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Introduction to Indian Classical Music for Guitar

A Guitar Lesson by Prakash Harry

This article gives an introduction to the Indian Music system and its core elements and provides insight into applying its grammar and technique on guitar. Classical Indian music and jazz may sound very different but at least one factor is very important to both styles of music: improvisation.


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The Indian Music System - Introduction

The Indian music system's origins date back to the Vedic period (2000-6000 years ago). In this period, several literary texts and verses (Vedas) were sung in musical patterns which formed the base of the Indian music system.

In later years (14th -15th Century AD), Indian music got broadly classified into two classical forms of music:

  • Hindustani music (North India)
  • Carnatic music (South India)

This divide was mainly due to the difference in styles. following the Persian/Mughal invasion of Northern India, which brought a lot of influence into Hindustani Music. Though Hindustani and Carnatic Music share a lot of common aspects (phrasing techniques, similar ragas, etc.), each one has a distinct structure of its own. These systems have continued to live over the centuries and are still performed with traditional expertise, and at times also incorporating modern music elements into them.


Guitar Tuning: Western vs Indian Tuning

Although all examples of ragas discussed in this article will relate to the standard western tuning, this tuning is not the ideal guitar tuning for Indian music.

The ideal guitar tuning for classical Indian Music has alternate strings tuned to the tonic and the dominant (perfect 5th) notes. The Tonic is normally taken as D or E due to feasibility issues on the Guitar.

These 2 tunings are typical for Indian music:

  1. D

  2. B

In the first tuning, the first (highest) string on the guitar is omitted.

The reason to use this tuning is because the tonic and the dominant notes are the least complex to play in a system that involves playing defined microtonal slides called ‘Gamakas’. Gamakas are the main phrasing technique in Indian Music and it explains how different notes are phrased relative to each other for different ragas.


What Are Ragas and How are They Different From Scales?

Ragas form the basis of the Classical Indian Music system.

A raga maybe defined as a specific collection of notes (semitonal values), played together with a specific grammar of Gamakas (microtonal slides).

Ragas and scales are quite common at the top level. In effect, both ragas and scales are merely a specific collection of musical notes played in a specific order, in ascent and descent. However the grammar of the Gamakas and its phrasing brings a completely different identity/texture to a raga and it cannot be musically compared to its equivalent scale, played as a collection of plain notes.

The raga therefore, is purely dependent on the specific Gamakas phrasing applied to it (which differs for each raga), in the absence of which it is merely a collection of notes aka a scale.


The Indian Equivalent for the 12 Semitones

The following table relates the 12 semitone savailable to us in the Western tuning system to its Indian equivalent name references (Swaras).

Before reading the table, you need to understand that Indian music notes are not absolute values like their western counterparts. They are all relative to the tonic note (Shadjam), which is fixed to a reference value namely C or D or any other semitonal value.

Here we assume our tonic to be D, for easy reference while playing. (in the video more below we also use the tonic D as Shadjam).

Table 1

Semitones Indian Swara Equivalent Tone Value
D (tonic) S - Shadjam(Sa)  
D# R1 - Suddha Rishabham(Ri1)  
E R2 - Chatusruthi Rishabham(Ri2) G1 - Suddha Gandharam (Ga1)
F R3 - Shatsruthi Rishabham (Ri3) G2 - Sadharana Gandharam (Ga2)
F# G3 - Anthara Gandharam (Ga3)  
G M1 - Suddha Madhyamam(Ma1)  
G# M2 - Prati Madhyamam (Ma2)  
A (dominant/perfect 5th) P - Panchamam (Pa)  
A# D1 - Suddha Dhaivatham (Da1)  
B D2 - Chatusruthi Dhaivatham (Da2) N1 - Suddha Nishadham (Ni1)
C D3 - Shatsruthi Dhaivatham (Da3) N2 - Kaisiki Nishadham (Ni2)
C# N3 - Kakali Nishadham (Ni3)  


This table classifies, the 12 semitones of the Western tuning system, to relative Indian Swara names.

