Meet the Oud, the “King of All Instruments” Whose Origins Stretch Back 3500 Years Ago to Ancient Persia

The word oud might make some people think of fragrances. Tom Ford’s Oud Wood currently sets fashionistas back between $263 and $360 a bottle: oud can refer to “agarwood,” a very rare ingredient in perfumes. But regular Open Culture readers may be more familiar with the bowl-shaped instrument that made its way to Europe from North Africa during the Middle Ages, giving rise to the lute (al-oud… The word oud, or ud, in Arabic simply means “wood.”) The oud is, after all, a direct, if distant, ancestor of the modern guitar, a subject we like to cover here quite a bit.

Some of the videos we’ve featured on the history of the guitar have starred classical guitarist and stringed instrument specialist Brandon Acker. Just above, he introduces viewers to the tuning, timbre, and playing techniques of the oud, “one of the most popular instruments in Arabic music,” writes the site Maqam World. It is also one of the oldest. Acker leaves his “comfort zone of Western Classical music” in this video because of his fascination with the oud as an ancestor of the lute, “one of the most important instruments of the musical period we call the Renaissance.”

The oud, whose own ancestor dates back some 3500 years to ancient Persia, first arrived with the Moors during their 711 AD invasion of Spain. Although new to Europe, it was known in the Arabic world as “the king or sultan of all instruments” and had evolved from a four string instrument to one with (typically) eleven strings: “that’s five doubled strings tuned in unisons and then one low string, which is single.” Acker goes on to demonstrate the tuning of the single string and doubled “courses,” as they’re called. The strings are plucked and strummed with a long pick called a “risha” (or “feather”), also called a “mizrap” when playing a Turkish oud, or a “zakhme” in Persian….

Wherever it comes from, each oud features the familiar bowed back, made of strips of wood (hence, “oud”), the flattop soundboard with one to three soundholes,  and the fretless neck. “The oud has a warm timbre and a wide tonal range (about 3 octaves),” notes Maqam World. The instrument is tuned to play music written in the Arabic maqam, “a system of scales, habitual melodic phrases, modulation possibilities, etc.,” but it has taken root in many musical cultures in North Africa, the Middle East, and Europe. Acker may come to the oud as a fan of the European lute, but the older instrument is much more than an evolutionary ancestor of the European Renaissance; it is the “sultan” of a rich musical tradition that continues to thrive around the Mediterranean world and beyond.

Famous modern oud players come from Egypt, Syria, Palestine, and Iraq, where Rahim AlHaj was born. The musician “learned to play the oud at age 9,” NPR writes, “and later graduated with honors and a degree in music composition from the Institute of Baghdad,” while also earning a degree in Arabic literature. AlHaj used his talents in the underground movement against Saddam Hussain’s rule, and after imprisonments and beatings, was exiled in 1991. Now based in New Mexico, “he performs around the world, and has even collaborated with Kronos Quartet and R.E.M.” See him perform for Tiny Desk Concert above and hear more oud in contemporary concert settings here.

Related Content: 

The History of the Guitar: See the Evolution of the Guitar in 7 Instruments

What Guitars Were Like 400 Years Ago: An Introduction to the 9 String Baroque Guitar

Hear Classic Rock Songs Played on a Baroque Lute: “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” “White Room” & More

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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