Shamisen for beginner in Europe


#1

Hi all,

I’m kind of new here, was already following this site and forum for months, maybe years, but this is my first post here because if everything works I will be buying my first shamisen in the next days.

I am currently selling one of my electric guitars to invest money on Japanese sounds, I mean sounds because I am partly investing on VST instruments for my computer.

But part of this money should go for a shamisen and as a newbie to this instrument I would like to ask you experts some questions.

The most important one is what instrument can you recommend around 600 Euro/Dollar for someone who is new to the shamisen but has 30 years experience playing the guitar. I mean, I don’t know almost anything about shamisen but my experience as a musician has taught me how important is a basic level of quality to enjoy playing an instrument.

I’m pretty sure that I want a tsugaru shamisen as I’m a big guy and I want to play rhythmically, so if the movie Nitaboh doesn’t lie, I should definitely go for a tsugaru shamisen.

My favorite shamisen band currently is Kikinomi and I also love the music of Wagakki Band, and I think they all use tsugaru shamisen too.

Do you have any suggestion? Is the beginner shamisen here a good option for me? And if it is, what is the difference between the one with the natural skin and the one with the synthetic skin? Is the durability any different? the sound?

Cheers and thanks in advance,
David


#2

Hey there, welcome to Bachido!

So the thing with wanting to play really percussively is that, that’s a very Tsugaru shamisen thing, and those can be a bit pricey. The beginners shamisen here (a hosozao, nagauta shamisen) is a great way to begin to learn the neck, and the general technique and feel, but you would have to be more careful as you can’t go fully rhythmic like you could on a more durable Tsugaru shamisen. Kyle Abbot has some videos of him playing Tsugaru pieces on it on his youtube channel so if you like the sound of that, go for it.

But if you really do want a proper tsugaru shamisen (built to the relative specs of the genre) it can be a little harder to get a quality instrument for your price range. Around that price would be the ST-1 by Nichiwa Gakki which you can easily find on e-bay, and that’s the one I started on. It has a plastic skin that really sounds nothing like natural skin unfortunately, but it does allow you to go all out with the bachi technique and it does sound very percussive.

At bachido, the natural skin does sound pretty similar to the synthetic skin types, especially the new one (the name of which I’m forgetting lol). They’re a lot closer sounding to the real thing than the one on the ST-1 type of beginner shamisen, and honestly the beginner shamisen here with like FiberSen or the new one sounds a lot better to my ears than the old plastic skins on the typical entry level Tsugaru, but again it wouldn’t be exactly the same and would take getting used to proper bachi technique and the neck width when you do one day upgrade.

Between natural and synthetic here, maybe the natural is a bit warmer sounding to my ears at least, but the closeness is honestly enough for me. Natural skins are harder to take care of (you have to keep them in a dou fukuro and sometimes humidified to prolong their life) whereas a synthetic skin is very easy to care for, it just kinda does its thing no matter what :stuck_out_tongue:

While I grew out of the ST-1 to want a better shamisen, I will say that for the plastic sound of the skin it was everything I needed to learn the actual Tsugaru technique.


#3

Halloo,

In my experience, 600 dollar is roughly where the market opens up pretty substantially. You can afford nicer quality, but starter oriented, new instruments and a pretty wide range of things on the secondary market - if you poke around.

That said, getting a go-bu-dai futozao (i.e. the typical tsugaru) at that price range is tough. On rare occasion, I’ve seen starters floating around 750, but the 1000 is much more common. My own instruments ended up costing me 1800 and 1200, and neither was new.

You could spend some time digging through auctions and get lucky but you’d be better off saving up a bit more first.

Alternatively, you might go after a different subtype, as they are almost universally cheaper.

Nagauta, such as the Beginner’s Shamisen, are usually rather cheap. You can find them for as low as 100 on the secondary market (with generally dodgy quality/half-shredded skins).

Go-rin-dai and Ichi-bu-go-rin-dai (chuuzao variants, the latter larger than the former) generally clock in from 300 ~ 600 on the secondary market, depending on quality.

To reiterate what Ian said:

In principle, any subtype can be played however you like. Even in regards to striking, the most important thing is follow-through. Striking too hard will actually ruin your sound in addition to wrecking your instrument.

Some other caveats to be aware of:

A narrower neck may be more or less difficult to play on, depending on your hands. You may find a wider neck fits you better, or the exact opposite.

Different wood, skin, koma, bachi, strings, and technique will change the sound. Karin and a synthetic skin is the cheapest. But…most of the professionals you see use kouki and a pristine dog skinned shamisen. Some use ayasugi-bori (small baffles in the body). Koma and bachi vary too much to comment on.

Synthetics tend to have less resonance. Even modern synthetics suffer here, although the Hibiki is legitimately excellent. I’m going to have it put on my practice shamisen.

Natural skins will break. They may last a year, they may last 10, but their sound will change over time and eventually they’ll give up the ghost. A reskinning will cost you 200 - 500 dollars.

Heavy damage to the fingerboard requires a shaping process called kanberi. Kanberi runs 200 to 300.

Joint damage can be repaired, but I’m happily unfamiliar with it. If you end up with something from the secondary market with damage, get in touch with Kyle Abbott or a local luthier.


