Description of the Tambura

Classified as chordophones, Tamburas are in the lute family. Tambura is the southern Indian pronunciation while Tanpura is the name commonly used in northern India. Tamburas are the classical drone lute of Indian music. While they look somewhat like a single toomba sitar, they differ in significant ways. Compared to the sitar, tamburas have fewer strings, no sympathetic strings, no frets, and a moveable bridge used to adjust the pitch. These instruments look as exotic as they sound. Each comes with a hard-sided case.

There are three main forms of this instrument.

The Miraj form is used mostly in northern Indian Hindustani music. These Miraj are usually 3 to 5 feet in length. They have a round, almost pear-shaped tabali (resonator face) and the neck is symmetrical.

The Tanjore form is played by the Carnatic musicians in southern India. These Tamburas are also 3 to 5 feet in length. This form has an asymmetrical neck that tapers toward the top. Rather than a gourd, the Tanjore form of Tambura have resonators that are almost always of wood.

A third form has recently gained popularity. This small Tambura is only about 2 to 3 feet in length. It’s resonator is made of wood and is very shallow and the resonator plate (tabali) is slightly curved. Mid-East Mfg refers to this form as the Flat Back Tambura. The number of strings varies from the common 4 to 6 or more. The form and playing are slightly different from the larger Tambura. Because the resonator is not a round gourd the sound quality may not be so rich as the Tambura. However, because of the smaller size and the sturdy wooden resonator these Tamburas are very popular for travel.

Tuning the Tambura

Your Tambura will arrive un-tuned. The strings have been loosened to remove the tension on the instrument. Never ship a stringed instrument tuned. The tension can increase the likelihood of damage during shipping.

Indian Notes Sa Re Ga Ma Pa Dha Nee
Western Notes C D E F G A B
Western Names Do Re Mi Fa Sol La Ti

Tamburas are most often tuned to Sa/Pa or Sa/ Ma, where Sa is the tonal center. There are traditionally 4 strings. The Pa or Ma string (#1) is a copper, brass or bronze wire. Strings #2 and #3 are steel and have the same gauge since they are tuned to the same note and key (Sa). The last string is copper, brass or bronze wire and is tuned to the same note as strings 2 and 3 (Sa), but an octave lower.

String: 1 2 3 4
  Pa Sa Sa Sa
  G C C C (lower octave)
  Ma Sa Sa Sa
  F C C C (lower octave)

The Female Tamburas are tuned to a higher pitch, often to the key of B flat.

To tune your Tambura you will need a reference for the notes. You may use a piano, a tuner, tone generator or pitch pipes. Begin by making sure all the carved birds or beads, below the bridge, are loose. Remove any threads under the strings on the bone bridge.

Begin tuning the 2nd and 3rd strings first. The tuning pegs for strings 2 and 3 are in line with each other and project up from the face of the peg box. The strings wind in opposite directions to provide adequate spacing between the strings. So make sure you turn them in opposite directions. As you tune, push the peg in firmly; you may wish to turn it backward a turn first to seat it and then begin to turn it to tune. Turn slowly. You never want to over tune the string, it may break. When you have the string close to C (Sa) stop, and move on to the next string. Then tune string #4 to the same note as strings 2 & 3 an octave lower. Lastly tune string #1 to G (Pa). As with most stringed instruments, as you put tension on a string to bring it into tune, the other strings lose tension. So you will need to go back over the strings at least once. When they are all tuned close to Pa, Sa, Sa, Sa (G, C, C, C) you can use the carved birds or beads under the bridge to fine tune the notes.

Your strings are now in tune. However, the Tambura’s traditional sound is a buzzing drone. The bone bridge may look flat, but it has a slight arch to it. This lets the strings rest over the bridge with only a slight lift. If the bridge and strings are perfect for each other as the string vibrates it buzzes against the bridge over that slight arch. A number of things, such as wear of the instrument, uniqueness of hand crafted items, and humidity, can, and will, affect the way the strings cross the bridge.

It is simple to perfect the drone buzz once the strings are tuned. You will need a piece of sewing thread approximately 18” long. You can use it as a single strand or twist it on itself for a double strand. Lay this thread under the strings on the soundboard. Hold the end of the thread, now reach between the 1st and 2nd string and pull up a small amount of thread. Holding the thread up, it will be looped under the first string. As you strum the first string pull the thread back along the top of the bridge. The thread provides a tiny amount of gap between the bridge and the string. When you hear a gentle buzz accompanying the drone you have the proper lift of the string over the bridge.

There are other ways to tune your Tambura, it will depend of the type of Tambura you have, the Raga being played, if there are instrumentals, and the range of the vocalist.

Playing The Tambura

Traditionally, the Tambura has four strings and is played with five beats, four full beats and one full rest. There are three basic sitting positions. 1) Sit cross legged on the floor with your right leg over your left. Rest the toomba on the floor by your right knee and lay the neck over your right foot (or left knee if you can not sit with your right foot over your left knee). 2) Sit cross legged on the floor with the Tambura in an upright position. Rest the toomba in front of your left knee and the neck on your left shoulder. 3) Women usually sit “side saddle” with their legs tucked under them and to the side. Find a comfortable position.

Strum the strings with your right hand. Do not strum the strings like a guitar. Your fingers should be parallel to the strings, not perpendicular. You want to strum the strings with the side of your finger next to your fingernail, not the pad of the finger. Practice striking softly. The harder you hit the more the notes bend. You want a clear pure sound.

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