Frustrated trying to figure out what to buy


#1

Hi all. I have been looking for a Shamisen on and off for a few years. Usually I get all into it, contact a few people on Etsy, give up when things don’t turn out.

As I see it my options are, a shamisen with a broken skin off of eBay, one of the intact ones I have seen on Etsy, A very inexpensive canjo version (also on etsy), or the beginner one offered on this website.

These are my options because I just don’t have the money for a more expensive one. I’m wondering if anyone here to give me some advice? For instance with the one offered on this website, the artificial skin is much more expensive. What is the difference practically speaking?

In the description of the less expensive skin, it makes it sound like it may come already torn and that there’s nothing to be done for that. That makes me very nervous about ordering it, but the price makes it very appealing.

Any advice is greatly appreciated. I love the sound of the instrument, and I’m fascinated by how difficult I’m finding it to even find one to mess around with.


#2

Hey there, welcome to Bachido! :smiley:

The reason the artificial skin here is so much more expensive is because it has tone comparable to natural skin (if you ask me it can be pretty tough to tell them apart, it’s really good) but it’s very durable. Because of the more advanced sort of material it uses it’s more expensive than say Vintage Tone (made of goatskin) which has a warmer tone, but as all natural skins are is prone to breakage without the proper care.

If the skin is already torn, and you decide to purchase that Etsy shamisen, Bachido does have reskinning services available. However, it’s not exactly cheap, and you might be better served getting a different one if money is an issue.

For starting out the particular genre the shamisen is built for isn’t an issue at least, but should you eventually want to devote to Tsugaru or Minyo or Nagauta, etc. you’ll probably want to invest in a more specialized shamisen.

I personally really like the beginner’s shamisen here, despite it’s name, it really sounds like a good Nagauta shamisen to me.

I know ebay often has listings from time to time for beginner level synthetic skinned ones, I started out on one of those.


#3

This is just my two cents but I say buckle down and save up for something you will be happy with for years and years if not always.

This one comes with everything you need and has a azuma sawari and an excellent synthetic skin for less than seven hundred bucks. The only other thing you will ever need is eventually you will want a bone tip bridge for a crisper, sharper tone (Not expensive) and I also recommend upgrading to a bachi with some flex as soon as you can swing it (Expensive). That flexy snap off the sting onto the head is easier to play, sounds better and is immensely satisfying.


#4

Hey Ben,

Welcome to Bachido! There’s been so much new blood about lately I’m just about tickled pink.

Like Ian said, the synthetic skin options you see on bachido (Fibersen and Ripple) are very expensive because they’re much, much closer to the real McCoy. They’re also a bit more durable than the natural skins, which are susceptible to temperature and humidity changes - so they’re less prone to being damaged or torn.

The said, a well cared for animal leather skinning can last 10 years, even with frequent use.

Personally, I only own animal leather skinned shamisen, but I have played on Ripple and think it sounds pretty nice. My teacher is of the opinion it’s not warm enough for min’yo, but that it’s fine for Tsugaru (but that’s a professional level thing, and largely not applicable to the needs of practice).

Some players have noted that the stiffness of ripple hurts their wrist while playing, and my local shop commented that the texture (which Fibersen lacks, I believe) can be damaging to bachi. The heavier glue used in applying them can also damage the body of the shamisen when removed.

tldr;

Nice synthetics are expensive because they’re very durable, more water and heat resistant, and sound closer to actual skin than the older ones.

I’ve gathered some comparison videos that you might find useful.

Here’s a video comparing the common plastic skin and Fibersen.

Here’s one that compares dog and ripple.

Here’s a demo of the vintage skinning

And a demo of man-made vs. dog


#5

A few more things:

In terms of starting out on a shamisen, the type you choose doesn’t really matter, unless you have a genre in mind from the start… anything is better than nothing.

The Beginner Shamisen on the bachido store is a nicer nagauta “student” shamisen.

It’s a no frills instrument (aside from a handsome zagane option and being a mitsuori instead of nobezao); but the difference between it and what we might call a “professional” or “teacher” shamisen are relatively slim.

Higher grade nagauta are often made of rarer woods, often include ayasugi bori (herringbone pattern cuts in the dou and sometimes on the neck portion in the dou), may have gold sheathing in the neck joints, and very occasionally have azuma sawari. Ivory itomaki/tuners are also more common on higher-end pieces.

The price point is also pretty spot on.

While you can find used pieces for cheaper, especially in Japan, their quality can be heavily variable. I paid about $300 for the instrument I started out on (while the instrument itself was free, I had to pay for the reskinning). It’s about the same quality as the Beginner Shamisen, but it was bought rather heavily used (with a loose ni-no-ito and a tight san-no-ito that slowly drove me insane).


