Let’s delve into it!

Have you always wondered where the Oud instrument came from and why it is so popularly played across the Middle East?  Perhaps you would like to know more information about the construction of the instrument, or about the most famous players within the Middle East.  If so, you have come to the right place! 

You are just about to read into the most comprehensive study of the Oud instrument, from its origins to its constructions, to the players in the Arabic world that have made this instrument so renowned.  Everything you could ever need to know about this enchanting instrument you will find here. 

Oud instrument
The Oud instrument: An instrument with 100 faces

The Oud instrument has been considered one of the most important instruments within Arabic music for centuries and still is considered as a holy grail today.  The Oud has evolved over the years, in size, sound, and tuning.  It is widely played across the Middle East in a variety of styles and genres.  The versatility of this intoxicating instrument is one of the main reasons it has been so easily adapted throughout a variety of countries in the Middle East including Eygpt, Syria, Turkey, and Armenia.  While there are many styles played on the Oud, the most significant is the Arabic Maqam, something that we will discuss in detail later. 

Arabic maqam
The oud the is natural instrument for the Arabic Maqam

The Oud comes from the Lute family, and to look at, it is very similar to the lute. However,  The Oud has a shorter neck and does not include frets. The fact that the Oud is fretless makes it the perfect instrument for easily playing Maqams and microtonal scales.  The Oud has 11 or 13 strings, depending on the instrument, that are then grouped into 5 or 6 courses.  The word ‘Oud’ in Arabic means wood, representing the variety of natural and important woods used to make this enchanting instrument.  Many would argue that the Oud is the main instrument in Arabic music, and this article will delve into all the reasons as to why this is so.  First, we will have a look at the history of the Oud and its unique journey across the Middle East and Europe. 

The Oud, One of humanity’s first instruments.

There are many different beliefs about where the Oud originated and by whom.  One belief even involved the devil asking the ‘People of David’ to trade all their instruments in for this new and mystical Oud instrument.  However, the most common belief was that the Turkish and Arabic Oud was inspired by the Persian instrument, Barbat.  In fact, the Oud is most likely an instrumental combination of the Barbat and the Ancient Greek instrument, the Barbiton. 

The earliest evidence of the Oud as a descendant from the Barbat has been shown in the 1st century BC, in Northern Bactria.  The Barbat was proven to have been used by Arabs in the 6th and 7th centuries.  It was during this time that the Oud most likely developed.  It has been shown that at the end of the 6th century and the beginning of the 7th century, a slightly different variation of the Barbat had been formed. 

This new variation had a wood top, which was different from the Barbat which had animal skin for this.  This new variation of the instrument was called Ud, and was made by Al Nadr.  During the 8th and the 9th centuries, musicians from the Islamic world fled to Iberia, taking with them the Oud.  Due to this, by the 11th century, Muslim Iberia had become the epicenter of the manufacturing of the Oud instruments.  Alongside this, the lute was being developed in Europe, and the Oud had become the central instrument in Arabic music.  

Ancient oud painting
A funky musical parade. And yes, the oud is here.

For many centuries the Oud only included four strings, unlike the modern instrument of today which can have up to 13 strings.  The fifth string of the Oud was added in the 11th century, beginning the process of the modernization of the Oud instrument into what we have today.   

Where is the Oud Played?

Ouds in Egypt and Arabic countries

The Oud is played widely across the Middle East, including countries such as Egypt, Syria, Turkey, Armenia, and Iraq.  It has been used within North Africa and Spain, proving this wonderful instrument’s immense versatility and significant place within a variety of genres.  Each variation of the Oud and the style that is played on it, depending on the region it is in, is distinct in its own way.  What is so beautiful about the Oud is that it has been adapted in so many ways to suit a variety of genres, while it still has not lost the mystical and amazing unique flair that gives it its prominence in the world of music today.  

