Two shamisen instruments on tatami mats

Shamisen: an Introduction

Have you ever heard a shamisen?

The shamisen is a traditional, three-stringed Japanese musical instrument played to accompany kabuki and various other performing arts. Years of development have expanded the shamisen's style and usage—from casual street performances to a formal play on stage, from the old to the young generation­­—it has become an instrument loved by many.

While koto is the national instrument, shamisen is undeniably an image that also can’t be separated from Japan. There’s actually a big chance you’ve seen or heard of it before! In woodblock prints, music videos, movies, or simply played in shopping districts and stores in Japan.

1. History

Shamisen may now be widely played, by Japanese and even foreigners alike, but how exactly did this instrument come to life? Its origin can be traced back to the Chinese instrument called sanxian, which was brought to the Ryukyu Kingdom (present Okinawa) in the 16th century where it developed into another instrument named sanshin. Derived from this sanshin, came the shamisen that we have today.

During its first years in Japan, shamisen was still considered as a lower-class instrument, mostly played by street performers and geisha. But with the rising popularity of kabuki plays (which was also formerly considered as a lower-class entertainment), shamisen climbed into one of the top branches of Japanese high culture.

Students learning shamisen

There are now shamisen schools, formal certification as well as examinations for taking up a professional title, and countless annual events from municipal to the national level that hold shamisen performances.

2. Types and Genres

Different players naturally bring forth different genres, and different ones have special requirements to bring out the intended tune, therefore, shamisen could be classified into three basic sizes: hosozao, chuzao, and futazao. Each type is used for specific genres, for example, the hosozao (thin neck). As the name implies, it’s the type of shamisen with the thinnest neck, mainly used for nagauta, the genre of shamisen music that accompanies kabuki performances; kouta, the style that’s sung by the geisha; and hauta.

Shamisen sitting upright in a stand

Being the chief instrument in kabuki, this hosozao shamisen is also sometimes referred to simply as the nagauta shamisen. Nagauta (literally means, long song) music itself, in the Western equivalent, could perhaps be considered as the “classical music”. Its style is ornate, complex, and versatile, combining both fast and slow melody in one piece. It’s common for nagauta songs to last for as long as 20 minutes or more!

Kabuki performance with shamisen and other musical instruments accompanying in the background. The piece being performed here is Fujimusume, the first nagauta song that I learned and still remains as one of my favorites to this day.

Another example would be the futozao (thick neck), which is also often called the tsugaru shamisen. It’s the one you’ll most likely to encounter, as it is often played in the streets or in collaboration as with Western musical instruments. Tsugaru has that loud and lively style that attracts attention, and flexibility that allows it to impressively play a wide style of music, even pop songs and rock!

It may seem complicated at first, but each style has its own uniqueness and charms, so take your time knowing which one you love most!

3. How to Play?

From personal experience, I would say that shamisen is relatively an easy instrument to learn. It only has three strings, combined with an easy-to-read music sheet. What makes it difficult are the level and types of song played, but for those who want to have a shamisen taiken, only a short lesson is needed before you’ll be able to play simple songs like Sakura, Sakura. It’s a very beginner-friendly musical instrument, even for those who have zero experience in music before (like I did).

Basic shamisen parts.
A practice shamisen neck is often numbered to help students memorize the tsubo points (pitches).

There are of course certain techniques to hold and play it, but the standard is fairly straightforward. You sit in a seiza position, place the body (dou) on your right thigh and hold the neck (sao) with your left hand. To strum the strings, a plectrum called bachi is used. In addition, a tool called yubisuri is worn on the thumb and index finger of your left hand, the function is to make it easier for the hand to slide up and down the shamisen neck.

A yubisuri.
A horizontal shamisen music sheet.
The doukake is customizable, they could be in plain colors or beautiful traditional Japanese patterns.

And that’s about all you need to know as an introduction to shamisen. To be really good at it you’ll need patience and years of practice, but learning shamisen is a very fun process. Hopefully you’ll be interested in listening and playing this beautiful instrument as well!

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