This blog post is intended to provide my fellow players with chord charts and scales for the Tsugaru shamisen, along with some accompanying chart explanation and some information about myself and my journey with this incredibly enjoyable instrument.
Note: Charts available at end of article.
I am a 21 year old music lover and business student from Houston, Texas. I graduated in May of 2015 from Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas with a degree in accounting, and I’m currently pursuing my MBA. I have been a member of Bachido since shortly after its founding, and have felt that it’s been absolutely invaluable in my experience with the shamisen. Eventually, I plan on making it to one of Kyle’s Bachido meetups in Japan or California; university schedules have been unkind to me in that regard over the past few years, as I’ve always had tests or papers due during one of the planned get-togethers.
I’ve been playing guitar for eight years and shamisen for almost five years now – though there’s about a 2 year chunk there where I couldn’t play shamisen often due to college apartment living. Neighbors aren’t fans of chainsaw-level decibels next door, as luck would have it.
I’ve also recently taken up the piano, as I’ve always wanted to play more difficult pieces with both bass and melody lines that are nearly impossible on a lone stringed instrument. Despite that, I still play guitar and shamisen as often as I can, as they have a special place in my heart.
My Journey with the Tsugaru Shamisen
I was introduced to shamisen, incidentally, through the original Nintendo Wii commercials in America, which featured the song “Kodo (Inside the Sun Remix)” by the Yoshida Brothers. I was captivated by the sound of the instrument in the song and quickly took to the internet to discover anything I could about what the musicians were playing.
I soon discovered the music of the Tsugaru shamisen, along with the Yoshida Brothers and Agatsuma Hiromitsu, who were the three most accessible players of the instrument for American audiences around 2006. I quickly bought up a handful of CDs and played them almost non-stop, becoming acquainted to the sound of the instrument, while still remaining oblivious to the form of the Godai Tsugaru featured on some of the albums; it would be years before I would finally acquire enough knowledge of traditional playing to get a grasp of each song’s overarching feeling and soul.
As a guitarist, I found myself picking out some common techniques that sounded remarkably difficult, notably the fast string skipping back and forth between 一の糸 and 三の糸. Having never seen actual shamisen playing, I envisioned the 撥 being used as a typical guitar pick and assumed that using such a large plectrum at these speeds required either world-class skill or layering of tracks in the studio. I would later come to learn that, while difficult, this technique becomes quite fluid with plenty of practice.
To this day, one of my all-time favorite shamisen tracks is Mirage (蜃気楼) off of the Yoshida Brothers II album by the Yoshida Brothers. While the song was inspired by the music of Spain, I always felt it had a fun tropical feel to it, and I loved the mixed elements of the shamisen and the flamenco guitar. This song was actually what pushed me over the edge in my decision to purchase a shamisen, and I began saving for my own instrument from that day forward.
At the time, Bachido.com was not in existence – unfortunately, as the site is by far the most comprehensive and helpful resource for getting started in shamisen – therefore, I had to search around for outlets that sold shamisen. I searched brick-and-mortar stores around most of Houston to no avail, though that might have changed by now; I’d be interested to know if any Houston players have found a store that sells shamisen.
Turning to the internet, I finally came across kotosandmore.com. They offered Karin and Kouki shamisen for remarkably low prices of $1100 and $1700 at the time. Their service was excellent and I received my karin shamisen from Japan within a week and a half of ordering; their shamisen accessory selection, however, is understandably lacking for a koto seller.
Upon my shamisen’s arrival, I immediately set it up and gave it my best first shot. As I’m sure many have found, shamisen is not nearly as easy as the top-notch players make it sound. I fumbled around with the撥 for quite a while before becoming frustrated and taking to YouTube to watch everything I could to gather more understanding on technique. I quickly found many of the videos made by Kyle, Mike Penny, and Kevin Kmetz, along with the popular “Shamisen vs.” series and the 大会 video featuring Osanai Kaoru.
As with my albums, I watched these videos over and over, and became more familiar with how the撥 is held after quite a bit of pausing and analyzing. This all served to grow my love for the sound of the instrument, but, much to my dismay, I still found myself struggling greatly in gaining proficiency. So, for a time, I put aside the shamisen but kept listening to its music, as it had become very dear to me during this whole process.
Then, around a year and a half later, Kyle advertised his new book called “Shamisen of Japan” in a YouTube video. Finally, a book that could give me the start in technique and playing that I had been longing for. I immediately ordered the book and began practicing multiple hours a day, using the book and YouTube videos, determined to become a proficient player. Which leads us to the fun part of this blog post:
The Long-Awaited Shamisen Charts
As players of more common instruments know, chords and scales are a crucial part of a musician’s understanding of his or her instrument. They serve as vital building blocks of music and improvisation, and many beginner guitar, piano, violin, etc. courses have learners drill chords and scales to the point of memorization, so that more advanced music theory can be taught and applied. Just how one has to master algebra to move on to calculus.
While other instruments have a wealth of material on scales and chords, I found nothing to help me when I began playing the shamisen. For those with teachers or a very deep understanding of music theory, this information is obviously more accessible. In the interest of aiding other self-taught players like me, I took the time to tailor my understanding of guitar scales to the shamisen.
It is my understanding that Kevin Kmetz and Mike Penny have provided world scale, blues scale, and Greek mode courses on the Bachido website. I haven’t seen the courses myself, but knowing the material that these two have put out on YouTube over the years, I’m sure they’re worth every penny. For some free material that has been pretty heavily requested lately, however, I have finally rediscovered my old scale and chord sheets and provided them here.
Now to provide some explanation on the sheets included in the PDF file. I made each scale and chord chart assuming the most common tuning pattern of 二上り, specifically in the key of C (CGC tuning), though the chord and scale shapes will remain unchanged in other keys as long as二上り is retained. For 本調子 and 三下り, the chord and scale forms will require adjustment, though this should not be too difficult to accommodate. I also provided information on the Root, 3rd, and 7th notes specifically, along with flattened 3rd and 7th notes (which might look like 63rd and 67th due to my handwriting) when applicable. I personally find these helpful as mental markers during improvisation, but they may be ignored if desired.
Each of the chords is accompanied by a description of its structure using Root, 3rd, etc. Additionally, each scale is described in terms of actual notes in the key of C (i.e. C, D, E, etc., as opposed to Root, 2nd, 3rd, etc.). I made this choice to help for quicker understanding and to allow for individuals with no music theory background to delve right into what makes up each scale. As a musician who wishes he spent more time on theory early on, I would highly recommend that each player take the time to truly learn some music theory; it truly pays back in dividends (I’ve personally found videos by YouTube user Michael New to be highly helpful, especially if you’re looking for some free and easy-to-understand material).
I sincerely hope you find these charts helpful in your playing. Shamisen has never been so accessible, thanks to the work of Kyle and the collaboration of other players here at Bachido. They’ve pioneered a world community of shamisen players, and brought this wonderful instrument to a much wider audience of players than ever before. Thanks for all of your hard work, guys; I’ve definitely appreciated it over my time learning and playing.
Good luck to each and every one of you on your journey with the shamisen.