What is an oud?

August 21, 2015

I’ve talked a lot about the oud, and every time I get emails and texts asking what exactly is an oud? so I thought I’d take a second to explain.


You’ll find ouds scattered about the Arab world, the Middle East and North Africa. Also Turkey. In fact those are the two common styles, Arabic and Turkish. They’re similar, think of Gibson and Fender guitars. They measure up and look a little different. 


First thing to look at with any stringed instrument is the strings, or courses. Courses can be thought of as multiple strings grouped together to be played as one. For instance, a twelve string guitar is a six course instrument. Traditionally, the oud had five courses. Three bass, and two treble. Later, a sixth course was added on the top to increase the upper range. Then a few decades ago the Egyptians added a seventh course in the low end. A lot of people argue that the size of the instrument doesn’t accommodate this addition in the bass. However, it’s still a nice sound, although not as resonant as a note in that range could be. And I use it more as a drone, and a lower octave to keep my intonation in check.

Finger Board

Now lets look at the finger board, here’s where you’ll find it really differs from the traditional lute. There are no frets! That’s right, and this is probably the main reason you see less people picking up ouds, and more picking up ukes. You really have to take your time dialing in your intonation. Especially considering that the tonal system for Arabic music sub divides whole tones in to quarters. So where as you may be a little sharp or flat with Western modes, it’s a completely wrong note on the oud! But slow practice will get you there, and for me, fretless interments are much more expressive. Of course, if you’re playing a lot of chords, you have to have frets to be in tune. But a melodic instrument like oud, or bass, I prefer to have no frets. Some say that you should learn to play, and continue to play on just one oud. You become familiar with the feel, and markings in the wood grain to find positions. I don’t agree with this, but you do have to take your time feeling out an oud that you’re not used to playing on. I wouldn’t recommend back lining one for a gig, and picking it up for the first time during sound check.


Another unmistakable characteristic is the bent head stock. Almost every time I get on the bus with my oud in a gig bag, somebody asks how I broke my guitar, and if I’m taking it to be repaired. And they’re not joking. You find this style head stock on a lot of ancient instruments, and I’m guessing it helps bring the tension up on the strings. Most modern day electric ouds, monstrous instrument hybrids, and even contemporary builds will have an angle like a guitar. But I love this look, it really adds artistry to the design. 


The shape of the body is also quite distinct, although not unique to the oud. You’ll find the tear drop shape all over the place when looking at Eastern instruments, as well as the bowl in place of the sides and back. It takes some getting used to, and doesn’t sit comfortable on your lap the first time you pick it up. It has the tendency to slip and slide all over the place. But like any instrument, it becomes an extension of your form. 


The top is braced and attached similar to that of an acoustic guitar. Traditionally they have a hand carved rosette over the sound hole, but the modern trend is oval shaped, empty holes. And often times a couple of smaller holes offset from the main one. You’ll find variations on the bridge. The traditional build is a fixed bridge with the string tied around itself. But modern builders prefer a floating bridge with the strings coming over a saddle, and tying off at the base of the top. 

Traditional Brige

Modern Bridge

The result is a gorgeous, earthy sound. And the way it resonates and feels when you play is like nothing else. With guitar, I always felt like you had to be good to enjoy playing. Not so with the oud. Playing simple scales, slowly, is as pleasurable as any quick, virtuosic runs. I remember a comment a professor of mine made when I expressed interest in learning the oud. ‘Careful’ he said, ‘every guitar player who starts playing oud, never goes back to guitar.’ He may be right. - Zach