How to learn to play the guitar, playing Indian classical Carnatic Geethams

Learn to play the guitar playing what matters to you – Geetham to Guitar

If you found this article useful, you will find this set of resources useful too:

Below is a video of Varaveena, mohanam geetham played on the acoustic guitar (no edits or effects, direct to the camera mic) based on the C major pentatonic scale notes, connected using slides, hammer-ons, pull-offs. Start from the basic C major scale. Use the C major scale note positions to play swaras of the Mohanam Geetam, the Kalyani Geetam and the Swarajati in Bilahari. The Geetams and Swarajathi are good exercises for the fretboard. Morover, they can be played with the knowledge of the C major scale position, which is a basic path to playing guitar. Then include slides, hammer ons and pull offs to bring in the Indian classical sound.

Varaveena – Raga Mohanam Geetham on the Guitar

We start simple and gradually add the details.

  1. Start with the C major scale, use the notes as the basis to play swaras for Varaveena in Raga Mohanam, without any slurs (slide/Hammer-on/Pull-off).
  2. Then we play the song based on the Lyrics (Sahithyam) by using slurs to include vowels while striking only on the consonants.
  3. Include gamakas using slurs on all possible swaras, instead of single strikes that we have been doing till step 2.

Starting with the basic C major scale that most of us learn when starting to play the guitar…

The C major scale to swaras of Raga Mohanam

From open C major scale to C major scale between 5th and 8th frets

The below video shows the C major scale played in 3 different ways on the Guitar Fretboard. (C major scale – 3 positions: Image | Tuxguitar. Get Free Tuxguitar – shows tab, notation, fretboard and keyboard with note positions.)

Download C major scale – 3 positions

The above video shows the C major scale played in 3 different ways.

  1. C major scale – 5th string root with open string notes
  2. C major scale 5th string root without open string notes. The scale is played with a 4 fret span on any of the strings.
  3. C major scale – 3rd string root. The scale is played spanning 4 frets on any of the strings.

?Notice the fingers being used. Up and down plectrum strikes preferred. 

Mohanam notes within the C major scale

In the C major scale, the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 5th and 6th notes correspond to Sa Ri Ga Pa Dha of the Raga Mohanam. We will be using these note positions from the C major scale fingering, to play the Geetham in Raga Mohanam.

Extensions to play the higher octave Ri and Ga (RiGa) etc

In parts of the song where we need to play higher octave Ri and Ga, we will use the notes D and E respectively on the first string 10th and 12 th frets. Similarly, it is sometimes useful to know alternate positions for the other swaras.

  • Dha: 1st string 5th fret OR 2nd string 10th fret
  • Ri: 3rd string 7th fret OR 2nd string 3rd fret
  • Ga: 2nd string 5th fret OR 3rd string 9th fret
  • Pa: 2nd string 8th fret OR 1st string 3rd fret

different-note-positions-for-Mohanam-Ragam-guitar-fretboard Download zip file with each of the images as separate files

Playing the swaras of Varaveena

Loading the player…

Download video

Tab, Western notation, Guitar and Keyboard position – Swaras of the Mohanam Varaveena Geetham (tuxguitar)

Right click and save as to download the Tuxguitar file that shows notation, guitar tab and Keyboard position to play the Geetham swaras based on the C major scale position.

Striking each note

On the guitar, the swaras have been played with one note for each swara. No slurs (hammer ons, pull offs, slides) have been used. We used the C major scale notes to play the swaras of Mohanam Geetham. Next we will add a few slurs when using the Lyrics or Saahithyam of the song instead of swaras. Later we will add a few slurs to make it closer to how a Carnatic singer would sing the song.

Swaras to Saahithyam (Lyrics)

Loading the player…

Download video The above video shows the part Suranutha Kalyaani being played on the guitar. The vowel sounds which are extended, are played using a slide, hammer on or pull off.

Strike the consonants, Slurs for the vowels

When singing the lyrics, there are places where more than one note is used one after the other, to sing a consonant. Meaning, the vowel after the consonant is extended using another swara. We can strike on the consonant, but since vowel doesn’t have an emphasis of its own, we need to use slurs to play the vowels. Use the sustain from the strike on the consonant, and extend it to the vowels using slurs.

