So, you are trying to play the Bağlama Saz...

NOTE: if this string "ğ"
does not look like a "g" with a little hat on it.
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The bağlama saz is a very old traditional Turkish string instrument (some would say it is the traditional Turkish instrument.) It is rather uniquely Turkish in character, though there are very similar instruments in nearby places (Armenia/Persia/Greece/etc).

I didn't find much in the English language about how to play the instrument when I started, so this is my attempt to write down a few of the basics.

If you have comments or corrections please let me know: EMail Jas Here!
Note: you will need javascript enabled on your browser to send me email by clicking here. Why is that you may ask?

Strings and Tuning

Your saz probably looks something like this (but may not have the electronic pickups on it that mine does):

Your saz almost certainly has 3 courses (sets/groups) of strings. It probably has 7 strings total, but may have 6 or possibly even some other number. It probably looks something like this: If it has 6 strings then probably the #7 string below is missing. The smallest of the saz family (the Cura -- which is a half-sized bağlama usually does not have enough room for all 3 strings in the course "Z".)

On this sort of instrument strings arranged in courses are played together - that is all of the strings are struck at once and give a louder sound than a single string would. However in the case of the saz, additionally the strings in a course may be tuned differently from each other (usually an octave apart) and this makes a sort of resonant, slightly-buzzy or "twangy" sound.

Usually the strings are arranged into friction tuning pegs in the order shown above. Your instrument may differ a little, but you can probably figure it out. Also we are starting to see them made with mechanical pegs, like a modern guitar.

The thickest/heaviest string is usually #1, followed by #5; #3-#4 are next thickest (and usually the same as each other), followed by #2, #6, and #7 (which are all usually the same). Nowdays #1 and #5 are usually wire-wounds strings, while the rest are solid wire.


If you look you will find many essays on tuning the saz (most of them in Turkish.) Similar to a modern guitar, usually the X-course has the the lowest note, the middle (Y) course is higher, and the Z-course contains the highest note on the instrument. This can vary, of course, because there are many special purpose tunings.

If you are just starting out I suggest you stick with the modern style of tuning which is similar to how a modern violin is tuned. This tuning is very versatile and will suit playing a lot of different kinds of traditional music. Unless you are playing a particular type of music that needs a special tuning, this tuning in 5ths (called "bozuk" or "black" tuning) is the best place to start.

A "fifth" in this case is 5 "white keys" apart on a piano; or up 7 of the 12 steps in a chromatic scale. Also remember for later that a "fourth" is 4 white keys or 5 of the 12 chromatic steps. [If you want more explanation of this, perhaps it is best to first read a bit about music theory.]

Traditionally the saz would be tuned to the player's comfortable vocal range - so the absolute note is not important - merely that the intervals between the strings are correct.

However lets establish a "concert tuning" so that we can talk about actual notes. Because of the weight of strings used and the size of the instruments there is a bit of a standard. Usually on the long-neck bağlama saz the lowest note is a G.

GDA tuning (tuning in 5ths)

So start tuning by making string #1 be a comfortable low G. Tune string #2 an octave higher on G. The middle course will be tuned to the same D (in between the previous two Gs). And then the fat string (#5) of the Z-course to the A just above the G of the #1 string. The thin strings (#6, #7) are tuned to the A an octave above #5.

Actually - you probably want to read a bit further on for the note about bridge placement before you actually tune your instrument...

NOTE: Another common tuning is ADA where the top and bottom courses are tuned similarly. This sounds nice when you are rhythmically strumming the open strings, but for reasons we will discover later on, it is a little less versatile.

Remember though, that the absolute pitch of the first note doesn't really matter that much. If the strings are too loose you may want to tune higher. If you are playing with others you will need to find a good place to tune that make the songs you play wind up in a comfortable place to play on the instrument.

GDA equivalent tunings
So here is a chart of some tunings that have equivalent intervals in them
  G  D  A  "standard"
  A  E  B
  Bb F  C
  C  G  D  "short-neck" (see below)
  D  A  E
There are more that these, of course, but these are the ones that are likely to be possible and useful on a traditionally-sized instrument with normal strings.

As I mentioned, the long-necked bağlama saz standard is to start at G, however, in practice, many players who are playing solo will tune higher since the strings will be less loose and a bit easier to play. If the strings are too loose and the saz has very low "action" (distance between the strings and fretboard) you might find your saz buzzes because the strings touch the frets. In this case tune higher, and if that doesn't work get a better-made saz or put in a higher bridge.

The tuning of the Cura (the long-necked bağlama's half-scaled cousin) is often just an octave higher than the bağlama.

