2. Tuning the rubab

The layout of notes

When I went for my first rubab lesson in Kabul in 1973 (Baily 1997:121), my teacher, Ustad Mohammad Omar, had me draw a diagram of the fretboard of the instrument, with its three melody strings and four frets, and write in the note names, using a slightly modified version of sargam, the Indian solfège system. I was instructed to familiarise myself with the names and positions of the notes so that I could immediately find any note on the fretboard in response to hearing its name. Having established the note positions, Ustad Mohammad Omar's method of teaching was by notation, dictating compositions by speaking their note names for me to write down and then play back to him. The layout of notes on the rubab is shown below.

Fingerboard of rubab viewed from above

Fingerboard of rubab viewed from above

In this rubab tutor we use mainly the sargam system of notation which derives from Hindustani music, with 12 note names: Sa Ra Re Ga Ge Ma Me Pe Da De Na Ni. According to 20th century Hindustani theory the notes Sa and Pe are stable, while the other notes can take either flattened or sharpened forms, viz. Ra/Re, Ga/Ge, Ma/Me, Da/De, Na/Ni. The flattened forms of notes are sometimes referred to as komal and the sharpened forms as tivra. Many different scales can be constructed according to this theory. The note Sa usually corresponds to D in the western system but, following Hindustani convention, when writing in western staff notation everything is transposed down one whole-tone and written in C.

Fingerboard of rubab viewed from above

The notes in western staff and sargam notation: Ni1 Sa Ra Re Ga Ge Ma Me Pe Da De Na Ni Sa1

Tuning the rubab is a major challenge for the beginner because of the number of strings to be tuned and the difficulties in tuning them given certain limitations in the standard of craftsmanship in their manufacture, with ill-fitting tuning pegs. The standard Afghan rubab has three main melody strings, three or two long drones, and 13–15 sympathetic strings. The strings are attached to wooden tuning pegs.

The principle of the sympathetic string is as follows. It is a subsidiary string tuned to a specific pitch that is caused to vibrate when that note is sounded on a melody string, either in isolation or in the context of a melody, enriching the sound and prolonging its duration. For the effect to work the sympathetic string must be tuned very precisely. Sympathetic strings on the rubab are not normally used to play melodies, but may be strummed across to provide a drone effect. The normal complement of fifteen sympathetic strings allow one to tune two full octaves. For purposes of tuning it makes sense to regard the Bilawal scale as the default tuning. The intervals of this scale correspond to the western major scale. The common scales of rubab music can be understood as derived from Bilawal. Sa Re Ge Ma Pe De Ni Sa1. 13 stringed tuning is considered later. 3 long drones are tuned to the tonic (tonal centre, karj), to Sa, Pe the 5th above, and Pe1 a 4th below. If the instrument has pnly two long drones they are tuned to Sa and Pe. Two drones are easier to keep in tune than three drones; especially the low Pe, is hard to keep in tune.

Many Afghan musicians can tune the rubab by ear, with no need to refer to an instrument of fixed pitch like the harmonium. In a band context the rubab and other stringed instruments tune to notes provided by the harmonium player, who will often be very demanding about exact tuning. The difficulty for the beginner is that s/he may have no prior knowledge of music theory. If you have no way of labelling notes how can you tune a set of strings? Get a friend who knows about music to help you. Such a person is likely to be familiar with the western major scale and would be able to guide you in tuning to Bilawal. Alternatively, an electronic tuning device may be the solution to your problem.

a multi-angle version of the video is also available:

In my practice I tune the long drones first, to D (Sa), A (Pe) and A1 (Pe1). Then I tune the sympathetics, with frequent reference to the long drones. I pluck the sympathetics with my (right) thumb, and across the long drones with my first finger. If I am tuning to Bilawal I tune the sympathetics to:

D E F# G A B C# D1 E1 F#1 G1 A1 B1 C#1 D2

Or, in sargam notation

Sa Re Ge Ma Pe De Ni Sa1 Re1 Ge1 Ma1 Pe1 De1 Ni1 Sa2

It is a good idea to test octaves in the tuning process: Sa to Sa1 to Sa2, Re to Re1, Ge to Ge1 and so on. The three main strings are tuned to C#, F#, B. Those who play the guitar will notice that the melody strings are tuned in 4ths and playing the rubab is like playing on the bottom three strings of the guitar in the key of F. The basic note, the tonic or tonal centre (karj), in most modes played on the rubab is Sa (D).

