Barbat (lute)

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The barbat (Persian: بربط‎‎) or barbud was a lute of Central Asian origin.[1] As a two-stringed lute, the barbat was an important instrument of the Ghassanids in pre-Islamic times.[2] Many instruments such as the Arabic oud are derived from the barbat. The modern Persian Barbat is almost identical to the oud, although differences include a smaller body, longer neck and a slightly raised fingerboard.

Today's Persian Barbat
Hossein Behroozinia renowned Iranian musician holding a Persian Barbat


The barbat is one of the oldest instruments in the world, and probably originated in Central Asia.[1] The earliest image of the barbat dates back to the 1st century BC from ancient northern Bactria,[1] while a more "clear cut" depiction of the barbat from Gandhara sculpture dates to the 2nd-4th centuries AD.[1] According to Encyclopedia Iranica, this type of instrument could have been introduced by the Kushans and was later adopted by the Persians.[1] By the 7th century, the barbat was developed by the Arabs into its current form, called the oud.[1] After the tanbur, it is the oldest string instrument in Iran.

The instrument was abolished in the Safavid period for an unknown reason (perhaps due to religious fanaticism), even until recent decades.

It is possible that the earliest ouds were carved from a solid piece of wood in a similar manner to the barbat. By the time of the Moorish period in Spain, the body was in its characteristic staved wood vaulted back design. This innovation may have resulted in the name for the oud (the word means "wood" or "flexible stick"), the top was made of wood as opposed to the skin of earlier lutes, also the vaulted back that provided the model for the European lute was constructed from many steam-bent "flexible sticks". After the instrument was taken to the Arab world, the body became larger as a possible result of the new method of construction, while the neck became proportionally shorter.

Holding the barbat[edit]

The barbat is held similar to a guitar, but care must be taken to have the face vertical so that it is not visible to the player, and to support the weight with the thigh and right arm so that the left hand is free to move around the fingerboard. Note the idiosyncratic manner of holding the mizrab (Turkish) or risha (Arabic, lit. "feather") or pick; although it seems awkward it is in reality easier than a conventional flatpick and gives the "right" tonal shading to the plucked note.

In all matters of holding and playing it is recommended that the player use only the muscles needed for any musical task and to relax as much as possible, using only as much force as is necessary. This will allow one to play longer, easier and to put the effort into creativity rather than mechanics. In the past many players sat cross-legged on a rug, but now most perform sitting, often using a classical guitarist's footrest under the right foot to help hold the barbat.

Basic fingering[edit]

Two methods of left hand fingering are in current usage. The older, more traditional Classical Arabic approach uses all four fingers for stopping the strings, one for each semitone much as a guitarist; alternatively, some play with a style more akin to baglama (or saz) or sitar technique, using the mainly the first and second fingers, with less use of the third and little use of the fourth fingers. Hakki Obadia taught a mixed fingering system that uses finger 1 for several notes, finger 2 for some, but not all strings and finger 3, but not finger 4.

Another important facet of left hand technique is the employment of the fingernail to help stop the string, giving a clearer tone and more pronounced ornaments than use of the fleshy tips alone. This is common to several other fretless instrument, among them the sarod, shamisen and san-xien.

Right hand-the misrap or risha[edit]

As mentioned the right hand employs a special method for holding the quill-inspired pick called risha in Arabic and mizrab in Turkish. The long flexible pick puts the wrist at a particular angle and adds a certain tonal color to the sound. The traditional material was an eagle quill, but this is not practical; plastic makes a more durable and standard material for the risha. Players have used things like collar stays, plastic pieces from hardware stores, cut-up plastic bottles ( this worked better with the old heavyweight containers), and of course the Turkish manufactured models. These come in a thin, more-or-less pointed tip style made of lighter gauge translucent plastic and a round tip model made of heavier white opaque stock. The thinner ones are lovely sounding and play very delicately with subtle nuances; the heavier ones play very loud.

Variations can be obtained by cutting a new tip on the thinner ones a bit further back where the plastic is a little thicker, adding volume to the attack. The rounded ones can be cut to a pointer shape and thinned a fraction with fine sandpaper adding nuance to the heavier attack produced by this pick. Both kinds are made double-ended from the factory, so one end can be left original and the other end customized, the player using the appropriate end for the musical need.


The barbat's body contains three major parts:

  1. Resonating body: It is like a pear and it is the biggest resonating body in comparison with other bodies. There are three sound holes and lattices on its body, one bigger than two others.
  2. Fingerboard: Without frets (or fretless), and the neck. Some earlier illustrations show frets arranged to include microtones.
  3. Bent-back pegbox: There is a great angle between the fingerboard/neck and pegbox. This is very important, it has several tuning pegs and if the bent-back pegbox is weak, the instrument won’t be tuned very well.

Traditional materials of the barbat

  1. Resonating body: Walnut or maple.
  2. String fastener or bridge: Boxwood.
  3. Top sheet: Deal
  4. Neck: Walnut
  5. Nut: Bone or plastic
  6. Pegbox: Walnut
  7. Pegs: Walnut or ebony
  8. Lattices of hole: Walnut

How to make a barbat's resonating body[edit]

There are two traditional methods:

Carved body: For this a log is cut in two pieces. On one a silhouette of the body is drawn, then the half log would be carved and scraped by tools from the inside and outside. Then it will be left to be dried.

Constructed body: In this method sections of walnut or mulberry wood are cut and boiled in hot water. These sections or ribs should have the thickness around 2 -3 mm. When they are flexible they are stressed on a crescent shaped mold or former. After drying, they will be glued and joined to each other. Then the neck and the top plate or belly will be joined to complete the structure.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f "Encyclopaedia Iranica - Barbat". 1988-12-15. Retrieved 2012-02-04. 
  2. ^ First Encyclopaedia of Islam: 1913-1936. Leiden: BRILL. 1993. p. 986. ISBN 90-04-09796-1. 

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