Since the short-neck saz (sometimes called a çöğür) is a shorter instrument but often uses the same sized strings as its longer cousin, it is usually more comfortably tuned higher. One Turkish book I have suggests that CGD would be a good standard tuning -- however that might be too "tight" for you instrument, so take care!

The reason there are three strings in the Z-course, is so that that course is the loudest. Typically that course is used for the primary melodic line of the music and it's best if it can be heard above the strumming of the other strings. Therefore, usually when someone mentions where they are tuned by saying one note (e.g. "I'm tuned in A") they are referring to the melody course (Z) open note.

Other ways to tune

There are many ways to tune the saz -- traditionally the individual would tune to a range that matched their voice, and with individual strings tuned to make playing their style of music convenient.

One of the readers of this page wrote to me to share his experience playing Alevi asik music and suggests an ADA tuning. In this case it might be because the extra course really enhances the tonic (I believe this tuning is called Yeksani in Turkish).

There are many other tunings, including ones where the strings in a course are tuned to different notes -- usually in simple harmonies like a 4th or 5th to produce a sound particular to a musical genre. More that this brief comment is beyond my scope!

Frets and Scales

let us take a look at where the frets are on our instrument.

The frets on a saz are tied with string (usually a monofiliment material like "fishing line".) They are movable. Traditionally they can be moved around to get the micro-tonal variations that are found in Turkish art and folk music. Before standardization of music the notes/intervals found in modes(scales) probably differed a bit from village to village and musician to musician. So the frets on your saz might be pretty much anywhere...

However, nowadays they are pretty standard and probably look something like the leftmost picture below (if you have a long-neck bağlama.) :

Bağlama "Long neck" Frets

Yikes! What a mess... let us try to figure it out....

If you are used to a guitar or other western string instrument, first realize that the saz has extra frets for notes not found in western music. Most of these are "about halfway" between other notes that western music does use. There may be some extras that have a special purpose (like the blue ones in the picture) -- your saz may or might not have these... for now you should learn to ignore them. So if we remove them (from the picture, don't take them off your saz!) -- and the "half way notes", we get a picture that looks like a normal guitar scale. It contains 12 divisions per octave. For now try to picture your saz like this and think less about the extra frets... kind of like the far right picture.

Since we remember from our physics class (or maybe "Music 101") that an "octave" interval in music is change of one-half the frequency: a plucked string, if you cut it in half, will make the same note, but an octave higher.

So that might help us find some frets... If the open string is tuned to A, then there should be a fret halfway to the lower bridge that is also an A. This is marked on the picture as "OCT".

Also a "fourth" is what you get when you cut a string in 3/4 length. This is marked with "4th" (and will be important later on, so be sure to find this spot).

To play a note on the saz you put your finger down just above the fret -- always think this way: don't put your finger "in the space between frets": put it down just above the fret. Believe me, thinking this way will help later.

So if you tune your bağlama to "A" then the notes you would get for each finger position on the Z-course are marked at the right of the diagram. These would be the "white keys" on a piano. The in between ("black" keys) would be the sharps or flats of the note above or below.

If you have a short-neck saz, then think of it as just a shortened version of the long-neck variety. It probably has about 2 less notes, but maybe even 4 less if you have the rare "really-short-neck" (octave) saz.

Çöğür "Short neck" Frets (compared to Bağlama)

So again - find the octave and the 4th.... remember where they are! This time I marked the diagram for the saz tuned in D.

When you are starting to play try to "see" all of the chromatic frets and ignore the rest for now. Also you might want to mark the 4th and octave frets with a piece of tape on this side of the neck until you remember where they are.

Notice also that I have put in the "Do Re Mi" notes as well. If you work with Turkish musicians they may tend to say "Do Re Mi" instead of "C D E" with the slight difference that I think most westerners say "Ti" for the B while the Turkish say "Si": "Do Re Mi Fa So La Si Do"

Also be aware that if a Turkish musician says "Do" or "C" it might not be where you would expect to find that note on a piano. Because many of the traditional instruments can vary a lot in terms of where the notes are found, there is less of a standard for "concert pitch" than in western music. In fact often "Turkish Tuning" is about one step (or sometimes more) higher than our normal western "concert pitch". Supposedly this ambiguity has something to do with where they standardized the scale in the early 20th century attempts to standardize Turkish music.

Bridge and Fret Placement

Your saz (unless it is an electric one with an in-bridge pickup) almost certainly has a moveable lower bridge. It's important to make sure that you know where the bridge should be -- if it slips out of place it will be difficult to keep the whole scale in tune.

