Forgive my ignorance here, but could someone answer these very newbie questions?: 1) Mezrabs: You play with just one on the index finger, right? I mean you don't wear several on different fingers (like a banjo), you only play one note at a time, right? Do you always use a mezrab or can you play with your bare fingers (right hand)?
2) This microtone thing: When you get a sitar and it's tuned to C#, say, are the notes all Western (in half steps), or are there "in between" notes as well? Or do the microtones only come into play when you start moving the frets around?
3) Bending strings: Is this done side to side or straight down between the frets? Or are both techniques used? Is one more common than the other?
Again, apologies, but any help would be greatly appreciated.
Hare some simple answers you can look over until someone more knowledgeable responds:
1. Mezrab is almost alway sworn just on the index finger, but I hear that some players also put one on the middle finger. I have not heard of bare finger playing
2. Microtones are achieved within ornaments by pulling the string to the side. Also, I have read (Danielou) that specific scales have microtonal variants substituted for one or more notes ... such as using a very high E or a high B for example. I have always assumed that one moves the frets to do this. Others on this forum will probably know more.
3. I have only heard of the string being pulled sideways (meend), not pushed down.
While it is most common to wear only one mizrab for playing sitar, a few of the other stringed instruments can be played with multiple mizra. It is common to see more than one mizrab and even no mizrab at all when playing surbahar and rudra veena. I believe the southern veena players use multiple mizra as well.
These are absolutely the right questions for a beginner to ask! Don't feel bad to do this. My 2 cents worth in your order:
Traditional way is to wear the mizrab on the first finger only. I have heard of some who also wear one on the pinkie, but that's unusual. Yes, its one note at a time, but really good players also strum the 2nd and 3rd strings with the 2nd and 3rd fingers to get a tamboura drone thing going, along with using the chikari as the rythmn. Those are advanced techniques.
The average human ear can only distinguish between about 5 Htz or cps in frequency. For example using A=440, most people can tell that 445 Htz is just slightly sharper than 440. In other words, 445 is a microtone interval, much less than a full half-step up. Microtones, known as shrutis, really don't have much to do with moving the frets, as this is a gross change in tone, many microtones worth.
Meend bending is always done by pulling to the side, away from your body, which is the exact opposite of guitar! If you change the tone by pushing down, then I would recommend a higher gauge string, higher tuning (be careful), or higher string action. There's something wrong if you can change the tone by pushing down.
Wow, you guys are really helpful, thanks! I wonder if you might indulge a follow-up question:
I'm looking at a picture of a sitar. I could be wrong here, but it looks like the frets are arranged something like half step, half, half, half, half, half, half, whole, half, half, half, half, half, whole, half, half, half, whole.
Is this some sort of Indian scale? If not, what is the point of the wider spacing between some of the frets? Specifically, why are some notes left out?
Those whole steps that you are seeing are the shuddha (natural) positions for RA and DHA. When you are playing in a thaat (scale) that utilizes the komal (flatted) note, the corresponding fret is carefully moved from the shuddha position to the komal position. I posed this same question in my early days too. I thought of tying on 3 additional frets but soon realized that you never need the shuddha and komal versions of these notes together in the same composition. Also, until you can play without looking, it acts as a visual aid as to where you are. A road map so to speak, same reason you have frets on a dobro. Notice, however, that because of the added difficulty in moving their frets, veenas will have a fret in all positions.
It is true that you can flatten those two notes by moving the frets. However, keep in mind that there are quite a few shruties that exist between shudda Re and Komal Re. That's where the "magic" is, and that's where good meend control makes a big difference in sound. I can really hear it on surbahar since that thing is so powerfull!
Those big gaps on the neck between the frets are just where the notes happen to end up. They look funny because the indian "natural scale" is made of 12 notes, a little different than ours. If memory serves, there are 3 flats and only one sharp in that scale. Plus like Stephen says, in the beginning those gaps help you see where you're at, kind of like the little "dots" on a guitar fingerboard.