#6

Thanks all for the replies! Very helpful!

Phil, the one you linked to, I’m inclined to pull the trigger on that one. It seems like it would have everything I need to get started and it is only slightly north of what I am looking to pay.

I really like the idea of the beginner shamisen with the fibersens head, but once I get all of the necessary accoutrements it would be significantly more than the one Phil linked to.

I am mildly more interested in a thin neck rather than a thick neck, but will be fine with both.

I am coming from a background of ukulele and a Jeff Menzies gourd ukulele that I am selling to pay for the shamisen. (Look him up, his stuff is amazing, but painful for my thumb)

Last question (for now), any recommendations on books or resources on playing technique or to give context to the instrument?

Thanks again,
Ben


#7

I would point you towards Kyle Abbott’s Shamisen of Japan or the videos here in the Bachido School house. His book is focused on tsugaru, the thick necked variant like Phil linked; but there’s a lot of crossover in terms of technique.

There are also a lot of beginner books available here in Japan, but they’re not written in English.

I do want to point out that the different types of shamisen all sound a bit different; and while it can be hard to pick out differences as you move across the spectrum…Nagauta (or hosozao/thin necked) shamisen are immediately discernable from Tsugaru (or futozao/thick necked shamisen).

Before you jump on one and drop that kind of dosh, I’d take a gander at some videos on YouTube to get an idea of the sound. Of course, something is better than nothing… But I always like to know what I’m getting Vs. What I could be getting.

I’m also hesitant about that shamisen he linked. It looks like the made-in-China instruments I’ve seen on Rakuten, which I haven’t played on and cannot verify the quality of.


#8

So am I right that the beginner shamisen from Kyle with the artificial skin and the accoutrements would be something like $750, is that correct?
Christopher, I don’t find a strong difference in sound between the two types, I don’t doubt it is there but can you describe the difference? I would like a reasonable quality instrument!


#9

My favorite video for illustrating the difference is:

The player is a teacher out in Nagoya and capable at a variety of styles. So first you’ll hear her play a little on each type (Hoso, Chuu, Fuuto). Then she repeats the same song (Ringo Bushi) on each.

All of these are made of Kouki - the highest grade stuff, so this is about as clear of a tone as you can get. The other woods tend to be a little warmer.

There’s a few take-aways here.

As she progresses through the different kinds of shamisen, you can hear an increasing level of percussion. This is mostly a play style thing, but the increasing size of the resonator amplifies the difference.

A nagauta or hosozao shamisen typically has a more dominant string sound, whereas a futozao (tsugaru) shamisen is aggressively percussive. Chuuzao (jiuta/minyo) can cut both ways, depending on the piece.

You’ll also hear an increase in the amount of low end produced by the instruments as the resonator size increases. These are still primarily midrange/high frequency instruments, but a bit more of that low end resonance comes out as it progresses.

What isn’t clear from the video because lol-levelings - tsugaru are almost hilariously loud compared to nagauta.

And that’s not to say nagauta are quiet!


#10

If you bought the accessory pack from Bachido with the Fibersen Beginner’s Shamisen you’d be at $676. A plastic bachi would bring you up to $715, and a koma would bring you up to $763.

(Plus shipping)

Depending on how handy you are you might not need all of that. Bachi and koma can be carved or 3D printed, yubikake can be knitted or sewn, doukake can be made. There’s a fairly large number of DIY folks here.

Even so, it’s definitely expensive, yeah. But you’re paying for a quality instrument.


#11

To be honest,

If you’re looking to pay as little as possible, you’d really want to troll through Japanese auctions or time a trip to Japan with a visit to some of the bigger flea markets.

You can, relatively often, get great deals; but there’s always a risk that you get a dud or something heavily damaged.

I actually have some extra instruments that I’d be more than happy to part with (they’d be ideal for someone starting out, mostly in the $100 - $200) - but I am not comfortable with shipping the internationally.


#12

Christopher, I’m not looking to pay as little as possible. I’m trying to figure out what my options are. Initially I was confused about what the actual outlay of cost would be for the beginner Shamisen because I was unclear of what accessories were needed. I’ve been contacted by a few people who have ones for sale.

To be totally clear, my ideal instrument in any area is a “player”, I don’t care for bling on an instrument. I like a well-made but non-flashy thing. The beginner sounds very good to me, and I’ve had too many cheap instruments to one of the one or $200 cheapie that does not hold its tune. At least that’s how it works in the ukulele world.

It sounds like I’m either going to go with the beginner or one from my email. I do like the percussion stuff…

Thanks again!


