Shamisen is a Japanese three-string, long-necked,,fretless lute. When part of koto chamber music it is often called sangen (三弦 or 三絃). Since the mid-17th century it has been a popular contributor to the music of many levels of society, from folk and theatrical forms to classical and avant-garde compositions.

A shamisen player usually accompanies a singer; purely instrumental music occurs primarily during interludes. This has implications for construction: instrument must suit voice, and both must suit their context. Appreciation of shamisen music, as of any music, requires an understanding of the context of each genre: physical, historical, aesthetic-philosophical, musical etc.

History and genres

The shamisen is believed to have been imported to Japan from the Ryūkyū Islands (Okinawa) in the mid-16th century in a form called the sanshin (三線), which is plucked with a talon-like pick and is covered by snakeskin. The sanshin was probably imported to the Ryūkyū islands from China (sanxian) during the 15th century. The shamisen took Japan by storm. It was first used in folk music and by narrators who previously accompanied on biwa. The construction of the instrument changed greatly from the sanshin and regional and genre differences exist within Japan.

The shamisen is found in many forms of folk and popular music. Genres created for the theatres and tea-houses can be divided into two categories, the narrative (katarimono 語物) and the lyrical (uta(i)mono 唱いもの). Shamisen genres include: jiuta (chamber shamisen songs not related to koto music); gidayū (shamisen used for bunraku puppet theatre); nagauta (Kabuki music, played on the hosozao shamisen [thinner neck]. It is often lyrical music, tokiwazu (the shamisen music in Kabuki that is played on stage), kiyomoto (the narrative music of Kabuki Theatre); folk shamisen (mostly accompanying song including party songs, songs of the geisha etc), Tsugaru shamisen (folk style from Tsugaru region known for its virtuosic playing style).

The instrument

Kitagawa Utamaro, “Flowers of Edo: Young Woman’s Narrative Chanting to the Samisen”, c. 1800.

There are a number of different shamisen types, varying to some degree in sizes. They are all about 97 cm long but differs in membrane thickness and material, bridge height and weight, string gauge, type of plectrum and particularly the thickness of the flat-topped fingerboard: thick (futozao), medium (chūzao) and thin (hosozao). The preferred woods for the neck and body are red sandalwood, mulberry and quince. The pegs are made of ivory, ebony or plastic; the strings are of twisted silk, though the stronger synthetic material tetron is now often preferred. One characteristic of the shamisen is the sawari or the buzz that is create when the bass string I played. The sawari buzz does not exist on the sanxian or sanshin.

The plectra (bachi) are of ivory or ivory-tipped wood except in certain chamber music (jiuta or sankyoku) and folk genres, for which tortoise-shell or buffalo-horn tips are used. Practice plectra may be made of plastic or wood. In some lighter forms of shamisen music, such as kouta, the side of the fingertip is used instead.

Shakuhachi and shamisen

The shamisen is important for shakuhachi players due to the chamber ensemble sankyoku consisting of koto, shamisen and shakuhachi, and the various chamber music composed for these instruments. The shamisen is also important in the genre of min’yō in which the shakuhachi and shamisen often accompany the singer together.