Looking for advice/guidance


#1

I’m originally a long time guitar player but I’ve been interested in the shamisen for quite a while, and I’ve done a fair bit of research the last couple days in preparation of purchasing one. I was wondering if anyone could answer some of the questions I still have with regards to minor differences, and maybe provide me with some opinions or feedback in regards to the leap that is purchasing a new instrument.
Firstly, I’ve been wondering what the main differences are between the Tsugaru shamisen and, say, a minyo style shamisen aside from the thickness of the neck and the size of the body. Is the skin thicker? What about the tsugaru shamisen enables more aggressive plucking as opposed to others?
I am interested in a thicker neck style, whether it be futozao or chuuzao, so I’m not sure if the beginner shamisen is necessarily what I’m looking for. If anyone has recommendations for similarly priced shamisen in different styles I’d love them. I’ve been looking at a Nitiwa futozao style shamisen on ebay. If anyone has any experience with this brand, or once again recommendations for other brands, I’d love to hear them and am open to suggestions. I’m enamored by the sound of the shamisen, and I want to make sure I’m making the right choice before dropping $7-800.
Sorry for the long-winded post, and thanks a ton in advance.


#2

I’m kind of a noob, too, but I’ll share what I know (or at least what I think I know) and kick of the conversation.

Is the skin thicker?

Yes. Traditionally, the smaller shamisen use something like cat skin, but the Tsugaru uses dog skin, which is much thicker and resilient. Kyle/Bachido offers synthetic skins that are even thicker and tougher (and waterproof to boot).

What about the tsugaru shamisen enables more aggressive plucking as opposed to others?

I think the skin is a big factor, but in general the instrument is just more substantial overall. It was built to be used outside and pounded on pretty hard. The bachi is a little smaller, too, so it is a little easier to wield (for lack of a better term) and the materials allow it to be used more “aggressively”.

My impression (and this is very much personal opinion from my own personal observations) is that branding is less important in the shamisen world than in other instrument circles. I know back when I played flute, it was all about Gemeinhardt. My guitar-playing friends are always talking about Gibson or Ibanez. I don’t think I have ever heard a brand outside of someone name-dropping a specific master shamisen maker, and I have never personally seen a shamisen with any kind of visible branding of any sort on it (although I haven’t seen that many shamisen and I’m sure there are some with visible branding). I think this is because the better shamisen tend to be hand-made by smaller companies or families or even individuals. Brands just aren’t that important.

You tend to hear much more about materials. Kouki wood, natural skin, ayasugi (decorative pattern inside the dou that enhances the sound quality), etc. When I hear people talk about their shamisen, I generally hear something like: “This is my shamisen. I got it in Japan. It’s made of kouki wood.” And that’s about it.


#3

All of what you said makes sense to me, thank you. The brand thing seems strange but it makes sense, and I had absolutely no clue about that coming from an instrument where everyone is super focused on brands as an indication of quality. I’m also interested in the synthetic skin as it is so that’s helpful information.


#4

You mind find this useful, too, if you haven’t seen it already: Evaluating Chuko Shamisen (Used Shamisen).

Note that Kyle doesn’t mention brand anywhere. A guide to buying a used guitar would almost certainly include a line like “You can never go wrong with a quality used Gibson”.


#5

cstoffel gave you plenty of great information, I’ll just mention something I posted in another thread: budget for accessories.

I’m also looking to buy a shamisen this year, but I realized that the necessary accessories get pretty pricey very quickly. Here’s my list:

  • Faux-Bekkou Bachi (plectrum)—every indication is that going for something relatively inexpensive ($30-80) leads to frustration and ends up being wasted money
  • Dou Gomu Shi-ru (non-slip rubber)
  • Doukake (cover)
  • Naga Fukuro (cloth slipcase for instrument)—you might be able to skip this if you don’t worry about dust and stuff
  • Ito Set Pack (strings)
  • Koma (bridge)
  • Neo (tailpiece)
  • Yubikake (finger sleeve)

and…drumroll…shipping (usually from Japan).

Take a look at the Bachido newsletter where Kyle discusses the Made-in-Santa-Cruz Shamisen. It may be of interest to you: https://mailchi.mp/165ccb730b4b/the-bachido-newsletter


#6

Yeah. Shipping from Japan is a killer. Me, for pretty much everything: “How much is a Yubikake? $8? Oh, that’s not bad. I’ll get one. What?!? Shipping is $20! It only costs $8! You just quadrupled my price!”