The basic seven notes are Sa, Ri, Ga, Ma, Pa, Da, Ni with variations:

Sa – 1            Ri – 3            Ga – 3           Ma – 2                     Pa – 1            Da – 3           Ni – 3

The manner in which they are named as (Ri/Ga) and (Da/Ni) for same values, depends on the relative notes occurring in the raga, and differs from case to case. (To be discussed in detail in later articles)


Melody vs. Harmony

The beauty of the Indian Music system lies in its complex melodic structure, brought out with the well defined phrasing technique of Gamakas.

In Western music scales are built with a strong foundation in harmony. Carnatic music focuses on permutation of all available semitonal values (swaras). This gives rise to the foundation of the family of ragas, called the Melakartha System (in Carnatic Music).

The Melakartha system is a set of 72 parent ragas. Each of these ragas contain all seven notes (swaras) of the octave in both ascending and descending order. These 72 ragas (parent) along with their derived ragas (child) exhaust all possible melodic combinations available to us through all music forms across the world.

That brings to light the depth in melodic structure in Carnatic Music. Hence it is important to understand that melody and phrasing of Carnatic music is very complex compared to the Western music system, which in turn shows its complexity in harmony of musical notes.


How to Play Pentatonic Scales - Indian Style (Carnatic)

In this section we explore the possibility of playing the well known pentatonic scales, as equivalent Carnatic ragas. The Ragas we will take for reference are Suddha Dhanyasi and Mohanam.

The swaras for Suddha Dhanyasi are (see Table 1 above; the Western equivalent note is between parenthesis). You'll notice the notes of the Suddha Dhanyasi are the same as those of the minor pentatonic scale (of D in this case):

Sa (D)             Ga2 (F)                     Ma1 (G)          Pa (A)             Ni2 (C)

The video lesson shows how to play the runs in the ascent and descent, and some basic phrasing and improvisation for Suddha Dhanyasi & Mohanam. Try the phrase improvisation demonstrated on the lesson, after playing the notated ascent-descent run.



Below you can find the notation for these ragas. The tabs demonstrate the ascent and descent playing for Suddha Dhanyasi & Mohanam in order.

  • The notes in ALL CAPS are the syllable of the swara played
  • The bold-italic notes are the notes to be plucked (on right hand)
  • The arrows depict the slide flow of notes from one to another (without plucking the string)
  • A point after a swara means one octave higher: Sa.

Let me give you the first line (ascent) in the notation below as an example:

  • Play an open D on the 4th string
  • Then strike the open D again, and slide all the way up to G and come back to F on the same string, all in one flow, without plucking any more notes
  • Strike G and A on the same string
  • Now, Strike A on the open-G 3rd string, and slide all the way up to D and come back to C on the same string
  • Strike D on 3rd string again

Similarly try the descent approach, applying the similar technique..

Suddha Dhanyasi Raga


Carnatic Notation:
    | Sa –> Ma –> GA  |  MA   |  PA   |  Pa –> Sa. –> NI | SA    |

Western Notation:
      | d  –> g  –> F   |  G    |  A    |  a  –> d   –> C  | D     |


SA.    Sa –> NI        |  PA   |  MA   |  Ma –> GA  | Ga –> SA |

D      | d  –> C         |  A    |  G    |  g  –> F   | f –> D   |   


Now, try the ascent-descent run for Mohanam Raga, applying the similar technique.

Mohanam Raga


SA     | Sa –> Ga –> RI  |  GA   |  PA   |  Pa –> Sa. –> DA |  SA.  |

D      | d  –> f# –> E   |  F#   |  A    |  a  –> d   –> B  |  D    |


SA.    Sa.–> DA  PA  | GA  | Ga –> RI  | Ga 3 –> Ri –> Ga2 –> SA |

D      | d  –> B   | A   | F#  | f# –> E   | f #  –> e  –> f   –> D  |


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