentioned before. This is characteristic of the Central Asian style instrument. Like the chikari strings of the sitar and sarod, these are for rhythmic drone use. All types are played with a long oval shaped piece of brass in a small ball of wax.


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