#4

Hi,

first of all thanks both for your answers, it’s nice to find such a helpful community here :slight_smile:

My first impression after reading your comments is that the main decision should be to buy a more affordable not tsugaru shamisen or save more money to get a tsugaru that has an acceptable quality.

Actually I should get around 1200 to 1300 euro for my guitar, but I have already made a list of VST instruments for the music I aim to compose and they are kind of expensive too.

One of the plugins is also a shamisen plugin, which costs around 240 dollar, which means, if I don’t buy it and invest the money on a real shamisen I could afford a shamisen around 800 to 900, and if I wait a little bit I could reach the 1000 to get a better second hand tsugaru shamisen I guess.

@Ian_S I use to play percussively but I usually don’t hit my instruments very hard, I always try to be careful with my instruments, but I guess there is always a possibility to break the skin on a shamisen. I think I will go for a synthetic skin as it is already very difficult to get a shamisen here ini Europe, so needing to have it repaired too often would be also annoying.

@ChristopherBrown thanks for those technical informations and japanese names, I didn’t know about them and that is also a good point to start making some research. I like the Hibiki designs in darker color too, so if they also sound good for a synthetic skin, I might start searching in that direction or may reskinning my shamisen at a later point. You’re right about the neck dimensions, on the guitar I actually prefer a thinner neck, but a guitar neck is way wider than a shamisen’s neck, too bad I can’t go to a music shop to test that…

Thanks again both for the kind and very informative answers, I will start doing some research with these informations you gave me and try to find out what is the best option for me. By now everything points to save some more money and go for a tsugaru shamisen that has a minimum of quality to enjoy playing and listening to it.


#5

Hi again, I put my guitar on eBay this weekend and the bid is ending next Sunday, I’m counting with around 1300 euro, from which I’d like to invest a max of 1000 Euro in my first shamisen.

It seems to be difficult to get a Tsugaru shamisen in this price range, even here in bachido it looks like there is kind of an empty space between the $600 beginner shamisen and the next shamisen, which costs around $1400.

I have found this website:

there they have a tsugaru shamisen for JPY124,000 made of Karin wood. That would be around 955 Euro, which sounds great, but taxes should be added and these could mean around 21%.

So now I’m thinking about other details before ordering a shamisen, like which kind of wood would be the better choice - karin or African kouki, if I can even import those to Europe without having problems.

Also which kind of accessories do I need. I will surely need a side cover (Doukake), maybe a bachi if not included in the package, an additional set of strings in case on breaks I don’t need to wait weeks to keep playing the shamisen, a gig bag or hardcore to keep it safe when not playing…

And another question I have is about the woods. As I’m giving more money than expected for my first shamisen I will try to get an instrument as perfect as I can regarding my personal preferences.

For me the looks are an important matter too and I like the darker shamisen the most, like the Eclipse model here on bachido, the skin doesn’t need to be necessarily black but I prefer darker woods. By the way, which one are the darker woods? I don’t really know that much about the common woods used for shamisen, they differ a lot from the guitar woods I know.

My question here is, which other characteristics do have darker woods when it comes to sound and playability? Is this question answered here in the community? Or maybe in Kyle Abbott’s book? (I already purchased it last week but had no time to look very much inside it yet)

Sorry for the many questions and the long text but I’m really new to this :slight_smile:


#6

The wood question has been answered a number of times. But for grins:

The three standard woods are:

Karin
Karin is softer brown or blonde wood. It is used on dou of all types of shamisen. As a neck material, it usually shows up on cheaper models - but only because it’s fiercely more common than the other two.

This is Pterocarpus Indicus.

Shitan

This is a kind of rose wood. It is becoming increasingly rare, due to its rising popularity in China for furnishing and interior. It is harder than karin, but softer than kouki.

This is Dalbergia oliveri.

Kouki

This is Red Sandalwood. It is a hard, rare wood. When taken, it has a bright red color. Over time, it darkens to black with a reddish tint. This is the hardest wood commonly used in neck construction.

This is Pterocarpus Santalinus

Other woods which see use are:

Purpleheart (Peltogyne spp) - a greyish purple wood that rapidly becomes a vibrant purple.

Shirogouki - a creamy yellow wood occasionally seen in upscale kouta shamisen. This is Indian Satinwood, but whether it’s the Eastern or Western variant I am unsure.

Oak

Maple


#7

Thanks a lot Christopher, it’s a very interesting information. If I understand it right, Karin is in quality terms not a bad choice either, it is just cheaper because of it being more common than the other two.

I’ll keep watching for additional infos and hope to be getting my first shamisen soon, and if I do I’ll make a post to present it to you all

thanks :slight_smile:


#8

My pleasure.
Just to be clear:
Karin has a warm, almost wild sound. Kouki is colder, cleaner. You’ll get crisper notes with the harder kouki.

Shitan is somewhere in the middle.

Which you like is a matter of taste~


#9

Thanks again, I’ll do some research on that, I hope I can find some videos or recordings played with those different types of wood to get an idea what the difference sounds like.

I know YT videos aren’t the best source for that kind of check but for me the only way to do that as even buying a shamisen works here only using the internet.