Shamisen: Wikis


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Kitagawa Utamaro, "Flowers of Edo: Young Woman's Narrative Chanting to the Samisen", ca. 1880
A Japanese man playing a shamisen while another sings

The shamisen or samisen (Japanese: 三味線, literally "three flavor strings"), also called sangen (literally "three strings") is a three-stringed musical instrument played with a plectrum called a bachi. The pronunciation in Japanese is usually "shamisen" (in western Japan, and often in Edo-period sources "samisen") but sometimes "jamisen" when used as a suffix (e.g., Tsugaru-jamisen).



The shamisen is similar in length to a guitar, but its neck is much slimmer and without frets. Its drum-like rounded rectangular body, known as the , is covered front and back with skin in the manner of a banjo, and amplifies the sound of the strings. The skin is usually from a dog or cat, but in the past a special type of paper was used and recently various types of plastics are being tried. On the skin of some of the best shamisen, the position of the cat's nipples can still be seen.[1]

The three strings are traditionally made of silk, or, more recently, nylon. The lowest passes over a small hump at the "nut" end so that it buzzes, creating a characteristic sound known as sawari (somewhat reminiscent of the "buzzing" of a sitar, which is called jivari). The upper part of the dō is almost always protected by a cover known as a dō kake, and players often wear a little band of cloth on their left hand to facilitate sliding up and down the neck. This band is known as a yubikake. There may also be a cover on the head of the instrument, known as a tenjin.


A busker playing a shamisen in Sydney, Australia

In most genres the shamisen is played with a large weighted plectrum called a bachi, which was traditionally made with ivory or tortoise shell but which now is usually wooden, and which is in the shape likened to a ginkgo leaf. The sound of a shamisen is similar in some respects to that of the American banjo, in that the drum-like skin-covered body, known as a , amplifies the sound of the strings. As in the clawhammer style of American banjo playing, the bachi is often used to strike both string and skin, creating a highly percussive sound.

In kouta (小唄; literally "short song") and occasionally in other genres the shamisen is plucked with the fingers.

Tunings and Notation

The shamisen is played and tuned according to genre. The nomenclature of the nodes in an octave also varies according to genre. In truth, there is a myriad of styles of Shamisen across Japan, and tunings, tonality and notation vary to some degree.

There are various tunings for the shamisen, but three of the most commonly recognized tunings across all genres are "honchoshi" (本調子), "ni agari" (二上がり), and "san sagari" (三下がり). "Honchoshi" means "home tuning" or "base tuning," and it is called so because other tunings are considered derivatives of this one tuning. For this tuning, the first and third strings are tuned an octave apart, while the middle string is tuned to the equivalent of a fourth, in Western terms, from the 1st string. An example of this is D, G, D. "Ni agari" means "raised two" or "raised second," and this refers to the fact that the pitch of the second string is raised (from honchoshi), increasing the interval of the first and second strings to a fifth (conversely decreasing the interval between the second and third strings to a fourth). An example of this is D, A, D. "San sagari," which means "lowered three" or "lowered third" refers to tuning the shamisen to honchoshi and lowering the 3rd string (the string with the highest pitch) down a whole step, so that now the instrument is tuned in fourths. E.g, D, G, C.

Music for the shamisen can be written in Western music notation, but is more often written in tablature notation. While tunings might be similar across genres, the way in which the nodes on the neck of the instrument (called tsubo in Japanese) are named is not. As a consequence, tablature for each genre is written differently. For example, in min'yo style shamisen, nodes on the shamisen are labeled from 0, the open string called "0". However, in jiuta style shamisen, nodes are subdivided and named by octave, with "1" being the open string and first note in an octave, starting over at the next octave. The nodes are also labeled differently for Tsugaru style shamisen. To add to the confusion, sometimes nodes can be "sharped," and since the names of nodes and their positions are different for each genre, these will also vary. Consequently, students of one genre of shamisen will find it difficult to read tablature from other genres of shamisen, unless they are especially trained to read these kinds of tablatures.

Furthermore, tablature can be written in traditional Japanese vertical right-to-left notation, or it can be written in more modern horizontal left-to-right notation, which resembles modern guitar tablature. In traditional vertical notation, Chinese characters and older symbols for dynamics are used, however notation from Western style music notation, such as Italian names for dynamics, time signature and the fermata have been imported.

History and genres

The shamisen derives from the sanshin (三線), an instrument of the Ryūkyū Kingdom, now a prefecture of Japan, in the 16th century and one of the primary instruments used in that area), which in turn evolved from the Chinese sanxian.

The shamisen can be played solo or with other shamisen, in ensembles with other Japanese instruments, with singing such as nagauta, or as an accompaniment to drama, notably kabuki and bunraku. Both men and women traditionally played the shamisen.