After you find where it should be (see below) you can make a little mark or scratch on the sound board to mark the spot. That way if it shifts around you can just slide it back to where it goes.

The frets may also be moved. If you need to do this make sure you have the bridge exactly where you want it before you start moving anything!

The first step in figuring out where the bridge goes is to place the fret that is closest to the body. Obviously this fret can only slide down as far as the neck as the body - so put it there, tune a string to a known note, and then decide what kind of saz you have.

For a long-neck saz you want the note at that fret to be an ocatave plus a fourth above the open string (17 chromatic intervals). For a short-neck you probably want it to be an octave plus one full step (14 chromatic intervals).

You can verify where the bridge should be by moving in around and using an electronic tuner to find the position that gives you the right note. Or trust to physics and measure: The ratio (upper-bridge to last-fret : last-fret to lower-bridge ) should be about: 5:3 (long neck) and 27:23 (short neck) [Note: both of these are approximations - but they should be close enough -- within the width of a fret or so]. The measurements from my long/short necks are in this diagram (not-to-scale):

Once you have the bridge placed correctly, you can go through and adjust the fret positions by checking them with an electronic tuner (or by ear). [TODO: describe Omar Faruk's fret-check exercise...]


Playing Position

Until I add more Check out this link for pictures of playing position.

Things to note:
--Try to sit up straight and have the soundboard facing out and away from you.
--Try to be able to hold the instrument without having to prop it up with the left hand.
--Make sure your fretting fingers are landing just above the frets rather than somewhere random "in the space".
--Make sure you fingers point into the fret board (as on a violin or mandolin) rather than across it (like you would on a guitar).
--Make sure your hand wraps around the neck and the thumb can comfortably fret that top (X) course of strings.

Playing Styles

Traditionally melody on the saz is played primarily on one course of strings (Z) -- note that on most bağlama this course has more strings and is louder. This is similar in style to the Indian sitar and Persian tars. The open notes on the other string courses add rhythm. Therefore, so they do not sound dissonant, the open strings are usually tuned to notes that are commonly found in the mode (makam/maqam) being played. This usually makes sort of a very simple harmonic chord. Usually the open strings wind up being that same as the tonic or a 4th or 5th from the tonic note of the makam, and so form a very natural sounding resonance, and sound (to the western ear) like part of a minor or major chord.

Up and Down Scales

Suppose we have a long neck bağlama and want to play the scale of Uşşak(or Beyati) in A. This is convenient if our melody course is open-tuned to A. A-Uşşak has the following notes in it (A, B part-flat, C, D, E, F, G). Let's number our fingers like this:

The simple (perhaps-traditional) fingering to play this scale would move up the neck using the first three fingers. Keep the hand in a similar position for each group of 3 notes. Put your fingers down 1, 2, 3 (leaving them down until they are all down) and then lift up and slide the whole hand up quickly for the next 3 notes beginning with finger 1.

You could, of course, continue down the neck (up the scale) in this way.

Unless you have very large hands, or a very small saz, you won't really be able to keep your fingers down 1-2-3 -- especially near the top where the frets are far apart. Try to let you hand move as little as possible (during the 1-2-3), try to make your fingers get used to doing the work. When you practice the scale, try to get the notes even in time (an even rhythm). So even though you'll have to do a lot more work go get from 3 to the next 1, try to take as little time with that transition as possible. (i.e. try to practice 1-2-3-1-2-3-1 rather than 123-pause-123-pause-1.)

I suspect the relatively large fret spacing is one reason that the #4 finger is rarely used. I have seen some players who use it routinely -- mostly for ornament or cross-fingering (see below). And there are some who use #4 rather than #3 (one of my teachers does this himself, but suggests that it is a "bad habit" that is hard to unlearn later) -- however it does seem to make it easier to reach in some situations if you have small hands.

To descend the scale, do so by retreating the #1 finger onto each note going down the whole scale. For now this seems odd; why not use all the fingers? Later this will come in handy because many songs have descending sections of ornamented melody where it will be convenient to think of the #1 finger holding down the descending pattern while the #2/#3 fingers ornament the melody.

But what about those other strings?

Cross-string Scales

More modern technique crosses the strings and performs the scale by fingering all of the string courses. This is done especially on shorter necked instruments where less of the scale is available on one course.

One way to use all the strings for a scale is like this ( D E F G A B C D E ):

And if you want different modes/makamlar/maqamat then you can use the same technique but vary which frets to use.

