Guitarist/oudist/sarodiya... Now shamisen!


#1

Hi folks! Thankss Kyle and everyone here for providing such a great resource! I’ve learned much by perusing these pages…
I’ve been a professional fretted and fretless guitarist /oudist in free jazz and improv for over 40 years and did some time with sarod as well. I also briefly studied Japanese music back in the 80s but I don’t remember much of any of it LOL.

Got a call for a gig to come up with some Japanese background vibe ambience and so I found a banger samisen on eBay to start with.

Not sure what size or style build this is…according to the listing, “Overall length is 38 1/2” (98 cm) with a box 7 1/4" x 8" x 4" (18.3 x 20 x 10 cm) and a neck width of 1" at the top (2.5 cm). " Listing also says it comes with extra strings but I’d be curious to know what strings to get in the future for it and I’m also going to need to be set up with a koma and a bachi.

Can anyone shed some light on what I have here? Thanks!!

!


A home for wayward shamisen?
#2

Hey there, welcome.

I can identify a few things about this instrument for you. First, and easiest let’s look at the wood and skin.

Given the light brown, this is most likely made from karin - sometimes called quince. It’s the softest wood most commonly used in shamisen and is generally found in entry-level instrument necks and in all level bodies.Your itomaki, tuning pegs, are most likely ebony.

The front skin has a tear on the side left side. The rearskin may be in bad shape, owing to that bit I see curling up on the right.

As regards subtype: At 98cm, this instrument is seisun (正寸) - full size. The neck, although listed at 2.5cm seems to be slightly tapered. This means your final width is more likely 2.6~2.7. This places it in the chuuzao(中棹) or middle neck class. As expected for a chuuzao, it is squared off (often referred to as a Jiuta neck).

The body, as measured, seems to be a Go-Rin-Dai (五厘大). Go-rin-dai shamisen bodies are primarily utilized in min’yo, hauta, and kouta. Since this has a a squared neck and a go-rin-dai body, it is most likely intended as a min’yo shamisen.

Min’yo shamisen are often strung with 17 (silk) 14 (silk or tetoron) and 12~14 (silk, nylon or tetoron) strings.

I typically use 17 - 14 - 13 on my min’yo shamisen (silk, silk, nylon). One of my colleagues uses 17 - 14 - 12 (silk, silk, tetoron). My teacher typically uses 17 - 14 - 13 (silk, silk, nylon) for practice and 17 - 14 - 13 (silk, silk, silk) for performance.

If this is your listing https://www.ebay.com/itm/VINTAGE-JAPANESE-ROSEWOOD-SHAMISEN-STRINGED-MUSICAL-INSTRUMENT-/333262173567?hash=item4d97f9357f%3Ag%3AiE4AAOSwxOFdJO4e&nma=true&si=8ZET7fWObO%2BlD4MnUuw45DDN76Q%3D&orig_cvip=true&nordt=true&rt=nc&_trksid=p2047675.l2557

Your shamisen is only barely playable. Those skins are in rough, rough shape.


#3

Hi Christopher,
Thanks so much ! Thats very very helpful and exactly the baseline info I needed.
Yep that’s the listing I bought. For 30 dollars including shipping I could hardly go wrong and I didn’t want to invest too much for this gig, … But I have to say the more I’m looking at videos and perusing these pages the more I’m getting hooked. I can see me getting into a mix of nagauta and tsugaru styles and hope this little puppy can get me started.
Ill be working in San sagari tuning as that corresponds to some of the internal strings on the oud and gives me a familiar baseline to work from.
As this is my first thread I could only post that one picture but if you saw the listing you saw some of the other pics…anything else you can tell from it?


#4

Well, there isn’t much more to say - but there is some good news. It seems that a neo is included. The neo is the cloth bit at the end that holds affixes the strings to the instrument, and is very necessary to play. The itomaki, while faded and substantially worn, have a nice shape.

However… there’s bad news too. The pictures don’t show a koma. The koma, the shamisen’s removable bridge, is necessary for play. Without it, you be able to get any appreciable sound out of it. A bachi, hizagomu, and doukake don’t seem to be included either, but they’re not necessary - strictly speaking. Bachi are traditional, but you can easily use other picks. Hizagomus (a stick bit of rubber to keep it from sliding off your leg) are helpful, but you can source alternatives. Doukake protect things from sweat, so uh don’t sweat!

At 30 dollars shipped, it’s about what I’d expect. Instruments in this condition are very common on the secondary market here in Japan - generally at that price point. The reason being that kawahari - skin replacement, tends to cost in the neighborhood of 200 ~ 300 dollars.


#5

Hi,
For some reason they’re selling a bone koma separately but but I’ve purchased that as well…

Having played sarod. - which is also a string instrument with a skin head - I’m familiar with the ins and outs of head issues. Sarods are tricky as the heads are goatskin and have to hold tension of about 18 metal strings lol… Even with that, and while not having done a full head replacement, I’ve been able to patch and repair heads successfully, so that will be my approach here. I don’t know if this is a quality enough samisen to warrant the expense of a thread or to put that expense to a better instrument… Ill know more when its here and how well I bond with this whole endeavour!
I might undertake a rehead myself… What kind of skin is typically used and can you recommend a good stateside source? Didn’t see head skins on the Bachido store :grinning:


#6

The traditional skin is dog or cat, the former being thicker and usually found on lower quality instruments or Tsugaru variants due to its durability. The latter being more resonant and much, much thinner. It’s usually reserved for higher end instruments.
However, in the last few years this has been changing; dwindling supplies have driven an increase in alternatives:

Goat
Kangaroo
Calf

As well as various advances in artificial skins. Such as Ripple or Hibiki.

