Learn New Techniques on Your Uke with this Classical Indian Raga


Indian classical music, with its mesmerizing ragas, shimmering drones, and timeless melodies, might seem out of reach for many Western players. But did you know that your ukulele is a wonderful gateway to this 6,000-year-old musical tradition? Playing traditional ragas on your ukulele can open your ears to new sounds, jolt you out of a musical rut, and deepen your command of the fretboard. We have just released a new book called Ragalele, which explores the beauty of Indian ragas on ukulele, and the following lesson can also be found in the book.

The most wonderful thing about Indian classical music is how deeply it connects to nature, drawing inspiration from natural phenomena like seasons and times of day to create soulful ragas that can be thought of as musical moods. Ragas are paired with distinctive time cycles, referred to as taals. To a novice listener, the complexity of Indian music might seem overwhelming, but knowing just a few basics can give you the tools to appreciate the art form’s spectacular richness. Here we will learn to play “Raag Bhupali,” an excerpt of a bandish (a song based on a raga). 

The Ornamentation

Ornamentation is the soul of Indian classical music. In the exercises that follow, you’ll learn four of the most important ornaments: kan-swar, slur, meend, and double slide. For each ornament, slide with a single finger along the fretboard. Try each finger to see which feels and sounds best. Note that all of the music in this lesson is based on the C major pentatonic scale (C D E G A), the same one used in Western melodies like “Auld Lang Syne” and “Amazing Grace.” 

As you play, keep in mind that Indian classical music is primarily a vocal tradition; most ragas are written to be sung. When ragas are played instrumentally, the instrument is imitating the human voice. Thus, when you hear a sitar, ukulele, or any other instrument playing a raga, the aim is to make the instrument sound as lyrical and expressive as the human voice. 

The first ornamentation we are going to cover is kan-swar, as shown in Example 1. This is a slide into a note, usually done quickly. It is similar to a grace note in Western music. To play kan-swar, pluck the primary note once, then quickly slide up to the next scale note.

A slur (Example 2) is a slide in which only the first in a pair of notes is plucked. In the notation you will see each pair of notes connected by a curved line below. Pluck only the first one, then slide to the second. The second note will be naturally quieter than the first. The major difference between the kan-swar and slur is the speed of sliding between the notes. While playing kan-swar we slide quickly, whereas while playing slur we slide slow. 


Meend, as depicted in Example 3, is a slide between notes in which both notes are plucked. Think of this as the pluck-slide-pluck ornament. To play meend, pluck the primary note once, slide up to the next scale note and pluck that note. Try sliding fast and slow. 

To play a double slide (Example 4), pluck the primary note once, then quickly slide up to the next scale note before returning to the primary note. A line through the ornament symbol inverts the ornament: slide down to the next scale note, then back up to the primary note.  

Raag Bhupali

“Raag Bhupali” is a tranquil, soft melody that uses five pitches. It is an evening raga, traditionally played between 6 and 9 p.m. First, play the melody without the ornamentation. Then, add the ornaments one by one.

While it may seem that ragas and ukulele are worlds apart, there is a surprising synergy between the two. That ragas can sound beautiful on ukulele is a testament both to the versatility of the uke and to the timelessness of traditional ragas. It is our hope that Ragalele inspires people all over the world to discover the magic and mystery of Indian classical music.

The symbols that appear below the notes in these exercises are ancient Sanskrit letters corresponding to the pitches of the musical scale: 

Sa, re, ga, ma, pa, dha, ni

These are equivalent to the solfege syllables do, re, mi, fa, sol, la, ti

Note that “re” is the second step in both Indian and Western traditions. Coincidence?

Raag Bhupali bandish, indian raga ukulele lesson music notation