Setar is an instrument with a simple and humble appearance compared to other Iranian traditional instruments. It is constructed using wood, metal, and wire. The strings used to be made from animal intestine but nowadays, metal is widely used.
Once seated, Setar is placed horizontally in the lap. Its cup is placed on the right side of the player while the neck/fingerboard is held on the left side. The instrument is played by holding the frets with the left hand’s fingers and strumming using the nail of the index finger or a thimble pick. There is not much known about the history of Setar except that it has gone through many changes during the Qajar dynasty in Iran.
This instrument has 4 strings. Its range spans 2 octaves. The resonance cup is wooden, almost spherical, and pear shaped if looked at from the front. The front of the cup is adorned with small holes that allow the sound to exit. Setar has a bridge which sits atop the wooden board in front of the resonance cup. On the top end exists the nut which separates the fingerboard from the pegbox.
A number of ceramic sculptures found in Choghazanbil, in the Khuzestan province, illustrate a musician whose instrument resembles today’s Setar greatly. These embossed historical pieces date back to 1500 BC and tell tales of the popularity of an instrument called Tanboor, which Setar is closely related to. Since in the past it had three strings, it took up the name Setar (which means “3 strings” in Farsi). Today, however, all Setars have four strings. It has been said that the fourth string was added by a Dervish named Moshtaq Alishah from Kerman during the Zand era, and since it expanded the instrument’s capabilities tremendously, it became popular among Setar players instantaneously. The instrument’s range is two and a half octaves, and its projection is very low. Setar is typically a solo instrument, however, with today’s technology and amplification systems, it is feasible to use it in different settings.
The resonance cup is typically made of mulberry, black berry, or walnut tree. However, the neck is always made of walnut and holds 25 frets made of animal intestine (lately nylon is available as well). In today’s contemporary form of playing, the frets can increase up to 28.
Setar’s resonance cup is typically 22 to 30 centimeters long, 12 to 18 centimeters wide, and 12 to 16 centimeters deep. The neck can be 3 to 3.5 centimeters thick and 40 to 48 centimeters long. This puts the entire instrument at 76 to 80 centimeters. In the past, the resonance cup was created out of one piece. A tree trunk would be carved from the outside and hollowed out from the inside until the ideal shape was reached. Other than the difficulty and time consumption of this method, the creator would be faced with the challenge of ensuring uniformity of thickness in all parts. Today there are other methods available for Setar’s creation. Nowadays, small wooden strips with thickness of 3 millimeters are soaked in water for 24 hours, placed in special molds, and dried using high heat. The pieces are then placed in their spots based on a predetermined mold and glued together. The neck is attached after the cup is created. Setar is usually made in two sizes of small cup and large cup. Bigger cups create lower sounds while smaller cups create higher, sharper sounds.
Online Setar lessons by Ali Samadpour and Shahab Mehr-Azin at Rhythmitica Academy