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Online Akustik Travels

From the Oud To The Guitar

by Claude Samard Polikar

3,000 years separate the arabic luth from the guitar although ancient paintings found in Egyptian temples show that the main characteristics of the the luth family (neck, strings, soundboard) already existed.

Before Faudel, Khaled and Rai music or Mouni Bachir (for those of you who actually listen to the right stations) ever got to us, the arabic luth also known as the "oud" which means "wood", has traveled from it's original Islam to the Far East as well as to the West where it had a great impact all around the mediterranean. As in Europe, during the Rennaissance period, it adjusted to western harmonies. While it has kept it's original shape, frets have been added, giving birth to the luth. Although it is known as a classic arabic instrument (in Cairo or in Damas, it is a highly regarded instrument and studied as much as the piano in Paris or in New York music schools), it is also a traditional instrument played in most popular arabic events.
Thanks to the growing popularity of "World Music", the cultural globalisation and the quest for new sound stimulations from western audiences, naturally our ears have become accustomed to the traditional sounds designed for meditation, dreaming and dancing that are so familiar to Africans and to most Asians. From Syria to Turkey, from Cairo to the southern parts of the Sahara and Morocco, the oud is probably the only instrument that will actually play chords and the only one that has a wide enough range. Traditionally it is played with other intruments such as the darbuka, the bendir, the flute (ney) and the gimbri (the desert bass). It's also the instrument chosen to perform solos that we usually see in concerts. More recently the success of Rai music has given us an additional opportunity to learn more about this instrument, that has since been electrified for the purpose of being played with other electric instruments.

Ouds from the Cantigas de Santa Maria, c. 1257–83

These are the reasons why many guitarists willing to renew their sources of inspiration, turn to the oud and the richness of it's quarter tones (though not always played on purpose - don't forget the oud has no frets !). Imagine a classical guitar with nylon strings, a wood bridge and no frets, played with a long flexible piece of plastic, the shape of a nail file held like you would hold a car key while you try to open the door, in a broken wrist position (like Django would), and there you have it in a nutshell! Now beginners who were considering this option shouldn't be too discouraged by this description; there is a brighter side. First you can use a soft guitar pick, but be careful because it's a little like trying to play bluegrass without a hard pick: you won't get the sound. You'd better steer cleer away from the Canda Dry effect, and stick with a classic "feather" ("Richa" in Arabic) approach. By the emails I've been receiving from various musicians, it looks like we have a basic tuning problem to deal with first. The instrument is often brought home after a trip and some of the strings are broken or missing. In this situation you can't help but wonder if any of it makes sense. Most ouds have 11 strings, 5 pairs of unissons plus one low drone. However in Egypt they often only use 4 pairs plus one drone, that’s where I got mine. There are dozens of different tunings depending on the country, the makers and the Makam (Key) of the song. 2 great categories of ouds are the Turkish (smaller) and the Arabic oud. Most of the tunings include mostly fourths. Turkish ouds are also used in Armenian and Greek music. The most common Turkish tuning is from low to high: EABead (Capital letters lower notes). The Arabic oud is larger and tuned lower. It s played in Syria, Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon and all around Northern Africa. The most common arabic tuning is CFAdgc. (Low drone single C). My Egyptian oud is tuned GADgc, the low G is the drone all the others are unisson pairs which makes 9 strings instead of the most common 11 string ouds.

So you see, that's not so bad after all is it? We're in familiar territory here with these quarter intervals AA, DD, GG, just like a guitar. Instead of having a B for your highest note you get a C and so on per quarter. The only real trick is that the low G can be doubled up giving you a second from the A, but the best part is that it's also an octave from the G. Then you need to tune it. If you have an oud sleeping in a corner, it's time to wake it up. Here's a good tip to start tuning it: start right now! You have a month before we meet again in these columns. You will then be introduced to the ways of the masters' great concert performances. This very oriental lesson of patience is quite akin to the study of Asian or Oriental music, culture or instruments. Nowhere will you ever find or even see a manual that titles "How to play the Oud in 10 easy lessons". So slow down!
I used the oud in an album I released several years ago: "Unplugged Journey" (KOKA Media)