Friday, September 18, 2009

the sitar in 1967 pop music

Listening to some of the great pop songs of the mid-60s, you cannot help but notice the prevalence of the sitar on most tracks. And chances are good that if you hear a sitar in a western pop-song... it's from 1967, when the sitar fad exploded due to George Harrison and Shawn Phillips.

George Harrison is the first musician to be recognized for introducing the sitar into popular music, using the instrument on Norweigian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)" on Rubber Soul (1965).

Harrison went on to play the sitar on Revolver (1966) and to write various sitar tracks on that album, most notably "Love To You," and my favorite, "Tomorrow Never Knows" which can be considered the first psychedelic rock song (beyond the sitar, there's the reverse guitar, crazy drumming, and of course, famously, a Leslie Speaker cabinet for John's vocals).

Here's a great clip detailing the making of the song

These songs not only mark the emergence of the sitar in pop music, but, for Harrison, they represent some of his finest contributions to the Beatles' catalogue. It's clear at this point that he is exploring his interest and training with the sitar. However, taking the lyrics into consideration, it's obvious that Harrison is also exploring his own experiences with eastern philosophy-- especially heard on his later composition, "Within Without You" on Sgt. Pepper's (1967).

After George Harrison, my other favorite pop-sitar player is Shawn Phillips. Phillips played with Donovan throughout the 60s and here he is playing on "Three King Fishers" (another personal favorite, from "Sunshine Superman", 1966).

The clip is from Pete Seeger's show "Rainbow Quest." Stay until the end to see a really sweet interview between Seeger and Phillips.

Harrison and Donovan are a large part of why the sitar starts appearing in pop music-- for both it was their time spent in India exploring eastern religion. For Harrison, it was his training with Ravi Shankar:

In 1967, there is an explosion of the sitar in rock n' roll and pop. Here are some my favorite highlights:

The sitar is used by Brian Jones on "Paint it Black".

Here's a clip from the show Ready, Steady, Go! in 1967

Jones also plays the sitar on "Street Fighting Man" (1968).

Lemon Pipers "Green Tambourine" (1967) features an electric sitar-- although not seen here, on this hilariously bad video

Kinks "Fancy" from the LP "Face to Face" has an GREAT sitar, and it's an amazing song (unfortunately, not a very good video):

Often overlooked, one of the most extensive users of the sitar were Mike Heron and Robin Williamson of The Incredible String Band (a personal favorite), who combined folk, psychadelia with eastern influences in their music. This video is fantastic quality... with some crazy sitar playing!

"Iron Stone" from the LP "The Chelsea Sessions" (1967)

While each of these songs use the sitar to effect an eastern, psychedelic, groovy sort of atmosphere, the sitar begins to expand beyond such denotations. For examples, check out the Cowsills "The Rain the Park and Other Things" (1967)-- although not prominent, you can hear the sitar starting at 1:45

(Damn, I need to do an entire blog on the Cowsills.... that's a story).

And, you can hear it on the beginning of Stevie Wonder's 1970 hit "Signed Sealed Delivered"....

Yes, that's a sitar you're groovin' to...!


  1. Hey, nice blog! A few things... The Cowsills' song isn't a real sitar, it's a Voxx pedal (like the one used in most bubblegum songs such as The Lemon Pipers' Green Tambourine). This blog entry needs to mention Big Jim Sullivan, who was the only studio guitarist in England who actually owned a sitar and also played sitar, so he played on nearly all those British albums and songs. He also released a few solo albums, as Lord Sitar and Big Jim Sullivan.

    The electric Voxx sitar was best used in LA or southern Californian bands...I could name off a list of 2000 great songs by random groups from that region who used it. West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band comes to mind immediately.

    Oh, this song rules:

    I love sitar, and i love it especially in rock music. Check out Ananda Shankar sometime...Ravi's nephew who brought his sitar experience to the UK and did only raga-rock. Awesome!!

    Egg (HTML ain't allowed in posts, i guess?)

  2. I didn't really think the Cowsills song was an actual sitar.... thanks for clarifying. And thanks for the comments! And for reading!

    You should TOTALLY do a sitar-themed radio show soon. :)
    ... and I'm going to check out this html comments issue... hrm.