Bass shamisen home-build, how to?


#1

I’m looking at building my own shamisen as I’m a broke student who can’t afford to actually buy one. The shamisen is a beautiful and intriguing instrument, but normally when it comes to instruments I’m more of a bass person so I thought if it’s possible to retain the iconic sound of a shamisen, but integrating the “oomf” of a bass instrument, and if so how? Thicker strings? Larger dao? Longer neck?
I’m looking to having it function both as acoustic and electronic, or in the worst case scenario integrating the electronic components to it later down the line.
What should I do with the dao part of the build; would the drumming of the bachi pick up on an electronic shamisen? Do I need to use a specific size of shamisen strings, or can I use bass strings for more “oomf”? Do I need to use a specific material for the strings to be able to have it electronic?

I’m new when it comes to instruments, but I know my way around woodworking and is always up for a challenge, so please throw any helpful advice you got my way.


#2

A bass shamisen sounds intriguing, but yes, you’ll need to apply the changes mentioned by you.

A longer, sturdier (maybe reinforced) sao, made of harder wood maybe with some integrated metal lining ( I dont know the correct english term), because Bass Strings need higher levels of tension and regular karin or kouki might break, since they are pretty soft.

For a larger dou, maybe take a hiradou daiko for reference. A larger resonance space is always better and common for bass instruments.

You could integrate a piezo pickup on the front skin before you begin fitting the skin on the back side, thats the easiest way and yeah, a piezo picks up all the percussional effects, depending on model of the pickup of course.

Regarding the Strings, you could of course use regular bass strings but I would take the bass Strings of a Theorba, since they are a little more elastic or you could buy a set of strings for a Guqin and use the first 3 bass (earth) strings.

These are just my best guesses.


#3

Hello there,

What’s your describing is, fundamentally, a futozao shamisen.

Bigger neck, heavier strings, bigger body, bigger growl.

Some players have added a fourth string to further capture lower end frequencies.

Some professional players also utilize larger than normal body types. The standard size for a tsugaru is “5 (go) Bu Dai”, but “6 (roku) bu dai” and “7 (shichi/nana) bu dai” also exist. If memory serves, Masahiro Nitta actually uses one of these larger dou.

@Jan_Bari
You’re referring to a truss rod. Kyle Abbott has built a shamisen with one.


#4

I thought he really meant to build a real bass shamisen, not just a futozao shamisen with an enlarged dou. Like this Bass balalaika here for instance:

Ahh, I didnt know it was called truss rod in English, thanks.
We call it “Halsspannstab” and I was too lazy to look it up. :sweat_smile:


#5

I feel reserved about this idea, but that’s because I have assumed you’d like to play this “bass shamisen” the same way as a regular shamisen. But you said you cannot afford a shamisen, I wonder if you have learned how to play shamisen at all. With this question and assumption in mind, here’s what I think, and some guess.

Right, futozao shamisen has some low notes, so does regular guitars. First of all, though… electric guitar or bass, to my knowledge, use pickup to generate electronic signal, which is then converted to sound through speakers. Players can control the attack and release, but there’s in fact little characteristic to their tone without any effects. So in my mind, electric guitar and bass are not to be mixed up with acoustic instrument, and those using microphone attachment for application.

Electric bass use thick strings, but doesn’t need a resonator, therefore its body remain small, and one can play in similar position as guitar. Otherwise, think of double bass, the acoustic version, it has a much larger body as resonator.

So yes, the idea of bass shamisen, in theory - dou has to be bigger (to resonate with lower frequencies - longer wave length,) or sao has to be longer (longer string, lower frequency), or strings have to be thicker (more mass, lower frequency.) I am a professional piano technician, so… that gives you an idea of my understanding from working with 8 octave worth of piano strings, from small upright to 9 foot grand.

If the instrument is to be played acoustically, the question is, how much larger can a dou be, or how much longer can the sao be, in order for one to remain the same playing position? The act of plucking the string with bachi relies on resting part of one’s arm on the dou. If dou is made large, would the arm be long enough to reach? If it’s made deeper, would the arms be able to wrap around? The sao length is limited, because the left hand has its technique which require enough space for movements, like hijiki.

“oomf” seems to implies very low frequency. If the dou is not big enough for the low pitch, it wouldn’t bring you the “oomf”. If the sao length is limited, your only choice would be to get thicker strings (mass increase, frequency decrease.) When strings are thicker, you will find plucking harder. Then, maybe you will have to use a really thick and stiff bachi to withstand the increased plucking force. Depending on how low pitches you are looking for, shamisen playing does require adequate string tension to create the snap sound. Less tension, lower frequencies. Little tension, little snap. But again, if bachi were heavier, it wouldn’t snap as easy. If plucking thick string would work, it’s going to sound different anyway because a low pitched string brings out way more audible overtones than a higher pitched string. Again, we are talking about acoustic instruments.

Using piezo microphone seems most straight forward method of amplification, using pickup requires metallic wire. I guess no one says you can’t use metal wires, but different material will give different sound. Metal wires might damage bachi much quicker.

Since you mentioned “iconic sound of shamisen”… in my opinion, the “iconic sound” has been created within a certain pitch range, and by instruments of certain specifics. What you have been describing, a bass shamisen, is another instrument after all.


#6

My point about futozao being a “bass” shamisen is in the context of to other sub-types. For construction purposes, a comparison of nagauta-hosozao to go-bu-dai-futozao provides a road map for possible construction.

That said, I do share some of those concerns. A larger resonator is bound to create issues in utilizing different strike-zones. One’s arms only stretch so far after-all. At some point the resonator might be too big to allow standard playing or may require special supports - as seen in the oversized balalaika @Jan_Bari posted.

Concerning the iconic sound of shamisen for me, the key would be the combination of strings, percussion, and sawari. None of which seems out of reach, if the mechanical issues could be sorted. But I suppose what is or isn’t iconic to the instrument may vary on the person.


#7

Hi all. You can look at this topic : The BASSSSSS SHAMISEN


#8

I knew I’d seen this somewhere! When nothing turned up in a casual search, I thought I’d lost my mind.


#9

This is basically what I’m after, yes. Good vibrancy, still maintaining the classical shamisen feel, amplified if I’m not mistaken, a clear “oomf”.
Definitely a clear contender of what I want from my instrument.


#10

Good analysis on the subject, a lot of valuable information to have.
I have no prior experience on the shamisen, no; and delving deeper into the subject is something I find more appealing if I can find the sound I’m after, which ChristopherBrown helped me find with his link.
Now what primarily remains is to manage to figure out how to properly construct a futozao shamisen.