One of the problems in tuning the rubab is that you have three sets of strings: the main strings, the long drones, and the sympathetic strings. Changes in the tuning one set is likely to disturb the tuning of the other two sets because of small changes in the tension of the velum. So, having tuned the main strings you need to go back to the long drones and adjust them, then the sympathetic strings again, and the mains again, going round several times to get the whole thing in tune. Once the instrument is properly in tune its sound is transformed to a new level of sonority. For the experienced musician the act of tuning is a pleasure rather than a chore. Musicians speak of the intense pleasure (kaif) you derive from the sound of the instrument once precise tuning has been achieved.

Ideally, the sympathetic strings should be tuned to the notes of the scale of the composition being played. So for Yeman scale Sa Re Ge Me Pe De Ni Sa1 (D E F# G# A B C#) one would tune the sympathetic strings, thus:

Sa Re Ge Me Pe De Ni Sa1 Re1 Ge1 Me1 Pe1 De1 Ni1 Sa2

Some scales take a different form in ascent and descent. Pilu, for example, is Sa Ga Ma Pe Ni Sa1 in ascent, but Sa1 Na De Pe Ma Ga Re Sa in descent. In this case one would tune the sympathetic strings to:

Sa Re Ga Ma Pe De Na Sa1 Re1 Ge1 Ma1 Pe1 De1 Ni1 Sa2

In a pentatonic (5 note) scale like Bhupali Sa Re Ge Pe De Sa1 one would tune the sympathetic strings to:

Sa Re Ge Ge Pe De De Sa1 Re1 Ge1 Ge1 Pe1 De1 De1 Sa2

In this way all the notes of the sympathetic strings are part of the Bhupali scale. The Ma/Ma1 strings are tuned down to Ge/Ge1, and the Ni/Ni1 strings to De/De1. It is better to tune down rather than up, which may break the string being tuned due to excess tension. And broken sympathetic strings are tiresome to replace.

Because retuning the rubab from one scale to another in the course of a performance is something of a chore I have tried to devise other tunings. One is a Universal Tuning, in which all the flattened notes, the komal notes, are in the lower octave, and the tivra notes in the upper octave:

Sa Ra Ga Ma Pe Da Na Sa1 Re1 Ge1 Me1 Pe1 De1 Ni1 Sa2

All 12 notes of the octave are represented in this tuning and a switch from one scale to another requires no retuning of the sympathetic strings. I devised this tuning specifically for an extended composition that modulated across seven different scales. More recently I have devised a modified version of this tuning, in which the upper octave is tuned to Bilawal, while the lower octave is tuned to the notes of the scale actually being played. This tuning reduces the number of strings that may have to be retuned in changing from one scale to another. It is worth noting that Afghan music is essentially diatonic, unlike the music cultures of adjacent regions which also use microtones.

The Bairami scale is much used in Afghan music but does not fit very neatly on to the rubab for playing classical music. In this scale all the variable notes take the flattened (komal) form: Sa Ra Ga Ma Pe Da Na Sa1. But playing from Sa is awkward. The note Na, is very important in Bairami but is not there on the rubab, so an octave leap to Na is required, which is physically awkward and sometimes musically undesirable. The solution for most rubab players wanting to play in Bairami is to take the note Re as the tonic (karj), so the scale is raised by a wholetone. This is called Bairami Rekap, the Bairami scale played not from Sa but from Re. The sympathetic strings are tuned:

Sa Re Ga Ma Pe De Na Sa1 Re1 Ge1 Ma1 Pe1 De1 Na1 Re2

Note that in the upper octave we tune to Ge1 rather than G1. This is because Ge is an important note in many Bairami melodies. The long drone usually tuned to Sa should now be raised to Re, but the Pe and Pe1 drones can stay as they are.

Yeman and Bairami are sometimes regarded as the Father and the Mother of all rags because in the former all the variable notes are sharp, and in the latter, flat.

Tuning a rubab with 13 strings simply requires omitting the Da1/De1 and Na1 /Ni1 notes in tuning the sympathetic strings.

Here are some practical hints on tuning. While tuning it is a good idea to support the instrument by resting its neck against the left knee while sitting cross-legged, to support it. Due to changes in temperature or humidity sometimes a peg become very tight in its hole, and great care must be taken not to twist too hard and break it. Tuning pegs are somewhat fragile, especially as they age. Lubricant paste of the kind that violin players use can be rubbed onto the section of the peg that engages with the peg holder. Sometimes a peg keeps slipping and won't hold the tuning. The remedy is to use chalk rubbed on the shank of the peg to help get a grip. A peg for a main string or long drone may develop a "bad habit" due to wear between the peg and its seating and it becomes very difficult to get the string in tune. The solution is to slacken the string and lengthen or shorten the string a little, then rethread into the peg. Now, hopefully, we have changed the position of the peg in relation to its peghole when the string is in tune.