A shamisen or samisen (Japanese: 三味線, literally
"three taste strings"), also called sangen (literally "three strings")
is a three-stringed musical instrument played with a plectrum. The
pronunciation in Japanese is usually "shamisen" (in western Japan, and
often in Edo-period sources "samisen") but sometimes "jamisen" when
used as a suffix (e.g. Tsugaru-jamisen).
The shamisen is similar in length to a guitar, but its
neck is much slimmer and without frets. Its drum-like rounded rectangular
body, known as a dō, is covered with skin in the manner of a banjo, and
amplifies the sound of the strings. The skin is usually from a dog or cat,
but in the past a special type of paper was used and recently various types
of plastics are being tried. On the skin of some of the best shamisen, the
position of the cat's nipples can be seen.
Japanese man plays a shamisen. Picture by
The three strings are traditionally made of silk, or, more
recently, nylon. The lowest passes over a small hump at the "nut" end so
that it buzzes, creating a characteristic sound known as sawari (This is a
little like the "buzzing" of a sitar, which is called jawari). The upper
part of the dō is often protected by a cover known as a dō kake, and players
often wear a little glove on their left hand, to facilitate sliding up and
down the neck. This glove is known as a yubi kake. There may also be a cover
on the "head" of the instrument.
In most genres the shamisen is played with a large
weighted plectrum called a bachi, which was traditionally made with ivory or
tortoise shell but which now is usually wooden, and which is in the shape
likened to a ginkgo leaf. The sound of a shamisen is similar in some
respects to that of the American banjo, in that the drum-like skin-covered
body, known as a dō, amplifies the sound of the strings. As in the
clawhammer style of American banjo playing, the bachi is often used to
strike both string and skin, creating a highly percussive sound.
In kouta (short song) and occasionally in other genres the shamisen is
plucked with the fingers.
Shamisen History and genres
The shamisen derives from the sanshin (a close ancestor
from the southernmost Japanese prefecture of Okinawa and one of the primary
instruments used in that area), which in turn evolved from the Chinese
sanxian, itself deriving ultimately from Central Asian instruments.
The shamisen can be played solo or with other shamisen, in ensembles with
other Japanese instruments, with singing such as nagauta, or as an
accompaniment to drama, notably kabuki and bunraku. Both men and women
traditionally played the shamisen.
The most famous and perhaps most demanding of the narrative styles is gidayū,
named after Takemoto gidayū (1651-1714), who was heavily involved in the
bunraku puppet-theater tradition in Osaka. The gidayū shamisen and its
plectrum are the largest of the shamisen family, and the singer-narrator is
required to speak the roles of the play, as well as to sing all the
commentaries on the action. The singer-narrator role is often so vocally
taxing that the performers are changed halfway through a scene. There is
little notated in the books (maruhon) of the tradition except the words and
the names of certain appropriate generic shamisen responses. The shamisen
player must know the entire work perfectly in order to respond effectively
to the interpretations of the text by the singer-narrator. From the 19th
century female performers known as onna-jōruri or onna gidayū also carried
on this concert tradition.
In the early part of the 20th Century, blind musicians, including Shirakawa
Gunpachirō (1909-1962), Takahashi Chikuzan (1910-1998), and sighted ones
such as Kida Rinshōe (1911-1979), evolved a new style of playing, based on
traditional folk songs ("min'yō") but involving much improvisation and
flashy fingerwork. This style - now known as Tsugaru-jamisen, after the home
region of this style in the north of Honshū - continues to be relatively
popular in Japan. The virtuosic Tsugaru-jamisen style is sometimes compared
to bluegrass banjo.
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