Name: Shamisen
Type: Chordophones > Lutes > Spiked > Bowl
Hornbostel-Sachs No#: 321.321
Era: Edo Period [17th Century]
Country: Japan
Region: Far East Asia

Description: The shamisen [in Japanese: 三味線 Shamisen, or Syamisen or 三絃 Sangen] is a plucked spike-lute chordophone of Japan. The shamisen is a plucked three stringed lute having a fretless neck, that is played in Japan. The shamisen is derived from the sanxian who was introduced to Japan originally from China. The shamisen is plucked with a plectrum called a “bachi”.

History: The popularity of the shamisen has its roots since the middle of the 17th century. Alternately known as samisen (in Kyoto and Osaka) and sangen when played with koto in jiuta [also spelled ziuta] chamber music. A large repertoire of music is known for the shamisen, since the Edo period [17th Century].

Construction: The shamisen is a composite lute; whose body is built from a frame and having two sheets of animal skin membrane, to complete the body. Due to a desire from younger musicians to not use animal skins in the process of making a shamisen. The shamisen is built from a body, neck, tuning gears, tail [protrusion from the neck inserted into the frame] along with an additional moveable bridge and fixed nut.

The body is constructed by a frame made of wood; whose both sides are stretched with a membrane. A tail protrudes from the neck being inserted into two holes cut into the frame, completing the basic outline of the instrument. Three wooden friction tuning pegs are added after the ornamental head stock is created. A moveable bridge and fixed nut are added to finish the instrument.

The instrument used to accompany kabuki has a thin neck, facilitating the agile and virtuosic requirements of that genre. The instrument used to accompany puppet plays and folk songs has a longer and thicker neck instead, to match the more robust music of those genres.

Citations: Bibliography: Flavin, Philip. 2008. “Sokyoku-jiuta: Edo period chamber music.” In The Ashgate Research Companion to Japanese Music. ed. Alison McQueen Tokita and David W. Hughes. Aldershot, England: Ashgate Pub. Company, pp. 169-195 ; Malm, William P. 1984. “Shamisen.” NGDMI v.3: 361-363 ; Websites:

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