Slides, hammer ons and pull offs – Basics

httpvhd:// Download the video

Example: Vaanchitha Phala Daayaki with slurs for vowels

Just swaras, no slurs

Loading the player…

Download Video

Different ways to play the phrase vowels with slurs

Loading the player…

Download Video

Notes to Ragas

Including slurs for the consonant notes also

Till now, we used slurs (hammer ons, pull offs and slides) to play the vowels realistically when playing Indian classical on Guitar. This usage of slurs is dependent on the phrase. If there are vowels in a phrase, or a consonant which has more than one swara representing its movement, then we had to strike the consonant once and play the tail, the vowel or ‘mmm’ part with slurs. In Indian classical, it is possible that swaras are inherently assigned movement based on the raga it belongs to, independent of the lyrics being a vowel or not. For example, the swara Ri in the phrase ‘Sa Ri’ (when ascending in scale) in Raga Shankarabharanam is represented by the movement ‘Sa Ga Ri’. One strike on Sa, move immediately to Ga and back to Ri – the whole movement is what we will name as Ri. Similarly, Ri of Raga Shankarabharanam, in the phrase ‘Ga Ri’, is played as a movement between Ga and Ri: simply as ‘Ga-> Ri’ or ‘Ga->Ri->Ga->Ri‘. One strike on the Ga, slur through the remaining motion. Watch the Arohana Avarohana video to see this in action.

Using Arohana/ Avarohana (ascend/descend of scale) rules

We will try to include Indian classical style movements into the playing by using Arohana and Avarohana movements of the swaras as the guide.

We will be using the gamakas from the parent Raga Shankarabharanam, for Raga Mohanam swaras. It is possible that Varaveena is most often sung with much less complexity when taught to beginners, but when you apply the gamakas you will see how it can sound interesting.

Use this as an experiment instead of a strict process. Listening to recordings of the song will show you that the usage of gamakas can be different in different recordings, and some parts of the song may not strictly follow just one kind of ascend or descend pattern. Still, trying to use arohana and avarohana patterns in a song based on its swaras, is an useful exercise towards understanding the use of arohana avarohana, and to learn the technique of gamakas – slides/hammer-ons/pull-offs when played on the guitar. Start with the rules, make ammendments based on how the song sounds finally.

Below is the Arohana and Avarohana of Raga Mohanam. Notice how the Ri is played in the Arohana, and how it is played in the Avarohana. The Dha in Arohana, and the Dha in Avarohana are slightly different too. Similarly, notice the way each swara is played in Arohana and Avarohana; sense if there is any difference between the two.

Here is what we will do:

  1. Identify the swara we need to play, from the swara phrase
  2. Identify if in this particular case, the swara is a part of an ascend or descend (ascend or descend)
  3. Identify the gamaka (combination movements equivalent to the swara) from the arohana or avarohana
  4. Play it in place of the swara in the swara phrase

Gamakas/slurs – Arohana avarohana rules for Raga Mohanam

Similar to substitution in algebraic equations 🙂

Consider equations like z = x + y — (1) Now, if

  • x = x + y – z , and
  • y = x – y + z,

we are substituting for x, with an equation that has x (the variable that is getting substituted itself) and y and z. We substitute for y using an equation that has y, x and z. In the first equation (1), substitute for x and y will mean z = (x + y – z) + (x – y + z) When we say play Ri as Sa Ga Ri, some of us find ourselves in a similar situation. Though we say just Ri, what we do in effect is play a phrase that has Ri (the swara that is getting substituted), Sa and Ga. When we sing the Arohana, we say the swaras Sa Ri Ga Pa Dha… etc, but we sing or play some of the swaras as phrases with more than one swara: Sa, (Sa Ga Ri), Ga, Pa, (Pa Sa Dha)

Instead of playing the swaras as single hit notes, we can play some of the swaras as a movement between two or three notes. For example, even when we say Ri, it can be played as a movement starting from Sa, go to Ga and then come to the Ri. In effect, Ri = Sa->Ga->Ri.  If we are playing with the note C as the root, Ri will be played as a movement from note C to E to D. 

Given below are a few ‘rules’ we can use as guidelines to include gamakas/slurs when we play Varaveena Carnatic Geetam on the guitar, to make it sound more fluid, and closer to the sound achieved in Carnatic Indian classical.

Loading the player…

Download Video

Basic Arohana rules of Mohanam

The notes Sa and Pa be played without any extra embellishments.

