copyright 2001, D. Glenn Arthur Jr.
Last updated 2002-10-31 (added 'further reading' section), main body 1998-07-03.
The pairs of strings are tuned in unison, like the pairs of strings on a mandolin, or the top two courses on a 12-string guitar. NOT octaves (like the bottom four courses of a 12-string guitar).
My oud has ten strings in five courses and is tuned GADGC. That is:
A six-course (11-string) oud is tuned DGADGC, with the single low D string an octave down from the third-course D.
I believe a seven-course (13-string) oud is tuned ADGADGC. I have to check on that. (If anyone reading this actually knows, please email me. Thanks.)
So you see that the interval between strings is usually a fourth (that is, five half-steps, or five "frets") with the exception of that full-step interval between the low G and the A. And there are three strings tuned to the same pitches as strings on your guitar. Get used to not having a high E string, and what would be the B string being a C instead, and you're well over halfway to getting the hang of the tuning.
Put it on your lap and angle the neck up.
On a fretted instrument, not only can you afford to be a little off in your finger placement, you must miss the fret slightly to avoid muffling the string. On a fretless instrument, if your finger is slightly out of position, you're slightly out of tune. Now this is nowhere near as hard to get right as it may sound, but it is important to be aware of what you're trying to do, and to listen carefully to your intonation.
(Note: On violin and viola da gamba (and I think on cello, but I'm not sure about mandolin), what I've just described -- "second position" on guitar -- is referred to as first position. I don't know what oudists call it, but I'd put money on "first position".)
Other than having your hand one "fret"-worth farther up the neck, I've found that a guitar-style approach to fingering works well on the oud: each "fret" (half-step) gets a different finger, with the exception of that reaching-back for the "first fret" notes. On the G string, for example, the index finger is positioned at A and plays G# and A; the middle finger plays Bb; the ring finger plays B-natural. [CAVEAT: I am self-taught on the oud and have not verified that this is the normal technique. It does work and makes logical sense.]
One final note on finding the notes: on my oud the neck joins the body right about where G is on the C string. I don't think this is a coincidence (though I don't really know yet). Since the fingerboard is flush with the soundboard, you can play right up onto the soundboard if you run out of notes on the neck. Lutes have wooden frets glued to the soundboard in that area for that purpose. But if you're playing way up there and staying in tune, you're too advanced to need to look at this page.
Hammer-ons and pull-offs do work, by the way, though they take a little more care in their execution than they do on guitar (and they're easier on a better oud than on a cheap one).
As for the right hand, there's a special plectrum you're supposed to use, long and narrow, either made from a quill or made from plastic and shaped to imitated a quill. I can't describe the proper grip, as I don't use one -- I use my nails (as I do on the guitar). I've got a photo of the proper grip, but I don't know whether it actually shows anything useful. If it does, I'll get it scanned, and if not, I'll shoot another picture sometime in the future.
Okay, I'm self-taught and therefore some of this advice may be wrong (consider yourself warned), but it has worked well for me so far: For both speed and tone reasons, I suggest approaching the instrument planning to use either alternate picking or "economy picking". Alternate picking means that on each stroke you switch between downstrokes and upstrokes. Economy picking is similar to alternate picking, except that when you change strings your next stroke is in the same direction your hand just moved.
(For example, starting a D-major scale on the D string, using economy picking you would play: D (3/open, downstroke), E (3/index, upstroke), F# (3/ring, downstroke), G (2/open, downstroke, A (2/index, upstroke), B (2/ring, downstroke), C# (1/index, downstroke), D (1/index, upstroke). Using strict alternate picking, each downstroke would be followed by an upstroke and vice versa.)
It's been explained to me that the proper right-hand stroke is angled towards the body slightly, such that the downstroke catches both strings and the upstroke only one. Someone else told me that's wrong, but implied that there's still a difference in sound between the two. So you may want to vary from strict alternate picking or strict economy picking to suit the needs of a particular tune.
Note that the strings are played closer to the bridge than they would be on a guitar. (You've got something that looks kindasorta like a pickguard between the largest soundhole and the bridge, right? If so, that's the area in which you want to pick.) This produces the characteristic twangy, percussive oud sound. If you play over the soundhole, or even closer to the middle of the string than that, what you'll get is actually a lot closer to a lute or guitar tone. (More lute-like than guitar-like.)
The oud is not a loud instrument (though more expensive ones do seem to be louder than cheap ones). That twang contains all the high-frequency overtones that'll allow your sound to cut through the mix as much as it ever will. Use it, and use it proudly.
(Also my oud, at least, is very directional. When I was sitting on the front edge of a stage and playing for a belly-dance act at the Maryland Renaissance Festival, I could pick which half of the audience could hear me -- for the other half I might as well have not been there. :-( A pickup and amplification helps -- the pros I've seen have contact pickups on the soundboard.)
In the meantime, a good scale to start experimenting with is "maqam hijaz". "Maqam" is a concept related to the western ideas of "scale" and "mode", but apparently has some additional bits nobody has explained to me yet. Maqam hijaz has an Eb, Bb, and F# in the key signature, and the tonic is D (with a dominant of G, on which you can also end phrases). Even with those flats, it's much easier to stay on pitch fingering that scale in "guitar 2nd" position than it is in "guitar 1st" position (which a violinist would call "half position").
Seriously, this is one fun instrument, with a really cool sound. Once you get the hang of it, it even feels nice under the fingers. As you've surely already noticed, it's quite appealing visually as well ... mine is really cheap and people are still always oohing and ahhing over it even before they hear it.
Because of this page, I've been getting a fair amount of email asking me questions about ouds, some of which I can answer (and do so happily, though not always promptly), and some of which go beyond my knowledge of the instrument (or related topics such as where to buy one in cities I've never been to). So here are links to possible sources of the information I don't have. I'm pretty sure several of these didn't exist when I wrote this page in 1998 (I wrote it because I couldn't find the info out there when I needed it), but this section is nonetheless long overdue.
I'm still happy to get mail about this page, though it sometimes takes me a while to respond.
One idea I had was to start a mailing list or newsgroup for dicussion of ouds and oud technique, hoping that those of us looking for information could share what we found, and maybe we could even attract helpful experts. Shortly after I thought of this idea, I realized I should first check to see whether someone else had thought of it first. Someone had, in December 2000: Yahoo Oud Group.
Note that I have commented mostly on these sites' value in learning oud technique, but most of these also include other information or links to other information, including discussions of maqamat and other aspects of relevant music theory.
The question I've been getting most often recently (having surpassed "Do you know an oud teacher in [city]?", is where to find a method book. As of 2002-10-31, the only oud method book I know of in English is The Oud, Book One by Fred G. Elias, who I'm told died before publishing Book Two. It's a pretty basic book -- a few pages on how to hold the instrument followed by several pages of exercises. There's no publication information in the book other than that it was printed by Westmore Litho -- no publisher, no ISBN, no LC data, no address, so unfortunately I have no idea how to go about ordering a copy. (I don't own a copy myself.)