When the Suli inventor and poet, Amir Khusrow, made the first sitar in an ancient Indian village over 400 years ago, there is no way that he could have envisioned the serpentine path that it would weave through musical history to become one of the most influential instruments of all time.
From the sitar’s beginnings in a land that seems older than time, it floated its way into the acid laden language of the counterculture movement. Peace, love and pretty things were in the air, and no instrument embodied this quite like the ubiquitous presence of the great Indian overture. Sadly, this is now often bleached out in the wash of the sixties tie-dye swirl as no more than a colourful footnote. It resides in the aeons of rock history as a snapshot in the corner of the room or as some crossed-legged tableau of hippy pretence, but in truth, it changed music indefinitely.
The hefty instrument typically has 18 strings and 20 moveable frets, which allows for an amorphous melodic sound with the moveable frets creating a sonorous humming undercurrent. When listened to live in isolation, it is easy to see how George Harrison and the likes were seduced into the oeuvre of its mystic beguiling. It undoubtedly has spiritual depth to that sound, which was the main factor that endeared it to the mindful milieu of the era. It also helps that it’s got the look – you don’t casually yield a sitar if you’re not plugged into the ether, dude.
Initially, the sitar was confined to the realm of Hindustani music. Then –inspired to wander the world aimlessly in search of nothing in particular by beat literature – beatniks, hippies and the occasional recently divorced Geography teacher, waved a middle finger to the suburbs and clambered aboard a spiritual bandwagon weaving a path to the answer-chocked lands of the past in Nepal and India. This was the start of the sitar’s rise.
However, it wasn’t until 1965 that it crash-landed from the celestial realm of shrouded history to make its seismic mark amid the fuzz-pedalled kaleidoscope of sixties musicians with severe incense addictions.
In April of 1965, the tale goes that The Beatles were filming Help! and an Indian band played background music in a groovy restaurant scene that set George Harrison agog. In casual conversation with Roger McGuinn of the Byrds, Harrison would mention this mind-bending moment, and McGuinn would fatefully slip the ‘Quiet Beatle’ a copy of Ravi Shankar.
In the clambering cacophony of the sixties, this record would spread quicker than the clap at a nudist camp. Brian Jones of The Rolling Stones even gifted Jimi Hendrix some Ravi Shankar records in a fine example of how the collective creative melee endlessly influenced each other to craft the artistic zeitgeist of the era. The psychedelic scales and song structures that Ravi Shankar races through on his sitar can be heard in the echoes of Hendrix’s scintillating guitar.
However, it was undoubtedly Harrison who surfed the wave right from inception to the beach. Upon hearing Shankar, Harrison franticly sought a sitar, which was not an easy task, and tried his best to style his way through an overture for ‘Norwegian Wood’. This represented something new for an era that was mad on exactly that notion.
As George Harrison famously declared, “Ravi was my link into the Vedic world. Ravi plugged me into the whole of reality. I mean, I met Elvis—Elvis impressed me when I was a kid, and impressed me when I met him because of the buzz of meeting Elvis, but you couldn’t later on go round to him and say, ‘Elvis, what’s happening in the universe?'”
This, in short, was the Promethean moment that The Beatles changed music via a literal guru who reinvented their sound at just the same moment that the introspective lyricism of Bob Dylan was morphing a change within the industry.
The sitar not only accompanied the rhythmic rock ‘n’ roll of the era like a hand in a glove, but it was also transportive and ineffably different. When the acid crazes that followed yearned for a soundtrack, the mystical tones of the sitar were top of the list. As John Cooper Clarke explains about the late sixties acid craze amid artistic circles, “Occasionally a shipment of LSD might arrive […] so that provided a step into another dimension for a while. If you’re going to take that shit, you’re always better off in a place of butterflies, birdsong and bluebell woods.” What better way to conjure up such an idyllic environment in a stuffy inner-city flat or suburb garden than dropping the stylus in the bottomless mystic of some unknown ethereal instrument.
The result was a form of psychedelia that bands such as 13th Floor Elevators took up and sprinted away with, trailblazing into the seventies with an iridescent tailwind that later acts would huff up. Even in the absence of the sitar itself, its melodic presence was felt in an ever-growing list of effects pedals. Music changed forever during the late sixties psychedelic splurge, and it was a humble ancient instrument that barely anyone could play at the epicentre of it all.
Now the sitar is resurfacing from the background and coming to the forefront once more in microtonal music, propagated by the likes of the brilliantly named and even better sounding King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard. Proving the eternal reverb of the ether snatching groove generator is here to stay regardless of how bulky it is to handle.
As ever with our Off The Beaten Track feature, you can check out a playlist of the music below.