Basically, I would like your guys’ honest opinions on what a worthwhile buy is and I would hope to see what kind of options lie ahead of me.
First, remember that it’s not really an upgrade to go from nagauta to tsugaru.
It’s an instrument change.
Generally speaking, what Ian said about the characteristics of quality instruments is true.
A “basic” tsugaru shamisen is made from karin (red oak), has a nobezao (single piece neck), a yamasawari (non-mechanical, non adjustable sawari) and a marudou (smooth body).
It may have a natural skin, such as lower quality (and more loosely stretched) dog, goat, or kangaroo; or it may have an old style PU leather. It probably has ebony itomaki. It has no special wood grain.
A “high quality” tsugaru shamisen is made from kouki (red sandal wood), has a mitsuori sao (three piece neck) with gold fittings for longevity and “better” tone and guide rails to ease assembly and disassembly of the neck, has an azuma sawari (adjustable sawari knob), has komochi ayasugi bori (an extra-complex herringbone pattern baffle) in the dou, the end of the sao is likely protected by a metal cap.
It may have a natural skin, such as higher quality (and tightly stretched) dog, or it may use a new style artificial skin like Ripple. It probably has ebony itomaki, but may use ivory instead. The azuma sawari may also be ivory instead of wood. It likely has a special wood grain called トチ.
Mileage with this guide will vary due to the prevalence of custom jobs.
To be completely honest, most of the “high quality” characteristics are negligible or come down to personal taste. I tend to find that karin and shitan shamisen are warmer sounding than kouki, which tends towards being quite bright. I personally prefer shitan to kouki, since it stradles the line quite well.
Ayasugibori do impact the sound. It’s noticeable, but small and to be honest isn’t really a plus or negative. If you like bright, clean sounds you’ll like it. If you prefer a bit more warmth, you’ll prefer a maruuchidou. The shamisen from Bachido (Sakura, Eclipse, Akatsuki too, if I’m not mistake) are all Maruuchi.
Looser skins usually have more resonance and are warmer, the tighter taikai style skins are much cleaner sounding - which I find boring. They’re great for showing off technique, which is why they show up at tournaments.
A hosozao (such as the Beginners’s) is 2.3 - 2.5/2.6 cm
A chuuzao is 2.6 - 2.7/2.8
A futozao is 2.8 - 3.5
Older shamisen tend to be on the low end of their range, newer ones on the farther end due to changes of taste over time. Neck size indicates the amount of space you have to play on, and will influence your final finger positions for difference notes.
Some also say that a bigger neck leads to a stronger sound, since there’s more material to carry the vibration.
I’m on the short end for an American, but about average size for a person living in Japan. Old style, truly hosozao shamisen are hard to me to play properly; but the absurdly huge 3.3-3.5 futozaos are no better.
I’m very comfortable in the 2.8 - 3.1 range of necks.
(As a side note: I already have a decent amount of accessories so certain package deals would probably be a little redundant for me. I have koma i’m comfortable with, as well as a good bachi, so if I were to look at certain accessories it would be more along the lines of doukake, neo, etc.)
Accessories are size specific. That’s the only real difference. My tsugaru doukake is leather because I cannot be arsed to buy a new one. My other shamisen use more traditional paper/fiber ones.
A mitsuori case is only good with a mitsuori shamisen, but it great for flying internationally with.
A fullsize hard case is good for domestic ventures.
I use a weather resistant soft case with a strap for my tsugaru, and hard cases for everything else.
Something weather proofed is ideal, but those tend to be in the 200 dollar range here in Japan.
An acquaintance of mine has a weather proof hard case with straps that I am eternally jealous of.