#13

Gotcha! That’s refreshing, yo. Lots of folks balk at anything above $100 and that’s just… it’s rough with shamisen. You can do it, but it’s hard even in Japan.

You can regularly find “Junk” shamisen in auctions of varying quality for pennies on the dollar (like - but most, at the very least, need $150 of repairs done.

Anywho. Buy quality, enjoy your instrument!

But to make things clear, the absolute minimum you need for a shamisen is:

A neck
body
3 strings
koma (bridge)
yama-sawari
neo
3 tuners
intact front skin

Everything else is lagniappe.
A rear skin helps the resonator function, increasing volume and improving the tone.

A doukake protects the body of the instrument from sweat.

A yubikake helps your fingers glide up and down the neck.

A bachi is traditional for most styles, but many different picks work.

A bachikawa helps protect the skin from bachi strikes.

A metal nut protects the wood of the tenjin (head) from string friction.

An azuma sawari lets you control the buzzing sawari sound better and expands tunings.

A hizagomu keeps the body from slipping off your leg when seated.

A fujaku tells you the finger positions.


#14

So I thought I would share my final decision. I got a few offers from members, I hope I responded to everyone.

I am getting a tsugaru shamisen from Catherine Thompson. I also ordered the book from this website. I know I need a bachi, I see a good number of them on eBay. Also, any advice on reading or listening material on Japanese music?

Thanks!
Ben


#15

A lot of the bachi I see on ebay are plastic or resin, just please be aware that you may want to get a faux Bekkou at some point one since you’re going to be playing Tsugaru, a style where flexibility can do wonders for your playing after getting comfortable with the instrument.

As for reading, if you can speak Japanese I recommend the Nitta Ryu book from the store here. It describes a lot of the finer points of the individual pieces enclosed really well. English books on the subject can be hard to come by but some of the best reading I’ve had has been here on the forums, just digging through old posts. If you can get a translated copy of Daijo Kazuo’s book on Nitaboh and the history of Tsugaru shamisen, I haven’t yet read it myself but I’ve heard great things. It’s also what they made the movie Nitaboh from, so it looks pretty good.


#16

Buying from Catherine Thompson is a great choice, Ben.

Reading materials are limited if you can’t read Japanese, but like Ian said there’s lots of stuff scattered on the forums.

You can occasionally find scholarly articles as well, and there’s a few books specifically on the subject of biwahoushi and goze.

There’s also this:

http://bachido.com/blog/the-tsugaru-jamisen-its-origins-construction-and-music

Gerry McGoldrick’s thesis was on the topic.

As for listening, are you looking for examples of performers or more of a podcast type of thing?


#17

Hi Ben! Forgive my late entry into the discussion. Welcome to Bachido!

Like always, Christopher and Ian jumped in like aces and provided so much awesome information. I’m constantly in awe of this rich community! :slight_smile:

I’m happy to hear that you’re gonna get one of Catherine’s shamisen!! I met her this January and had the pleasure to check out her shamisen in person. No question, they are made with love and exceptional instruments. You’re getting a real treasure. :slight_smile:

Keep on, folks!
Kyle


#18

I’m no less in awe :slight_smile: I learn new stuff from you and Christopher and all everyday, it’s amazing :smiley:

I hope you enjoy it Ben! We’ll always be here if you need us haha
You can’t go wrong with a shamisen made by a real craftsman (or craftswoman in this case!) like her, I’ve heard nothing short of the highest praise for Catherine’s work.

Just pitching back in to say, while not quite just listening material (it’s some videos , so, watching material I guess :p) but if you dig through Kevin Kmetz’s Youtube channel there’s a series on him teaching Aiya Bushi and the theory behind it, which I’ve found to be wonderfully detailed. He has a lot of videos covering a lot of topics so you might want to check there.
Also, Shamimaster Toshi (on youtube he has a few channels, try one named Shamimaster Toshi and one named 獅子道) has a lot of content about individual techniques. He has a lot of tutorials for songs as well.
And of course Kyle has all of the live lessons and dozens of videos covering techniques, songs, and such in great detail on his channel as well.
It can be a big help to just put on a playlist from one of these guys and listen to it, since between them there’s literally content for days.
Best of luck! :slight_smile:


#19

Alright people, my Shamisen has finally made it to NYC from Thailand, send positive thoughts towards it getting safely to NC in the next few days!

Picked out my first few songs to learn, and I made my paint scraper bachi!

Ben


#20

Congrats! :smiley: haha your new shami is in my thoughts and prayers :stuck_out_tongue:

Best of luck! Keep us updated on your journey :slight_smile: