Using Gamaka to Add Indian Flavor to Your Guitar Playing
If you want to learn about Indian music, you don’t have to travel to India. Musicians from China who aren’t culturally attuned to the music of Ravel can read a piece of his music and play it because of the unifying language of the Western notation system. Western notation contains a lot of information that makes it universal, rather than culturally specific, to play Western music. Similarly, the gamaka (ornaments), talas (rhythmic cycles), and ragas (modes and melodic formulas) of Carnatic music (the classical music of Southern India) can be codified so that people of any culture playing any instrument can enjoy it.
I grew up playing Carnatic music, popular Indian film music, and rock. After a while, they all came together for me. People learn Indian music through aural tradition rather than notation. While Western classical musicians start with notation, many rock players don’t read music and jazz players learn primarily by playing. Carnatic music is taught in a way that’s similar to teaching blues, rock, or jazz. There is a lot of emphasis on the ear, but we are also pretty liberal about not letting the technicalities weigh us down.
Since I came to America, the main focus of my teaching has been to develop a simple approach to help people in the West understand and play Carnatic music. Some musicians may not feel the need to understand the complex theories behind Carnatic music, but they still want some of this sound in their playing. I’ve tried to find a middle path for this music. I don’t believe it has to be rarefied, but I don’t want to dumb down the music’s scope, tradition, or weight of complexity either. I’ve devised a set of exercises to make Carnatic music user-friendly and give guitarists and other instrumentalists the tools to approach the gamaka.
Here's an excerpt of Prasanna playing the raga “Alapana of Thodi” on electric guitar:
All gamaka can be broken down to some variety of slides and/or slurs. As a kid, I learned these sounds and later discovered that many guitarists called them hammer-ons, pull-offs, and slides. The following exercises will help you apply these standard techniques in a different way.
Example 1 is an exercise with slurs grouped in twos. You pick the notes on the beats one and three and slur the next note.
In example 2, the picking pattern is the same, but you slide between notes rather than slurring. Using a single finger for the slides, you can play up and down on a single string or use adjacent strings. In addition to giving your playing a more Carnatic flavor, this approach will help you to learn to play vertically on one or two strings rather than across the strings in a single position.
In examples 3 and 4, we get more of the Carnatic flavor by alternating slurs and slides between notes. Again, the right hand attacks only the first note of every pair on beats one and three. With these first four exercises, we have used all the combinations of slides and slurs with pairs of notes.
In example 5, we begin grouping the notes in fours. I call this the “hop game” because the notes are played up and down on a single string. For the notes on the downbeats between the plucked notes, you hop to the next note and the right hand hammers on the string to produce the sound, a slur follows. I’ve indicated the “hopped” notes with a broken slur marking. This may be the hardest example to play.
In example 6, you again pick on beats one and three and slide to each of the notes in between. This effect is best achieved by playing all of the notes on one string. When I play guitar in Carnatic tuning (E B, E B, E B, from the highest string to the lowest), I frequently play on one string. In standard tuning, when you play this combination on two strings, it will present new fingering challenges.
The combination of articulations in example 7 requires a slur, a hop, another slur, and then the slide. Exercise 8 reverses the order by beginning with a slide, then hopping and slurring. It works best when played on one string.
In example 9, the notes are all slurred in groupings in eight; hence there is only one right-hand stroke on the first note of each measure. You can either play this on one string or across two or three strings. Example 10 shows the same eight-note grouping played with all slides along a single string. This one is also in the mode called Pantuvarali, which can be called Lydian flat-2, flat-6, in English. It gives a hint of various new and cool modes found in Carnatic music.
Exercise 11 involves sliding from an open note to a fretted one. The objective is to slide without hammering on the first note as you slide. You simply pluck the open string and then slide quietly up to the target note. The reverse involves sliding to an open note from a fretted one. Both of these produce very interesting sounds.
Finally, example 12 is a transcription of an improvisation in G major using many of the techniques in these exercises. As your vocabulary progresses, you will get closer to playing the raga with more detailed nuances With the few tools I have discussed here, you can begin to bring an authentic raga flavor to your music and make your phrasing unique and instantly identifiable. I framed this as a lesson for guitar, but these techniques can also be applied to other stringed instruments.
*Sankarabharanam is the name of the major scale in Carnatic music.
Hear Prasanna’s improvisation on a nylon-string guitar via Sounds of Berklee:
And a second brief improvisation that is closer to the raga:
Growing up in India, guitarist Prasanna became renowned as a pioneer playing Carnatic music and rock before attending Berklee, where he became an accomplished jazz guitarist. He is a celebrated performer and teacher and an award-winning film composer living in New York. Visit www.guitarprasanna.com.