Please, help me to choose a shamisen!

Hi there! In Kyoto (Higashiyama-ku) I had the opportunity to try a shamisen and fell in love with it.
I wanted to buy one (around 800 EU, U shape, dog skin) from a known artisan in , but at the end I did not because Lufthansa did not allow me to bring it to Europe.

Coming to the point. I do not have a shamisen, and want to purchase one from Bachido store. Just 2 questions:
1)Tsugaru, Jiuta, or Nagauta? What is your experience? (a - I can afford maximum 1000 EU with accessories, b - I am interested in learning traditional jap only, c - possibly true leather).

  1. Being a professional musician (teacher and performer) I feel a little unconfortable to buy any instrument without trying it first. Can you reassure me about this point? I apologies for that questions, I am sure Bachido’s is super professional but…even 2 harps, same factory, same model, may have a completely different sound!

Thank you very much! Waiting for your kind advice and greetings from Italy! :slight_smile:

First, im inexperienced but

1.Tsugaru shamisen is amazing as they have a short sound while being played very fast but they cost a bit much.Bachido has some nicely designed tsugaru shamisen such as the Sakura or Akatuski which are about 1450$ if you want to expand your budget a little. They also have small devices on the Tenjin to manipulate the sawari.I don’t think they come with strings or shamisen supplies. Its skin is thick and I believe its dog skin which enables it to be played at very high speeds.

I don’t know much about jiuta shamisen and I don’t think Bachido sells jiuta shamisen.They look like Nagauta shamisen,try and find the difference.

Nagauta shamisen are also nice if you can’t afford a Tsugaru shamisen.Bachido has the beginners shamisen which is a Nagauta I believe.It sounds nice though I have heard the Nagauta shamisen have a short tinkling sound. The beginner’s shamisen does not have a sawari device on its Tenjin. But It costs also a bit much since its base price is 359$ plus shipping and it doesn’t come with strings, bachi and other shamisen supplies. The skin is thinner so don’t play too hard on it.

There is the Shambuddy which to me looks like a simpler designed Nagauta shamisen so you don’t feel much pain if you break the Tenjin, it’s also a bit cheaper.I own a nagauta shamisen but I got mine from eBay so if you want a cheaper shamisen at the cost of some risks you can find one there

Kyle Abbott has a youtube channel,he showcases the shamisen on the Bachido store and other Shamisen related subjects.

  1. From my experience its an easy instrument to play but depending on what style of shamisen you choose its difficulty will vary, Tsugaru is fast, Nagauta can be fast or slow and I do not know about Jiuta.

Also, shamisen use a separate notation called Bunka Fu I believe which is similar to tabs. But once you find out how to transcribe you can play anything. Bachido has some scorebooks for sale But I will tell you this, the Tenjin can be chipped very easily so if you have a fear of it breaking get a tenjin cover.

Another site called e-kameya has cheaper tsugaru shamisen but they dub it as for learning,but the costs are in JP yen so thats thats another choice

This comes from my own experience (which is about 3 months), but I hope it helps

€800 is roughly $885 US (as of 24 Jan 2020).

Bachido offers only two shamisen under that amount at this time: the beginner shamisen and the ShamiBuddy.

If you’re looking at a maximum of €1000 accessories included, it’s either one of those two or you’ll need to shop elsewhere. The lowest priced Tsugaru shamisen on Bachido (Sakura | Raven) are around €1300, and that does not include accessories, like bachi :moneybag:, and everyone’s favorite cost: international $hipping :money_with_wings:

Being a professional musician (teacher and performer) I feel a little unconfortable to buy any instrument without trying it first. Can you reassure me about this point?

I’m a beginner with little shamisen experience (I play other instruments) and I don’t know you so I have no idea what will suit you. What I can say is that I own a ShamiBuddy (the low end of the Bachido offerings) and that it is skillfully made, it has a great sound (to my ears) and I enjoy playing it. :+1:t3: As you would expect of something a quarter to a tenth of the price of a regular Tsugaru Shamisen :dollar:, the ShamiBuddy is simpler, smaller and quieter. However it comes standard with hibiki skin which is forgiving of silly, beginner mistakes. :wink:

Whatever you choose, good luck! :shamrock:

It’s a shame you couldn’t bring an instrument home with you since you found one you fell in love with. :cry: Why wouldn’t Lufthansa allow it?

Hi there, welcome to Bachido.

I’ll do my best to answer some of your questions.

  1. Tsugaru v. Jiuta v. Nagauta

First, lets talk shamisen typing. Shamisen are classified based upon their neck and body size. The crossing of tradition and genre expectations creates subtypes over a given range.

