Adapting Easily Available Middle Eastern Stringed Instruments To Play The
by David Brown
When I first began playing Iranian music over 16 years ago, I was struck by
the fact that just finding (not to mention affording!) traditional Persian
musical instruments was a major roadblock to learning this wonderful musical
genre. Since the scales used in the radif utilized pitches larger than a
semitone and smaller than a whole tone, most Western instruments are
incapable of easily playing these important pitches which give the music of
Iran its character. Of course, the fact that the timing of my interest in the
radif coincided with the Islamic revolution was no help- the Khomeini
government closed the borders to musical instruments, and even proscribed
musical performances. One lucky aspect, at least for the American musician
learning the radif, was that due to the revolution many musicians from Iran
were now living in the United States, more than ever before.
The only Western instrument that makes an easy transition to Iranian music,
and indeed is commonly used by Classical and pop musicians, is the violin.
Fretless, it can play all the pitches needed for the radif and can also play
a wide variety of dynamics, shadings, and ornaments making it suitable for
Persian music. It also is fairly loud and as such projects somewhat more than
the older Iranian bowed instrument the kemanche.
The biggest difference other than the use of so-called microtones in Iranian
violin style from Western violin playing is the use of several tunings that
depend on the dastgah and actual pitch of the tonic; some common Iranian
tunings are regular GDAE, but also ADAD, GDGD, GDAD, EDAE, and others,
allowing for frequent use of drone strings and other effects.
The kemanche, which is the bowed instrument whose style forms the basis for
Iranian violin style, is a round body, with a skin resonator, spike neck,
played gamba-style with an underhand bow grip, and usually has 4 strings. It
is also played in Armenia, Tajikistan, part of Turkey, and the Uigher
Rebublic (called ajek).
The least expensive kemanche, and the most readily available, is the kabak
kemanche from Turkey. It uses a gourd (kabak in Turkish) as the body, and can
be found in the Lark in the Morning catalog as "Turkish spike fiddle".
Careful adjustment of the string height at the nut and bridge, and possible
re-stringing to facilitate higher or lower tunings are the only adaptations
needed if at all.
The oud was actually invented in ancient Iran, called "barbat", but was
developed further into its modern form in muslim Spain. Although nowhere near
as widely played in Iran as the family of long-neck lutes including the
setar, tar and tambur, the oud has been used in art music and is growing in
popularity. Still, ouds are much more common in Turkey or Egypt. In most of
the Arabic speaking world, the oud is more popular than the long neck lutes.
This works out to the advantage of anyone wishing to play the radif on oud,
as there is no difference between an Iranian oud and Turkish or Arab ouds.
One need only select an oud, and play it in the Persian manner which is a
distinct aesthetic differing from both the Turkish style and the even more
aggressive Arab style.
The ouds made in Arab countries tend to be larger and more robust, with a
correspondingly darker tone, than the lighter and brighter-toned Turkish
ouds, although individual instruments will show a range of overlapping tonal
colors. The Persian playing style works well on Turkish ouds, and these are
available as standard catalog items from Lark in several grades from student
The most difficult to find stringed instruments are the setar and tar. These
are tuned alike and played almost identically, the difference being that
setar is played with the nail of the index finger while the tar is played
with a small piece of brass embedded in beeswax. The setar is a long necked
instrument, with a wooden pear-shaped body, usually staved, with a wooden
resonator, with 3 course of wire strings, the lowest also having a higher
octave double, tied gut or synthetic frets. One of the oldest instruments in
use in Iran, it is common in miniature paintings from early eras. It is the
instrument of the mystic and the music theorist, and is held in high regard.
Unfortunately they are few and far between, and cost upwards of $500 unless
you luck into one somehow. A close relative in the long-neck lute family is
the Turkish saz; particularly useful are the baglama and cura sizes. A large
cura (app. 24-25 inch scale length) would do for a moderate "setar", a medium
sized baglama for a bit larger, and at $145 and $225 respectively offer a
One option is to play a saz with a plectrum sort of tar-style; another is to
use the fingernail of the right index finger as the plectrum, which is the
way of the setar and of older saz styles. If one would make the saz most
setar-like in feel, one would remove the second string of the treble and
middle course. Some additional frets may need be tied on, but the sound is
quite close to that of a setar.
The tar is not of Iranian origin, and does not appear before the 1700's in
miniature paintings or literary references. It is of Central Asian origin,
and is also played in Armenia, Tajikistan, Georgia, etc. although in somewhat
varying forms. It was also played in the Herat area of Afghanistan, called
chahartar (4-string, which it once was).
The Iranian tar is a longneck lute with a wooden body carved in a complex
figure 8 shape, with two skin membranes, one of which is the resonator upon
which a bone bridge rests. They have 3 course of paired metal strings, the
lowest course being in octaves and the others unison. It also has tied gut or
synthetic frets and a large pegbox with six large turned pegs.
The Armenian/Azerbaijan/Central Asian style tar is a bit smaller with a
slightly shorter scale length and a few less upper-range notes than an
Iranian tar. They also have 3 additional raised strings tuned as a drone and
hit in rhythmic patterns. Much of the radif could be played on such a tar,
but the lack of upper range notes could be a problem in some pieces of music.
Also, although readily available, the fine Turkish made tars of this design
are $600 in the Lark catalog, making it a bit of an investment for a
beginner- but one would own a high-grade tar!
There is another option, though, for those desiring to play specificly
Persian music, and that is the cumbus saz. Like all members of the cumbus
(joom-bush) family of instruments, it has a spun aluminum pot body with a
skin resonator, with banjo-like screw tensioning, a neck with built-in clock
key tilt adjustment, and comes set up with 3 pairs of metal strings. Most of
them have come from the factory with the tied nylon frets set up almost
identically with a Persian tar, have a long neck with even a few MORE notes
than a Persian tar, and when played with a metal tar mezrab produces a full,
loud tar-like tone. I have used one for several years to play with my Persian
musician friends, and it blends well with and balances a loud 12-bridge
santur. It comes with a vinyl bag, and like its larger cousin the yayli
tambur can also be bowed- which at one time the tar may have been as an
option. At $225 it is by far the best Persian tar-like sound for the money.
Other advantages include the easy tensioning and head replacement the metal
screw fittings make possible, the ease of action height adjustment the neck
screw-tilt device offers, and rapid and sure tuning thanks to metal machine
Until the day of easy trade with Iran or a reasonable workshop producing
affordable Persian instruments, these ideas may help finding appropriate
musical instruments for playing the rich and wonderful music of Iran.
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