|Middle East||ATLAS of Plucked Instruments|
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Here I regard the Middle East as the area of the Arabs, the Turks and the Iranians, which coincidently is more or less the area where the oud is one of the main plucked instruments.
So roughly it would be North Africa (Morocco*,
Algiers*, Tunesia*, Libya*, Egypt and Sudan),
and then across the Nile in Asia : Yemen,
Syria, Iraq and Iran
(Israel does not have typical plucked instruments).
The oud (or ud) is the classical lute
of the Arabs. It can also be found all over the world where you find
muslims; so also in many countries of Africa and South East Asia (see
The back of the body of the oud is made of (10-25)
quite thin ribs of wood, glued together, often in highly decorative
patterns. The soundboard is made of soft wood and has one or (often)
three rosettes. It has a short neck, with a fingerboard flush with the
soundboard and without frets. The violin-style friction pegs are inserted
from both sides of the open pegbox, which is slightly bended and fixed
to the neck under an angle to the back. It has nylon strings (original
gut strings) in 6 double courses, which are fixed to a bridge glued
on the soundboard.
The tuning of the Arabian style oud could be
: D GG AA dd gg c'c'.
The oud is played with a long thin (plastic)
plectrum. The music (if written) is in western notation. The classical
music is the taqsim : a kind of basic melodies/ scales on which
the player improvises. The most famous oud player of
recent times was the Iraqi : Munir Bashir (see under).
| oud Bashir
Besides the often used Egyptian-style oud, nowadays you can also find different models. In Iraq the famous (late) oud player Munir Bashir developed a special type of oud, which is now often named after him : the oud Bashir (or oud Bachir or Iraqi oud). It can be recognized by the loose bridge and the lack of decoration.
The most visual difference is that the soundholes do not have decorative rosettes in them (or around them), and usually are oval-shaped. However this type of open soundhole can also be found on a normal oud.
Although the back is made from separate ribs (like all ouds/lutes) the outside is sanded down to an almost round smooth surface. There is a thick strip around the edge, which serves also to fix the strings to. The fingerboard is slightly raised above the soundboard. The entire instrument is highly varnished.
/ pear-shaped oud
Nowadays some ouds are made in different shapes, like with a flat back or an electric one with only the body shape. Also another shaped oud is getting popular, with the body shaped like a pear. So it is sometimes called : pear-shaped oud, or (in Arabic) oud kumethra or even : "pregnant oud".
The main difference with the standard Egyptian oud
is the back of the body, which has curves in two directions. This must
be very difficult to make.
It is played like the standard oud.
The buzok (or bozok) is the long-neck lute of the Middle East. It is mainly played in Syria, Libanon and Jordan. A similar looking instrument can be found in North Africa (but with a flat back): the mondol (see Africa-North) and in Turkey/Greece : the lavta (see under).
The body of a buzok (much smaller than an oud) is made from separate ribs, glued together in a lute-shape. The neck is guitar-like, and has tied-on nylon frets. It has some 1/4 notes. The flat pegbox slopes slightly backwards, and has two slits for the tuning pegs, which are wooden T-shaped friction pegs; 3 on both sides. The fingerboard is sometimes made of white plastic. There is some wood inlay on the soundboard, and a carved wooden rosette inserted in the soundhole.
The buzok has 3x2 metal strings, which run over a small loose wooden bridge to a piece of wood on the edge of the body. Tuning could be cc gg c'c'.
It is played with a plectrum. Although usually an instrument for folk music, it is also used to play classical taqsim on it.
The qanbus is the lost lute of the Yemen. It is very difficult to find nowadays, as it is completely taken over by the Arabian oud. It may also be called qambus or turbi.
It is similar to other small lute-like instruments in
East Africa, with similar names like gabusi on the Comoros,
kibangala (on the Swahili coast - see East-Africa),
qabus in Saudi Arabia, and gabbus
in Oman. It is replaced now almost everywhere
by the much larger Arabian Oud. It may have been the eldest
of the ouds.