However it is a little awkward to reach all the way across to the X course with all your fingers. It probably feels natural if you are used to playing western guitar -- but good saz hand position is more curled around the neck so the thumb(#0) is very near the X course. So, instead of that you might try a scale like this (A B C D E F G):

Yes! Use your thumb(#0) on the X course for that C note. The "rule of thumb" to remember for the Bozuk tuning is that if you put your thumb down on the same fret as your #1 finger is, then the thumb(#0) on the X course is one step below the note made with the #1 finger on the Z course.

Notice that this scale has merely an octave -1 note -- rather than an octave +1 as in the above method, but remember, since the strings on the saz are generally octave-paired, it matters much less in which octave the note is played -- for common purposes you really only need the 7 notes of the mode/scale.

This method should be a more ergonomic way to play a scale and still have your thumb in proper position curled near the X course (You will want it there later when you have to figure out chords and psuedo-chord strumming patterns.)

"Cheat" Scales

Well it is not really cheating, but you can combine the techniques of playing the scale up-and-down with cross-fingering in a few places, to make it a lot more convenient. For example suppose your bağlama is tuned in A and you want to play G-nihavent(nahawand). That mode is: G A Bb C D Eb F[F#].

At first you might think that G is not an easy place to play if your melody course is tuned in A. But not so! You have an open course in G (X) that you can play for that note. And if you want to back it up with a little more volume you can finger the G on the Y-course as well and strike both the X and Y courses with the plectrum.

So you might play the whole scale like this:

Note: I skipped the 3 finger going up since the fret spacing is large there (so it would be hard to reach #3) and playing with the 1 finger on the D (remember: that special 4th of the string place) will be generally a much more useful place to have your hand. Because...

If going all the way up the neck seems like a lot of work then realize there is a Bb and a C within easy reach. So you could do this (notice you can do this without moving your hand):

Or probably you will use both methods depending on what is convenient for the part of the song you are playing. For instance, if you just need a note or two thrown in you might use the cross-fingering, but if there is ornamentation (or quickly repeated note) between Bb and C it might be better to slide your hand down and play in the up-down method on the Z course.


Now that you figured out how to play scale, stop it! Probably your teacher would make you do endless strumming (tezene) exercizes on your right hand before you were even allowed to touch the saz with your left hand.


Importance of Right-hand Rhythm


Chording (There are no chords in Turkish music! Well... except when there are...)

Just some quick notes to start (since someone asked):

Finding chords (triads anyway - since we have only 3 courses of strings) on the saz is not that difficult. There are several ways to make the right notes, and since the courses tend to have octave pairs in them it doesn't matter as much which octave the note comes from, the chord usually sounds "pretty right" wherever you choose to find the note.

One of the reasons that many people now choose the bozuk/black tuning could be that it is pretty easy to make chords. I will start by assuming you are tuned in some variant of bozuk.

The simplest way to make a chord (major or minor triad) is to use your thumb, first finger and either ring or pinky finger. (In bozuk) thumb the tonic of the chord you want on the first course, put your first finger down on the same fret in the second, and in the third course use one of your other fingers to fret either the note down (the neck, but higher in pitch) by either a half-step (minor chord) or a whole step (major chord).

Look at my playing position picture for an idea of the hand position (just scoot my index finger over to the middle-course,same-fret to get a minor chord -- and you could switch to the 3rd finger instead of 2nd):
(I'll take a better pic at some point)

Note: if you don't have good saz fretting technique, a western guitar player (who didn't know how to use his thumb) would probably do this by "barring" across the whole neck with his first finger and then fretting below with his 3rd or 4th.

So here are some fingering charts for a few examples for a couple of common tonic bozuk tunings. Notice that at the thumb-string tonic you only need one finger!

Note: I've called for the 3rd finger, but if you have small hands you will probably be using your 4th!
Hopefully you can generalize from this chart to find all the other chords!

There are, of course, a bunch of shortcuts that use open strings that depend on your tonic... maybe I'll make a chart of some of these soon...


Oops! You broke a string... and those pesky saz strings don't have that little loop at the end like guitar strings!

Here is a side-view diagram of the knot to tie on the lower nut:

Here are a few web links to some more information:

Building a Saz?

Recently I got an email from someone trying to build a saz wondering what measurements to use -- e.g. why they were the size that they are. The construction of the saz is based on ratios - presumably to emphasize harmonics and get that "correct sound". Here is a quick drawing I did that you can use to calculate the various sizes. Start with the open-string length (L). Various different sizes of instruments have different traditional open-string lengths. Though this can vary by manufacturer, here are some numbers from one source:

InstrumentOpen-String Length
Cura (Baglama)56cm
Cura (Tanbura)48cm