Adapting Easily Available Middle Eastern Stringed Instruments To Play The Iranian Radif
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 to professional.
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 great value.
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 gear tuners.
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.