Originally ouds were strung with gut strings (although it is possible for silk to have been employed near the Persian-Chinese border) but today nylon has all but replaced gut. I have never played a gut strung instrument; there may still be some but almost all players use some type of synthetic compounds. D'Addario (my preference) and La Bella (a close second) make fine oud strings, using high quality nylon like that used for guitar strings. I have seen many sets from the Middle East; the Turkish strings are of good quality but I am under impressed with the Arab-made sets I've come across. Some are better than others but all are inferior in tone to even the Turkish sets. The ones on most of the new ouds from Egypt are very brassy colored wrapped basses with nylon trebles. The trebles are often blue monofilament better suited to a fishing pole than a musical instrument! Also they usually have plain 3rd strings, whereas the D'Addarios and La Bellas (even the Turkish strings) have overspun 3rds, giving a stronger tone that balances better with the other strings. All of this is for tunings using C or D for the 1st string.
Introduction to Oud
The oud is an ancient instrument, probably of Persian origin, refined during the Arab golden age into the instrument in its current form. It is likely that the earliest ouds were carved from a solid piece of wood, much like the Chinese Pipa and Japanese Biwa which are also descendants of the ancient Persian barbat. By the time of the Moorish period in Spain the body was in its characteristic staved wood vaulted back design. In fact, this staved wood may be the namesake for the oud as the word means wood or flexible stick, and the top was made of wood as opposed to the skin of the earlier lutes and the vaulted back that provided the model for the European lute and mandolin was constructed from many steam-bent "flexible sticks" unlike the Persian barbat, which was carved out of a single piece of wood and may have been the original model for the oud.
The earliest known tuning seems to have been CDGA which was soon altered to ADGC (reversing the pattern of the outside strings) giving the traditional pattern of 4ths still used today. Somewhat later the 5th string was added, tuned to G or rarer to E, adding to the low range and also giving a diapason. In more recent times a 6th course, usually single as opposed to the doubled courses on all other strings, was added; tuned to D (or rarely C for certain maqamat), it was often the first course in older ouds; most today are in the lowest place. I have an old Turkish oud that was set up this way. and although I can see some advantages to the low string first concept, I altered it to the more modern position. The use of the 6th string among Arabs is by no means universal; in fact most new Egyptian or Syrian 'ouds come set up for 5 courses (with the empty 6th or low string in the 1st place- the strings displaced even if no low string). The 1969 oud method by Hakki Obadia, published in Brooklyn NY, considers this arrangement standard and does not mention a low string.
As an example of the lack of standardization I recall the 'oud used by the Moroccan band in the restaurant at Disney's Epcot Center about 1989. It was a new Moroccan instrument, and was notable for two unusual features- 7 courses and machine-gear tuning pegs. I didn't find out the tuning of the lowest two strings, but they seemed to be D and C. The oud is played by Arabs at a standard pitch of DGADGC from low to high, thus the first 4 strings retain the ancient pattern. The 3rd string, dugah, is a D and matches the ney al-dugah, or D ney. On this instrument, rast is C and as such matches the written Arabic Classical music, where rast is C. At times this pattern may be transposed up or down; for example the Iraqi tuning of Salman Shukar, ADEADG, is up a 5th, using very thin strings. For many years Turkish and Armenian players, particularly Cabaret style, used this pattern up a step to EABEAD. I just use a capo if I need to go up from Arab standard. Older Turkish Classical players tuned down a 4th using heavier strings to ADEADG (an octave lower than Iraqi).This transposition is set up in Turkey so that the ‘oud's 3rd course, dugah, matches the ney, and have corresponding names. Thus standard pitch is mansur, and a mansur ney plays the Classical music at pitch so that a G, rast in the Turkish system, actually sounds the piano note G. The Cabaret players were using the bolahenk tuning, so that the written G sounds D concert.
In recent years a variant tuning has become popular, if not "standard" among Turkish players, using all 4ths. Thus the Classical oud methods by Mutlu Torun and Temel Hakki Karahan, both published in1993 in Istanbul and by Bahattin Turan, published in 1993 in Izmir, uses F#BEADG; many others use the C#F#BEAD, which is a variant of the older Turkish Cabaret tuning, and is just a transposed version of the new classical tuning. As mentioned before, many players read Turkish music at the pitch where the first string, rast, is at G at the higher sounding pitch, as if it were a transposing instrument. Torun gives a chart on pages 309-311 of his book showing all possible pitches!
As I was trained by a Syrian professional player and play primarily Arab style this article will use Arab Classical as the standard for Arabic music, but will use other tunings and capoing to show the other possibilities of various tunings, some of which may be more widespread in use than the Arabic.
One consistent pattern in oud stringing may seem odd to Western players accustomed to the pattern of attaching strings to the pegs of violins, guitars, etc.; to even out the stress of the string tension, the courses alternate from side to side of the peghead.
