Top 10 Sitar Songs
Our list of the Top 10 Sitar Songs includes only the real thing — the massive, multi-stringed instrument from India that fascinated a segment of adventurous rockers during the ’60s. So no electric sitars (like the one heard in Steely Dan‘s ‘Do It Again’) or other instruments configured to sound like sitars (sorry, Tom Petty‘s ‘Don’t Come Around Here No More’). The instrument came to prominence after George Harrison introduced Western ears to it on several mid-’60s Beatles songs. Its popularity even made sitar master Ravi Shankar a star for a brief period. Not so surprisingly, most of the songs on our list originated during the psychedelic era.
‘Real Life Permanent Dream’
Before Steve Howe joined Yes, he was a member of the little-known U.K.-based psychedelic group Tomorrow, which released a pair of albums at the end of the ’60s. (They’re probably best known as the band that recorded John Peel’s first BBC radio session in 1967.) ‘Real Life Permanent Dream’ is filled with period flourishes, including a pretty prominent sitar, played by Howe, who would occasionally drag out the instrument for his solo projects over the years.
For the most part, Elton John has stayed away from period trappings in his music (the less said about his disco years the better). ‘Holiday Inn,’ from his fourth album ‘Madman Across the Water,’ details the boredom of touring over an acoustic-based rhythm featuring mandolin, piano and a string section. The sparingly used and tasteful sitar is buried so deep, you hardly notice it — part of John’s timeless appeal.
‘When We Was Fab’
If anyone could get away with putting a sitar on a song in 1987, it was George Harrison, who capped his nostalgic look at the Beatles, ‘When We Was Fab,’ with a bit of the instrument. The song’s winking, affectionate tone drops references to several of the group’s classics, but it’s the sitar’s ringing appearance at song’s end that adds just the right amount of spice.
The Cyrkle were best known for their 1966 debut single, ‘Red Rubber Ball,’ a No. 2 hit co-written by Paul Simon. Managed by the Beatles’ manager, Brian Epstein, the group scored only one more Top 40 hit: ‘Turn-Down Day,’ which climbed into the Top 20. The cheery pop melody is driven by various instruments, including, right there in the intro and carried all the through to the end, a sitar.
‘Love You To’
‘Norwegian Wood’ (see elsewhere on our list of the Top 10 Sitar Songs) was first and is better known, but ‘Love You To,’ from the Beatles’ masterwork ‘Revolver,’ features George Harrison’s most extensive, and adventurous, use of the instrument. And it’s not just sitar that races throughout the song; the tabla and tambura, two other Indian instruments, also make prominent appearances.
Traffic’s debut single sounds little like anything else in the band’s catalog. Steered by a stinging sitar played by Dave Mason, ‘Paper Sun’ is far from the pastoral, folksy songs Traffic would play for a sizable chunk of their career. One similarity: Steve Winwood‘s vocal, somewhere between Traffic’s rootsy prog and the R&B he sang with the Spencer Davis Group.
‘San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair)’
Few songs symbolize the Summer of Love more perfectly than Scott McKenzie’s Top 5 hit from that year, ‘San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair).’ In addition to all the hippie speak going on, the song includes a sitar weaving in and out of the mix. You don’t get more 1967 than that. McKenzie reached the Top 40 only one more time as a solo artist, but he did co-write the Beach Boys‘ 1988 No. 1 ‘Kokomo.’
Donovan was never shy about flying his freak flag. But he hoists it higher than ever on the 1968 single ‘Hurdy Gurdy Man.’ Loaded with quavering vocals, a dreamlike rhythm and sitar and tambura accents, it sounds like a trip across the globe (or your head, take your pick). Future Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones arranged ‘Hurdy Gurdy Man’ and plays bass on it. For years, rumors persisted that Jones’ future bandmate Jimmy Page also plays on the track, but nobody remember it that way now. Surprise.
In the first part of the Rolling Stones‘ career, Brian Jones was the catalyst behind most of their most musically adventurous ideas. One of his greatest is the opening riff, and the driving rhythm, that fuels ‘Paint It, Black,’ the first No. 1 song to feature the sitar. Jones would use exotic instruments on other Stones’ songs, but this was his showcase.
‘Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)’
The song that introduced Western ears to the sitar is also the finest to feature the instrument in such a prominent role. John Lennon‘s confessional ‘Rubber Soul’ track (which he wrote to disguise an affair from his wife) was already a pretty significant step in the Beatles’ songwriting. George Harrison’s sitar riff, which steers the whole thing, made it an ear-opening instant classic.