The tambura (Devanagari: ???????) is a type of stringed instrument found in different versions in different places around the world; most are plucked lutes. The New Grove Dictionary of Music assigns the term to the Eastern European variety of the saz, and to the Indian fretless drone lute.
A tambura (South India) or tanpura (North India) is a long-necked Indian plucked string instrument. In its bodily shape it somewhat resembles the sitar, but it has no frets, as only the open strings are played as a harmonic accompaniment to the other musicians. It has four or five (rarely, six) wire strings, which are plucked one after another in a regular pattern to create a harmonic resonance on the basic note (bourdon or drone function).
Tanpuras come in different sizes and pitches: bigger “males” and smaller “females” for vocalists and yet a smaller version that is used for accompanying sitar or sarod, called tamburi or tanpuri. Male vocalists pitch their tonic note (Sa) to about C#, female singers usually a fifth higher.
The male instrument has an open string length of approx. one metre, the female is sized down to 3/4. The standard tuning is 5881, sol do’ do’ do, or in Indian sargam: PA sa sa SA. For ragas that omit the fifth, the first string will be tuned down to the natural fourth: 4881 or Ma sa sa Sa. Some ragas require a less common tuning with shuddh NI (semitone below octave sa) : NI sa sa SA. With a five-string instrument, the seventh or NI (natural minor or major 7th) is added: PA NI sa sa SA (57881)or MA NI sa sa SA (47881). The name ‘tanpura’ is probably derived from tana, referring to a musical phrase, and pura which means “full” or “complete”.
Both in its musical function and how it works, the tanpura is a unique instrument in many ways. It does not partake in the melodic part of the music but it supports and sustains the melody by providing a very colourful and dynamic harmonic resonance field based on one precise tone, the basic note or key-note. The special overtone-rich sound is achieved by applying the principle of jivari which creates a sustained, “buzzing” sound in which particular harmonics will resonate with focused clarity. ‘Jiva’ refers to ‘soul’, that which gives life. What is implied is that an ‘animated’ tone-quality is the idea which the tanpura embodies. The principle of jivari can be likened to the prismatic refraction of white light into the colours of the rainbow, as its acoustic twin-principle at work.