A map of where the Oud is played
A very widespread for a very niche instrument. It has truly wandered in the world…

There are many different types of Oud that have been developed in the last 100 years.  These Ouds include Persian, Iraqi, Syrian, Egyptian, Armenian, and Turkish Ouds.  This can then be further grouped into 3 overarching categories:  Persian, Arabic and Turkish OudsThe Egyptian Oud has become a staple instrument within Arab music in this particular country.  The Egyptian Oud, similar to the other Arabic Ouds like the instruments from Iraq and Syria, has its own uniqueness. Listening to it, many agree that it has a slightly more heavy and low tone in comparison to other Arabic Ouds. Egyptian Ouds are also renowned for their highly decorative additions to the instrument, including colorful inlays on the fingerboard and scratchplate.  When comparing weights, is heavier than it’s Arabic counterparts, therefore affecting the sound and tone produced by the instrument.  Just like his fellow Arabic ouds, it has 5 courses included (GADGC). You will often find it has a single bass string tuned C.  If to put it in one sentence, due to the build and size of the Egyptian oud, it derives a rich & warm overtone giving it its unique regional sound. 

In Ouds, size matters…

Another core part that distinguishes Ouds from each other is the string length, AKA scale. It’s a rather technical aspect, but it has a vast effect on the sound. Basically it is the string’s vibrating length. The longer it is, the more ‘bass’ the sound is. As you can guess, the Egyptian oud, being the muddiest and bassy of them all has the longest scale of 61.5cm. Iraqi Ouds and some time Syrian ouds can be also 60cm.

The Oud scale
The vibrating length (60cm in this oud) makes a big difference in the sound characteristics

Turkish & Syrian ouds have often a scale of 58.5cm. That’s why it’s also easier to play them, simply because you don’t have to stretch your fingers that much. Today, 58.5cm is the standard for many oud makers around the world, regardless of what ‘style’ they build.Taste a sample of an Egyptian Oud sound:  

Turkey – An endless kingdom of Ouds

Turkish Ouds are different from the Arabic instruments in size and sound.  Turkish Ouds are tuned a whole tone higher than the Arabic Oud, giving it a much brighter and clearer sound.  Turkish Ouds are generally smaller than Arabic Ouds, making them lighter and easier to hold.  Because of this, beginner players generally choose Turkish Ouds to start learning on.  When it comes to the top of the Oud, the part which has the most effect on the sound, Turkish ouds utilize Spruce wood.  However, on Arabic Ouds, you will typically see the use of Cedarwood giving a more of a warm sound.

In the last 15 years, there’s a clear shift in modern high-class Turkish Ouds, to see the use of Cedarwood as a top. Few pretty big names (Faruk, Baris and others) are using it. And it has been proving itself to be a key selling point also.Usually in Turkey, the Oud is quite plain in design and definitely does not include the levels of intricate decorative designs that the Ouds in Syria or Egypt include. An interesting fact:  Turkish Ouds are also used by musicians in Greece. A sound recording of a 2001 Veysel Sarikus oud, played at his workshop in Istanbul. How do you like these sounds?  

It’s not the Oud, It’s the player

The Oud has a number of fantastic players that have helped to propel the instrument even further into the spotlight.  Each musician brings their own style and flair of playing to the instrument, and because of this, they have a huge amount of followers and admirers.  We can learn a lot about the Oud and, in particular, about the diversity of music that is played on the Oud by listening to some of the most famous players of the instrument.  These musicians help keep the legacy of the Oud alive and for many people, they are the main reason why a certain person has begun learning the Oud.  

Instagram account of Arabic oud player
One of many Instagram account with 1000’s of followers. Most of them from Saudi Arabia and neighboring countries

The Oud has been adapted all over the Arabic and Middle Eastern world.  With this, there have been so many different players with their own unique styles that have helped to make the Oud famous. In the quest for the best sound possible, Oud players searched for ways to improve their sound. One of Farid Al-Atrash’s famous trademarks is an Oud pick made of a real eagle’s feather!  If you are an aspiring Oud player then read on and take some time to check out these fantastic players who we will be discussing down below.  

Eagle's feather oud pick
Like painters who were looking for exotic materials for painting. Oud players are also on a quest for the perfect ‘Risha’ (pick)

Farid al-Atrash

One of the most prominent players from Syria is Farid al-Atrash.  Farid al Atrash was born in 1910 in Syria to a Druze family of Princes.  Farid was first introduced to the Oud instrument through his mother who was an avid player and a popular singer.  From a young age, Farid was a virtuosic Oud player and is now considered one of the most influential players and Arab musicians of the 20th century.  Farid composed a lot of songs on the Oud focused on feelings of love and romance.  

