Shamisen

Name: Shamisen.
Type: Lutes > Chordophones.
Hornbostel-Sachs No#: 321.322.6
Country: Japan.
Region: Far East Asia.

Description: The shamisen or samisen (三味線), also sangen (三絃), both words mean “three strings”, is a three-stringed traditional Japanese musical instrument derived from the Chinese instrument sanxian. It is played with a plectrum called a bachi. The Japanese pronunciation is usually “shamisen” but sometimes “jamisen” when used as a suffix e.g. Tsugaru-jamisen. In western Japan, and often in Edo-period sources, it is sometimes “samisen”.

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 are myriad styles of Shamisen across Japan, and tunings, tonality and notation vary to some degree. 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).

本調子 / honchoshi / D G D
二上がり / ni agari / D A D
三下がり / san sagari / D G C

Construction: The construction of the shamisen varies in shape, depending on the genre in which it is used. The instrument used to accompany kabuki has a thin neck, facilitating the agile and virtuosic requirements of that genre. The neck of the shamisen is fretless and slimmer than that of a guitar or banjo. The body, called the dō (胴), resembles a drum, having a hollow body that is covered front and back with skin, in the manner of a banjo.

The skin used depends on the genre of music and the skill of the player. Traditionally skins were made using dog or cat skin but use of these skins gradually fell out of favour starting around 2006 due to social stigma and the decline of workers skilled in preparing these particular skins. Contemporary shamisen skins are often prepared with synthetic materials, such as plastic.

The sao (棹) or neck of the shamisen is usually divided into three or four pieces that fit and lock together. Indeed, most shamisen are made so that they can be easily disassembled and stowed to save space. The neck of the shamisen is a singular rod that crosses the drum-like body of the instrument, partially protruding at the other side of the body and there acting as an anchor for the strings.

The pegs used to wind the strings are long, thin and hexagonal in shape. They were traditionally fashioned out of ivory, but as it has become a rare resource, they have been recently fashioned out of other materials, such as various kinds of wood and plastic.