Sao or Dou wood? Which wood would you use?

I’ve been wanting to build a shamisen for a few years (read Kyle’s book a few dozen times:) ) and finally bought some materials and joined the forum.

Since supply shortages lately I rushed an order for wood and bought rosewood for a finger board and khaya mahogany for the sao. Mahogany in guitars is warm but loud which I thought would take some of the harsher brightness out of the tone as shamisen can be very bright and snappy. I haven’t picked the dou wood yet and the khaya hardness being 850 - 1100 has me a bit nervous that it’s not hard enough. I’m thinking of installing a passive truss rod of carbon fiber or 2024-T4 aluminum (common in banjos) to stiffen it up.

But maybe I should use the khaya for the dou and buy a new sao wood? I am sitting on some white oak but I’m concerned that would be too heavy and not very resonant as a tone wood resulting in less sustain. In Canada the best local wood I can hope for is maple but I may have to import something. I sourced my other stuff from a guitar wood company online but supply is starting to run out. May have to try another company.

I’m on a bit of a budget $100 - $200 so I don’t want to break the bank but I also don’t want to waste my time building something I’m not happy with. Any advice?

I did some more testing by tapping for resonance and noted the rosewood rung like a bell, the khaya mahogany not far behind but a deeper tone that didn’t ring quite as long. Likely exaggerated by the mass of the piece of mahogany compared to the 1/4" rosewood.

Now the big chucks of oak I have are plinky with no resonance, grain run out, and splits. BUT… I tested some oak floor boards with nice straight grain and they had a warm, deep, but short ring. So it has some tonal properties when selected wisely, which could also be related to the type of oak, which may differ. I’m now consider laminating the flat sawn floor boards and using them for the dou. The bigger chunks of oak would be great for the clamps and “spider”.

I’m also still on the fence regarding the rod in the sao and weither or not to go with aluminum or carbon.

So I’m still open to changing my mind at this point but I can always work on the clamps and gathering tools while I sort out the rest.

Hi Karen,
for the truss rod, check out Truss Rod in a Shamisen if it will help in deciding :slight_smile:
And also “Let´s Build Shamisen” mini serie.

1 Like

Yeah I’ve watched every build video on kyle’s channel atleast once. They’re like the book though which I’ve read countless times. hehe You pick up something new every time.

I’m looking at some spalted beech (~1300 janka) for the dou and itomaki…it’s not the hardest but it sure is fancy!

Yeah I just ordered the spalted beech…fancy that! Dou and itomaki it is!

In general though which wood is more import to the sound of shamisen? In guitars it is the neck. I’m guessing the sao, skin, and koma contribute most.

Oooh, spalted wood, lucky!
As for the sound, I would say this order: tightness of skin, koma, bachi, hardness of sao wood, hardness of dou wood (someone more sensitive might also add the presence or not of ayasugi). Someone correct me, if I am wrong.

1 Like

Come to think of it, the beech is harder then Khaya mahogany. I might consider using it for the sao . If I did use beech for the sao I wander if I should bother with the reinforcement rod or even the rosewood finger board? It is only ~100 janka softer then hard maple. Maybe a simple beech sao? the only downside is the beech sao is 1.5" thickness means it will require visible lamination. The Khaya is 2" thick. One less seam on the tenjin and monkey tail. I’d love to hear some opinions, but it will also depend on the beech when I get it.

A spalted sao would look nice…but so would a dou. Looks vs sounds…decisions.

Spalted beech 1300- 1450
Khaya mahogany 1070
Indian Rosewood fingerboard 2440

Edit…just mapped it out.
5.25" x 3"x 36" spalted beech…I ordered enough to make the whole shamisen! Well almost. I’d have to shave a 1/4" here or there.

If I make the widest part of the sao 1 5/8" wide I’ll have enough.

In my experience, it’s more like this:

Skin type, quality, and tightness > neck > strings> koma> bachi> ayasugi / kinhoso / tuning pegs.

With a few big qualifiers that

  1. All of the shamisen I’ve every played with have used karin, so I cannot evaluate the role the dou’s material plays

  2. Technique is actually king.

  3. Skinning is like 80% of the game outside of technique. The wood and quality of the neck colors it further. Strings add accents.

  4. Koma and Bachi are perceptible but only barely. They’re more about what’s easiest to play with, leading to better technique and thus better sound.

  5. I can i.d. ayasugi, but it’s hard to articulate a value.

  6. Kinhoso might impact sustain, but I’ve never noticed it.

  7. Listening to @Toshi_Shamimaster’s comparison of ivory to wood tuning pegs, I could hear a difference in isolated notes - but it got completely lost while playing a song.


I assume the nakago is as important as the sao as it brings the sound from the sao into the dou.

I searched around but no answer…what is kinhoso?

I’m going to try a rosewood neo since I think a more rigid anchor point for the ito might result in more sustain and presence.

It seems to me that the hardwood of the sao has sustain from lack of vibration dampening were softer woods absorb it. Also hard woods have brighter tones then softer woods…so in theory a softer wood can sustain that warmer tone if you brace it.

I’m leaning towards a beech sao and khaya dou right now.

Hi Karen. Kinbozo are the metal fittings (sometimes gold) inside mitsuori sao joints.

1 Like

These little thingies :slight_smile: But it´s “fancy stuff”, I guess only higher end instruments have it?

1 Like

I can see how kinbozo could make a difference in the stiffness of the sao resulting in more sustain. Gold is softer making a tighter fitting sao with less movement.

Spalted beech arrived today. It’s hard. It’s beautiful. And it’s going to be a sao!

I have to work around a few cracks and a knot but it will be awesome! Next comes the slow yet rewarding process of the build thread.

1 Like