Electric Sitars of the Psychedelic Era

Ravi Shankar (1966). Photo by: Express Newspapers / Stringer, Getty Images.

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In the '60s, there was a surge in popularity in the West for Indian music, and especially the sitar. George Harrison was the first on a pop record with the big Indian instrument, heard on "Norwegian Wood" on Rubber Soul at the end of 1965, and Brian Jones snuck his into the "Paint It, Black" and "Mother's Little Helper" A-sides released a few months later.

Using the sitar became a trend, although George wasn't impressed by what he'd started. "What I dislike about the sitar is the way it's become the 'in thing.' I never wanted this," he told Music Maker in 1966. "It's just become a part of the bandwagon, with too many people having a go with it, just to be considered 'in.'"

The Beatles - "Norwegian Wood"

What was needed was an easier way for mere pop mortals to get the sound of the sitar, an instrument that serious Indian masters such as Ravi Shankar spent a lifetime attempting to master.

Step up one Vincent Gambella, better known as New York session man Vinnie Bell. He'd worked with Nat Daniel, who'd set up Danelectro in New Jersey in the '40s. In the early '60s, Vinnie had helped Nat design the Bellzouki, Dano's electric 12-string, and now the two of them worked on an electric sitar.

The key to their invention was a new type of bridge, intended to provide a sitar-like sound from an otherwise relatively normal electric guitar. The almost-flat plastic bridge did create a buzzy sound for their instrument but also made it notoriously difficult to intonate.

Vinnie and Nat's Patent.

In Vinnie and Nat's patent, filed in 1967, they said a real sitar "produces somewhat of a buzzing sound as the melody is played" and that "the buzz results from the use of a relatively wide bridge against which the strings slap during the playing of the instrument, [which is] far different from the function of conventional [guitar] bridges." They claimed their new bridge design was "sturdy, highly accurate, and most importantly, is easily adjustable."

The Coral Sitar was launched in 1967, listing at $295. MCA had bought Danelectro the previous year, and it introduced a new Danelectro-made brand, Coral, named after one of its record labels. The Coral Sitar was a relatively successful attempt to provide a sitar-like sound from an instrument that offered the simpler playability of a regular electric guitar. The other feature that set the Coral apart was the 13 drone strings on the upper body, designed to resonate sympathetically with the regular strings—although, in practice, this proved largely theoretical.

A Danelectro-brand electric sitar followed, forsaking the ornate shape of the Coral's body and opting instead for something a little closer to the teardrop style of a real sitar, which traditionally used a gourd for its body. The Danelectro model also came with a metal leg-rest screwed to the lower edge of the body to assist any electric sitar players who favored the seated position when exploring their extended afternoon ragas.

Original production of the Coral and Danelectro sitars barely survived the '60s, but there have been subsequent revivals and copies, mostly based on the Coral style. The best-known for some time were the Jerry Jones models—including versions of both Coral and Dano, as well as the Supreme that provided the drone strings with a short separate neck—but the company stopped production in 2011.

'60s Coral Sitar. Photo by Main Drag Music.
Danelectro Baby Sitar.

There have been bits and pieces to assist the keen sitarist, too, including Eyb's replacement bridge and Göldo's Sitarizer Tele replacement saddles. One stylish electric sitar still available is the Modena, introduced by Trev Wilkinson's Italia brand around ten years ago. As well as Italia, Trev is known for his roller nut and vibrato systems, and as the brains behind brands such as Fret-King and Vintage. The Italia Modena Sitar uses the Coral design, as Trev acknowledges.

"My friend H.B. Cho at Mirr Music in Korea asked me to create a brand for him, which is how I started Italia, probably 20 years ago now," Trev recalls. "The first models for Italia were based around Nationals, Supros, Crucianellis, Davolis, Ekos—you name it. Anyway, another friend, Toshi Owha, had started to make a copy of the Coral Sitar with the Star brandname, which H.B. was making for him. I'd already done the Modena guitar with Italia, and I said to H.B. wouldn't it be cool if we put the drone strings of a Coral on the top bout of the Modena, to change it into a sitar? That's about as much design as I put into it, to be honest! That was all it needed."

