Should I buy one of these shamisens?


#1

Hey all, I can’t afford to buy a $500 shamisen but I found these two and I need help on whether I should go for it and buy one

https://www.etsy.com/listing/520982964/japanese-vintageshamisen-set-classic

https://www.etsy.com/listing/539011683/japan-vintageshamisen-set-classic?ref=related-3

These two shamisen are priced pretty low and it cost $100 for shipping with the case/shamisen. $50~ shipping without the case.

Would like someone that knows how to shop a shamisen to help me please


#2

Hello there,

I’m not one to really judge the quality of an instrument before I pick it up, but I can give you some input on these.

https://www.etsy.com/listing/520982964/japanese-vintageshamisen-set-classic

This listing is for a nagauta shamisen made in the 82. It looks like the skin was last replaced in 89 (Although that 8 could be a 0, which I suppose would make it 平成9meaning 97).

It is a smooth bodied or maruuchi dou shamisen, packed with a plastic bachi and koma.

It comes with, at least, the second Fujimoto Min’yo book.

The listing says the skin is artificial, but I am not really able to judge that from the pictures.

I cannot see any major flaws or damage in the pictures, although the bachigawa has seen better days.

You might also notice that there is a bit of tape near the yama-sawari, likely to improve the sawari response.

Comes with a hard case, which is a plus.

https://www.etsy.com/listing/539011683/japan-vintageshamisen-set-classic?ref=related-3

This listing also appears to be a nagauta based on the hatomune and the borderline width. I can see the stickers inside, but not enough details to sort out the meaning of the numbers.

The seller claims it’s for min’yo… which it might be. In my neck of the woods, many people play min’yo on wider-necked nagauta shamisen. The real proof is in the body size, especially when the neck is borderline like that.

Like the other listing it is a smooth bodied shamisen. However, it is packed with a wooden bachi and plastic koma. The rear-skin has a number of obvious defects, but that’s not necessarily something I’d worry about. It does tend to support that it’s a natural skin, at the very least.

It looks like it’s in rougher shape than the other. Especially around the tenjin.


#3

Welcome to Bachido!

Wow, I’m actually pretty surprised at the condition those are in - they look good for their age!

Christopher has listed the types of shamisen that these are, but as a way to just get started that doesn’t really matter, but if you’d like to focus on a specific genre you might be interested to know that. Wooden bachi are a bit more brittle so for that one you’d want to be careful if you try playing any harder Tsugaru pieces.

The second one features a natural skin, which is more prone to breakage without proper care and moisture control than the synthetic one that the hosozao one has, but as such is does have a different tone. If you’re willing to get all the things necessary (washi bag or that flat charcoal moisture control thing, I forget what it’s called, it’s in the bachido store :p) and keep it well maintained it should be ok though. Synthetic skins are more durable but one that old probably has a pretty plastic-y tone, but as a starter and especially at that price it should be totally fine.

Anyhow, while it is good to be careful with listings like these, these two actually look pretty good. Most of the ones like this I’ve seen on Ebay and such have broken skins or missing parts like the kamigoma, but these are totally intact and seem to have all the parts. They are a but older though, so bear in mind the nut may fall off if the glue is too worn out, but that’s an easy replacement and you can get those cheap from the bachido store. But, it might be in great condition (it’s definitely on there in the pictures :p) so I don’t think you have to worry that much about it.

Please listen to any other input anyone might have, but if I happened across those listings when I was in the market for a starter shamisen I’d go for one!

Hope this helps. Best of luck!


#4

Christopher has listed the types of shamisen that these are, but as a way to just get started that doesn’t really matter, but if you’d like to focus on a specific genre you might be interested to know that.

Ain’t that the truth~


#5

Thanks for the detailed info on both shamisens, I’m going to consider the first shamisen for it’s artificial skin although I can see a half ring of dirt on one of the pictures which I think can be cleaned off?

I’m going to ask the seller if he can make a video or sound file of the shamisen to listen it’s sound and hope it’s legit(not plastic sounding).

Are there any good questions I can ask the seller to help decide?


#6

In your position, I’d probably ask the following.

Is there any damage to the neck, including small chipping on the sides or fingerboards.

Are there loose joints or gaps in the wood?

How well do the itomaki hold tension? What tuning can they maintain?

