When one thinks of traditional rock and roll, one generally pictures a band of four and the instruments are usually the drums, bass, guitar, and vocal, as well as some keyboards. (You can also throw in a harmonica and tambourine, if you like). As rock developed into the 1960s, however, a variety of other unexpected instruments came to be used in rock and roll, particularly in connection with progressive rock. This is the first of several posts dealing with the unexpected rock instrument.
The sitar is a stringed instrument with strong resonation that was used since the middle ages in classical Hindustani music in India, as explained in the Wikipedia article. The sitar has a distinctive sound and produces a rich harmony. Before the mid-1960s, it would occur to noone that the sitar could be a rock and roll instrument as well, but that’s what it became.
There were apparently two main performers who first noticed the sitar and began to get others, such as George Harrison, interested in the instrument. In 1965, David Crosby (then of the Byrds) came into contact with the musician and sitarist Ravi Shankar and began to spread the news about classical Indian music.
The second figure was Shawn Phillips, whose Second Contribution was a topic of a previous post here. Phillips himself was more directly responsible for Harrison’s use of the instrument, it seems. Phillips, who had already become familiar with playing the sitar, actually gave George Harrison lessons, as mentioned in a recent interview of Phillips in Modern Guitars Magazine:
Interviewer: I understand that you sang backup on the Beatles “Lovely Rita”. How did you get there and what was that like?
Phillips: Well, hanging out in England and working with Don, you just sort of ran into all these people at the clubs we’d got to like the Speakeasy. We’d run into Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, all these people and gradually you get to know people.
At one point I was giving sitar lessons to George Harrison. He was just getting started with the instrument. We had dinner over at his house, I don’t know how many times, and I’d sit down and give him the pointers I knew and so forth and one day he said, “Why don’t you guys come over and visit the studio? We’re doing this new album.”
We walked in and Paul said, “Hey, why don’t’ you guys sing back up on this tune?”
You don’t think about the fact that you may be making music history. We were just a bunch of guys hanging out.
The sitar was soon to become an important sound of the Beatles as they entered their more interesting, psychedelic stage. “Norwegian wood” on Rubber Soul (1965) was the first use of the sitar on a rock record, it seems, and Harrison would continue to use the sitar along with his continued involvement in Hinduism. You can read a good description of this influence on Harrison’s life in The Guardian obituary. Soon others such as the Rolling Stones’ Brian Jones likewise began to incorporate the sitar into their music, as on “Paint it black” (1966).
As to Shawn Phillips, there is an interesting video on Youtube in which Shawn Phillips explains a bit about the sitar and he and Donovan perform on Pete Seeger’s Rainbow Quest show in 1965. Whether this was before or after giving lessons to Harrison, I’m not sure:
There’s also a video there regarding George Harrison’s subsequent lessons with Ravi Shankar: