Shamisen (a three-stringed Japanese banjo) (三味線)

Shamisen is a Japanese stringed musical instrument with a neck. It is a plucked string instrument. The wooden body is square and flat, and both sides are covered with skin; the neck extends through the body, on which strings are plucked with a bachi (a plectrum) shaped like a ginkgo leaf.


It probably originated between fifteenth and sixteenth century, having a relatively short history for a traditional Japanese musical instrument. Generally, it is played with a bachi in the shape of a spatula, but there are fine differences depending upon the rendition of shamisen music.
In the world of traditional Japanese music of the early-modern times, especially the world of jiuta (a genre of traditional songs with shamisen accompaniment), sokyoku (koto music) (combined with the kokyu (Chinese fiddle) music, they are called "sankyoku" or instrumental trio), and so on; shamisen is sometimes called 'sangen' (a three-stringed musical instrument), written as '三弦' or '三絃.'
It is also called 'mitsuno-o' as a classical expression. In Okinawa Prefecture and Amami islands of Kagoshima Prefecture, it is also called sanshin.

The instrument itself consists of 'tenjin' (or itogura: pegbox), 'sao' (neck), and 'do' (body). Many sao are divided into three parts: kamizao, nakazao, and shimozao, and this kind of sao is called 'mitsuore' (threefold). It is mainly designed for storage and portability, and also to prevent sao from becoming warped.
Sao without division is called 'nobezao.'
On the other hand, some sao are divided into more than five parts.

The material used for high-grade instruments is koki (a kind of tree) (grown in India); there are also other kinds of sao made of rosewood or quince (grown in Southeast Asia including Thailand, Myanmar, and Laos). In the past, there were also many sao made of oak or mulberry. Nowadays, some sao are made of snakewood. For some unique articles, sandalwood and Bombay black wood are also used. Wood suitable for making sao is hard, fine-grained, and of a high specific gravity. Do are all made of quince, but there were some made of mulberry and Japanese zelkova in the old days. Higher-grade instruments have a minute pattern carved all over the inner surface of the do. This pattern is called 'ayasugi', which improves the quality of its sound.

Although the abdominal skin of cats had been generally used, because of its high price and decline in production, nowadays dog skin is used for practice shamisen and others, accounting for seventy-percent of the total. For Tsugaru-jamisen (Tsugaru-shamisen), with some exceptions, dog skin is used. Synthetic skin is also used sometimes, but it is not preferred because its tone quality is inferior to natural skin.

When the skin of a female-cat is used for shamisen, it is said that a virgin cat is ideal because she-cats get their skin scratched by tomcats during mating; in fact, the skin of young female-cats before mating is too thin, so a slightly thick skin after the scratch healed is often used.

Shamisen has three strings made of silk. For Tsugaru-jamisen, nylon or Tetoron (a registered trademark of Teijin for a kind of polyester fiber) strings are also used. In descending order of thickness, they are called 'ichi no ito' (the first string), 'ni no ito' (the second string), and 'san no ito' (the third string), respectively. Each string varies in thickness, and the size to use depends on the rendition of shamisen music.

An ordinary shamisen has a mechanism called 'sawari' near the tuning peg of ichi no ito. This mechanism makes the instrument twang from the open string of ichi no ito touching the sao slightly, increasing harmonic overtones to sound more appealing and sustains longer. Although the sound caused by this is a kind of noise, it is indispensable for shamisen music. Although biwa and some other instruments also have 'sawari,' shamisen, unlike other instruments, has 'sawari' only for ichi no ito, but ni no ito and san no ito also have sounds of the same effects caused by resonance on certain points (which change according to tunings) to hold down the strings. This makes the sound rich and, because the sound resonates differently with the type of tuning, it creates an atmosphere distinctive of the tuning.
There is a screw type sawari implanted in sao, called 'azuma sawari.'


There are several types of tuning for shamisen and, unlike violin and some other instruments, shamisen is tuned up according to the music, even during the performance. Basic tuning is as follows. There are various kinds of tuning to cover every different key, and also to create a different atmosphere depending upon the tuning (See also 'Jiuta' for details).

Hon-choshi (the basic tuning method) -Ni no ito is tuned a perfect forth above ichi no ito, with san no ito an octave above. If ichi no ito is C, ni no ito is F and san no ito is C of an octave higher.

Ni-agari (the second raised) - Ni no ito is tuned a perfect fifth above ichi no ito, with san no ito an octave above. The name came from the idea that tuning is done by raising ni no it from hon-choshi. It is also called 'Ni-age' in Okinawa Prefecture. The strings are tuned C-G-C.

San-sagari (the third lowered) - Ni no ito is tuned a perfect forth above ichi no ito, with san no ito a minor seventh below. The name came from the idea that tuning is done by lowering san no ito from hon-choshi. It is also called 'San-sage' in Okinawa Prefecture. The strings are tuned C-F-B♭.

Kinds of shamisen

There are several kinds of shamisen used to play accompaniment to different genres of music. They are roughly classified in three categories in general: Hosozao (thinnest type of shamisen), Chuzao (a middle-size shamisen), and Futozao ("broad-neck" shamisen).

Nagauta shamisen (shamisen used for nagauta, long epic song): Hosozao. It is played with bachi made of ivory. It is used for Kabuki (traditional performing art) music and others.

Gidayu shamisen (shamisen used for Gidayu, reciting dramatic narratives): Futozao. It is played with big, thick bachi. It is used for Joruri (Ballad drama) and others.

Tokiwazu shamisen (shamisen used for Tokiwazu theatrical music): Chuzao.

Kiyomoto shamisen (shamisen used for Kiyomoto, a performance of Joruri puppet play): Chuzao.