Ri = Sa-Ga-Ri

Ga = single note

Dha = Pa-Sa-Dha

Basic Avarohana rules of Mohanam

Dha = Sa-Dha

Ga= Pa-Ga

Ri= Ga-Ri or Ga-Ri-Ga-Ri (usually when there is more time, like at the end of a phrase, we have the opportunity to play GaRiGaRi, while in passing, we will have the space only to play Ga->Ri.)

A few extra rules of connectivity

Download Video In Arohana: Ga = single note, but Ga Ga (repeating Ga, like the first two notes of Varaveena) = Ga Ga-Ri-Ga (a way to include the Jhanda – emphasis of notes when the same note is repeated in succession.) In Avarohana: single note Ga is Pa -> Ga. Two notes of Ga: (Pa Ga) (Pa Ga Pa). The (Pa Ga Pa) ending with a movement from Ga to Pa, is like a trailing end giving style to the swara.  Similarly In Avarohana, the swara Dha: single Dha is Sa -> Dha. Two notes of Dha: (Sa Dha) (Sa Dha Sa), very similar to the Ga Ga movement. In fact, even in the case of single Dha, we can use the trailing Dha to Sa movement: (Sa Dha Sa) in place of one note of Dha.

The notes connected in  flow

In arohana, notice how a swara is played most often as a phrase that starts from the preceding swara, goes to the one after next swara, coming back to the one we need. [Arohana: Sa (Sa Ga Ri) Ga Pa (Pa Sa Dha) Sa] In Avarohana, we notice that the phrase for a Swara starts from the swara before it in the Avarohana order, coming down to the one we want. [Avarohana: Sa Dha Pa Ga Ri played as Sa (Sa Dha) Pa (Pa Ga) (Ga Ri or Ga Ri Ga Ri) Sa] Connectivity and flow are assured with this kind of movements. Listen to ragas, songs and use them as learning material. Though ‘rules’ can help, music comes first and theory or rules are made from what has been observed to work. The observation that the gamaka starts from the previous swara in the Arohana or Avarohana order makes the feeling stronger that the rules were made from the natural flow of notes, to assist the flow further.

How to decide which rule to use: Arohana or Avarohana ?

For our needs, we will decide if it is Arohana or Avarohana rule, phrase by phrase.

For example in the phrase: ‘Ga Pa Dha Sa Dha’, the ‘Ga Pa Dha Sa’ in the beginning will follow Arohana rules, since they are all ascending in the scale. Then, the end of the phrase, ‘Sa to Dha’ is Avarohana.

Remember the orderDha Ni Sa Ri Ga Ma Pa Dha Ni Sa Ri Ga…’ where Dha Ni are lower octave Dha and Ni. Sa Ri Ga are higher octave Ri and Ga.  Here the swaras are arranged in increasing order of frequency. A note to the right is of higher frequency than a note to the left. Ga is a ‘higher note’ than Ri or Dha. Dha is a lower note than Sa or Ni, and so on.

Examples on deciding Arohana and Avarohana:

  • Phrase Sa Ga Ri: Sa to Ga is arohana or ascend (see the order; Ga comes after Sa). Ga to Ri is avarohana rules.
  • Ga Ga Pa Pa Dha Pa Sa Sa: Ga to Pa is Arohana. Dha to Pa is avarohana. Pa to Sa is Arohana.

The sense behind difference in Arohana and Avarohana rules

The notes are most often connected. For example, in Arohana, Dha starts from the previous note, Pa (Dha = Pa Sa Dha). While when coming down, Dha is played as ‘Sa -> Dha’, Sa being the previous note in the descending scale.

Applying the Gamaka rules to play Varaveena

The two Gamaka exceptions

Two endings mentioned below have mainly vowels in it, making it unnecessary to play all the gamakas for the swaras. Instead they can be treated more like a single movement.

ka Lyaaa ni (Lyrics) : ga Pa Ga Ga Ri Sa (Swaras)

‘Pa Ga Ga Ri Sa’ (Lyaani) can be played as Pa Ga (Ri Ga) Ri Sa, (strike on Pa and Sa) without individual embellishments for the 2nd Ga or Ri.

Daa ya ki (Lyrics) : Dha Pa Ga Ga Ri Sa

“Dha Pa Ga Ga’ (Lyrics:Da a a) can be played as ‘Dha Pa Ga (Ri Ga)’ with a strike on Dha.

Video of Mohanam Geetam Varaveena Pallavi on the Acoustic Guitar (Swaras and Sahithyam)

Loading the player…

Download Video