3,000 years separate the arabic luth from the guitar although ancient paintings found in Egyptian temples show that the main characteristics of the the luth family (neck, strings, soundboard) already existed.
Before Faudel, Khaled and Rai music or Mouni Bachir (for those of you who actually listen to the Culture stations) ever got to us, the arabic luth also known as the "oud" which means "wood", has traveled from it's original Islam to the Far East as well as to the West where it had a great impact all around the mediterranean. As in Europe, during the Rennaissance period, it was adapted to western harmonies. While it has kept it's original shape, frets have been added, giving birth to the luth. Although it is known as a classic arabic instrument (in Cairo or in Damas, it is a highly considered instrument and studied as much as the piano in Paris or in New York music schools), it is also a traditional instrument played in most popular arabic events.
Thanks to the growing popularity of "World Music", the cultural globalisation and the quest for new sound stimulations from western audiences, naturally our ears have become accustomed to the traditional sounds designed for meditation, dreaming and dansing that are so familiar to Africans and to a large amount of Asians. From Syria to Turkey, from Cairo to the southern parts of the Sahara and Marocco, the oud is probably the only instrument that will actually play chords and the only one that has a wide enough range. Traditionally it is played with other intruments such as the darbuka, the bendir, the flute (ney) and the gimbri (the desert bass). It's also the instrument chosen to perform solos that we usually see in concerts. More recently the success of Rai music has given us an additional opportunity to learn more about this instrument, that has since been electrified for the purpose of being played amongst other electric instruments.
These are the reasons why many guitarists willing to renew their sources of inspiration, turn to the oud and the richness of it's quarter tones (though not always played on purpose - don't forget the oud has no frets !). Imagine a classical guitar with nylon strings, a wood bridge and no frets, played with a long flexible piece of plastic, the shape of a nail file held like you would hold a car key while you try to open the door, in a broken wrist position (like Django would), and there you have it in a nutshell ! Now beginners who were considering this option shouldn't be too discouraged by this description; there is a brighter side. First you can use a soft guitar pick, but be careful because it's a little like trying to play bluegrass without the fingerpicks : you won't get the sound. You'd better steer cleer away from the Canda Dry effect, and stick with a classic "feather" approach. By the emails I've been receiving from various musicians, it looks like we have a basic tuning problem to deal with first. The instrument is often brought home after a trip and some of the strings are broken or incomplete. In this situation you wonder if this is normal or if something is actually missing. Though the chords may vary from one country to the other, the least you should know is that from low to high you have : G, AA, DD, GG, CC.
So you see, that's not so bad after all is it ? We're in familiar territory here with these quarter intervals AA, DD, GG, just like a guitar. Instead of having a B for your highest note you get a C and so on per quarter. The only real trick is that the low G can be doubled up giving you a second from the A, but the best part is that it's also an octave from the G. Then you need to tune it. If you have an oud sleeping in a corner, it's time to wake it up. Here's a good tip to start tuning it : start right now ! You have a month before we meet again in these columns. You will then be introduced to the ways of the masters' great concert performances. This very oriental lesson of patience is quite akin to the study of Asian or Oriental music, culture or instruments. No where will you ever find or even see a manual that titles "How to play the Oud in 10 easy lessons". So slow down !
I used the oud in my latest album "Unplugged Journey", particularly on this track