The most famous and perhaps most demanding of the narrative styles is gidayū, named after Takemoto Gidayū (1651-1714), who was heavily involved in the bunraku puppet-theater tradition in Osaka. The gidayū shamisen and its plectrum are the largest of the shamisen family, and the singer-narrator is required to speak the roles of the play, as well as to sing all the commentaries on the action. The singer-narrator role is often so vocally taxing that the performers are changed halfway through a scene. There is little notated in the books (maruhon) of the tradition except the words and the names of certain appropriate generic shamisen responses. The shamisen player must know the entire work perfectly in order to respond effectively to the interpretations of the text by the singer-narrator. From the 19th century female performers known as onna-jōruri or onna gidayū also carried on this concert tradition.

In the early part of the 20th century, blind musicians, including Shirakawa Gunpachirō (1909-1962), Takahashi Chikuzan (1910-1998), and sighted players such as Kida Rinshōei (1911-1979), evolved a new style of playing, based on traditional folk songs ("min'yō") but involving much improvisation and flashy fingerwork. This style - now known as Tsugaru-jamisen, after the home region of this style in the north of Honshū - continues to be relatively popular in Japan. The virtuosic Tsugaru-jamisen style is sometimes compared to bluegrass banjo.

Kouta (小唄) is the style of song learned by geisha and maiko. Its name literally means "small" or "short song," which contrasts with the music genre found in bunraku and kabuki, otherwise known as nagauta (long song).

Jiuta (地唄), or literally "earthen music" is a more classical style of shamisen music.


Shamisen in non-traditional genres

One contemporary shamisen player, Takeharu Kunimoto, plays bluegrass music on the shamisen, having spent a year studying bluegrass at East Tennessee State University and performing with a bluegrass band based there. Another player using the Tsugaru-jamisen in non-traditional genres is Michihiro Sato, who plays free improvisation on the instrument.

The Japanese American jazz pianist Glenn Horiuchi played shamisen in his performances and recordings.

A duo popular in Japan known as the Yoshida Brothers developed an energetic style of playing heavily influenced by fast aggressive soloing that emphasizes speed and twang; which is usually associated with rock music on the electric guitar.

Metal guitarist Marty Friedman has often used a shamisen in his recordings to give a more exotic sound to his music. [2]

Japanese rock musician Miyavi has also played the shamisen on various occasions, incorporating its use in albums and during concerts (i.e. during the debut live of superband S.K.I.N concert at the 2007 Anime Expo convention at Long Beach, California on June 29, 2007).[3]

American Tsugaru-jamisen player and guitarist Kevin Kmetz leads a rock band called God of Shamisen, which is based in Santa Cruz, California, and also plays the instrument with the band Estradasphere.[4]

Japanese traditional and jazz musician Hiromitsu Agatsuma incorporates a diverse mix of genres into his music. He arranged several jazz standards and other famous western songs for the shamisen on his latest album, Agatsuma Plays Standards. His previous recordings displayed funk, electro music and traditional Japanese styles.[citation needed]

Variations in construction and playing style

Shamisens vary in shape and size, depending on which genre of music is performed with the instrument.

Generally, the thin-necked hosozao is used in nagauta, the shorter and thinner neck facilitating the agile and virtuosic requirements of Kabuki. The hosozao is often used in kouta, where it is plucked with the fingernails.

The chuzao is favored for jiuta, with a broader, more mellow timbre.

Finally, the thick-necked futozao is used in the robust music of Gidayubushi (the music of Bunraku), Joruri and Tsugaru-jamisen. In these genres, the thicker neck facilitates the greater force used in playing the music of these styles. The futozao (lit. "Thick Neck") of Tsugaru-jamisen is quite a recent innovation, and is purposefully constructed in a much larger size than traditional style shamisens, and its neck is much longer and thicker than the traditional nagauta and/or jiuta shamisens.

The bachi or plectrums used to play the shamisens also differ in shape. The bachi used for nagauta and jiuta shamisens are very triangular in shape, often having very sharp points. The Gidayu shamisen uses a very slender bachi, having a more subtle triangular shape. The bachi used in tsugaru-jamisen has a noticeable triangular shape, but is still less pronounced than the bachi used in nagauta and jiuta.

The width of the bridge (koma) also varies between genres, and even between schools of playing, such that a jiuta performer of the Ikuta-ryu plays with a different sized koma from that of a Yamada-ryu musician.

Shamisen used for traditional genres of Japanese music, such as jiuta, kouta, and nagauta, adhere to very strict standards. Purists of these genres demand that the shamisens be made of the correct wood, the correct skin, and are played with the correct bachi. There is little room for variation. The tsugaru-jamisen, on the other hand, has lent itself to modern use, and is used in modern genres such as jazz and rock. As a more open instrument, variations of it exist for show. The tuning pegs and bachi, which are usually fashioned out of ivory or turtle shell, for example, are sometimes made of acrylic material to give the shamisen a more modern, flashy look. Recently, avant-garde inventors have developed a Tsugaru-jamisen with electric pickups to be used with amplifiers, like the electric guitar: the electric tsugaru-jamisen [1] has been born.

See also


External links




  • [2] - Picture & details of the shamisen's body
  • [3] - S.K.I.N. debut concert live report at JAME


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