New user with A LOT of questions

Just ordered my first shamisen this morning after having kind of tapped out Kyle by email last week. Some of the questions were answered as “better suited to the forum”, so it’s finally time to get answers so I can digest the information while waiting on the slow process of shipping from Japan.

I have a slight (read that as playing for about an hour a day) background in western style music. I know this won’t necessarily carry over to shamisen, but have wanted to learn to play for years and it’s finally time to start. Because of that, the idea of using tablature feels a bit “off”. I’ve already bought (and read several times) Shamisen of Japan as well as watched several hours of instructional videos, in both English and Japanese, on Youtube. The latter is where this biggest question comes into play.

Initially, I assumed that tablature may be the standardized format for shamisen sheet music. Aside from guitar and piano (both western instruments) I had no prior experience in reading music originally produced in Japan, so it seemed plausible. However, watching the Japanese videos clearly shows that standard music notation is the normal, with tablature being transcribed from that.

Therefore, I’m curious if there is some sort of guide to how this carries over to the use of the fujaku. On guitar/banjo, it’s easy enough to figure out what note each position (fret) will play as long as you know the tuning of the open string. I have no idea if the same applies to the shamisen positions.

Next is the marking of the fujaku. There is appears to be a b (assuming this is a musical flat) between the 9th and 10th positions. Being used to western instruments makes this confusing as it would normally just be implied to be the half tone between the notes. For lack of a better way of asking… WHY???

While my next question hasn’t been asked anywhere else, because I just realized it this morning while putting my order together, I’m curious about the use of piezo pickups on shamisen. I’ve seen the various electric shamisen on the market in the past (and even regularly listen to a couple of professionals with custom electric shamisen) The idea of putting a piezo on a shamisen never occurred to me till putting my invoice request together in the store. I have several of similar design to the ones sold in the site store just laying around with no real intended purpose because I can never seem to find them when trying to amp up my acoustic instruments. I kind of want to try it on my shamisen once it arrives, so I’m curious if there is an optimal position for placement of the piezo which will limit feedback and prevent the percussive aspect from overpowering the sound of the strings. I can always mess with the pre-amp and EQ settings on my recording software to fix any slight problems, but if it’s creating too much percussion it becomes a massive (if not impossible) problem to correct.

If anyone is interested in knowing, the shamisen is a beginner shamisen ordered from the site store with hibiki skin.

For anyone that managed to stick with my exceptionally long-winded questions, I appreciate any advice or answers.

Thanks,

Larry

Hello Larry

There is certainly a way to transcribe the sheet music to tablature. There is 3 major tuning’s for shamien. The one used with tsugaru is Ni Agari ( C-G-C), described in the Kyle’s book. So, based on tuning you can convert the scale position of the sheet notations to the corresponding strings and positions markings. Also the shamisen tuning is not written in stone, so you can change the C-G-C to any tuning up and down to match it to the voice or another instrument or to the piece you trying to play, just keep the strings tuning intervals.
As for fujaku markings confusion - japanese music based on pentatonic scales, not on heptatonic or chromatic scale. Don’t be confused with “b” and “#” markings. Those sounds did not exist in original tuning and added later in order to be able to record and play modern pieces as far as I know.
Here the approx. list of japanese scales:
Akebono scale
Hirajōshi scale
In scale
Insen scale
Iwato scale
Ritsu and ryo scales
Yo scale
From my understanding shamisen markings originally related to Yo scale to match to the tuning of japanese flute.
@ChristopherBrown would be the best person to answer to this.

For piezo pickup - you would have to find the place sounding best for you. From my experience the sound is best closest to the bridge (koma) or exactly under the bridge but would be different from instrument to instrument. I have seen piezo pickup embedded into the bridge.
Just be aware you would need a special high impedance amplifier designed to work with piezo pickup in order to get rid of piezo ringing sound.
Feedback would be big at any position as the skin is extremely sensitive to the sound compared to the wooden deck of the guitar. Good multi-band or parametric equalizer would help a lot.

Thanks. This actually helps a lot. I had assumed there was a difference in original notation compared to the western style because it would be relatively newly introduced. I hadn’t really thought about it deeply enough to even consider that there would be a completely different set of scales involved, but seems kind of obvious in retrospect. Are there any widely accepted reference materials which I could look for to assist in getting a better understanding of traditional Japanese music?

Originally English or Japanese doesn’t really matter excessively. I may have to learn a new vocabulary set in order to understand some of the original concepts because I don’t normally read about Japanese music, but finding this aspect rather interesting as I delve ever so slightly deeper into it.

With regard to the piezo, I also hadn’t considered using a bridge piezo, but may be an interesting project for later. Having the piezo set on the bridge may help act as a buffer for the percussion also. Just too much custom work to make one from scratch to even consider right now. I had considered the impedance issue, but was planning to use a direct input box inline (for impedance matching) before the pre-amp and EQ. Is there some other special consideration which I’m not thinking of? This is really just a side project beyond learning to play, but kind of enjoy making digital recordings of my practice since it often lets me hear things which get past me while actively playing. Just not much use in making a recording unless I can get the actual sound to learn from.

Thanks again,

Larry