The body and neck of the qanbus are made from
one piece of wood, hollowed out. The lower part of the body is covered
with hide, and the top half with a thin piece of wood. There is usually
some kind of soundhole made in the wood.
See for much more information about this Qanbus
and related lutes : Portfolio.
The saz is the most well-known Turkish plucked instrument. It comes in several different sizes : the small cura, the baglama, the bigger divan saz and the biggest : the meydan saz. Nowadays you can also find an electric saz. The baglama (pronounce : bah-lahma) is the most popular. In Iran and Azerbaijan this instrument may be called chogur, choghur or çogur.
The body of the saz is traditionally carved
from a block of wood, hollowed out with a round soundhole on the bottom
side. However nowadays the body is often made from separate ribs glued
together. It has a thin wooden soundboard, with usually several strips
of different coloured wood on both sides.
The saz is played with a plectrum and mainly
only the first course. Some players manage to tap with the ringfinger
on the soundboard while strumming (like flamenco players), to give a
special extra rhythm effect. Others use a kind of tapping.
See for more information about the Turkish saz : allaboutturkey.
The cümbüs (pronounced "dzjoom-boos", and there should be a small cédille under the s) is a banjo-like instrument from Turkey. The name comes from the name of the factory in Istanbul.
The body is made from a metal bowl, that looks like a cooking-pan. The (plastic) banjo skin can be tuned by screws around the rim, which also join the bowl to the front. The wooden neck and the peghead is made from one piece of wood, and fixed with a large screw to the side of the bowl. By turning the screw the angle of the neck can be adjusted. There is a veneer layer as fingerboard, and the cümbüs is fretless.
The cümbüs has 6x2 metal strings, and is tuned like an oud. The tuning machines are in two rows of 6 on both sides of the open peghead. The bridge has 3 round pieces glued to the feet, to avoid the high pressure of 12 metal strings damaging the skin. The strings are fixed to a metal stringholder at the edge of the rim.
The cümbüs is played like an oud.
There used to be a similar instrument called the ahenk, with a wooden bowl, and a wooden front, but with the bridge resting on a small separate piece of skin. It had two small soundholes in the front. There seems to be a recent revival of the ahenk.
The oud (or ud) in
Turkey resembles much the Egyptian (Arabian) oud, but usually
the body is more slender and a bit smaller. In general the instrument
is quite plain (there is not much decoration).
The tuning of the Turkish oud with 11 nylon strings (in 6 courses), is two notes higher than the Arabian oud : E AA BB ee aa d'd'.
The Lavta is an instrument that was popular in the early 20th century, particularly amongst Greeks and Armenians, with a famous player like Tanburi Cemil Bey. Then it was gradually replaced by the oud and around 1930 they were vanished. From the 1980’s there has been a revival of this instrument, and now you can find them again both in Turkey and in Greece.
The lavta is a kind of hybrid oud :
the body looks much like a small (Turkish) oud (with a body
made of many ribs), with a guitar-like neck. The bridge usually has
mustache-like ends. The fingerboard is flush with the soundboard, which
is often unvarnished, and has a carved and inlayed rosette. Notice the
very peculiar fretting distances (with wound nylon frets), resembling
the Turkish tanbur.
The Turkish tanbur (also tambur) is a classical Turkish lute with a very long thin neck. The name is also used for other long neck lutes in Iran and Central Asia.
The body is made of (20-25) thin wooden ribs in a very round shape. The front is very thin spruce, left unvarnished. The broomstick-like neck is fixed to the body, and continues into the peghead. There are 6 violin-type friction pegs, 4 are inserted from the front and 2 from the left side. The frets are tied-on nylon (in 5 windings per fret), with many in 1/4 note intervals.
The tanbur has 3x2 metal strings, which go over a loose bridge to holes at the edge of the body. Tuning is usually Dd AA dd.