#7

The Made-in-Santa-Cruz shamisen looks like a pretty great idea. I had no idea that there was a base price requirement for shamisen sold in Japan, that’s really sketchy stuff. I’m heavily weighing the beginner shamisen just because the accessories are so comparatively inexpensive and can be bought together. The cloth cover is definitely a requirement since I have a very sheddy shiba inu that likes to get hair all over my black clothing. As for the faux bachi, I’d love to have one but the extra $300 means I could almost go up to the next tier of quality for the instrument for the price of the bachi, so I’ll have to really consider that. As for the shipping costs, the beginner shamisen is tempting because with the starting kit, the shipping cost of that many items should be a bit lower too. Thanks a lot for the suggestions and info, really helpful stuff.


#8

The cost of a decent bachi was a real source of heartburn for me. I did the same math and decided just to buy a plastic one. I hated it (your mileage may vary). I ended up making my own (which I love), but I know that’s not an option for everyone. I would probably do the same thing if I had to do it over again, but just know that the cheap one you buy now will get tossed to the side if you get hooked.


#9

Hi there,

I’m well late to the party, but I’ll weigh in at length.

First and foremost, you will not find much in the way of branding for shamisen.

There are a few relatively famous builders, such as Komatsu-ya (the originators of Ripple) or Tokyo Wagakki (the providers for Bachido’s lineup) - but by and large there isn’t much in the way of brand penetration. Because shamisen are essentially luxury goods, as long as you’re buying from a reputable source you’ll be getting a quality instrument.

The differences that become apparent between builders are, usually speaking, matters of taste. The qualifier to this is that some of the cheaper (and in fact, actually branded) pieces are not… great. They’re built in china en masse, much to their detriment. Totally playable! But the difference between one of them and the real article is palpable.

Second, let’s talk shamisen type.

In essence, there are three kinds of necks. Because some makers taper their necks as one moves towards the tenjin (particularly common in thinner necks) there’s a bit of range. As well, necks have tended to grow wider over time, creating a range of sizes that the names are applied to.

Hoso 2.3 cm ~ 2.5

Chuu 2.6 cm ~ 2.8

Futo ~2.8 cm ~ 3.5

There is also the tanzao, which has a shorter length, but usually a width equivalent to a chuu. It’s common in my area!

From here, there are a wide range of bodies. I will list only the most common sizes.
From smallest to largest, the most common sizes are:

Nagauta -> Go-Rin-Dai -> Ichi-bu-go-rin-dai -> Go-bu-dai

These sizes coincide (generally, but not uniformly) with
Nagauta -> Minyo, Kouta, Hauta -> Jiuta -> Tsugaru/Gidayu

However, there is a degree of blurring between these genre lines. Some players prefer larger or smaller size bodies for the different sonic characters they produce. Moreover, some pieces actually call for different sized shamisen - several nagauta pieces actually are played with go-bu-dai bodied instruments.

Sizes past Go-Bu-Dai also exist. Roku-bu-dai and Shichi-bu-dai are uncommon, but extant body types.

For reference, the naming pattern you might be noticing indicates the size of the body as compared to the nagauta. A Go-Rin-Dai is 5厘 larger than a nagauta (.15 cm). An ichi-bu-go-rin-dai is 1分5厘 larger than a nagauta (.45 cm).

Concerning sound, the bigger your body the bigger your bass response and the louder your boom. A nagauta or a minyo is bright and spritely, whereas the bass of a tsugaru or gidayu reverbrates through a room - if played properly.

Skinning is a matter of tradition. Currently, nagauta, min’yo, hauta, kouta, jiuta (and a few others) continue to use cat-skin when possible. My teacher’s performance instrument has one, for example. However, dog skin is extremely common. Other, alternative skinnings (kangaroo, horse, goat) are growing as supplies dwindle. Man-made leathers are available but not common outside of student instruments.

Tsugaru uses an extra thick dog skin from the shoulder or hip of the animal. This is to help with the tighter stretch, larger body, and characteristic bachizuke use of the entire drum. Like other sub-genres, alternative leathers are making headway and becoming more common. This includes man-made options such as fibersen, Ripple, and Mr. Abbott’s own Hibiki.

If I were to recommend anything over the beginner’s shamisen for someone looking to take the plunge at the $>500 dollar price mark, I’d suggest a chuuzao over a cheap futozao. Worthwhile, cheap futozaos do not really exist at this point. Yes, even on the second hand market. I’ve looked.

By comparison, the middle-necked games are common and generally reasonably priced. They’re literal all rounders, and can play tsugaru pieces (which are min’yo, afterall) without any issue. Just be sure to pass on the gently sloped hatomune neck to get access to the entire scale length.

If you have any further questions, please ask.