Amer Ammouri

Amer Ammouri is another famous Syrian Oud player.  Born in 1961 in Aleppo, Amer Ammouri has become incredibly famous through his virtuosic style of playing on the Oud.  Amer Ammouri is the principal player in the ensemble, Salatin al-Tarab.  

Riyad Al Sunbati

Riyad Al Sunbati was one of the most famous Oud players from Egypt.  Al Sunbait’s father was also a very famous singer and Oud player before him.  In fact, Riyad was taken on numerous tours and to many different concerts so that he could learn from his father’s musical training.  Riyad Al Sunbati was nicknamed ‘the canary of Mansoura.’  Riyad Al Sunbati is most known for his work with Oum Klatsoum, the famous Arabic singer from Egypt.  Sunbati was the composer for one of her most famous songs which appeared in the movie ‘Take Me To Your City My Love.’  Riyad Al Sunbati is considered to have taken Arabic classical music to new levels, and given a unique perspective and contribution to the music at the time he was playing. 

Mohamed al Qasabgi

Mohamed al Qasabgi is another well known Egyptian Oud player and composer.  He was born in 1892 in Egypt and is regarded as one of the top composers of the 20th century in Arabic music.  From a young age, Mohamed al Qasabgi dedicated his time to music.  He became a great Oud mentor for many young musicians at the time, including Riyad Al Sunbati.  In his music, he mixed traditional Arabic musical elements with European musical techniques.  He was known as one of the leaders to fuse Oriental music with European musical elements.  

Yorgo Bacanos

Yorgo Bacanos is seen as one of the most famous Turkish Oud players.  Although he is Greek in origin, he was one of the leading artists to play Turkish Oud music.  His famous compositions are still listened to widely within Turkish music today.  He was known as one of the great improvisational players within the entire Ottoman classical music genre.  Yorgo Bacanos played with numerous famous players and musicians, including Umm Kulthum, Munir Bashir, and Seki Muren.  

Serif Muhiddin

Serif Muhiddin Targan, born in 1892 and died in 1967, was another famous Turkish Oud player.  He was known as taking the traditional Arabic musical elements on the Oud and expanding them to reach new levels and explorations.  He pushed Arabic classical music even further to what it is today.  Serif Muhiddin Targan started learning the Oud when he was six and actually performed for the first time when he was only 13 years old.  

The Oud in the era of Spotify and the 21 century

As the Oud has come to symbolize Arabic and Middle Eastern music, it has been adapted into modern-day music. Many musicians have fused traditional Arabic musical elements with more modern and global musical trends.  One notable player is the one and only Marcel Khalife. Marcel has re-invented his love for the Oud by using the traditional Arabic musical style, but with a modern touch. Khalife uses the Oud to interpret works by the Palestinian poet, Mahmoud Darwish.  His musical style has become popular all over the world, not just in the Middle East, and is a testament to how the tradition of the Oud can be preserved in the modern-day world.  His album ‘Taqasim’ can be seen to be using certain jazz elements on the Oud.  

Marcel Khalife Oud player
Bringing the Oud to today’s front stage

One other famous Oud player from Tunisia, Dhafer Youssef, is pushing the boundaries of traditional Oud playing even further than ever before. His unique musical style fuses traditional Oud elements with touches of Jazz and electronic music. Using effects such as distortion, he pushes the capabilities of the Oud into new and exciting territories. Using jazz rhythms he produces a unique way to play the Oud. Youssef has been applauded over the world for his take on this fascinating and traditional instrument.  

Checking on today’s Arabic rock music, the Oud is used as a special replacement, or alongside, the guitar.  Take for example the work of Palestinian singer and Oud player, Kamilya Jubran, and the number of collaborations she has undertaken with a variety of Jazz and Rock musicians.  During the 1950s and 1960s, Arabic music began to be blended with more Western influences through artists such as Umm Kulthum.  By the 1970s, Arabic pop was born. Many Arabic pop musicians choose to blend Arabic styles and instruments, such as the Oud, with electronically enhanced forms.

