• OVERVIEW •
The Arabic oud (fretless lute) is slightly larger than its Turkish cousin, and consequently takes deeper tunings. This interval pattern transposes a common tuning, popular in Syria and the surrounding region (…to jam with the original depth, move everything down 4 semitones: C-F-A-D-G-C).
Note the guitar-like circle of fourths (across 4-3-2-1str) – in fact, the whole tuning is just a reshuffling of the guitar’s Standard interval pattern (‘5-4-5-5-5’ vs. ‘5-5-5-4-5’). Use these almost-familiarities for broad modal explorations, with open-string drone tones available to complement melodic lines and thicken the overall sound (n.b. also see Turkish Oud tuning, which adapts a higher variant of this pattern).
Harmony: E6/9(sus4) | 1-4-6-2-5-1
• TUNING TONES •
• SOUNDS •
The Arabic oud is a fretless lute with 11-13 strings, arranged in 6 or 7 ‘courses’ (string groups: like a 12-string guitar) – all are paired in unisons other than the very deepest, which resonates alone. This basic design turns up in a range of traditions across the Islamic world and beyond, with variety existing between local variants – for example Syrian, Egyptian, and Iraqi models all sound subtly different.
Wissam Joubran (one-third of Palestinian oud group Le Trio Joubran) unpacks the instrument’s expansive history: “The oud is…descended from the ancient lyre or harp, that had several strings, each of which played one single note. Westerners have used the oud since its emergence during the Andalusian period (8th-15th century), which was the golden era of this instrument…Its history, as well as its rich sonorities, favoured its assimilation of many musical cultures, both Arab and non-Arab, which explains the multiplicity of ‘languages’ that the instrument can express”.
- NPR Tiny Desk set – Rahim Al-Haj (2015):
“There is nothing that is really ‘Western’ or ‘Eastern’ music – we made that all up. What is so-called ‘world music’? That completely depends on your perspective, where you are located yourself. What is exotic in one place is commonplace or traditional in another. There is only the world, and there is only music…” (Rahim Al-Haj)
The European lute, an ancestor of the guitar, was adapted from North African oud designs (the word ‘lute’ comes from the Arabic al-‘oud) – meaning that the oud is a direct ancestor of the guitar family too (check out more of this history in the writeup for Standard tuning).
This ancient kinship is woven into the open strings of all three instruments. Standard tunings for the oud, lute, and guitar all span two octaves – and also divide up these two octaves using the same five intervals (four 4ths and one maj. 3rd). All that differs is the order: each places the ‘odd-one-out’ maj. 3rd gap between a different string pair (guitar: 5>5>5>4>5, lute: 5>5>4>5>5, oud: 5>4>5>5>5). (n.b. the precise histories are a little more complex than this: with abundant regional variations and a much messier path to innovation than this simple ‘three-step program’)
- Nawwar – Le Trio Joubran (2012):
While modern Arabic ouds can take many different tunings, this one is among the most common, especially in the Syrian region (whereas in Iraq, Egypt, and some Gulf states, it may be transposed upwards by a perfect 4th: to F-Bb-D-G-C-F). The Ethnic Musical oud guide cites this layout as being well-suited to several popular maqamat (melodic frameworks), including the three below. Try them out on the guitar!
- Hijaz: 1-b2-3-4-5-b6-b7 (=Phrygian Dominant/Basant Mukhari)
- Rast: 1-2-b3-4-5-6-b7 (both are actually microtonal ‘half-flats‘)
- Bayātī: 1-b2-b3-4-5-6-7 (=Aeolian mode with a ‘half-flat’ 2nd)
And for some jam inspiration, listen to a sampling of oud greats through time: such as Munir Bashir (the ‘King of the Oud’), Rahim Al-Haj (a modern master from Baghdad), Marcel Khalifé (a politically-charged Lebanese legend), Kamilya Jubran (a multi-modal Palestinian composer), and Joseph Tawadros (a virtuosic Egyptian-Australian innovator), and Dhafer Youssef (an unclassifiable global fusioneer from Tunisia). Also check out the Oud for Guitarists channel.
- Constantinople – Joseph Tawadros (2017):
- Dhafer in more depth (from my Sufi fusions article for Ragatip):
“Dhafer Youssef, a truly unclassifiable musician, has walked a winding path to mastery. Born in 1967, he grew up in an impoverished Tunisian fishing village, and, like his ancestors, learned muezzin singing at his local Quranic school. He always yearned to take up an instrument, but his family had no money for one, so he fashioned an oud out of materials found washed up on the beach. Without being able to hire a teacher, he naturally sought to mirror the melodies of the music he loved – painstakingly deconstructing them by ear.”
“Aside from devotional songs…these early influences included a plethora of jazz styles, picked up from the Italian radio stations he could just about tune into from across the Mediterranean (although at first he had to keep this extracurricular listening secret from the village elders). He began singing at weddings, eventually saving up enough to buy his first ‘proper’ oud…”
As a 16-year-old who had recently returned from Marrakesh with a very cheap oud bought from a market stall, I briefly met Youssef after his enthralling sold-out show at Bath Abbey. He patiently answered my questions, including on how he had derived his own oud tunings back in those early days (unfortunately, the details are hazy to me now…).
- Soupir Eternel – Dhafer Youssef (2012):
“My voice is an instrument, through which I sing and discover new sounds. The oud is an extension of my voice, and vice versa. I am convinced that the capacity of the voice is limitless…Music solicits the senses; one needs to listen to it and feel it…” (Dhafer Youssef)
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• NUMBERS •
- See my Tunings Megatable for further such nerdery: more numbers, intervallic relations, comparative methods, etc. And to any genuine vibratory scientists reading: please critique my DIY analysis!
• RELATED •
—Associated tunings: proximities of shape, concept, context, etc…
- Oud (Turkish): smaller, with strangely-separated fourths
- Lute (this with 4str +1): oud descendent, guitar ancestor
- Standard: another shuffle of the same intervals
• MORE INFO •
—Further learnings: sources, readings, lessons, other onward links…
- Arabic maqam: learn more about the intricate melodic frameworks of Arabic classical traditions in my quick Glossary summary, and an overview by Oud for Guitarists – and browse the Maqam World database (“a system of scales, habitual melodic phrases, modulation possibilities, ornamentation norms, and aesthetic conventions…), and watch an amazing lec-dem on the fine shades of Arabic microtonality from Sami Abu Shumays
- Fretless guitars: take after the oud’s smooth neck with innovators such as Indian virtuoso Vasant Rai, London-based Rich Perks (…probably not a case of nominative determinism given the niche nature of the field) – and worldwide sonic explorer David Fiuczynski’s Global MicroJam project (“On…FLAM!, all melodies and most counterpoints are based on microtonal transcriptions of bird songs…a continuum between composition and improv. At times there’s freedom to solo and do whatever you want. Or there’s a gear in between with structured improv based on specific bird melody motifs…”)
Header image: Nahat-style Arabic oud (Tdrivas)
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George Howlett is a London-based musician, writer, and teacher (guitars, sitar, tabla, & santoor). Above all I seek to enthuse fellow sonic searchers, interconnecting fresh vibrations with the voices, cultures, and passions behind them. See Home & Writings, and hit me up for Online Lessons!
“An intrepid guitar researcher…”
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