Name: Shamisen.
Type: Chordophones > Lutes.
Hornbostel-Sachs No#: 321.321.6
Scale Length: mm.
Courses: 3
Country: Japan.
Region: Far East Asia.

Shamisen ~ Japanese Lute ~ Photographed By Graeme Gibson @ Horniman Museum, UK 2019.

Description: The shamisen or samisen [in Japanese” 三味線 and or Sangen 三絃] The shamisen is a spike bowl lute that is a descendant of the Chinese Sanxian who reached the Ryukyu Islands and developed into the Okinawan instrument by the 14th century at the latest, the sanshin [三線]. It is believed that the ancestor of the shamisen was introduced in the 16th century through the port city of Sakai, near Osaka.

Under these influences the shamisen changed greatly; Historically the shamisen is found in many forms of folk and popular music. Other genres created for theatres and tea-houses can be divided into two categories, the narrative [katarimono] and the lyrical [utamono].

Etymology: The Japanese pronunciation is usually samishen but sometimes Jamisen when used as a suffix. The name of the instrument changed from [in Japanese: Sangen; three strings] to [in Japanese: Samisen – three tasteful strings] either in Japan or the Ryukyu Islands, it is called Samisen in western and in several Edo period sources.. According to regular sound change “sugaru-jamisen”.

Playing Techniques: The shamisen can be played solo or with other shamisen. The shamisen maybe played solo or with ensembles featuring other Japanese instruments with vocals such as nagauta. Or as an accompaniment to drama, notably kabuki and bunraku. Both men and women traditionally played the shamisen.

Construction: The shamisen is constructed in a manner of a spiked lute having a tail end extended through the body. The body or [in Japanese:  胴 dō] is affixed to a neck. The body resembles a small frame drum with membranes attached on either side. Traditionally the membranes were made of cat or dog skin though this fell out of favour for synthetic acrylic materials recently in 2008 due to stigma.

The neck or [in Japanese: 棹 Sao] is divided into three or four pieces so the shamisen can fit and lock together. Most shamisen are made so they can be stowed to save space. The neck of the shamisen is a singular rod that is inserted through the body and a tail forms on the end. This allows for strings to be attached.  The tail end behaves like an anchor for strings.

The strings are stretched from tail end to tuning pegs over a fixed nut and adjustable bridge [in Japanese: 駒 koma]. The action of the strings from the bridge of the shamisen to the nut is quite low in height. This feature of using a low action is critical to the playing technique of the shamisen in creating the timbre called “sawari”.

The tuning pegs used to wind the strings are long, thin and hexagonal in shape.  The tuning pegs 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.

Variations of Shamisen: The Hosozao The hosozao [In Japanese: 細棹, literally “thin neck”] is the Japanese name for the smallest type of shamisen as its Japanese name implies. The body is small and particularly square-shaped. Having a particularly thin neck, that tapers away from the strings just as it approaches the body.

Generally, the hosozao is used in nagauta, the shorter and thinner neck facilitating the agile and virtuosic requirements of Kabuki. Hosozao shamisen especially built for nagauta ensembles are often simply known as a “nagauta shamisen.” The hosozao is also often used in kouta [geisha music], where it is plucked with the fingernails.

Citations: Bibliography: Websites:

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