How to Make a Guitar Sound Like a Sitar

By Robert Russell ; Updated September 15, 2017
Sitars use a lot of drone strings.

One of the defining moments of 1960s rock n' roll was the Monterey Pop Festival. The event helped launch the careers of Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix, but one of its biggest surprises was India's sitar player Ravi Shankar. The young rock audience was transfixed by the sound of the sitar and its strange melody notes and rhythms. The sitar worked its way into the rock consciousness of the day and was popularized by the Beatles and Rolling Stones. The sitar is a very difficult instrument to master and play. However, you can imitate the sound of a sitar with your guitar by following a few simple steps.

Tune the guitar to open E tuning. Open E tuning is "E-B-E-G#-B-E," going from the sixth string to the first string. Open tunings allow you to play a chord, in this case E major, by simply playing the open strings. The other advantage is that you can play melody notes and accompanying bass lines at the same time. Open tunings work well for imitating a sitar effect.

Straighten out a paper clip. The paper clip will sit on the bridge between the second and first string. It functions as a type of mute that clips the notes short by preventing the two strings from fully resonating. The paper clip also contributes lends the two strings a more treble-like sound similar to a sitar.

Slide one end of the paper clip under the second string. Bend the clip so that it covers the second and first string and secure it to the bridge. Since the bridges on electric guitars are different, it may take a few attempts to figure out how to best secure the paper clip to the bridge Fender guitars, for example, have two small holes on each of the bridge saddles for lowering and raising the saddle. One end of the paper clip fits into the hole on the left side of the second string saddle, and the other end of the clip fits into the hole on the right side of the first string saddle.

Adjust the tone on the guitar and amplifier. Turn the pickup selector switch on your guitar to the bridge position. Adjust the treble control on the amplifier to 8 or 10, and turn the bass and mid-range controls down to 3 or 4.

Play melody notes on the first and second strings, while playing the other four strings. The other four strings operate as drone strings producing an E major chord as you pick out melody notes on the first and second strings. Sitar players often bend the strings. It is possible to produce all sorts of micro-tones, with the notes that exist between the whole and half step common to European music. The frets of a guitar are separated by half steps. The first string is E (open), F (1st fret), F# (2nd fret), G (3rd fret) and so forth. However, there are other notes or micro-tones between the half steps.

About the Author

Robert Russell began writing online professionally in 2010. He holds a Ph.D. in philosophy and is currently working on a book project exploring the relationship between art, entertainment and culture. He is the guitar player for the nationally touring cajun/zydeco band Creole Stomp. Russell travels with his laptop and writes many of his articles on the road between gigs.