The typical nagauta shamisen has a neck which is 2.3 to 2.5 cm wide at its widest point (generally near the resonator - the dou). A typical nagauta shamisen has the smallest resonator and usually produces the sawari drone through the use of a “yamasawari” - a small irregularity in height at the tenjin (peg box) on the thickest string. Typically a nagauta’s hosozao, literally thin neck) sports a gentle curve into the dou. This is called a hatomune. It has no impact on the sound, but limits the number of playable positions somewhat.

Scaling up from the typical nagauta shamisen we the various iterations of chuuzao. Chuuzao or middle neck, instruments range in size from 2.6 to 2.7 or 2.8 cm. Chuuzao shamisen tend to, but do not always have, a “Jiuta” neck. Compared to the gentle hatomune of the nagauta, this is a sharper cut. It allows access to higher positions in the second octave.

The most common sub-types of these are the min’yo and Jiuta shamisen; however there are a large number of other, less common variants.

Typically, a min’yo shamisen and a Jiuta shamisen differ at two key points. It is more common for a min’yo shamisen to have a azuma or en sawari. These are small, screw-based simple machines which take the place of the yamasawari. While less common, some shamisen which would otherwise class as a Jiuta do have an azuma sawari. Another point of difference is the size of the resonator. Both min’yo and jiuta sport resonators which are larger than the the typical nagauta; but the Jiuta body is typically larger still than the min’yo body.

For your reference, shamisen body types are named by how much larger they are than the nagauta body.

A typical min’yo is Go - Rin - Dai (That is, 5 rin bigger than a nagauta).
A typical jiuta is Ichi - Bu - Go - Rin - Dai (That is, 1 Bu 5 Rin bigger than a nagauta).

This measurement is based on the flat of the shamisen’s resonator and not the curve, creating some inconsistencies between makers in terms of total volume and weight.

From here there are occasional cosmetic differences (such as itomaki size), that are very much dependent on the craftsman - it is perhaps best to think of min’yo vs jiuta shamisen as guitar vs bass guitar. Min’yo shamisen are brighter, more spritely. Jiuta, owing to their larger resonator, will tend to produce deeper sounds.

Let us move on to the Tsugaru now.

As before, our size will continue to scale upwards. A Tsugaru shamisen is a variation of futozao or thick necked shamisen. It will typically be 2.8 - 3.5 cm wide, with the majority of instruments hovering in the 3.0 - 3.3 range. Older futozao will tend to be thinner. A standard, full-size Tsugaru has a large resonator. We call it a Go-Bu-Dai (5BuDai). It is substantially larger than a nagauta and noticeably bigger than even the largest Jiuta.

However, non-standard tsugaru shamisen also exist. It is possible to find San - Bu - Shi - Rin - Dai (3Bu4Rin), Roku-Bu-Dai (6BuDai), and even Shichi - Bu - Dai (7Budai) models if one looks.

The tsugaru shamisen, as an outgrowth of min’yo, most often sports an azuma or en sawari. It typically has a Jiuta-cut neck as well. Following the pattern from previous increases in size, the tsugaru’s sound is a low roar. The relatively massive resonator will produce heavier sounds.

So which should you get? Well… if you’re not really set on a genre, I would recommend grabbing something with a middle sized neck and middling body. With such an instrument you can play mostly anything with a little doing and some appropriate accessorizing. If you have a more specific idea in mind, you’d be better off chasing that.

I personally started on a loaned nagauta, from there purchased a min’yo with a hatomune and yamasawari, and thereafter got my true min’yo, old as heck chuu-futozao, and tsugaru.

At 1000 Euros, you have a good set of options - outside of Bachido. Here at Bachido, you’re really limited to just the Beginner’s Shamisen (a red-oak Nagauta) or the Shamibuddy (a made in U.S.A. shamisen variant).

If you were local to Japan, 120000 Yen buys a lot on the secondary market, although you run the risk of getting badly burned if buying from an auction. Even buying from a shop it goes decently far too as long as you don’t mind second hand.

  1. Bachido Gear

I have played around on some of the shamisen sold by Bachido. Aside from the shami-buddy, they’re made by Tokyo Wagakki. They’re great products all around from what I’ve heard and personally experienced. I cannot vouch for the shami-buddy directly, but Mr. Abbott IS an exquisite craftsman. I have little doubt in anything he makes.

However, you are right to be somewhat concerned. As with anything instrument made from natural resources, there’s a good bit of variance. You can, on occasion, encounter deadzones on necks or weak points on the skin, or what have you. It’s an unfortunate risk that one must take on if one cannot buy in person.

Hope that helps.

If you have any more questions, ask away.


I am not an experienced shamisen player. But as a music student and flutist, I understand wanting to try the instruments out first. I currently own the beginner’s shamisen, a Nagauta. I love it! From what I’ve seen is the Tsugaru will be the best all-around but it is bigger. Aside from the difference in the neck, I can’t really say there is a sense of the difference between a Nagauta and a Jiuta. Or at least that’s my personal intake.