Jiuta shamisen: Chuzao. Its transition between sao and do is different from other kinds of shamisen during frequent use of high notes.
It is played with an ivory bachi called 'Tsuyama bachi.'

Shamisen for jiuta is often called 'sangen.'
It is also called 'sankyoku,' and is used for playing music with jiuta, so (koto), kokyu, and shakuhachi (bamboo flute) as an ensemble.

Shinnai shamisen (shamisen used for Shinnai theatrical music): Chuzao. It is famous for 'Shinnai nagashi' (Shinnai theatrical music played by a strolling musician) in which the musician plucks the strings with the fingernails and performs standing up.

Yanagawa shamisen (Kyo shamisen): The oldest model of shamisen. It is thinner than Hosozao.

Tsugaru-jamisen: Futozao. It is played with small bachi that has a tip made of tortoiseshell. It is used to play accompaniment to Tsugaru Minyo (a traditional folk song).

Sanshin: it is used in Okinawa Prefecture and the Amami islands of Kagoshima Prefecture. It is characterized by the skin of an Indonesian python and a lacquered sao made of ebony. It is not played with bachi, but played with a nail made of the horn of a buffalo.

Gottan (local shamisen of Kagoshima region): one instrument remains in Kagoshima Prefecture. It is made of cedar board and, instead of skin covering, is covered with the board.

In addition, there is 'selo shamisen' (a low-pitched sound shamisen) that originated in the Taisho period.

History and related instruments

According to the taxonomic classification of musical instruments, shamisen belongs to 'lute family.'
Among others in the family, shamisen is shaped by inserting the neck into the body; instruments of this kind are seen all over the world, and a guitar and a sitar are deemed to be the same type. On the other hand, instruments with the neck and the body united in a single body or something close to it, like biwa (Japanese lute) or lute, are considered to be of a different type, even within the same lute family.

Stringed instruments of lute family, having an oval body covered with skin and attached to long cylindrical neck, were already drawn in wall paintings of ancient Egypt. But it's not known if this is the direct ancestor of shamisen. On the other hand, an instrument of the same type appeared in China during the Qin Dynasty, which developed into haegeum and later became rabab when the Turks brought it to the Middle East. There is a theory that the rabab developed into the sitar of the Middle East and Iran (Persia) ('Haegeum theory of the origin of bowed string instruments' by Kazuo HARA, a kokyu player). Sitar means 'three strings' and is deemed to be the ancestor of shamisen. Later it was introduced into China and the sanxian was born. It was brought to Ryukyu through trade between the Ryukyu Kingdom and China (Fuzhou), and became sanshin. Although some say that this is the original form of shamisen (another theory holds that the Chinese sanxian was introduced to Japan by way of Ryukyu), the sanshin was later perfected through the influence, in reverse, of shamisen in the mainland. For these backgrounds, it is still called by two different names in Okinawa Prefecture: 'sanshin' in Chinese, and 'shamisen' in Japanese.

At the end of the sixteenth century, Ryukyu trade brought Chinese sanxian into Sakai City, and it was improved in a short period to become shamisen. Shamisen named 'Yodo,' which was made for Yodo-dono (Lady Yodo) under orders from Hideyoshi TOYOTOMI, still exists. Although it is slender, its basic shape is nearly the same as today's shamisen. For improvements made from sanxian as a foreign instrument to the shamisen, blind musicians of Todo-za (the traditional guild for the blind) played an important part. It is expressed in the change of plucking method: sanxian was plucked with giso (a pick shaped like a nail), but shamisen was plucked with bachi for 'Heikyoku' (the music played on Heike biwa as accompaniment for the recitation of Heike monogatari) which they specialized in. It is believed that various measures were tried for adding biwa's subdued, massive, and dramatic tone to the shamisen, which originally had a rather light tone. It is said that Kengyo (the highest title of the official ranks within the Todo-za) ISHIMURA, among blind musicians, were the most involved in the improvement of shamisen, its development to art music, and the creation of jiuta.

In this way shamisen acquired a versatility of expression as an instrument to play a wide range of melodies: light and heavy, sad and merry; and jiuta, the first item of shamisen music, was born by Kengyo ISHIMURA and others at the very beginning of the Edo period. Since shamisen was also adopted into a narrative called Joruri, shamisen music had been roughly divided in two: 'utai mono' (lyrical song) and 'katari mono' (narrative), and then they have repeated subdivisions that developed much further. It came to be used for a wide range of music, such as art music and popular songs in the cities, and later also for Minyo (a traditional folk song) in the countryside. Thus shamisen has led and supported various Japanese music of recent times, adding further improvements at the same time, and has become the leading stringed instrument of Japan.

In Japanese music history, common people never had any musical instruments, except for fue (Japanese flute), drum, and bell in kagura (sacred music and dancing performed at shrines), until the appearance of the shamisen.

Words and phrases related to shamisen

Misleading others can be said 'shamisen o hiku' (to play shamisen) in other words. It was originally 'kuchijamisen o hiku' (to play oral shamisen), that is, to imitate the tones of shamisen, what it comes down to is an imitation or a lie. Examples are, 'in mah-jongg, saying to have a hand which is completely different from the real one, to put the opponents off their guard or set them on their guard,' or, 'in a preliminary match of motor sports, running in a far worse time than the real ability as a strategy for putting the rivals off guard,' and so on.

Shamisen gai (Lingula) is an animal belonging to Brachiopoda Phylum, Lingulata Class, 無穴目, Lingulidae Family. Its shells are likened to do, the long tail is likened to sao.

Nazuna (shepherd's purse, a plant belonging to Brassicaceae) is popularly known as 'pen pen gusa (weed).'
Because its fruit resembles bachi used with shamisen, it is called by the name prefixed by 'pen pen,' imitative sound of shamisen.

[Original Japanese]