Complete Beginner Questions

Hi, all,

I’m a complete beginner with no musical experience beyond 1/2 a semester of keyboarding in high school (20 years ago this month). I just got out of a 14 year long unhealthy relationship, and I think music would be therapeutic. I want to learn an instrument in my lifetime. That being said, I’m extremely nervous when it comes to purchasing a shamisen. I’ve heard they’re extremely difficult to play and that it takes hours of practice every day to become proficient. Now, I know people tend to exaggerate. I’m just not sure how much. I forgot how to read music, so like I said, I’m pretty much a blank slate. Would you recommend I get into shamisen, or would you steer me toward a sanshin or something considered easier? What is the first thing I should learn? Also, is there a way to silence shamisen for apartment dwellers? Thank you!

Hey Jacob, welcome.

Any instrument you want to pick up is going to take time to learn, but hours a day for years on end to just be able to play? No, I don’t think that’s accurate for any instrument; unless you have aspirations for going pro.

Shamisen is, fundamentally, a simple string instrument although it does have a bit of learning curve. Above all, there’s probably two factors that need to be pointed out.

It lacks frets, so it can be difficult to properly finger the neck until you become acquainted with it. This also changes some of the techniques one can do on the neck vs fretted instruments like guitars.

The traditional playing method, a large plectrum called a bachi, is definitely awkward to use at first. However, it’s more than possible to play it with other picks or with one’s fingers.

The shamisen’s resonator, removable bridge, and striking force control the volume of the sound produced. Bigger resonators (such as tsugaru style instruments) are much louder than smaller (such as nagauta). A smaller resonator is a better idea if you’re worried about your neighbors.

Additionally, there are specialized bridges that mute the instrument significantly. They sometimes introduce other problems, but they definitely work.

Most shamisen music is written in easy to understand tabs called bunkafu. The crashcourse here on Bachido uses it too.

I don’t think sanshin is really easier. You should play whatever instrument you enjoy.

If you have any other questions, feel free to ask.

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Hi Jacob,

I am also a musical novice (at 50!) and have been learning shamisen for about 8.5 months… I was always pretty intimidated to post anything because all the other “beginners” seemed to have musical experience and be really good but I posted my first vid (of Ajigasawa Jinku) to my FB last weekend… so here it is below… I also get a lot of stick from my family for practicing at home and I don’t like the mute bridges mentioned in the other post so I’ve started practicing in the back of my car! That’s where the vid was taken… the accoustics are actually quite good and the neighbours haven’t complained yet (or you can just drive somewhere quiet…) Good luck!

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…Oh, and I bought one of Kyle’s ShamiBuddy shamisen for $300+ which is a bargain… I understand he only has a few left so you’d better move quick… I didn’t know if I would actually be able to learn so I promised myself I’d buy a better one when I master Rokudan at full speed… I’m hope to get there this year :slight_smile:

Hi Jacob,
In addition to all that Christopher and Alan have said I’ll throw in my $0.02.

I am also a late-in-life learner and I have tried out a number of instruments (listed in order of effort I put into each): Taiko, guitar, Shamisen, violin, ukulele, and keyboard. From my limited experience I can say that shamisen feels much easier to me than guitar - because the neck is thinner and there are only 3 strings (I have small hands and a lot of chords on guitar are kind of painful). Also much easier than violin, by far. About on par with Ukulele for me. Taiko and keyboard are so different it’s hard to compare - but it’s because of taiko that I became interested in shamisen and the keyboard just helps me learn music reading and theory easier when I use it alongside my guitar.
I actually took the plunge and bought a really nice shamisen - the Raven - from Bachido. I don’t regret it one bit. It’s such a beautiful instrument and sounds so great I just love playing it. My violin is really cheap and while it’s nice I don’t love handling it and playing it as much because it just feels less precious to me. I think how easy or hard an instrument is greatly depends on your body, your ability to learn, and how much you enjoy the sound that is produced from that instrument.
For me the Shamisen is such a unique and beautiful instrument. And I hope to one day be able to play a bit of rock and roll on it with my guitar-teacher’s band. It would provide a unique sound to help us stand out more as a band.

In addition to the Shami Buddy (in case you miss the opportunity to grab one of the few left) there are also great used shamisen available to save you a little $$ if you want/need.
…I know one of the ladies in my Temple Taiko group was looking to sell hers (I am not sure what style hers is - but we are in San Diego if you are interested).

The most difficult thing about shamisen for me so far has been the dearth of people available in certain areas to teach it (thank goodness for Bachido’s online lessons!) and the difficulty in obtaining parts within the US. I recently broke my bachi and found it nearly impossible to replace within a one month time frame right now. With the exception of the few parts that Bachido and affiliates make to custom order, all other parts come from Japan and right now shipping for those parts takes months. Kyle happened to have some prototype bachi on hand that I was able to purchase and saved my practicing, but I’ve since ordered extra parts just to have spares of everything in case anything breaks again.

The only way to know if you are going to love it is to dive in and do it!

Thank you! I appreciate the advice!

Thank you! That is encouraging!

Thank you! I live in the Portland area. I found a teacher who is teaching tsugaru shamisen. I’m not sure which is the best shamisen to get for that style. Is the ShamiBuddy good for that style? If not, I’d like to save money by buying second hand if possible.

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I just sent a message to a friend who bought the shamibuddy for her son to see what she thinks of it. From what I can tell I do believe that it is tsugaru style. But if you email Kyle at the Bachido address he responds fairly quickly and can answer with certainty.

Hi Jacob, my friend just got back to me. She said her son tried two styles on the Shamibuddy and tsugaru was one of them - so it’s fine for that. She says he loves it and even his teacher bought one. Says it sounds great!
Hope that helps :slight_smile:.

You can absolutely play Tsugaru-style pieces on the ShamiBuddy but fyi, the dou of the ShamiBuddy is closer in size to a nagauta shamisen. :slightly_smiling_face:

It looks like the ShamiBuddy is all sold out. If anyone knows where I might buy one second hand, please let me know. Thank you.

I negotiated for my shamisen on ebay and received a good price. Just make sure the one you purchase doesn’t have a split skin (requires effort to repair), and I’d recommend getting one that comes with a case if possible. Mine also came with a wooden bachi which I accidentally dropped within the first week…I’d recommending having two just in case. If that’s too expensive, you could technically just use the remaining corner if one chips off.

As far as reading music goes, purchase one of those fingering strips that you can stick along the neck of your shamisen for positioning. After that, the music is pretty simple to read because it tells you what string, what position and (often) what finger to use.

Thank you.

So, it wouldn’t be worth getting something like this and having it repaired? https://www.ebay.com/itm/VINTAGE-JAPANESE-ROSEWOOD-SHAMISEN-STRINGED-MUSICAL-INSTRUMENT/333597444815?hash=item4dabf50acf:g:ZlUAAOSwbOVeuyaT