The Anatomy of the Oud

The oud is made from a carefully selection of tonewoods that are then uniquely crafted together to make this fantastic instrument. Traditionally, the Oud’s bowl is made from lightweight wood, like walnut wood, maple or padouk. The shape and the dimensions of each Oud differ from region to region. For instance, an Egyptian Oud will differ from a Syrian Oud with regard to the shape of the body of the Oud.  In Egyptian Ouds, the bottom of the bowl will follow a straighter shape, whereas in most Arabic ouds, this part of the instrument will be much rounder. 

Different oud bowl's shape
1. Turkish oud – Rounded. 2. Syrian Oud – Curved. 3. Egyptian oud – Flat

The pegbox of the Oud is attached to the neck at a 90-degree angle, also making it stand out from Western instruments such as the guitar.  The 90-degree angle affects the tension of the strings, enhancing the overall tone of the sound produced. 

The strings on a traditional Oud were made from gut, however, nowadays, they are made from plastic.  Unlike traditional models of the Oud, modern-day variations of the instrument include 11 or 13 strings, grouped together in 5 or 6 courses.  

The Bridge is made of wood and is used to pull and hold the strings in place at the bottom of the instrument. A very common bridge in Iraqi ouds is called a floating bridge. This bridge is special because it is not actually glued to the top. So basically, if you remove the strings it will simply fall off. Having played many of these, I would say it produces a much crisper sound than what you would hear on other Ouds using a fixed bridge. On Fixed bridge ouds the sound will be much deeper and the instrument will display a mellow sound overall.  Due to the floating bridge utilizing less energy to transmit the sound from the strings, this results in the instrument being slightly more responsive to changes in the playing.  

Professional syrian oud - walnut wood
A Syrian floating bridge Oud made by Walid El Badiwa

The floating bridge was invented by Munir Bashir and built by Mohamed Fadel in 1957. This special bridge setup was followed by a custom set of strings, to allow a tuning higher by 2.5 tones, which resulted in very percussive and dominant sound. It’s interesting to mention that this type of high tuning, is now almost a standard in many countries like Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and more.

The top of the Oud usually includes one to three sound holes. The soundholes repress sounds that are produced from the Oud and project them out of the instrument, increasing the overall sound production. Some makers take an approach of making the top completely even in thickness. And some more traditional makers, are claiming that even top results in a flat sounding oud, and some areas need to have more mass to have a better resonance. Whichever approach is more correct, there’s no argument that 90% of the sound is the result of the quality of the top and the work that has been done on it. 

Oud making supplies
Getting ready to bring all the parts together

Not visible, but supercritical are the bracings. These tiny pieces of wood, have a serious effect on the durability of the oud. They are the foundations that hold the whole structure together, carrying the heavy tension that the strings make. One Israeli maker, Yaron Naor, has made an Oud with bracing in the shape of a tree’s leaf. He claims it creates the perfect natural harmonics that makes a perfect Oud.

Oud bracing system
Bracing – the system that holds it all together

The fingerboard of an Oud is fretless. It is usually made from a strong wood that will allow the fingers to easily glide over.  In Turkish Ouds, ebony is used to counteract the somewhat lightweight and small size of the overall instrument.  Ebony is an incredibly strong wood, which is needed for a Turkish Oud neck to ensure that the entire instrument is held together in a dense and strong way. In Arabic ouds however, the wood for the fingerboard is usually walnut. That’s because there’s no need to really strengthen the already rather massive wooden construction. 

Once it comes to finishing the fretboard, a skilled maker will take the time to ensure that it is 100% flat and straight. This is important to ensure that there are no buzzing sounds while playing.  If the neck is not absolutely straight and sanded evenly, this can have a disastrous effect on the sound produced by the Oud. 

Oud template
The bindings are bent over this wooden frame

Making an Oud takes a tremendous amount of woodwork knowledge and a high level of craftsmanship.  After the different woods have been sourced and cut into the appropriate templates, they are then dried for a period of time.  Through a time consuming and carefully implemented process, the wood bindings will then be bent, making them the appropriate shape for each section of the instrument.  Direct fire or steam is used carefully against the wood to ensure that it is flexible.  Following this, the individual pieces of wood are then connected on a template that acts as the Oud bowl.  