Italia Modena Sitar. Photo by Bass Emporium.

Trev used Gotoh's sitar bridge on the Modena, a refined version of the original. He explains that the Gotoh has a double radius, where the original Coral was radiused in one direction. "You could rock the Coral bridge back and forth to adjust for the sitar effect, and you could lift it from side to side to try and get the right zizzle from the strings. But it was only radiused along the horizontal. That's where Gotoh, in their usual way, got hold of it and said OK, we'll improve this. They gave it some grooves for the strings to run through, which follow the radius of what a fingerboard would be, or close to it, and then it's radiused the other way, which allows the strings to just touch the surface plane and create the—well, to create the bad saddle effect," he concludes with a laugh.

Probably the most impressive application of an original Coral Sitar's bad saddle effect came with Steely Dan's "Do It Again," a hit single in 1972 and a highlight of the band's debut album, Can't Buy A Thrill. The star of the cut is Denny Dias and his dazzling electric sitar solo. Denny tells me he doesn't recall much about that session from nearly 50 years ago. "I only saw the Coral for a few hours," he says, "on the day we recorded that solo."

Vinnie Bell with the Coral Sitar on an album cover.

Someone with a clearer memory is the British musician, arranger, and producer Pip Williams. Today, he's a senior lecturer in music technology at the University of West London, and he perseveres with his passion for orchestral and choral arranging with the Finnish group Nightwish, which Pip describes as "arguably the world's number one symphonic metal band."

Back in 1972, however, Pip was at the Village Recorder studio in Los Angeles, working as the orchestral arranger for Bloodstone's Natural High album, produced by Mike Vernon. "In those days I was primarily a soul arranger," he tells me, "and I was aware of things like The Delfonics 'Didn't I (Blow Your Mind This Time)' along with a hell of a lot of other soul records that featured the electric sitar. I thought, well, I must have a look for one when I get to Los Angeles."

A chance visit to a pawn shop across the street from the studio landed Pip a Coral Sitar for $50, complete with rusty strings, a good deal of grime, and a parting word from the guy behind the counter: "It's a horrible thing—you'll probably never use it."

Back in the Village Recorder, Pip tried out his new purchase, and the tape op nipped into the room next door to chat with Steely Dan, mentioning the sitar. Pip recalls: "Someone from Steely Dan came in and said, 'I understand you've got hold of one of these Coral electric sitars. Can we rent it off you?' I said you don't need to rent it, you can borrow it, mate. The strings are all rusty, and it looks completely fucked—but you're welcome to take it and try it. Anyway, off he goes, and then he came back with it a short while later. And apparently they'd done the solo on 'Do It Again.'"

Vinnie Bell plays his electric sitar.

Denny Dias says Steely Dan's original intention for the Coral Sitar didn't work out. "We wanted to put a drone on 'Do It Again' like a sitar—but the thing would not drone," he remembers. "The drone was going to be like that Beatles tune that starts with a sitar. But then I started playing some licks, and someone said let's do the solo with that thing. I've never seen or played one since."

Meanwhile, Pip took his bargain Coral back home, playing it on many sessions in Britain and in the States. One of the most commercial featured a rare use of the sitar's drone strings, which he strummed to produce the ringing gliss that pops up through Tina Charles's "I Love To Love," a UK number 1 single in 1976.

Much later, after an unwelcome visit from the taxman, Pip had to sell his Coral—by then, one of his less used instruments. So if you stumble on Coral Sitar serial 820015, you'll have found an instrument with some sparkling history behind it.

Tony Bacon's 10 Electric Sitar Tracks

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About the author: Tony Bacon writes about musical instruments, musicians, and music. He is a co-founder of Backbeat UK and Jawbone Press. His books include Fuzz & Feedback, The Ultimate Guitar Book, and Electric Guitars: Design And Invention. Tony lives in Bristol, England. More info at tonybacon.co.uk.

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