Starting on a budget?


#1

Hey guys,

I’ve been looking into learning to play the shamisen, but its hard for me to be able to put a lot of money into buying one as a college student.

At the moment I could probably put forth $350 and maybe up that to $500 or so if I wait a month.

Is it possible to get into learning this instrument at this price point?

I’ve noticed some talk of vintage shamisen on etsy and ebay that might fit into my price range but I have no previous knowledge on how to judge the quality of the instrument.

If possible, it would be nice if I could get some recommendations on what I could buy. At the very least it would be nice to get something to see if I would want to invest in the instrument in the future when I may have a larger budget.


#2

Hey Drew, welcome!

See, the thing about those etsy and eBay shamisen are that oftentimes the skin is broken, or they’re otherwise just not in good condition. And to fix the skin or any other issues might raise that price point quite a lot.

But it IS totally possible to start around your budget! Or at least will be, once you get to around that 500 if you want higher quality synthetic skin as opposed to natural or plastic.

I don’t know which style you’d like to learn in particular (tsugaru, nagauta, jiuta, Minyo, etc) but any of these can be started on any kind of shamisen, at least.

Personally I recommend the Beginners Shamisen from the store here - it’s between 350 and 550 dollars depending on your choice of skin, and it’s actually a pretty nice instrument despite what is in the grand scheme of shamisen a low price. It sounds great and is a wonderful place to start! If you don’t want to worry about a natural skin (which could tear or be otherwise damaged without proper care) I think the Fibersen is worth it, it sounds great and holds up great against the changing weather.

Other options include, if you can find a reasonably priced one, something like the ST series shamisen which you can find on eBay - the thing with those is that the synthetic skins on those are much lower quality than Fibersen or ripple and sound very flat and clunky, and that’s coming from someone who started on one. :stuck_out_tongue: But it’s a very serviceable instrument to start on with matching expectations and a hope to one day upgrade.

Eventually you’ll want to upgrade no matter what, but of your options I think the beginners shamisen here is a good way to go. It’ll be more rewarding of it sounds like a real shamisen, which it really is. The other less expensive ones are generally much lower end and aren’t always easy to get full enjoyment out of.

I hope this helps!


#3

Ian,
Is there any way to identify that ST low quality synthetic skins? I got my first shamisen used, and it certainly has synthetic skins. I didn’t realize how dull its sound was, when I got another shamisen with natural skin. Well, if Fibersen is not supposed to be dull, maybe mine is also the same kind you started with.

Drew,
I will assume you are in the US. Since you didn’t mentioned what kind of shamisen you’d like to get, yes, ebay seems to be a good option for a cheap nagauta shamisen. A friend happened to find one that has the front skin intact (rear skin was cut), that comes with a doukake, bridge and strings. He ended up buying a spare bachi from me, and I also lent him a bridge for the tsugaru style… it costed about US$150 including EMS shipping. Nagauta shamisen must be really abundant in Japan. Of course, it’s really nice to have local shamisen buddies, didn’t think he would decide to buy it if we didn’t meet. We just met up yesterday and had a beginner session.

Tsugaru style seems to be more sought after these days, and there are not many used one on US ebay, less than 10 per year excluding those asking for US$2000+. But if you stay put and be patient, one will show up eventually. That’s how I got mine anyway.

If you are crafty, Kyle’s book comes with an instruction on how to make a shamisen. And I have made a pvc one for fun… but I don’t want to say it’s all ok to start with my pvc one without knowing the feel of a real shamisen.
http://www.chungwanchoi.com/diy-pvc-shamisen/

Feel free to seek me out on Facebook, if you need advice on ebay finds~ But just so you know, I am by no means expert.


#4

Chung,
While the biggest difference is of course the sound (Fibersen does have a much closer sound to natural skin than whatever is on the ST ones as I’ve heard it), there are few things to watch out for that might help you identify it.
The ST skin I had wasn’t all that durable, and in areas with heavier playing it started to flake a bit (and right on top of the dou part of it came clean off) though I’m not sure if that’s par for the course.

In general if you tap on it, it sounds hollow (it’s hard to describe, by Fibersen has a more “tappy” sound when you tap it as opposed to the hollow sound of the ST skins - I think Kevin and Kyle actually demo this in a video about Fibersen somewhere on kyles channel) and when playing the ST skins sound dull, clunky, and metallic.

Fibersen has a sharper and clearer tone, more along the lines of natural skin.

TL;DR if you think it’s junky, it probably is :stuck_out_tongue: Fibersen as I’ve heard it is pretty darn good.


#5

I’m going to get the Sakura shamisen pretty soon, and I currently have the beginners shamisen and I gotta say it’s pretty darn well made. Altho the skin near the wood is starting to flake because I kind of hit the skin too hard, so I put a thin strip of packing tape on the ripping end to contain the flakes. So I think I might get the Fibersen skin for my Tsugaru shamisen I’m going to buy, but it probably won’t have that authentic sound as much. Please help me to decide.


#6

Hey there,

Welcome.

350 - 500 is a pretty solid opening budget if you’re not picky about shamisen typing and just want to get started on something.

Even if you have genre specifics in mind, that top end of your budget will allot you a pretty wide range of items on the second hand market if you take care with purchasing.

I actually have a spare min’yo shamisen here that could fit that budget, depending on shipping.

On the other hand, if you want something safe then the Beginner’s shamisen is a great place to start. You won’t have to worry about broken skins, worn out itomaki, or heavy wear on the neck.

Re: nagauta shamisen

There are lots of them on the second hand market, but their quality is highly variable. Lots of broken skins and dodgy condition

Re: skinning

There is indeed a video demonstrating the tinny, plasticine sound of the older, artificial leather. I’ll dig it up when I get home.


#7

If I were not me (I visit Japan often), I would just buy the beginner’s shamisen. I definitely would not buy a used instrument. You want to save yourself as much frustration as possible and just start learning as soon as it arrives.