Fixating the oud's bindings
Here we go…

A journey into today’s most important Oud makers and brands

Zeryab Syrian Ouds
The new Zeryab logo

Zeryab AKA Ali Khalifa

The Ali Khalifa Oud makers from Damascus in Syria are among the top makers today.  The Ali Khalifa makers are a family that has been making ouds from generation to generation, across many years.  In fact, their family business has been manufacturing ouds since 1948.  Ensuring that the family business is kept alive is very important to these Oud makers.  Recently, they have changed their name to the Zeryab. 

The Ouds that are produced with this family can be split under three main categories: Syrian, Turkish, and Iraqi.  Their Syrian Ouds are definitely the most popular. The main vision and goal of Zeryab is to produce traditional style Ouds with a modern twist.  With a high level of craftsmanship, they use modern ornamental designs on the instrument. 

Each Zeryab Oud includes a Truss Rod.  A Truss Rod will run through the neck and will allow the player to easily change the angle of the neck to the body, using a standard hex key. Unfortunately, due to the nature of the Oud instrument, over time the neck on the instrument can be pulled slightly due to the overall pressure of the strings.  This will, therefore, make it slightly more difficult to play as the distance from the string to the fingerboard will be further.  Thus, with a Truss Rod, the player will be able to realign this easily and continue playing as normal.  This is what makes Ali Khalifa’s ouds great purchases.

Gawharet El Fan
Located in Cairo, it is one of the biggest Oud manufacturers in the world

Gawharet El Fan

Gawharet El Fan is one of the most famous Oud makers and stores through Egypt.  It has been established since 1940 and was one of the first shops of its kind.  ‘Gawarrat el fan’ in Arabic actually translates to ‘The Diamond in the Crown,’ which doesn’t really cite the level of quality of these Oud manufacturers. Gawharet El Fan is a popular Darbuka and Oud maker that sells its Oud to shops from all over the world. These Ouds are considered medium quality for most Arabic musicians, although are highly popular due to the mass production of the instruments and the low prices available.  

Mohammed Fadel Iraqi Oud maker
This frame was captured from an interview with Mohammed

Mohammed Fadel

The late Mohammed Fadel is considered one of the top Iraqi Oud instrument makers.  He was one of the first Oud luthiers in Baghdad.  Mohammed Fadel actually built the first oud for the outstanding player, Munir Bashir in 1956.  For over 70 years Mohammed Fadel built a variety of high standard Ouds, resulting in his business becoming a family tradition and carried on by his sons. Mohammed Fadel was responsible for designing what is called the ‘floating bridge.’  This undoubtedly gives these Ouds their unique sound in comparison to other Ouds.  Mohammed Fadel Ouds give us a much crisper sound, and in general, are more responsive to a particular player’s playing due to the floating bridge. 

Faruk Türünz oud maker
One of the best, if not the best

Faruk Türünz

Faruk Türünz is, to many people’s ideas, the best luthier of Ouds in all of Turkey. He began his business in 1984, and his shop is currently in Istanbul.  Many people from all over the world come to Faruk Türünz to purchase their ouds.  Farak produces Turkish and Arabic ouds.  What makes a Faruk Turunz Oud special is the use of the Double Soundboard system.  The Double Soundboard system was first developed in guitars and utilizes a material called Poly-Aramid-Kevlar.  This material was first developed by the DuPont company to lighten certain vehicles that were to be used by NASA (!).  The Poly-Aramid-Kevlar is made into the shape of Honeycomb and glued inside the soundboard between two very thin layers of wood. This makes the soundboard lighter in weight, and also the amount of wood used is decreased.  What this results in is slight friction within the soundboard, which then leads to more resonant and overall rich sound produced.  

Is the oud the guitar of the east?

Oud is one of the most important instruments throughout Arabic music.  It is also one of the oldest instruments in human history, yet it’s popularity within Middle Eastern music has never faltered.  Why is the Oud considered so important? How did it gain its special place in Middle Eastern music today?One key point is that it’s simply very important for the composition of Arabic music, namely through the use of Makams. These exotic and set of scales can be associated with Western scales, but are much more complex in nature. 

Oud in the desert in Jordan
The sound of the oud takes you to a mystic journey. For a brief second, you feel you are in a 1000 night and night tale…

many decades, the Oud has come to symbolize the world of traditional Arabic music. It has become the most iconic instrument to be used in Middle Eastern music, and the sound that it produces immediately evokes the notion of deserts, camels, and crowded bazaars. 

Author: Jenna Mackle

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