There is one particular instrument that is attracting me for many years now, and I don’t know whether it’s the expression of an atavism or I am just being curious about it. I am talking about the Oud, a magical Arab musical instrument. Since last week, many converging signs started my curiosity again. I’m not the mystical kind of dude, but sometimes a man gotta watch the signs! Especially if those are recurring because they might indicate a way to follow! So let’s go… I could have title this article: I got wood for oud!!
1- It Should Always Start With Music.
It started a few days ago as I was reading Guitarz blog, and drooling before the amazing collection of weird guitars and basses they are gathering. They’ve posted a video of Kamilya Jubran, an oud player and singer from Palestine. I can’t believe I’ve never heard of her music before. She plays a minimalistic and wonderful music influenced by both Arab and Occidental worlds and cultures. Her music is very interesting, and easier to approach than that of Rabih Abou-Khalil for example. That was it for the first sign.
To hear more of her music, here is a link to Kamilya Jubran’s Youtube page.
I wish that the second sign was a package containing a nice oud, but hey! Just like lottery, you have to play to get a chance to win! Anyway, the second sign came with an e-mail announcing an upcoming concert. A band called Smadj is playing soon in Paris. I checked the Myspace page of Jean-Pierre Smadja and his band Smadj, who recently released their new album Selin. JP Smadja is a French-Tunisian oud player who’s music mixture is a blend of jazz, prog rock, electronica and Arab music! It is quite different than Kamiliya Jubran’s music (even though she also experiments with computers and electronica music). Smadj music is looking toward an even more modern and catchy style, but still very accessible to those who, just like me, are not educated to jazz music!
Ok, signs… I got the message! I’m gonna write this article about the oud!
2- It Is Made Of Oud.
El Ud (the arab word for “wood”) is an old stringed instrument invented in Mesopotamia (Iraq region). The name oud evolved in European languages and was transformed in lute. Without almost any doubt, I guess I would say that the oud is the most emblematic instrument of Arab music (and if I may be quite approximative I’d include Turkish music in a big ensemble of Arab and Turkish music).
The oud features are:
- A bowl-like body made of 20 to 30 thin wood staves.
- Up to 5 sound-holes on the top.
- A pegbox that is bent back at an almost 90° angle.
- Short and fretless neck.
- From 8 to 13 paired strings. Most of the time it has 11 strings, the eleventh is the lowest that is not paired.
The oud is traditionally played with a plectrum made of wood, or an eagle feather, or a thin slice of a cow horn, but you can play it with a regular thin pick. Oud tunings are too many to be detailed, but it seems that each geographic region has its own tuning. Unlike guitar players, oud players don’t play chords but single-notes melodic sequences, and use the lowest string to play a drone-like bass .
What I do like about the oud is the possibility to reach microtones, and I think that’s the beauty of it. In that way, it is pretty similar to the violin or the lapsteel, to speak about an instrument that I play. Playing microtones with a regular guitar is still possible, but you have to put a lot of efforts to bend your fingers and the strings to reach them. Even worst, you will have to be the toughest guy if you don’t want to take offense with the remarks of your fellow guitarists who will tell that your bends are wrong.
There are 2 main reasons why I am still fighting the will to get one of these pretty instruments:
- Learning seems to be very hard… But, hey! It wouldn’t fun otherwise!
- Most of the ouds you will find at your local pawnshop, or on a souq in Marrakech are often ornamental objects (pretty ones I reckon) rather than real instruments.
3- G’oud… Is It Hard To Find?
So it is quite difficult to find one, and it’s even harder to make a choice. The most reliable solution is to find a luthier who will build this for you. Egyptian and Turkish luthiers are the most renowned for making ouds. Unfortunately, most reliable doesn’t mean easier and surely means expensive. One day I’ll tell you about my obsession for low budget instruments, which doesn’t mean that I won’t get a unique guitar one day, nor that I’m not already drooling on the luthiers websites or workshops. So I went web hunting to get more informations and maybe find some alternatives, which I did though the resources are quite limited!
I remembered a discussion that I had with a friend who was eager to get an electric oud. That’s how I landed on Viken Najarian’s website. Viken Najarian is a Lebanese luthier who settled in the US, and builds traditional acoustic ouds, but also electric ouds. His instruments are very beautiful in a very discrete way. And as I am used to solidbody electric guitars, my attention got caught by his electric ouds models. I guess that having such an instrument in your hands won’t be as disturbing as handling a traditional acoustic oud. Najarian’s electric ouds are built just like traditional ouds, except with regard to their reduced body size. As you can see on the pictures, he builds either solidbody ouds or an instrument very similar to the Yamaha Silent Guitars. It will cost you about 1500$ to get one of these. From what I read about it, you will have to wait if you opt-in for one as it takes up to 8 months. to be delivered… Sometimes a man has to be patient.
Looking further, I landed on the Mediterranean Music Shop which sells a large choice of ouds (Turkish and Egyptians) ranging from 300€ to 1500€. From my experience with guitars, a lower price doesn’t necessarily mean poor quality (I mean when you consider mass production). I don’t know if it is true when it comes to the oud, but if it is the case, the choice there is reasonable and the ouds are quite good looking. They also sell one electric oud model, the Electro Oud. It resembles a lot to the Najarian’s electric oud, but considering the lowest price, I guess it is a mass production instrument. Notice that this electro oud has a pegbox similar to a mandolin or a guitar head. I don’t know if the oud pegbox has a radical influence on the tone or the strings stability, but I guess that someone who is looking to have an instrument as close as possible to the traditional one would be disappointed.
4- The Glissentar… Always Look The Neighbor’oud To Find Alternatives!
As a matter of fact, this last instrument looks like a hybrid instrument as it is a bit far from the traditional shape. A hybrid! This is the case of the Glissentar made by the Canadian manufacturer, Godin. The Glissentar is often described as a fretless guitar, but it is a little bit more than that. If I was asked to describe a fretless guitar (wonder why someone would ask me that, but let’s imagine), I would say that it is just a regular guitar that lacks frets on the fingerboard. The Glissentar is not a regular guitar because it has the shape and the scale of a guitar,and it is stringed like an oud. But Robert Godin is the best person to explain how he had the idea to build this hybrid instrument, an oud with the shape of a guitar. Check this by yourself…