Some clay statues found in the Haft Tape and the temple of Choqar Zanbil in the Khuzestan province show a musician whose instrument is very similar to the present day setar. These images with at least 3500 years history indicate the existence of an instrument called the tanbur in that era.
The word “setar” has been used by many Persian poets from centuries ago. It may refer to Setay of Barbad, a famous musician from the Sassanid Era. Also, Farabi mentions the tanbur in his famous book, Musiqi al-Kabir, written more than a thousand years ago. In this book, Farabi describes the different kinds of the Iranian tanbur in detail. These tanburs are very similar to the present setar and show that the present setar is the descendent of the old tanburs.
The tanbur which is considered the ancestor of the setar is played by all fingers of the hand. It has been always played in this way from the old times.
The setar is the only Iranian instrument which is played by the nail. This method of playing the setar does not have a long history. In the paintings of the Chehelsotun Building of Esfahan which is from the Safavid Era, there is an instrument which looks like the setar, but it has six strings.
The setar is a string instrument. Since in the past it had three strings, it was called setar (“se” means three and “tar” means string in Persian). Today, the setar has four strings. It is told that the forth string was added by a dervish known as Moshtaq Ali Shah from the city of Kerman. This invention was accepted by later musicians since it increased the instrument technical abilities and sound qualities. The sound range of the setar is two and half octaves and its sound volume is very low. As a result, the setar used to be the instrument of the musician’s solitude. Today, because of the advanced sound devices, the sound of the setar can be intensified. Therefore, it is played in the ensembles as well.
The range of the setar.
Figure 1: The ancient musician from the city of Sousa in the province of Khuzestan, 2000 B.C
Figure 2: Tanbur player from Haft Tapeh in Khuzestan, 1500 B.C
Figure 3: The image of the Tanbur of Khorasan from the Musiqi al-Kabir
Figure 4: The image of the Tanbur of Baqdad from the Musiqi al- Kabir
Figure 5: The way of playing the Tanbur by all five fingers
Figure 6: The Safavid musician plays an instrument which looks like the setar but has six strings
Figure 7: The range of the setar sound
Figure 8: The common tuning of the setar
Figure 9: Another tuning of the setar
Figure 10: The tuning known as the Rast Panjgah tuning
Figure 11: The adequate tuning for Shur-e La
The setar has a small sound box and a lengthy finger board. The strings are held at one end by the tailpiece and by the Sarpanjeh at the other end of the finger board. In the Sarpanjeh area there are four pegs by which the strings are tuned. There are two different designs for placing the pegs; the older design and the Master Qanbari design. In the older design, each two pegs are vertical. But, in the Master Qanbari design all pegs are located on the two sides of the Sarpanjeh.
The sound box is usually made out of mulberry wood and the finger board is made out of walnut. There are 25 to 28 movable frets on the finger board. The frets are usually made of animal guts, but they are also made of nylon.
The generated sound by the strings will be transferred to the sound box by the bridge. This sound will come out of the sound box again by the small wholes located on the sound box’s board.
The length of the sound box varies from 22 to 30 cm, its width is between 12 to 18 cm, and its depth is from 12 to 16 cm. The length of the finger board is between 40 to 48 cm, and its width is from 3 to 3.5 cm. The names of the setar’s strings are the white string, the yellow string, the drone string, and the bass string. The setar has various tuning options and some of them are peculiar to the setar only. In the past, the sound box of the setar was made out of a single block of wood. In this method, the trunk of a tree would be carved from the outside and the inside of it would be emptied later. Of course, this method is very time consuming and difficult to some points.
In the new method, the sound box is a collection of the small sticks of wood with the thickness of 3 millimeter. These small sticks are first put in water and then in the special moulds for 24 hours. Then they will be dried and put together.
When the sound box is ready, then the finger board will be attached to it.
There are two kinds of setar: the setar with a small sound box and the setar with a larger sound box. The setar with a larger sound box is known as the Kamaliyan model, and the setars with small sound boxes are known as the Hashemi model. The main difference between the two models is the sound quality of each model. Those who prefer bass sound choose the Kamaliyan version, and those who like transparent and higher sound choose the Hashemi model. Some setars are highly-figured, knotted or marbled for an attractive visual as well as aural impression.
Some of the famous setar makers since last one hundred years are: Ali Mohammad Khan Safaie, Haj Taher, Abolqasem Etemadi known as Mofateh al-Soltan, Nariman Abnusi, Mokhtari, Eshqi, Ostad Farajollah, Haj Mohammad Karim Khan, Sayad Jalal, Javad Chaichi, Naser Shirazi, Mehdi Kamaliyan, Zadkhayl, Mafakheri, and Ramin Jazayeri.
