Once upon a time, the cicada-like buzz and twang of the shamisen could be heard in the streets, bath houses, and living rooms of Tokyo. Recently, however, its distinctive sound has been disappearing from public life. Today, the shamisen is studied by few, and hardly maintains the popularity it once had. Yet it remains a unique Japanese sound, capable of rich and varied expression.
Table of Contents
The shamisen arrived on the Japanese mainland in 1562 from China. At that time it was called the sanshin and had a smaller body covered with snake skin. The instrument was gradually popularized by biwa (lute) players of the time, who changed the snake skin to dog or cat skin, used a larger plectrum, and changed the body (do) design from one piece of wood to four interlocking pieces, usually made of red sandalwood, mulberry, or Chinese quince.
The shamisen’s heyday was in the 17th century kabuki theater, where it was used to play long songs to accompany the dances and acting on stage. You can still see and hear many genres of shamisen music at the kabuki today.
The shamisen is a three-stringed fretless banjo covered with dog or cat skin and strummed with a large plectrum (bachi).
There are different sizes of shamisens for different kinds of music: tsugaru, minyo, jiuta, nagauta, gidayu. Each vary in the size of the body and plectrum and thickness of the skin and neck. Tsugaru, the improvisatory style of the northern regions of Japan, and Gidayu, the explosive style of music of the puppet theater, use the most sturdily built shamisens due to aggressive snapping on of the bachi on the strings. The nagauta shamisen is the smallest.
The shamisen (indeed, all Japanese instruments) are strongly affected by weather conditions. Autumn is “shamisen season” because the cool, dry air makes its snap clean and bright. Muggy weather can cause the wood to swell, making it difficult to turn the tuning pegs, and, in the worst case, tearing the skins.
The shamisen neck (sao) is fretless and can make finding finger positions challenging. However, since the sao can be dismantled into three parts for easy transporting, there are faint lines in the wood to give “clues” for positions to beginners.
The shamisen has three strings made of braided silk, or for practice purposes, more durable materials such as nylon or tetron. From lowest to highest in pitch, they are called: ichi no ito, ni no ito, and san no ito. The characteristic reverberation of the shamisen comes primarily from the first string, which sits directly on the wood at the top of the neck instead of the small metal ridge there.
There are many accessories for the shamisen, the most important being the yubikake, a knit finger cover that loops between the thumb and forefinger to making sliding along the neck smooth. A hizagomu, or rubber lap pad is also used to keep the shamisen from slipping off the leg.
There is no fixed basic pitch to which the shamisen is tuned. Since shamisen music is primarily vocal, pitch is determined by the particular singer performing. The kanji characters for shamisen、三味線, literally mean ‘three’ ‘taste’ and ‘string.’ There are three main tunings in nagauta, each giving a different flavor to the music:
- Honchoshi—“original tuning,” intervals of a fourth and a fifth, best used for solemn music
- Niagari—“raise the second,” intervals are a fifth and a fourth, best for gay, bright music
- Sansagari—“lower the third,” intervals are two fourths, best for melancholy or serene music
Many nagauta compositions change tuning in the middle. A classic progression is honchoshiniagarisansagari. The player must make the adjustment quickly and cleanly during performance.
Shamisen notation is marked by position, not musical tones. For example, “7” notes an open third string. There is also no time signature as in Western music, so the fickle tempos can be difficult to master at first. Taping lessons with an MD or tape is a must for effective, accurate practice. Although much Japanese music is now written in scores, it largely remains an orally transmitted tradition.
Playing the Shamisen
Traditional wisdom says it takes three years to learn to tune a shamisen and seven years to learn the positions. This may sound extreme, but there is truth to the statement. As already stated, the shamisen is fretless and requires patience in learning the positions by feel and sound.
Another challenge is tuning. The strings are not “locked” in the tuning pegs (itomaki) like a guitar, so during every 2-3 minutes of playing, they slowly slip out of tune. Part of being a good shamisen player is maintaining tuning while playing, but it takes patience and experience to perfect this. To help tuning pegs remain stable, remember to always press into the neck when turning the peg to adjust tuning. If a peg becomes loose, the whole string may unravel while playing.
The shamisen is always performed in the seiza sitting position, but can be practiced on a chair or stool, holding the instrument in your lap like a guitar.
- Strumming—Keep bachi parallel to the body and press into the strings, hitting the skin underneath. Always strum the bachi over the small half-moon of paper on the skin under the strings (bachikawa). Repairing just one side of a shamisen can cost over Y20,000
- Pluck—while holding a position on the neck with left index finger, pluck the same string with the ring finger
- Scoop—a soft upstroke with bachi during an offbeat or rest
- Hammer—while holding a position on neck with left index finger, dampen the string with ring finger
William Malm, Traditional Japanese Music and Musical Instruments (Kodansha, 1959/2000)