The tambura is a plucked box lute chordophone used as a drone instrument in both the Hindustani (northern) and Karnatak (southern) classical traditions of Indian music. The tambura pictured here is for use in Hindustani music; the Karnatak version differs in its proportions, materials of construction, and decoration, but not in its musical function. It is an essential instrument in all vocal and instrumental genres of Hindustani music, filling the performance space with a continuous and unchanging presence of the tonal referent against which the soloist creates melody. Both men and women play the instrument, and vocal soloists often play it themselves while performing. It is common, and considered an honor, for a student to play the tambura in performances featuring his or her teacher.
The resonator section of the tambura is constructed from three components: a large bottleneck gourd the top third (its neck and shoulders) of which is removed and then about another third of the resulting open bowl is removed with a vertical cut; a new shoulder of wood is carved that roughly mimics the shape and thickness of the shoulder of the gourd that was removed but which is truncated with a vertical cut that matches the second cut to the original gourd; and a slightly convex, teardrop-shaped board carved from a thin plank of wood. The wood shoulder is glued to the top of the cut-down gourd, and then the teardrop-shaped board, which will function as the resonator’s soundboard, is attached with glue to the open face of the gourd/shoulder unit, resulting in a hollow resonating chamber that is similar in shape to a gourd but which has one nearly flat side. The second main component of the tambura body is the long neck/pegbox unit, the lower end of which is securely connected to the terminus of the resonator’s shoulder/soundboard with a tenon joint and nails. The neck/pegbox is itself hollow and constructed from two pieces of wood: one long U-shaped trough of consistent width and thickness, closed at its top end, that is carved from a single piece of wood; and a long slightly arched rectangular board that covers the entire length of the trough. An arched string-guider and a notched nut, both of bone, mark the boundary between the fingerboard and pegbox sections of the neck. Four large wooden friction tuning pegs penetrate the pegbox, two from the top and one each its sides. A broad, arched platform bridge with a deep and contoured top made of wood and bone is glued to the face of the soundboard. A wood and bone string holder is securely attached to the bottom of the resonator. This composite body serves as the carrier for four wire strings of varying gauges, three of steel and one of brass. Each string is wound around a tuning peg, passes through the string-guider and over a notch in the nut, runs down the length of the neck, passes over the bridge platform, is threaded through a fine-tuning bead, and attached to the string holder.
Player - Instrument Interface and Sound Production
The tambura player (or the vocal soloist if he or she is also playing the instrument) sits cross legged on the ground with the instrument positioned in one of two manners: vertically, with the base of the resonator on the ground or in the lap and the neck straight up or leaning back against the player’s shoulder; or horizontally, with the resonator back on the ground to the player’s right and the back of the neck resting across the thighs. The fleshy tips of the right hand index and middle fingers gently pluck the strings in such a way that the attack is nearly inaudible. The tuning of the tambura in a given performance is determined by the tonal center (sa) selected by the solo instrumentalist or vocalist being accompanied. If sa is C, for instance, a standard tuning for the tambura would be: G3 - C4 - C4 - C3. The strings are rough tuned with the pegs and fine-tuned by means of the small bone beads that they are threaded through, which can be slid along the convex surface of the soundboard to vary string tension. To bring out the proper overtones, a silk thread is placed on the bridge platform underneath each string; its placement is adjusted until a subtle metallic twang is produced by the vibrating strings. The soloist may dictate to the tambura player both the speed and the rhythm of the plucking pattern.
Multiple theories exist on the instrument’s precursors with some arguing that it is a variation on the Middle Eastern tanbur, others that it is of Indian origin. The tambura first appears in 17th century Mughal paintings, suggesting that this might be the period during which the practice of including a drone became a common practice in Hindustani music. While the instrument's form may originate from a Middle Eastern model, its use as a drone is characteristic of South Asian musics.
Dick, Alastair. 1984. “Tambura.” NGDMI v.3: 514-515.
Miner, Allyn. 2000. "Musical Instruments: Northern Area." In The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music v. 5. South Asia. ed. Alison Arnold. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., pp. 331-349.Wade, Bonnie. 1979. Music in India: The Classical Traditions. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall.
Region: South Asia
Classification (Sachs-Von Hornbostel revised by MIMO)321.321 chordophone--necked bowl lute: the handle is attached to or carved from the resonator, like a neck
Design and Playing Features
String carrier design: lute - joined
Resonator design, chordophone: bowl with wood soundboard
String courses: single
Vibrational length: pressure bridge to ridge-nut
String tension control: friction peg
Method of sounding: plucking (direct)
Pitches per string course: one
54.3 in. length
Roger Vetter, Toby Austin