Let's talk tuning?

So in reading about the shamisen it sounds like there are 3 tuning used, tuning with the middle string at a relative fourth, a relative fifth, or tuning with all strings in fourth intervals. Thus, DAD, DGD, or DGC. (Examples from Wikipedia)
Are these all used similarly or is one more common?

DAD is a common tuning for a lap dulcimer, so selfishly that seems like the easiest tuning for me to mess around with, but I would prefer to have a relatively “standard” approach and tuning for my instrument.

Any thoughts?


Hi Ben,

Beyond the patterns you described (honchoushi, niagari, and sansagari), there isn’t much in the way of standard tuning or standard keys.

Shamisen began as an accompaniment to singers, and so is usually tuned to match the singer’s range. I, for example, tune between B and D depending on the song. In Japanese nomenclature, this means I use between 三本~六本 (san-hon, roppon).

Some genres, like Jiuta, have a fairly narrow range of acceptable keys, while others (such as min’yo) are more flexible - which has lead to the inclusion of an adjustable sawari. The tension of the string impacts how the resonance travels through the string and how much a yama-sawari can impact it. Including an adjustable sawari expands the number of keys in which a long, warm buzz (also called sawari) can be heard.

Even tsugaru which is primarily known for virtuoso instrumental playing began in this min’yo tradition. Consequently, a variety of tunings are used on tsugaru shamisen to meet the needs of singers and the preferences of players.

All that said, modern tsugaru shamisen are often tuned to C# for a bright, crisp sound. Past players often tuned to B in order to preserve their strings and minimize tension on the skin. This, and changes to the tension in the skin itself, are part of the reason old tsugaru recordings sound much more resonant than modern players.

Tuning is all about meeting your own key, and usually following one of three common patterns. If you’re not singing, choose the key the you like, it’s all about preference in the end.


You’re spot on about the three tunings (honchoushi, niagari, and sansagari). Interestingly in the name of the tuning itself it hints at the intervals used (honchoushi meaning “origin tune,” as it’s the base of the other two, “niagari” meaning “two raised” since the second string is raised from honchoushi, and sansagari meaning “third lowered” since the third string is lowered from honchoushi). I’ll do my best to answer, but please keep in mind this is from a completely Tsugaru point of view (it seems a bit like the frequency of what tunings are used are regionally specific to some extent), as my knowledge on other regions’ folk music as well stuff like nagauta/jiuta/hauta/kouta etc. is very limited. Please excuse the wall of text and enjoy :stuck_out_tongue:

The majority of the Tsugaru repertoire I’d say is niagari (in your example, DAD) with three of the Godai Minyo (the “big five” folk songs, Jongara Bushi, Aiya Bushi and Yosare Bushi being niagari) as well as plenty of the general standards in the genre (such as Tsugaru Jinku, Ringo Bushi, Kuroishi Yosare Bushi, to name a few common ones). Niagari also is by far the most popular for modern compositions.

Honchoushi (DGD in your example) is still pretty common, being used for one of the godai songs (Ohara Bushi) and still a fair amount of folk music (Ajigasawa Jinku is probably the go to here for 100% Tsugaru songs but not Godai songs in honchoushi, or Akita Nikata Bushi which isn’t from Tsugaru itself but was sort of adopted into the repertoire) but it’s used less often that niagari in Tsugaru. Akita Nikata Bushi and Nanbu Nikata Bushi are a couple examples from the general region (though not specifically Tsugaru) that uses this tuning. Soran Bushi is pretty popular, and is a honchoushi song from Hokkaido. But Ohara Bushi is really the one I’d say people think of for this tuning. It seems really common in Akita songs, for whatever reason, or at least the ones I know.

Sansagari (DGC in your example) is pretty uncommon, compared to the other two. It’s used of course in the piece Tsugaru Sansagari, as you might’ve guessed :stuck_out_tongue:
It’s also used in a few other Tsugaru folk songs, such as a popular arrangement of Yasaburo Bushi or with Tsugaru Ondo, but there are fewer songs in general in this tuning. It’s common for the title of the song itself to denote if it’s in Sansagari when it is used, such as in the cases of Tsugaru Sansagari and Nanbu Umakata Sansagari, which attests to the fact that it’s not used very often since it’s considered the defining feature of those pieces.

Of these I feel that Niagari gives me the most versatility, and has the most quintessentially “Tsugaru-esque” sound of the three, probably due to its frequency being used.
But, all three are considered standard to use. It doesn’t matter what key a shamisen’s necessarily in so as long as it’s in tune with itself, so don’t worry about getting it DAD, for example, since CGC or AEA for example all are good for niagari. The same conventions go for honchoushi and sansagari as well - it doesn’t matter really what key you’re in for any of them, since you would match a singer’s voice or just play whatever sounds good to your ear. Of course with modern pieces people often set a key, but that’s another story, since I’m really just talking about traditional pieces here.
C as your bottom note (since the other two would be tuned relative to it depending on which tuning you’re using) seems to be one of the more common tunings and I believe is the one recommended on the tunings page here, since it’s not really too high or to low. But you can choose whatever suits your ear, really.
Today’s aesthetic goes for a very bright sound in contrast with the warmer sound of the older players, like Christopher said, but like he also said, do whatever suits you.
Hope this helps!


I’d pretty soundly agree with this, particularly in starting with a C tuning and moving around from there.

Personally, one of the great parts of shamisen and lots of the traditional pieces played on it is this flexibility in tuning.

There was a thread a while ago that talked about differences between honchoushi and niagari versions of a song… either Tsugaru Jinku or Tokyo Ondou.

If memory serves, the big difference between these two are when you hit the suberi/oshibachi measures because it creates a different chord. So varying between the tunings while choosing whether or not to adjust the fingering gives you another tool in applying your own spin, or flavor, to a song.

It’s so true, and really even just playing the same piece in two different keys can totally change the feel.

I think it was Kevin who said that people were surprised to hear him play Tsugaru Jinku in niagari but he liked it so why not?
The resonance does give it a very different sort of aesthetic in honchoushi than niagari. I’m a fan of both ways :stuck_out_tongue:

I do this with Yasaburo Bushi especially all the time, since the niagari and sansagari versions sound so different but each has a unique feel. I always thought the sansagari one captured the melancholic feeling of the lyrics, but it works better as part of a medley for example in niagari. Plus it’s identical fingering which is a plus haha.

Kyle has a great article on the concept of flavor that really applies here.

I definitely 100% agree that the shamisen’s flexibility in tuning is one of the best parts about it, since you can pretty much decide how you want a piece to feel before even starting by just picking a tuning. Each is full of its own quirks and intricacies, it’s pretty amazing how huge of an impact it has.

Ni Agari Tuning is basically the same as a Mountain Dulcimer tuned down a step to the Key of C (CGC) so you could play simple songs to get started like “Up on the housetop”