Not many musicians can claim to have invented an entire style of music, but Indian guitarist Debashish Bhattacharya is one. He fused Indian classical with Hawaiian lap slide and steel, inventing the genre of Hindustani slide guitar and becoming its leading exponent – along the way, working with western masters like John McLaughlin and Jerry Douglas. The virtuoso’s latest album is The Sound of the Soul. We spoke to Debashish from his home in India.
What is your instrument? It looks like an eight-string acoustic guitar.
My main instrument I play now is the chaturangui. It has six main strings like a lap-steel guitar, as well as two rear strings that drone, and two rhythm strings in front. This provides a total 10 playable strings, plus 13 resonating strings, for a total of 23.
You build your own instruments. Do they have hollow necks, like a Weissenborn?
I’ve been making guitars for 45 years and built my first chaturangui in 1978, which was a jumbo-acoustic roundhole with a solid pine top. Ten years later, I made a semi-archtop, 22-string version. I made my first 12-string guitar and hollow-neck in the early ’90s, along with solid-neck archtops and hollow-necks, like the Weissenborn. I also made a four-string slide ukulele.
How did you get started playing slide?
Music is in my veins; my ancestors were generations of stage performers. My father was a classical vocalist who started working as an accountant after marrying my mother; later, someone gave him a Hawaiian guitar. My mother was also a great vocalist, and she put that guitar in my hands when I was three, showing me the major scale, and how to hold the bar. The rest was fun and I started learning songs I heard everywhere. Gradually, it became my life partner.
How did it evolve from there?
When I turned four, I played on a national program on All India Radio. At age seven, however, I was denied a national scholarship, even though I stood first in the competition. I was disqualified because I played raga music on a Hawaiian guitar, not on a sitar or a veena. That made my relationship with Hawaiian guitar even stronger and me more desperate to do what I do today – making a living with slide guitar.
Were your influences mostly Indian music, or did you discover other sounds and styles?
I learned Western techniques and common songs taught in kindergarten like “April In Portugal,” “Come September,” and “The Woodpecker Song.” But there was never a moment I compared Western or Eastern music, which I believe is the right way of thinking. I can proudly say that I’m the only slide guitarist who plays Western guitar and Indian classical guitar with equal ability.
Your song “To His Lotus Feet” would be played by a Western guitarist in the Mixolydian mode, in the key of G. Do you think in those terms, or do you have a different scale approach?
Just think of Dorian scale in G open tuning. It’s Raag Bageshri or Bageshree, in which D and G is dominant and subdominant. The notes F, B, and C make color, whereas E and A are two supporting acts. It’s a melodic modal approach that has no Western equivalent.
What kind of slide do you use – glass or metal?
I use a steel Bhattacharya Hindustani slide bar, made by John Pearse, as well as the Diamond Bottleneck lead-crystal glass bar by Ian McWee.
“Ever the Flame Burns” has incredibly fast and complex fingerpicking. Can you describe your picking technique?
The fingerpicking is thumb first and pointer second, not the other way round. That is the way I have developed slide-guitar picking, in order to come up with a technique comparable to the fingerpicking of Indian string instruments.
Which tunings do you use?
The tunings I use are different for different raags (Ed. Note: Also called “ragas.”). There is D open (DADF#AD), D minor open (DADFAD), or like dobro, G open (DGDGBD). And G minor open (DGDGBbD). I also tune in B minor (DG#DF#BD).
How do you amplify the guitar in concert?
There is no preamp or amplification; I just play live because I believe in acoustic freedom and free spirit. For me, many pickups for slide guitar all have the same voice – usually a nasal tone – which is not my preference.
Your tone on The Sound of the Soul is beautiful. How do you record guitar in the studio?
We used a DPA ribbon mic and a Neumann. Daniel Shane Thomas recorded this album, except the first track, which was recorded by Anirban Sen of Audio Center Kolkata. They both are master engineers, while Gabriel Herman did the amazing mix. Also, my chaturangui guitar provides enormous wide ranges of tones. Everything on the album came from live performances. We recorded each track in one take only.
This article originally appeared in VG’s May 2023 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.