Reading "Tabs"

So I play Jiuta shamisen and koto, and am very familiar with traditional, vertical sheet music, but I notice all the sheet music on here is…well, confusing. “0” represents an open string I’m guessing? Nothing sounds right when I play these tabs so they must be different corresponding numbers for each fret/position. Is there a basic post that explains how to read that format? Like what it means when a number is underlined?
I have a fujaku and the very top note below the itomaki is 2, thus there is no 0, and 1 represents the open string.

welcome . . . I sure would have such trouble vice versa . . . :slight_smile:

0 open string starts counting with that yes and in general tab is like guitar tabs . . . I think no underline is full note one underline is halflength note two underlines is quarterlength note …

You are tuned C, G, C right?
and yeah 0 is open string.
You can allways use guitar tuner to tune to right tune…
Also i’ve noticed that shamisen sounds a bit different through speakers/headset than live.

Hi Haley. I play both styles (jiuta and Tsugaru), so I’ll try to explain the difference.

For jiuta, our open string is 1. For Tsugaru (and nagauta, and others using the “bunkafu” sheet music style), the open string is 0. For all the other bunkafu positions/notes, we jiuta players need to “deduct” 1, so for instance, our position 5 is bunkafu position 4, our 7 is their 6, our 2 under the itomaki is bunkafu 1, etc. (There is a different fujaku you can get that will show you the correct bunkafu positions, but it’s not that difficult to just do the arithmetic at first. After a bit, you’ll be able to switch back and forth with little problem.)

Re: the sheet music style: for jiuta, we read in a single line, right to left, top to bottom, and we know which string to play by how the position is notated, i.e. string 3 is in Western numbers, string 2 is in Japanese characters, and string 3 is in Japanese characters with the “person” radical beside the position number. For Tsugaru (and nagauta and others using the bunkafu notation), it is written on a sort of Western-looking “score” of 3 lines. Reading is left to right, top to bottom, just like Western music. The bottom line of this three-line “score” represents string 1, the middle line is string 2 and the top line is string 3. The position number will be written in all cases in Western numbers. You need to look at which line the number is written on, and that tells you which string to play that position/ note on.

Counting in bunkafu music is indicated in a Western-influenced manner. So a quarter note (the “default”) is shown as an “unmodified” number on the bunkafu score. For an eight note (which, in Western music, would have one “tail” or joined line), the number on the bunkafu score will be “underlined” with one line. For a 16th note (2 “tails” or joined lines in Western music), the number on the bunkafu score will have double-underline.

Does this help at all? Feel free to ask if you need more help/clarification.


As far as I’m aware, the numbers are not half steps like they are on a guitar. They are similar but missing the major 3rd (4 half steps) and major 7th (11 half steps). If you are used to solfeggio, this would be Do Ri Re Me _ Fa Si So Le La Te _ Do. If playing in C, these would correspond to the notes C Db D Eb _ F Gb G Ab A Bb _ C.

The reason for this is that they are the combination of the possible notes from various scales used in shamisen music (minyo, miyako bushi etc.).

The possible notes in all these scales added together give us 10 notes, which if you’re familiar with western music you’ll know is missing 2 notes from the chromatic scale which as described above would be the major 3rd and major 7th as these notes don’t normally appear in these scales. If these notes do appear you will see them as 3# and 10b, respectively. Hope this helps!