George Harrison: The Great Sitar Explosion


Maybe it was not coincidence that while pregnant with George Harrison, his mother often listened to the weekly broadcast Radio India. Harrison's biographer Joshua Greene wrote, "Every Sunday she tuned into mystical sounds evoked by sitars and tablas, hoping that the exotic music would bring peace and calm to the baby in the womb."

George Harrison was born to get involved in Indian classical music.

Roger McGuinn, founder of the Byrds, is a man who introduced the Beatles to Indian classical music, especially the sitar.

According to McGuinn, the Beatles sent a limousine to collect him and fellow Byrds founder David Crosby to hang out with them at an LSD-fuelled Los Angeles party at Zsa-Zsa Gabor's Bel Air mansion, which they were renting during their 1965 tour of the United States.
"I showed George Harrison some Ravi Shankar sounds, which I'd heard because we shared the same record company, on the guitar. I told him about Ravi Shankar and he said he had never heard Indian music before." McGuinn told the Daily Telegraph in 2010.

Once back in London, Harrison seeking out Shankar's recordings. He also purchased a cheap sitar, from the Indiacraft store on Oxford Street.

Ravi Shankar, a virtuoso sitar maestro from India, has inspired Harrison to incorporate sitar into "Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)", a song written by John Lennon and Paul McCartney. Released on the Beatles sixth album, Rubber Soul in December 1965.


"Norwegian Wood" is a milestone in the Beatles' progression as complex songwriters. It is credited as influential in the development in raga rock and psychedelic rock. As well as fundamental in the early evolution of the genre later regarded as world music.

Harrison's introduction of sitar on "Norwegian Wood", triggering what Shankar would call 'The Great Sitar Explosion'.
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Harrison met Shankar for the first time in June 1966 in London. One evening at the home of Mrs Angadi of the Asian Music Circle.
"From the moment we met, George was asking questions, and I felt he was genuinely interested in Indian music and religion. He appeared to be a sweet, straightforward young man. I said I had been told he had used the sitar, although I had not heard the song Norwegian Wood. He seemed quite embarrassed, and it transpired that he had only had a few sittings with an Indian chap who was in London to see how the instrument should be held and to learn the basics of playing. Norwegian Wood was supposedly causing so much brouhaha, but when I eventually heard the song I thought it was a strange sound that had been produced on the sitar! As a result, though, young fans of the Beatles everywhere had become fascinated by the instrument." Shankar explained in Raga Mala: the Autobiography of Ravi Shankar.

Harrison described Shankar as "the first person who ever impressed me in my life ... and he was the only person who didn't try to impress me."

Harrison asked Shankar to be taught to play sitar properly, and was accepted as student. The pair starting the lessons at Harrison’s house in Esher, England.

On the way back from the Beatles' tour in the Philippines in July 1966, Harrison stopped in Delhi and bought a sitar from Rikhi Ram.

Harrison got a break after the Beatles finished their last tour of America. So, he went back to India in September 1966. 

Harrison and his wife Pattie Boyd came to Bombay under the name of Mr and Mrs Sam Wells. Harrison had also cut his hair and grown a moustache. Made him the first Beatle who grows a moustache. Harrison and Boyd passed unnoticed through Customs and Immigration. 
"It was at that meeting that we arranged for me to go to India, at the next convenient break we both had, to start really learning - and also to enjoy India itself, to experience it." Harrison explained in Raga Mala: the Autobiography of Ravi Shankar.

Harrison had about a six-week trip in India. He learn the sitar and read spiritual texts with Shankar. Then they moving to California.

George Harrison and Ravi Shankar

When the first time Harrison approached Shankar for lessons, the idea of blending Indian classical music with pop music was puzzling to Shankar.

“It is strange to see pop musicians with sitars. I was confused at first. It had so little to do with our classical music. When George Harrison came to me, I didn’t know what to think. But I found he really wanted to learn. I never thought our meeting would cause such an explosion, that Indian music would suddenly appear on the pop scene.” (A clip from Raga. A 1971 documentary film about Ravi Shankar)

Harrison and Shankar close relationship boosted Shankar’s popularity in the West. Harrison gave Shankar a new audience: the younger generation.

The collaboration between the Indian composer and the British pop band went inspired psychedelia, the 1960s movement that blended mind-altering drugs with experimental beat music that was one of the dominant cultural influences of the decade.
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Harrison also received tutelage from from Shankar's student, Shambhu Das. Whom Shankar put to guide Harrison as he practised the lessons from Shankar, and to help Harrison with fingering problems.

Shambhu also worked on Harrison's first solo album, Wonderwall Music, which released in November 1968. Shambhu organized the Indian musicians and played sitar. Wonderwall Music was one of the origins of Indian jazz fusion.

Shambhu Das and George Harrison
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Harrison studied the sitar until 1968. When following a discussion with Shankar about the need to find his "roots", an encounter with Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix at a hotel in New York convinced Harrison to return to guitar playing. Harrison commented: 
"I decided ... I'm not going to be a great sitar player ... because I should have started at least fifteen years earlier." 


Harrison continued to use Indian instrumentation occasionally on his solo albums and remained strongly associated with the genre.
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Not only sitar, Harrison also played swarmandal, another instrument which used mainly in Indian classical music. Below are some of the Beatles songs and one of Harrison solo which include sitar and swarmandal played by him.

"Love You To" (released in August 1966)
Harrison contributed in lead vocal, backing vocal, acoustic guitar, sitar, rhythm guitar, fuzz-tone, and lead guitar

"Tomorrow Never Knows" (released in August 1966)
Harrison contributed in sitar, tambura, lead guitar, and tape loops

"Strawberry Fields Forever" (released in February 1967)
Harrison contributed in electric slide guitar, swarmandal, timpani, and maracas

"Within You Without You" (released in June 1967)
Harrison contributed in lead vocal, tambura, sitar, and acoustic guitar

"When We Was Fab" (single from George Harrison album, Cloud Nine. Released in January 1988)
Harrison contributed in lead vocal, backing vocal, acoustic guitar, electric guitar, sitar, and keyboards