In spite of its long length it is not so difficult to play, however orientation demands practice, by which the special arrangement of the 1/4 notes is helpful. Because of the long length it has a very deep sound. Usually only the first course is fingered. The tanbur is mainly used to play classical taqsim music. It is also used by the Kurds for folk music, to accompany singing.
Besides this tanbur there is another similar instrument with a long neck, but with the body like a banjo. This instrument is called yayli tambur (see under), which is mainly used as a bowed instrument.
See (and hear) more at Tanbur (in Turkish).
This special Turkish tambur
is a hybrid : a combination of the normal lute-like long neck
tambur with the body like a banjo. This instrument
is called yayli tambur (or yaylih tambur).
The neck is quite flat, and just as long as the normal tanbur. The frets are tied-on nylon (with 5 windings per fret). It has a small guitar-like peghead with machine-tuners (3 on each side). The 6 metal strings (in 3 courses) run over a loose bridge (with the two feet on flat round wooden plates) to some fixing points at the edge of the bowl.
Tuning is the same as the tambur : Dd AA dd.
The yayli tambur is mainly used as a bowed instrument,
but it is sometimes plucked; that is why it is included here anyway.
See (and hear) more at Tanbur (in Turkish).
Iran (formerly called Persia) is on the crossroad of many different cultures. To the west (with Iraq) live the Arabs (Iranians are not Arabs, and although their script is in Arabic, their language is Farsi). To the east the Pakistani and Hindis of the Indian subcontinent, in the northeast the Afghans and in the northwest the Kurds in Turkey and Caucasus. So no wonder the Iranian plucked instrument reflect this wide variety.
The two main Iranian instruments
are the setar and the tar, related to each other in
tuning and both used for classical Iranian Maqam music. The oud
(here called Barbat) is nowadays hardly played in Iran. In
the north you can find the saz Azerbaijan (also called qopuz,
or chogur ) and the Azeri tar. To the southeast
(in Baluchistan) the tanburag (see page Pakistan)
is used, in groups that also use the benju (see page India).
In several areas the dotar (in different types) is in use.
The afghan rabab is used in the east, but also in a different
shape in orchestras.
The setar (also spelled sehtar) is the main plucked instrument from Iran. It is one of the very many long neck lutes from the area of the Middle East and Central Asia. They all have a quite thin neck made of walnut or apricot, and a body usually made of mulberry; either built of ribs, or carved from a single block.
The setar body is made of (7 to 10) ribs, glued
together. The soundhole is usually a number of small holes drilled in
a pattern in the front.
The setar is played with only the right index finger, strumming up and down. It gives a very sweet delicate sound. The music is mainly the classical Dastgah of Iran. It is also played by the Sufi mystics.
The tar is another important long neck
lute from Iran. A similar shaped and named instrument is used
in the Caucasus states (see under Azerbaijan).
The body of a tar is a double-bowl (figure-of-eight) shape, carved from one piece of mulberry wood (some from a bookmatched pair of wood pieces). Seen from the side the body is slanting towards the end. The front is a thin membrane of stretched bladder.
The neck is glued to the body and a separate quite large, square pegbox. The 6 friction pegs (with big round knobs) are in three on both sides of the open pegbox. The frets are tied-on nylon or gut, with some in 1/4 note intervals.
The tar has 6 steel strings in 3 double courses (the lowest one in octave). They run over a loose bone bridge (with feet) on the skin, and are fixed to a string-holder at the edge of the body. Tuning would be cc' gg c'c'.
There is also a bass tar, which has only 3 strings and only the lower half of the body is covered with a skin. It is uses in orchestras.
The Iranian tanboor (also spelled tanbur or tanbour) has a narrow pear-shaped body, normally made with (7-10) separate ribs, glued together. The body-shape looks much like the Turkmen dutor (see Central Asia), which is however always carved. It has a separate long neck with 14 tied-on gut frets. The soundboard is also made of mulberry wood and has a number of small holes burned in it in a pattern. It has 3 flat T-shaped pegs; 2 are inserted from the front, one from the left side.
