George Harrison’s sitar from 1965, almost certainly the one he used to record ”Norwegian Wood”, is going up for auction. The Beatles song that not only launched ”The Great Sitar Explosion” in rock music, but also deepened Harrison’s involvement with Indian music, its culture and the Hindu religion that would shape the rest of his life. More than any guitar that Harrison used during his career with the Beatles and as a solo artist, the sitar is perhaps the instrument most closely associated with Harrison, who was first introduced to it in August of 1965 by David Crosby before buying his own and using it to record ”Norwegian Wood” on 12 October 1965.
Harrison’s purchase of his first sitar (sometime between August-October 1965) is best explained in his own words, from ”The Beatles Anthology”: ”I went and bought a sitar from a little shop at the top of Oxford Street called Indiacraft – it stocked little carvings, and incense. It was a real crummy-quality one, actually, but I bought it and mucked about with it a bit. Anyway, we were at the point where we’d recorded the Norwegian Wood backing track and it needed something. We would usually start looking through the cupboard to see if we could come up with something, a new sound, and I picked the sitar up – it was just lying around; I hadn’t really figured out what to do with it. It was quite spontaneous: I found the notes that played the lick. It fitted and it worked.” Over the next several months Harrison continued to play the sitar and decided to exchange his older-style ”crummy-quality one” with a more sophisticated style designed to play better into microphones.
In the meantime, Harrison married Pattie Boyd in January 1966 and left for Barbados with her for their honeymoon. While in Barbados, George and Pattie were hosted by Pattie’s friend, George Drummond, who lived on the island and to whom Harrison gave this sitar. Drummond, the Godson of King George VI whose full name is George Albert Harley de Vere Drummond, is featured in the book “Beatles ’66: The Revolutionary Year” by Steve Turner. Turner describes the events on the island leading up to the gift, ”During the days Pattie sunbathed and George practiced on his sitar. George even had a better sitar flown to Barbados for him, and when it arrived he gave his old one – probably the one he had bought from Indiacraft – to Drummond as a gift.”
The sitar is accompanied by two letters of authenticity, one from Pattie Boyd and one from George Drummond. Pattie not only confirms the authenticity of the sitar, but writes that George used it to play ”Norwegian Wood” to her on their honeymoon. She writes, ”Before we left Barbados, George Harrison gifted the Sitar to George de Vere Drummond.” Drummond’s LOA likewise confirms that Harrison gave him this sitar in February 1966 and that it’s ”remained in my possession until I consigned it to Nate D. Sanders Auctions.”
Despite Harrison’s misgivings about its sound quality, visually the sitar is a stunning display of craftsmanship, made by the sitar company of Kanai Lal & Brother of Calcutta, and was approximately 10 years old – made in the late 1940s or 1950s – when Harrison played it. Elaborate wood carvings appear on the tumba and tabkandi (similar to the headstock and body of a guitar), with the tumba formed in the shape of a swan’s neck and head. A plaque below the tumba reads, ”Kanai Lal & Brother / 377 Upper Chitpur Road / Calcutta”. Ornamentation at the top of the tabkandi shows an ancient figure playing a sitar, below which wood carvings appear in relief. More elaborate wood carvings appear on the kaddu, a bulbous, gourd-shaped area on the back of the tabkandi which serves as a resonator for the sitar. The sitar measures 53” long, 13” at its widest point and 10” deep at the kaddu.