Every now and then, exotic timbres become popular in mainstream music. In the 1930’s, the popularity of Hawaiian music led to the creation of the Rickenbacker “Frying Pan,” the very first electric guitar.
A few decades later, groups like the Beatles fueled fascination with the sound of the sitar. Suddenly, every band for miles wanted a sitar on their album.
Unfortunately for trendy bands, the sitar is very hard to play and requires some serious study. And presumably sitar session players were scarce. Thus, in the late 60’s the Danelectro conceived and marketed a solution: an electric sitar tuned and strung like a standard guitar.
Its design posed some unique challenges. For example, a traditional sitar has “sympathetic strings” that are incited to vibrate on their own when the sitarist plays certain notes. These sympathetic strings create the lush droning sounds characteristic of the sitar.
The electric sitar’s sympathetic strings are set apart from the fretboard, with their own lipstick pickups to amplify them.
Unfortunately, the special twang-inducing bridge of the electric sitar causes some intonation problems. A traditional sitar has movable frets to address this, but to date no manufacturer I know of has attempted movable frets on an electric sitar, so the intonation problem remains; chords tend to sound noticeably out-of-tune.
Nonetheless, guitarists everywhere can appreciate the hours of entertaining sonic madness that ensue whenever an electric sitar is plugged into any well-populated pedalboard. Thank you, electric sitar.