Holding The Oud The oud is held similar to a guitar, but care must be taken to have the face vertical so that it is not visible to the player, and to support the weight with the thigh and right arm so that the left hand is free to move around the fingerboard. Note the idiosyncratic manner of holding the mizrab (Turkish) or Risha (feather, Arabic) or pick; although it seems awkward it is in reality easier than a conventional flatpick, and gives the "right" tonal shading to the plucked note.
In all matters of holding and playing I recommend using only the muscles needed for any musical task and to relax as much as possible, using only as much force as is necessary. This will allow you to play longer, easier and to put the effort into creativity rather than mechanics. In the past many players sat cross-legged on the rug, but now most perform sitting, often using a classical guitarist's footrest under the right foot to help hold the 'oud.
Two methods of left hand fingering are in current usage. The older, more traditional Classical Arabic approach uses all four fingers for stopping the strings, one for each semitone much as a guitarist; my teacher used this method but it seems more people play with a style more akin to baglama saz or sitar technique, using the first and second fingers for as much as possible, with less use of the third and little use of the fourth fingers. At this time I find myself borrowing from both styles and employing the method that renders the musical result easiest. Hakki Obadia's book used a mixed fingering system that uses finger 1 for several notes, finger 2 for some but not all strings and finger 3, not using finger 4. I tend to use a similar method but use finger 4 and use finger 2 on all strings. I find it better for some maqamat (plural of maqam) to use the one-finger-per-semitone method; others times it is easier to get a certain ornamentation with the saz/sitar method, as it facilitates portamenti and other embellishments. It seems that Arabic players are more sparing and judicious in the use of ornaments than Turkish-Armenian stylists, although cross-influences occur often. One other factor may be the longer scale length of Arab ouds, which makes use of a wider left hand stretch facilitating the use of the guitar-type fingering.
One other facet of left hand usage is the employment of the fingernail to help stop the string, giving a clearer tone and more pronounced ornaments than use of the fleshy tips alone. This is common to several other fretless instrument, among them the sarod, shamisen and san-xien. All the method books I've seen have no mention of this practice, calling for the fleshy padded tip of the finger alone. Again, like fingering systems, I borrow from both and use the nail for special effects, often using the fingertip alone for a more basic sound. Let the music dictate the sound.
Choosing an Oud Finding a quality oud is easier than it was years ago. First, more people are playing the instrument so more of them are in circulation. Ouds are made in many places in a variety of similar but significantly different styles, and your preferred music and ideal of sound should be the first consideration in selecting which type of oud to buy. Generally, two main types of ouds are made; Turkish ouds, with manufacture centered in Istanbul, are very finely crafted of very light wood favoring a bright tone, and Arab ouds, made somewhat larger and heavier to favor a deeper tone color at the lower pitch tunings used. The main cities for oud crafting are Cairo, Egypt and Damascus, Syria. Generally Arab ouds are a bit rougher crafted, but fine specimens of all sorts are available. One possible analogy is to guitar making; Spanish Classical guitars are made heavier than Flamenco guitars whose lighter construction gives them a brighter tone. Remember, though, that the differences in ouds are minimal in comparison to other instruments, where an oud of any type sounds like an oud!
If you wish to tune to G for the 1st string, you must find a much heavier set, or use a standard set of string and move them over: for example to tune to 1st string at low G (Turkish Classical) use a regular set of oud strings, but use discard the 1st strings, put the 2nds on the first course (they were designed to tune to G or A, so they would be fine at G) and find a guitar string of appropriate thickness for the lowest course at A or F#, old and new tunings respectively.
The strings attach to the bridge in the same way as classical guitar strings, that is, wrapped around a few times to form a self-locking loop.
Right Hand-the Misrap or Risha
As mentioned the right hand employs a special method for holding the quill-inspired pick called risha in Arabic and mizrap in Turkish. The long flexible pick puts the wrist at a particular angle and adds a certain tonal color to the sound. The traditional material was an eagle quill, but this is not practical; plastic makes a more durable and standard material for the risha. Players have used things like collar stays, plastic pieces from hardware stores, cut-up plastic bottles ( this worked better with the old heavyweight containers), and of course the Turkish manufactured models. These come in a thin, more-or-less pointed tip style made of lighter gauge translucent plastic and a round tip model made of heavier white opaque stock. The thinner ones are lovely sounding and play very delicately with subtle nuances; the heavier ones play very loud.
Variations can be obtained by cutting a new tip on the thinner ones a bit further back where the plastic is a little thicker, adding volume to the attack. The rounded ones can be cut to a pointer shape and thinned a fraction with fine sandpaper adding nuance to the heavier attack produced by this pick. Both kinds are made double-ended from the factory, so one end can be left original and the other end customized, the player using the appropriate end for the musical need.