As for sourcing it, our grandpoobah @Kyle_Abbott will be a better help than I. I’m an academic and a performer. I’m not a crafty person.


#7

Thanks for le tag, Mr. B!
Man, that’s a terrific score, Stefan! Even with busted skins, $30 is great. :slight_smile:

As Christopher says, the traditional materials are dwindling, and as it turns out, kangaroo is also not really a viable option (the traditional instrument union subsidized the costs of making a small batch of skins, but nobody is willing to actually invest $30,000+ in a factory to make the skins in full scale). Goat skin is currently being used, prepared by the same workers who prepared the traditional materials. I think my partner would be happy to sell you some, although it might be safe to start with goat/calf skin for drums, as it’s cheaper and sounds nice for those nagauta shamisen.

Cheers!


#8

Thanks Kyle! I may have a source on sarod heads but my hunch is those are thicker than what’s on a shamisen… Wont know till it the shamisen gets here. Duct tape and hide glue may be my temporary fix lol;)


#9

Ok it arrived today and I’m having fun putting it together!
The back skin is completely shot and either I will reskin it or I’m thinking ultimately a thin wood back. I’m holding the back skin together with duct tape but the whole thing is really floppy and it may sound better just taking the skin completely off. Thoughts?

It did allow me to reach inside and apply duct tape to the underside of the top skin which I then reinforced on top with a few layers of transparent packing tape. tension seems to be pretty even on the top so I think it’s good to go.

Question on the pegs : they are scored I, II, and unmarked but I don’t know the numbering convention for a shamisen. Is it thinnest to thickest, as on guitars , or the reverse?

Existing strings already attached to the cloth tailpiece and I have two extra strings as well, but not the thickest. I wonder if lute strings or oud strings can work in a pinch and I’m wondering if anybody has diameter dimensions on shamisen strings so I can do a comparison or equivalent.


#10

Some players, most notably Reigen Fujii, use a hard back on their electric shamisen. Removing the back entirely will adversely affect the resonance and volume you’d get.

Regarding strings:

Typically, the first string (the string closest to your chin while playing) will be your thickest string.

The second string (the middle string) will, typically, be thinner than the first.

The third string (the string closest to your legs while playing) will typically be the thinnest.

Some genres or players may match the second and third strings. Others may match all three by gauge. The attached image includes some examples (sourced from Sansuien’s website)

Beyond this, you may want to get in touch with @Peter_Larson. He has more experience adhoccing strings than I do. Fishing line is an option, but the specific widths are beyond my knowledge.


#11

Thanks thats helpful… An old acquaintance of mine who heard about my venture reached out to me as he happens to play shamisen as well. He strings his differently than in Kyle’s video and put s the thinnest string through the topmost peg and used the number 3 peg there accordingly. I don’t know how standardised this stuff is.

Two more questions:

There is a slight gap off the ivory nut where the 1st string could go… Is that where a special jawari piece would go?

Action ( I.e. string height off the fingerboard) is about 1/2 inch near the body joint. Of course this is crazy for guitar and oud but I have no idea what the norm is for shamisen! :slight_smile:


#12

Something’s definitely not right. Not sure what the standard is, but the strings should hover just over the fingerboard.

Can you post a picture of the entire shamisen? I’m wondering if the dou (body) is not connected to the sao (neck) correctly.


#13

Do you have a koma inserted? There’s no way you should have a half inch of action without a bridge.

The relationship of peg to string is based on tradition. Some tsugaru players follow Kyle’s pattern, using the topmost itomaki for the thickest string (1st), the lowest string for the thinnest string(3rd), and the middle itomaki for the middle string (2nd).

Other genres tend to string the topmost itomaki with the thickest string, the middle itomaki with the middle string, and the lowest itomaki with the thinnest string.

Which one you do really depends on you - but the placement of your middle itomaki’s string hole can tell you which will work better.

The nut, or kamigoma, is there to protect the edge of the tenjin box from the second and third string. You’re correct in your assumption that the gap is there to create sawari - javari is the term for sitar.

Make sure your first string goes into that gap!


#14

Ah. I see where the problem is.
I made the assumption that the relatively undamaged skin was the front and inserted the neck accordingly. I Didnt really check the fit against the body. I think it needs to face the the other direction, based on curvature.
That means this is unplayable as is, until it gets reheaded.


#15

I don’t think there should be a gap at the bottom of where the sao and dou meet. It should be nice and snug like this:


(Borrowed from this page: https://bachido.com/store/sakura-shamisen/)

This video might be useful:


#16

I have used cheap fishing line in the past, when there was absolutely no possibility of getting real shamisen strings.

If you play the Oud, you are probably already used to fishing line type strings and know what they sound like.

As for thicknesses, I didn’t really pay attention, I just bought what looked right. Off the top of my head, I would assume you would use 1 mm, .75mm, .5mm, monofilament line but you’d really have to experiment to see what would work for you on your particular type of shamisen.

I use fishing line on the other instrument I play without issue. The upside is that fishing can be cheap and doesn’t break often, in contrast to real shamisen strings which are really expensive and break often.

I don’t know if this helps.

Pete


#17

Perhaps I should move the rest of the saga over to building/ repair, but ill do that next post.
Switched neck direction and it fits properly. That means I have to address the head.
Removed it and will replace with a cedar or spruce soundboard. I don’t really have the time or want to invest in a reskin at this point.
Took the rest of the head off and thought id take a snap of the label and see if anyone can glean info about this piece…


#18

I can’t read most of the Japanese, but it appears that it is dated Nov 17 of the 43rd year of the Show Era, which is 1968. Definitely a classic!