The tanboor has three metal strings - the first course is double, on which the melody is played. The other one functions as a drone string with occasional fingering by the thumb. The strings run over a small loose bridge, to holes in the edge of the body.
The tanboor has a unique playing technique by which the strings are strummed with the 3 fingers of the right hand (with arpeggios upwards, and hardly any use of the thumb) to produce a very full and even tremolo, often to accompany Sufi singing.
The tanboor has always been considered a sacred instrument associated with the Kurdish Sufi music of Western Iran and it is believed that its repertoire is based on ancient Persian music.
In Iran several different types of dotar (or dutar) are used. All look similar, and have two strings (hence the name : "two strings").
They differ slightly according to the region they are used, but of course they also differ between different local crafsmen. A global list (based on an Iranian book) could be :
All dotars have the body carved from one block of mulberry wood to a thin shell, with a mulberry front (sometimes dried in an oven). In the soundboard some tiny soundholes are usually drilled in a pattern, or one small hole in the back. The body and neck are left unvarnished.
The neck is long and separate, often made of pear or
plum wood. The tuning head is part of the neck and has two T-shaped
tuning pegs, ususally one at the front and one at the left side.
All dotars are played strumming/scraping/banging
with the fingers in a specific pattern, and usually only the first string
The shurangiz (also spelled shourangiz or shoorangiz) is a quite new instrument from Iran. It was designed by Hossein Alizadeh and is basically a setar, but with a partly skin front, to resemble more the sound of the tar.
The shurangiz body is made of separate ribs,
glued together. There are in general two different types of shurangiz
: a small one (the size of the setar, with 4 strings) and a
bit larger one (about the size of the tamboor, with 6 strings).
The strings are thin steel strings, in 3 courses. They
run over a small loose wooden bridge, to a (wooden) stringholder at
the edge of the body.
The shurangiz is played like the setar, with only the right index finger, strumming up and down. It gives a slightly sharper sound than the setar, while the 6 string version has a much fuller and stronger sound.
For lots of information about Iranian instruments see farabisoft.
In Iran the afghan rabab (see Central Asia) is used mainly in the north and east (Khorasan). But recently the instrument has been altered someway, to be played in special orchestras. To distinquise it from its afghan cousin, we will call it : the iranian rabab (or rubab).
The main difference with the afghan rabab is
the lengthening of the neck (with extra frets), and using 4 main (gut
or nylon) strings. It lacks the two metal drone strings on the left
side of the main strings.
The chonguri is a long neck lute from Georgia, quite similar to the panduri (see under).
The back of the body is made from (7-10) ribs in such
a way that the end forms a flat (standing) end block, which gives the
chonguri its special shape. Some instruments have a body carved
from one piece of wood. There are usually many soundholes drilled in
the soundboard, in a round pattern.
The 4 nylon strings (or better : 3 1/2) run over a loose
wooden bridge to a single pin on the endblock.
The chonguri is mainly used to accompany singing, and because it is normally fretless, no chords are played.
For unknown reason the example has 6 frets of inlayed hard wood.
The panduri is another popular plucked instrument from Georgia, and looks very similar to the chonguri (see above).
The main differences are : the panduri is smaller, it lacks the string halfway (so the panduri has just 3 nylon strings), the panduri has frets and the body shape is less rounded, and usually more in the shape of a spade (so less with a parallel sided endblock). The body is almost always made carved from one block of wood.
The frets are usually made of wood, inlayed in the front of the neck. On some there are 7 frets to an octave, but nowadays also chromatic fretting can be found.
