Evaluating Chuko Shamisen (Used Shamisen)


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Chuko Shamisen (Used Shamisen)

It’s no secret that decent shamisen (and bachi) are pretty expensive. You may spend over 100,000 yen on a mid range shamisen without accessories. Why is it so expensive? It’s mainly because most retailers will add a 200% (or more) markup, making the retail price of a shamisen much costlier than the manufacturing cost.

At Bachido, we intentionally keep our retail price low (a modest 30% above manufacturing cost) in order to give shamisen enthusiasts a very fair and accessible path to acquire high quality shamisen goods. However, even with that, a tight budget can keep one out of the shamisen world.

Fortunately, it’s possible to find beautiful hand-crafted shamisen on auction sites such as Ebay or Yahoo Auction.JP. If you know what to check for in the pictures, you can get great quality shamisen at a great deal!

A common question people ask is, “How does someone determine the price of a chuko shamisen?” Excellent question! Read more below to learn what factors are considered when valuing a used shamisen.

Watch Masahiro Nitta explain the pricing of chuko shamisen.
Note: this video was made when Bachido was actively selling Chuko shamisen (as well as new shamisen). Bachido doesn’t carry Chuko shamisen anymore, but the video is still useful for educational purposes.

1. Skin (kawa)
The skin is the biggest factor in setting the price. The price of used Shamisen with intact skin tends start at $300. If the shamisen’s skin is broken, having it replaced can increase the base cost by at least $200. On the other hand, shamisen with broken skin can be acquired for less than $100, so even the cost of replacing the skin can be worth the low price.

2. Neck (sao)
When three piece necks are assembled, the joints must fit tight to allow a smooth playing experience. The neck needs to be carefully checked to ensure this. If the joints don’t fit flush or there are cracks, it must be repaired. The cost of this repair is usually around $200, so check the auction pictures carefully to see if there are cracks.

3. Tuning Pegs (itomaki)
Often, tuning pegs of older shamisen are worn down and won’t hold in place. If this is the case, the tuning pegs must be refitted to ensure a tight fit. It’s hard to check this from pictures, so please inquire with the seller.

4. Headpiece (tenjin)
Sometimes the tenjin of a high quality shamisen is separated from the sao will require regluing. However, that’s quite easy to repair, (it’s simply a matter of putting fresh glue on the joint and fitting together again) so consider purchasing a shamisen with a separated tenjin if the rest of the shamisen is in good condition.

5. Wood quality
Finally, the quality of the wood determines the price. There are three main varieties of wood used for shamisen: Karin, the cheapest grade. Shitan, the mid-range quality. Kouki, the highest grade. You can read more about it here.

6. Accessories (komono)
Often, the price of chuko shamisen is determined by the included accessories! One day I went to Yahoo Auctions and saw an intense auction where the bidding price reached $800 for what appeared to be a severely broken shamisen. Why? Upon examining the picture closely, there was a beautiful bachi, worth at least $1000, included with the shamisen! At least a dozen people were bidding, and you know all they wanted was that bachi. In these cases, the included accessories are just a big a factor as the shamisen itself.

If you can try the chuko shamisen first…

Just like shopping on Ebay, buying used items online without the ability to try it first is always risky. This is especially true for instruments. Perhaps there’s a crack or defect which the seller didn’t notice, or the tone isn’t as good as they think. In any case, sometimes buying a used instrument online is our only available option to get a shamisen, so it’s a risk we must take. However, if you are in Japan or have the option to try the shamisen in person, here’s a few more things you can do to verify the quality!

1. Skin (kawa)
If the skin is intact, take a close look at it.
First, look at the sides of the dou, where the edges of the skin are glued down. How does it look? Often, the edges of the skin will start to peel up, separating from the dou. This itself isn’t a problem. As long as the skin on the topside of the dou is fully glued down, tension will be fine. If this is the case, you can put some elmers glue on the peeling skin and reattach it.

Now, press topside of the dou, where the skin is glued to the wood. If it looks and feels firmly flat, then it is fully glued down. However, if the skin seems slightly raised and depresses when you push down, that means the glue has disintegrated there, and the tension has dropped. The skin should either be replaced, or the price significantly lowered.

2. Neck (sao)
When a shamisen has been frequently played, the neck will naturally wear away on the spots pressed the most – Usually, positions 3, 4, 6, 9, 10. When this happens, it can strongly affect the string’s tone when we press on these worn spots, creating an inferior buzzing (not the good kind) or preventing a resonating tone. When this happens, the topside of the neck needs to be re-leveled with a process called ‘kanberi’. It’s not difficult to do, and most luthiers should be able to re-level the neck for you.

So when you hold the shamisen, simply run your fingers along the topside of the neck. If the neck is worn, you will be able to feel sudden dips or bumps around those main spots!

3. Sawari Yama
The sawari yama is a ridge in the tenjin which causes the warm, buzzing resonation called ‘sawari’. (Learn more about sawari!) If the sawari yama is worn or chipped, the sawari effect won’t engage. Thus, examine the ridge closely. This isn’t a big problem, as any visible chips or depressions can be refilled with a mixture of epoxy and sawdust.