Here is the link to the description and differences between the three kinds of shamisen if you haven’t already found it. Overall, the type of shamisen that is best for you will depend on what you plan on using it for in the future.

I hope you find the perfect shamisen. :smile:

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Dear Squid, thanks a lot for your kind reply.

Indeed, yes, my favourite in Sakura, but considering that it doesn’t come with accessories, it is out of question for now. I excluded the Shamibuddy, (I believe, though it’s cheap, that is a good one for starters but the sound doesn not meet my expectation, and I do not like the sound of nylon strings…sometimes I have to put emergency nylon strings on my harp, for example if my concert is starting in 10 minutes and I must replace a broken string quickly; better than nothing but I don’t like it).
So I decided to get a Beginner Shamisen, it sounds a lot better, and to get high level accessories (Tortoise Bachi, Case, Nagauta strings etc…), so if I became decent in the future I will simply sell the Beginner and get a more professional one, without changing accessories.
(I did the same with the harp: a 300 EU harp as I child, a 6000 harp at 16, a 25000 (yes…) harp when I started the profession.)
Thanks also for the tip of Kyle’s channel: I subscribed and I am watching, it is very useful and he plays divinely. (Does “divinely” exist in English? We italians say “divinamente” (super high tecnique + great emotion).

Grazie mille Squid! :pray:t2::heartpulse:

Divinely is used in English in that way.

Also, please note that tortoise shell isn’t available directly from bachido. Only synthetics and wood

As well, a nylon third string is standard.

Pro hosozao, chuuzao, and gidayu players will use silk third strings for performance - but they break absurdly easily. I’ve had a fresh one pop mid song :confused:

Anyway, carry on~

I would check on the CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) laws for the EU before spending a lot of money on a tortoise shell bachi. I suspect customs will seize it if they notice the contents.

Well, that was a very unfortunate case. I could indeed pay Lufthansa for an extra luggage, if I knew that the shamisen could be disassebled!
Unfortunately my japanese is limited to about 30 words (and the most used is Baka, related to me :rofl:) and the artisan did not speak a word of English.
Right now, anyway, at the time a new zero about shamisen, so I couldn’t tell if that was was Nagauta, Tsugaru or else, and I was worried about finding a teacher in Europe, so I did not insisted much.
I do not trust much the second hand ebay. So I’ll get the Beginner from Bachido, and than…let’s see.
I am not going to Kyoto in 2020, too much work and lots of concerts in summer. Before going back (I have a couple of great friends there) I’d like to study a little japanese and to get familiar with playing, so I can visit all the best artisans in Kyoto and be able to choose wisely. (though I like very much the Sakura one) I will see later. Thanks for your kind answer!

Thanks! It’s a long time I do not speak English :grin:

Indeed, I got the faux-tortoise, which is recommended for the beginner’s also. I guess it is very important to have a good one, like the bow for violinist, cellists and so on…
I am generally obsessed by the quality of sound (indeed in my job I am known for my powerful and round sound), so I do not feel about getting a “ice scraper” at all.

About san no ito, I do believe nylon is standard. Even on the harp I compromise, like most of my colleagues, and put nylon on the highest strings because…yes they break “absurdly easily”!

Grazie :blush:

Ciao Chiara.
Welcom in this community.
I bought my chouzao shamisen on about 4 months ago.
It’s almost perfect condition and it had no bachi and koma that I bought a bit later.
I payed it 9500 yen, about 90 euros, but the total amount has more than doubled due to custom and shipping costs (about 200 euros total) and my sensei said that I was very lucky because it’s made with good wood and it has sawari. Only the case (it had also an hard case) has spots of humidity that however have not damaged the instrument itself.
For my experience, on buyee auctions you can rarely found tsugaru shamisen.
Surely to buy from an auction can be a risk, but you can find good items.
I hope it could help.


P.S. I’m totally new in the music world. I’ve poor musical knowledge but I’m excited in playing (trying to play) this jewel.
And thanks to @ChristopherBrown for the detailed explication

Hello Chiara and welcome to the community!

I was surprised to see that Lufthansa would not allow you to take your instrument with you :frowning: especially when it is obvious you would be the owner. Was is due to its size or materials?
As far as I know, there was a restriction with rosewood but it has been lifted from finished musical instruments.

If not purchasing directly in Japan or in your own country, I would be extra careful about materials such as real tortoise shell and also ivory (most often found in bachi, itomaki, koma). These might not get selled to you or shipped or if so, they might get seized.

My two cents. :wink:

Good luck and I hope that you´ll get the shamisen you like real soon!