Tuning would be : e b a', or : g a c', and playing is
often strumming to accompany singing.
tar /Caucasus tar
The tar of Iran can be found (in a slightly different shape) in the Caucasus states of Armenia and especially Azerbaijan. It is known as the Azeri tar or Caucasus tar or 11 string tar or qafqazi tar. It was developed from the Iranian tar around 1870 by Sadikhjan, a tar player from Azerbaijan. It is the national instrument of Azerbaijan, but it is also popular in Uzbekistan. See for the Iranian tar : above.
The body of the Azeri tar has a double-bowl (figure-of-eight) shape, carved from one piece of mulberry wood. It lacks the slanting sides of the Iranian tar, and the top half is rounded. The front is a thin membrane of stretched bladder.
The neck is glued to the body (which has a strengthening stick through it) and a separate (quite large) square pegbox. The friction pegs are 3 big round knobs on both sides, and 3 violin-like pegs on the left side of the open pegbox. The frets are tied-on nylon (4 windings), with some in 1/4 note intervals (based on 17 intervals in an octave). These fret intervals differ from the Iranian tar.
The Azeri tar has (like the Iranian tar)
6 steel strings in 3 double courses (the low one in octave). It
has further one extra bass-string on the left side, on a raised nut,
and usually 2 double resonance strings via small metal nuts halfway
the neck. All these strings are running next to the main strings over
the bridge and are fixed to a string-holder at the edge of the body.
The tar is played with a special small brass plectrum and hold horizontally high across the chest.
In Azerbaijan (next to Georgia and Armenia in the Caucasus) and in the north of Iran they use a saz that looks quite similar to the saz of Turkey, but is rather different. In Iran it is sometimes called gopuz, or ghopooz, (or chogur / choghur) but usually it is referred to as azeri saz.
The body of the azeri saz is quite deep and made of separate staves of usually mulberry wood (only rarely it is carved from a block of wood). The same wood is used for the front, which has two tiny soundholes, and lays on top of the body. The neck is a bit wider at the body join, and the pegbox is a straight extension of the neck. Some instruments may be highly decorated with inlay or with paintings, both on neck and body.
Playing style is holding the instruments rather high over the shoulder with a short strap. It is mainly used by the poet-singers of the Ashigh.
In Dagestan (a Russian republic between Chechnya and the Caspian Sea, just East of Georgia in the Caucasus) exists a special instrument, which is mentioned in both the Vertkov's Atlas SSSR, and in Buchner's book. It is called agach komus (or agach-kumuz), or temur by the Avar people. Also kumuz by the Darghin and khumutz by the Tabasar. On YouTube this instrument seems quite popular, and can be found with names like Avar Pandur, pandure, tenpur, or tanbur or tanpur.
It is a kind of slender guitar with 2 (double)
or 3 strings, with a deep body (carved from one block of wood) shaped
like a long spade and fitted with a trident-like "spike" at
the lower end. The short neck seems part of the body and has inlayed
frets - sometimes in a diatonic scale (less frets). Some are nicely
In Chechnya (a Russian republic West of Dagestan, just
North-East of Georgia in the Caucasus) exists a special instrument,
which can be found mainly on YOUTUBE and other video websites.
It is an instrument like the Russian balalaika, but with a rectangular body shape. The back is shaped like a wave (like the achag komus, see above). The body and neck is traditionally carved from one block of wood and hollowed out from the front, but nowadays they are also made from small parts glued together. It has a guitar-like neck with metal frets, and an open peghead with guitar-tuners on one side.
The 3 metal strings run over a loose wooden bridge to a long narrow stringholder at the end of the body.
It seems mostly strummed with the fingers, playing chords to accompany singing.
In Kalmykia (a Russian republic next to the Caspian Sea,
between Dagestan and Kazakhstan) exists a special instrument, which
seems a mixture of both the 2-string dombra and the balalaika.
The Kalmyk people are closely related to a group in Mongolia, from where
they originated. This instrument is also in use there, to accompany
throat singing. It is called Kalmyk dombra (or dongbula
For more information about Kalmyk music, see kalmykheritage, with music examples.