Is the skin lose or tight? Is there any weakness in the glue or peeling along the edges?

When was the skin last replaced? How will you ship it (disassembled? Assembled?)


#7

Thanks, will have to wait for his reply later.

I’m a bit uneasy about buying something old/used online… I feel that the shamisen is a bit more fragile than a violin when it comes to aging since there’s a lot glue involved and it’s skin.

Would it be smarter to wait several months to save up for a new shamisen if you were in my position?

I do have to agree that this shamisen seems like a steal for it’s low price and what’s included, it’s just the aging part that bothers me as I don’t know how they hold up over time and feels risky.


#8

Well…

Shamisen can easily last decades if well maintained, and the skins can last ten years even with use if cared for properly.

As an example, here’s a refurbished 141 year old shamisen being played by an extremely skilled lady out in Nagoya.

I wouldn’t really be worried about ageing, especially if you don’t mind occasional cosmetic troubles. All of my shamisen were purchased used.

That said, it is possible that you might buy this only for it to break in transit or for the skin to pop shortly after arrival. Repairing damage due to transit or replacing the skin could very well bring your costs up and negate much of the deal you’ve found.

If you live in Japan and don’t need to worry about international shipping, I’d say “yes, without a doubt”. My experiences are 95% positive, and that tiny 5% was a great teacher.

If you live elsewhere, it’s harder to advise to wait or jump on it. Maybe some other folks that bought via etsy or ebay can comment on their experiences.


#9

He does ship it with insurance which cost $100 to ship to the US. Depending on the seller’s reply I guess I’ll take it.

Is there a reason why there isn’t anyone making shamisens is the US?

Thanks again for the info!


#10

There’s a pretty simple answer to that - demand!

There’s just not much demand outside of (and even inside of) Japan.

The instrument doesn’t have a whole lot of penetration either. Most people don’t know what a shamisen is, although that is gradually changing.

However, I would point out that some folks are actually making shamisen in the U.S. (just watch Kyle Abbott’s posts on facebook)!


#11

I am an absolute beginner and got my first shamisen 3 or so weeks ago - just like you, I was searching through ebay and etsy. I’ve spent some time playing guitar and other instruments so it didn’t take me long to realize I liked the shamisen and really dug into it.

But like you, I only saw the more affordable (but not at all inferior!) nagauta stylle shamisens. After much listening and watching videos and researching, I quickly came to realize that I wanted a tsugaru style shamisen. So much so that I ordered one and its on the way. I’m not upset about this - I often buy an affordable instrument to test the waters knowing I may well want a different kind of the same instrument. (Just didn’t think it would be just 3 weeks into it LOL.)

I think my point is clear but I will emphasize it this way … do you like this video and is this is the style you want to play?

It’s one of many videos that really caught my attention … and, yes, those are tsugaru shamisens.

Can you play tsugaru style on nagauta? Yes you can. But you do not get the same sound and it is not advisable (the percussives is hard on the skin). And please don’t get me wrong, nagauta has its own style with its own appeal (this may not be nagauta per se but you get my point) …

With that said, tsugaru shamisen is above your budget by some margin. I have researched (a LOT lot) and was hard pressed to find anything decent for less than about $1K. Note that even the “beginner shamisen” here on Bachido is a nagauta.

So if you are like me and want to keep to a reasonable budget for your first shamisen instrument, I say go for it. My point in writing this is so that you go for it fully informed.

And I highly encourage you to do some googling on shamisen history and tsugaru history. My general impression, honestly, is that it is an instrument struggling to make some form of revival. Like of anything Japanese, it is steeped in loads of history and tradition. You’ll find very cool stories, even elaborate hand drawn comics describing this awesome instrument. And also learn to use google translate very well LOL.


#12

Hey Rob, I also play multiple instruments with guitar being my primary. Are you saying that the “striking” sound is only possible on the tsugaru style shamisen?

I’d like to try and implement what I know from the other instruments into the shamisen… I guess I’m looking for a shamisen style that is versatile. I like hearing how it sounds when it’s played in a blues/rock style or like the shamisen player in the Wagakiki band.

Also the seller has yet to response to the questions… I think I asked too much for him to bother lol


#13

Give him some time especially if he is in Japan because of time difference. Also English is likely his (or her) second language so it’s much more of an effort.

