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Steel Guitar In India

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Vishwa Mohan Bhatt playing the mohan vinaThere's a excellent article on Indian steel guitar in the December 1994 issue of Guitar Player magazine. There used to be a link to it on the Internet, but it expired. Oh, well...


One of the people suggested as possibly inventing the method of playing guitar with a steel bar was an Indian-born sailor named Gabriel Davion. He is said to have based his playing style on two Indian instruments, the gotuvadyam and the vichitra vina.

Indian music lends itself well to the fluid sound of the steel guitar. The acceptance and integration of non-Indian instruments into the rich Indian musical culture has made the steel guitar one of a handful of Western instruments to gain prominence.

Famous Guitarists

Originally steel guitar seems to have been popularized through its use in Hindi film music. The first Indian artist to use a steel guitar within classical Indian music was Brij Bhushan Kabra. He modified an archtop guitar, raising the guitar nut, and including "sympathetic" strings, drone strings which are tuned to the raga being performed.

His student, Debashish Battacharya, has released several CDs and cassettes of his own performances. He has been favorably compared to the bluegrass player Jerry Douglas in terms of his mastery of the instrument, particularly the faster tunes where his amazing single string staccato technique really shines.

Vishwa Mohan Bhatt uses a similar instrument, which he calls the Mohan vina. Bhatt has probably gained the most attention within the Western world due to his collaborations - with Ry Cooder on the Grammy-award winning "A Meeting By The River", with Taj Mahal on "Mumtaz Mahal" and with Jerry Douglas on "Bourbon and Rosewater".

Surinder Pal Singh ( writes the following about Indian steel guitarists:

Hawaiian guitars have been very popular in India because of the type of instrument it is. Indian music is more melodic (featuring one note at a time) than harmonic (many notes at the same type, as in the Piano). The Hawaiian guitar was used in films during the 1940s and 1950s to indicate pathos in background music. Although India has numerous problems as a nation, our musical tradition is still vibrant enough to incorporate foreign instruments.

  • Sunil Ganguly plays Indian film songs (the most popular Indian music nowadays). And he plays like nobody else does. HE IS GOOD, and he adds his own twists and subtle changes to it, which makes it even more melodious. He is very proficient in Indian classical music and hence can play complex tunes from them. Uses control over volume of the plucking and makes amazing effects. He is the leader, and all else follow him.
  • Gautam Dasgupta : He is more quantity and less quality, lacks the control of volume and the touch of Ganguly (#1). He isn't 100% melodious. A poor man's Ganguly.
  • Hazara Singh : Haven't heard him but have heard about his playing. Supposed to be a good player many decades ago.
  • Bhupinder : He is a an accomplished ghazal singer (a style of serious singing in India similar to the blues, lyrics are crucial and are mostly about lost loves and drinking). He plays both by rod(steel bar) and by fingers (normal guitar). A very, very talented guy. He has a style distinct from Ganguly. Doesn't cut many recordings though.
  • Van Shipley: Yep, he is Indian; might be Portugese Indian or something. He is very good too. He has a more wandering style, slides the bar more and uses less plucking. Fairly good and original style.

Dale ( writes about Van Shipley:

Van Shipley was the first electric guitarist in India. The name Van Shipley is Methodist, he is from Lucknow UP. He designed his own electric eight string steel guitar in the 1940's. The reason he did this was that he'd studied Indian classical music under Ustad Alaudin Khan, the leading classical musician in India, who was also a contemporary of Ravi Shankar. He also studied the violin with a German teacher. This Western style influence is what compelled Van Shipley to design his own electric violin as well. He currently owns a Gibson E5, given to him as a gift over 50yrs ago. That's why he wanted to play Indian classical music on guitar. He wanted to hear a particular the drone, so he made an eight string guitar, instead of a five string. His guitar was a solid guitar, designed to his style at the time, it was futuristic. He listened to all types of music and played Indian classic on Western instruments. Van Shipley resides in Bombay with his wife and family.

Amitava Sarkar ( writes:

You might also want to add Debashis Battacharya to your list. He is a student of Brij Bhushan Kabra. I have also heard rumors of a South Indian guitar player but am not aware of their names. Note that there are other 'pop' slide guitarists quite well known within India. Two that come to mind are Van Shipley and Sunil Ganguly. They play film music and other forms of popular music.

Mohan Nair ( writes:

I just chanced upon your page. Very informative. I just wanted to fill in the information regarding the South Indian guitar player that Amitava Sarkar mentions in his e-mail. His name is Prasanna and he plays Carnatic music (South Indian Classical Music) on the guitar. He has one commercially released album, "Vibrant Aesthetics" on CD published by EMI India. It is available at Shrimati's and the other stores you have listed. I understand from a group of Carnatic musicians who were touring North America that Prasanna is now in the U.S. pursuing higher studies.

Jaywant G writes:

You also have Barun Kumar Pal , Kamala Shankar and Jaywant Naidu who have been performing on the Slide Guitar very regularly and promoting North Indian Classical music on the Guitar.

Obtaining Indian Steel Guitar Music

In my search for sources of steel guitar music, Shrimati's in Berkeley, California was recommended by several people. I found them to be quite helpful, with a huge selection of all kinds of Indian music. They seem to be phasing out the "Saris and Accessories" portion of their business and concentrating on being the "Best Source for Asian Indian Music". They had many CDs of Hindi film music and carried CDs by Sunil Ganguly, Gautam Dasgupta, Debashish Bhattacharya and V.M. Bhatt.
2011 University Avenue
Berkeley, CA 94704
(510) 548-6220 voice
(510) 548-1838 fax

Unfortunately I don't yet have addresses for obtaining Indian steel guitar music outside of the USA. I hope one of my readers can assist me in this regard. Indian music on the internet is not as established as the music of the USA and UK, but this situation seems to be changing.

Most of the links I have shown above come from Khazana: India Arts Online. Besides an extensive catalog of music, they carry paintings, bronze castings, and other types of art.

Raag has an extensive Indian CD and cassette collection at very competitive prices. They carry CDs by Brij Bhushan Khabra, Debashis Bhattacharya and V.M. Bhatt. You can e-mail them for more information or visit their web site.

Raga Records has a web site with information on various releases by V.M. Bhatt.This is where I got the image above.

Here is another good source of links to Indian music.


If you have questions, suggestions for improvements, or additional information, please let me know.