Figure 1: The pegs’ location in the old design
Figure 2: The pegs’ location in the Master Qanbari design
Figure 3: Tailpiece
Figure 4: There are 25 to 28 movable frets on the finger board
Figure 5: The location of the bridge on the sound box’s board
Figure 6: The setar’s sound box made of a block of wood
Figure 7: The main sticks in the present setar
Figure 8: The subordinate sticks in present setar
Figure 9: The back perspective of the assembled sound box
Figure 10: The front perspective of the assembled sound box
Figure 11: The conjunction place for the finger board and the sound box
Figure 12: The setar with the beautiful design
Since the beginning of the twentieth century, the setar faced many different experiences. As a result, around ten different styles of playing have emerged for this instrument. The newer styles are influenced by the past styles as well as those of the recent performers. The main differences among the different styles are the way of holding the instrument, the way of striking the string by the tip of the nail, and the touching of the frets on the finger board. Also, playing all the strings of the setar at the same time, or playing just one string at a time, or playing in the style of playing the tanbur are the other factors affecting the quality of the generated sound by the setar. During Naser al-Din Shah Qajar’s reign, Mirza Abdollah and Mirza Hussein Qoli were the first who considered the setar as the second major instruments of Persian music and played this instrument. Of course, the main instrument was the tar. However, since these two masters did not record anything by the setar, we do not have enough information about their styles of playing. Darvish Khan who learned the setar from Mirza Abdollah taught many students from whom we have some recordings. These students were: Abol Hassan Saba, Ali Naqi Vaziri, Saeed Hormozi, Arsalan Dargahi, and Yusef Forutan. Among these students Vaziri had his own style of playing which was very different from his master and his fellow students. In the later generations, the tradition of playing setar based on the radif of Persian music while keeping one’s personal musical utterance was kept by Ahmad Ebadi, Jalal Zolfonun, Dariush Safvat, Mohammad Reza Lotfi, and Dariush Tala’i.
The style of playing the setar was changed by the establishment of the Iranian Radio. Ahmad Ebadi, the youngest son of Mirza Abdollah, was invited to the Radio in 1948 by Esmail Navab Safa. Ebadi learned the setar from his older sisters, especially Moluk Khanom, since his father died when Ebadi was very young. Although Ebadi learned the old style of playing the setar, he invented a new style of playing in which only one string was being played at a time. It was this style of playing the setar which people would hear from the Radio.
After the death of master Saba, the old style of playing the setar was not really followed. The setar players began to play this instrument in their own personal styles. The direct students of Saba were Dr. Dariush Safvat, Dr. Tafazoli, and Mahmud Tajbakhsh.
Some of the other well-known setar players are: Ata Janguk, Dariush Pirniyakan, Masoud Shoari, Ramin Jazayeri, and Farshad Tavakoli. Among these people the last two persons follow Saba’s style.
Since the setar is a very light instrument and it is relatively cheaper than other instruments, such as the tar and santur, many people became interested in learning this instrument.
Figure 1: Yusef Forutan
Figure 4: Abol Hassan Saba
Figure 9: Moshir Mo'azzam Afshar
Figure 6: Arsalan Dargahi
Figure 10: Ahmad Ebadi
Figure 12: Jalal Zolfonun
Figure 15: Hussein Alizadeh
Figure 17: Dariush Talai
Figure 19: Masoud Shoari
Figure 21: Behdad Baba'i
In the recent years some new instruments have been invented which are influenced by the setar’s model. The first experience in this regard was a kind of skinned setar created by Arsalan Dargahi in the beginning of the twentieth century. This kind of the setar sounds little bit like the tar because of its skin. Most of Dargahi’s recording was done by this kind of the setar. The other new inventions are: the bass setar and shurangiz. However, none of the mentioned instruments have become as popular as the setar.
The shurangiz was the idea of the late Ali Tajvidi, a famous Iranian composer, which was designed by the master Ibrahim Qanbari Mehr. This instrument has a piece of skin on the sound box’s board. The shuranqiz’s sound is stronger and more bass than the regular setar.
There are two kinds of shurangiz: the small and the large. The small one like the setar has four strings. The large ones have six strings four of which are two paired strings.
The bass setar is basically a kind of setar which is tuned one octave lower than the regular setar. The bass setar was created by Masoud Shoari and it is sometimes played in ensembles.
In the recent years, a new instrument called the salaneh has been invented by Hussein Alizadeh and Siyamak Afshari. The salaneh was made after both the oud and setar and has the sound characteristics of the both instruments. The salaneh is similar to the setar since it is played by the tip of the nail. Also, its higher register sounds like the setar. The salaneh has six main strings as well as some drone strings which are tied to the body of the instrument. These drone strings just intensify the sound timber of the instrument.
Figure 1: The skinned setar
Figure 3: The front perspective of the shurangiz with four strings
Figure 5: The shurangiz with six strings
Figure 6: The bass setar's sound box is bigger than that of the regular setar
Figure 8: The front perspective of the salaneh
Figure 9: Hussein Alizadeh playing the salaneh
The setar is usually played as a solo instrument. Because of its low volume, the setar cannot play a major role in an ensemble unless some electronic devices are used. On the other hand, it can be played in a quiet place without bothering others. Because of this reason, the setar is considered the instrument of one’s solitude and privacy. In the recent years by the help of the electronic devices, the setar has played more roles in the public and collective musical works. In 1980s, Jalal Zolfonun established an ensemble of setars. In this kind of ensemble, there were only a number of setars accompanied by some percussion instruments such as, the tonbak and daf.
The recent setar solos done by virtuous setar players have shown new abilities of this instrument which are very different from the pieces performed in the traditional style. For example, Hussein Alizadeh’s “Turkmen” is totally a new style of playing the setar which is not necessarily in the framework of the Persian radif.
The setar is becoming the second instrument for many Iranian musicians. Due to its similarity with the tar, many tar players play this instrument. Also, many composers play the setar as well.
As mentioned, in the recent years, due to the new electronic devices and advanced sound technology, the setar has come out from its shell and now appears in many ensembles and orchestra. Also, it is played in fusion music ensembles and can be heard along with the guitar, violin, and tabla.
Another new style is somehow based on the older style but it utilizes some new techniques, such as fast tremolos. In general, the speed of playing is much faster in this style.
Figure 1: Jalal Zolfonun
Figure 3: Hussein Alizadeh: composer and setar player
Figure 5: Hamid Motebasem: composer and setar player
Figure 7: Masoud Shoari
Figure 9: Behdad Baba'i