Again, I’m a beginner so please take what I say with a grain of salt.

The striking sound can be accomplished with any type of shamisen - its just that the tsugaru was designed for it. Note how the skin goes further down the body. The skin is also traditionally made of the more resilient dog skin than cat skin. There are other differences like the thickness of the neck (not the scale length though).

Since your a guitar guy too, it’s like playing fingerstyle on a dreadnought rather than a parlor with wider string spacing. Can you do it on the dread? Sure, but the parlor was meant for it.

Again though, please don’t think I’m saying the nagauta is in any way inferior. Just that the more popular music you’ll find for shamisen are tsugaru style.


#14

I’ve read that the nagauta has the thinner neck/size profile which I think would be easier to play fast. Wouldn’t the skins be the same since we now have artificial skins?

I can see the base of the Tsugaru’s neck going in more and the skin folding over than the Nagauta.


#15

The nagauta shamisen’s neck is thinner, but I wouldn’t say it’s easier to play fast. The strings and all are closer together which makes it a bit more difficult to precisely play fast Tsugaru phrases.
Each type of shamisen is naturally best suited to play the genre it’s intended for, otherwise it wouldn’t be the way it is :stuck_out_tongue:

Despite them being artificial the thickness of the skins is generally kept true to the style it’s affixed onto, so even a synthetic nagauta skin wouldn’t be stretched as far as a synthetic Tsugaru one.

The swoop of the neck with the hatomune is different from Tsugaru to nagauta, and the difference page on the About page for shamisen types here describes that better than I’d be able to :stuck_out_tongue:


#16

I just deleted my post trying to edit somehow… but basically I youtubed both styles and can hear that the Tsugaru is the one being played fast and has the bachi clicking sound and the Nagauta has a thinner sound I think…

Is the Tsugaru the versatile/diverse one of both?

*Update:

I just watched him playing the Nagauta with the similar playstyle of the Tsugaru… now I’m confused lol

Starting from 2:06 is the kind of style I’m interested in playing.


#17

At least with me, I prefer the width of the Tsugaru neck since it makes things like Kamashi (that sort of crescendo of four notes you hear in many Tsugaru pieces) much easier. Maybe that’s me though.

The sound of a nagauta is “stringier” so there is much less percussion and it’s quieter, yeah. A lot of it is slows but there’s a fair bit of fast pieces. It’s just a different kind of fast, if that makes sense.

Tsugaru shamisen are used in a more diverse variety of genres because of its unique qualities, I’ve seen it used and use it in things ranging from traditional, to jazz, to rock, etc. but I personally prefer it’s sound, but anything that can be played on it notes wise can be played on a nagauta.


#18

Guess I’ll save up for a Tsugaru… I also like that thick/mid sound.

Thank for helping me understand.


#19

You’re welcome!
The important thing is that you get out of this instrument what you want.
Best of luck!


#20

Take a gander at this, Razblade.

It’s a comparison of tone between nice hosozao, chuuzao, and futozao shamisen.

From 3:14 the player repeats the same song (Ringo Bushi, a folk piece from the birthplace of Tsugaru, Aomori Prefecture) on each type.

As others have said, you’ll hear a much stronger percussive play style with the chuuzao, and even more so on the futozao/tsugaru.

A nagauta has a bit of it, but the traditionally higher action of the bridge and smaller resonator tend to undermine it.

I don’t want to dissuade you from saving up for a tsugaru (the cheapest of which I’ve seen retail around $750.) But this video really demonstrates the difference a professional player can pull out.

Shamisen flexibility

You can play anything on anything. The shamisen is fundamentally a folk instrument; you play what you know with what you got.

If we want to split hairs about what comes out as the most flexible, I’d suggest a chuuzao shamisen with an adjustable sawari.

A middle sized neck is big enough for comfortably executing tsugaru techniques and fingering, but won’t be overwhelming heavy and wide like a futozao can be.

An en or azuma sawari gives you more tuning flexibility.

With a typical min’yo body, you’d get a higher pitched, guitar-like sound (closer to the nagauta spectrum) and with a typical jiuta body, you’ll get a slightly deeper, more bass-like sound. (Closer to the tsugaru spectrum).

By messing around with string guages, koma heights, and playing styles, you can get all sorts of neat sounds out of it.