in september i had a very special occasion arranged. to me, it was one of the most japan-like things i've done so far. it was ... a shamisen trial lesson.

as you might know (or not), the shamisen has come via okinawa from china to japan and it is a 3-stringed instrument about the size of a banjo and it used to be made of cats (mostly anyway).
that sounds weird and cruel but it's actually true. "mostly" might be slightly exaggerated but some crucial parts are resp. were made from cats. the strings used to be made from cat guts (colons), nowadays they're nylon strings, same as classical guitars whose strings also used to be made from cat guts. the cover of the body is made from cat fur - with guitars it's of course wooden. nowadays all the cats part are made from more robust material.
here's a shamisen (length of the neck about 95cm)

a shamisen

what really surprised me about the shamisen is how low-tech the instrument is. i don't mean this derogatively but the machine heads or tuning keys (where the strings can be tuned) are much less stable than that of a guitar.
the equivalent to the bridge of a classical guitar (the other end where the strings are fixated) doesn't look very convincing either.
the result is that strings fall out of tune very easily and during my two hours of shamisen lesson it had to be tuned three times.
another surprise was the size of the shamisen. the shamisen doesn't just look like a banjo, it's also about the same length but the body is much smaller and not as heavy.

playing the shamisen

the correct (traditional) position for playing a shamisen is the seiza - sitting on your legs. untrained people will loose feeling in their legs after five minutes when sitting in a seiza and hardcore masochists will probably give up after 15 minutes. luckily, i was allowed to sit on a chair for the trial lesson. in the picture above i'm sitting with my legs crossed which is much more comfortable. for the seiza, see the videos below. due to the length of my arms and the size of my hands, i couldn't just rest my arm on the body of the shamisen as you usually do, so we had to improvise a bit there.

the bacchi

the shamisen is usually played with a mega-sized plectrum called "bacchi" with which you hit the strings.
playing a guitar with a plectrum is very similar but because of the distance between the bacchi and the strings accurate and fast playing was a bit demanding. the more you play the more you get used to this though (as usual ^_^) in fact, the thumb should be placed slightly more to the left

holding the bacchi

there are several ways of hitting the strings resp. making sounds on a shamisen. the most natural way is to hit the string with bacchi with a downward stroke, surprisingly called downstroke. this is the strongest sound you can produce on a shamisen other than beating a drum with the shamisen which you're not supposed to or to blow up the shamisen which in most cases renders the instrument useless.
the reverse movement to the downstroke is *gasp* the upstroke, both of which are also common to the art known as "playing the guitar".
smoother ways of playing are so-called pull-offs and hammer-ons which work like this: hit the string with the bacchi and the quickly press a finger of your left hand ("normal" people hold a guitar or a shamisen with the neck towards the left although there are some freaks of nature who do hold the instrument the opposite way) on the fretboard which produces a new tone. the pull-off is pulling the finger off the fretboard to make a new sound.
speaking of fretboards, there are no actual frets - if you don't know what this means compare the fretboard of a guitar with that of a violin.
on the violin the actual position of the finger decides the what tone you play (and if you miss the exact position even by the slightest bit the tone is not exactly in tune and sounds beginner-ish).
on the guitar, there are frets on the fretboard - most guitars have 22 frets which means you can play 23 tones per string (including the empty string) and the tone is decided by the position of the metal bar which actually makes up the fret number. unlike with the guitar there's one more way to produce a tone with the shamisen (this excludes tapping on the electric guitar which i haven't seen on a classical guitar often enough to call it a standard technique. don't write me mails complaining about eddie van halen and his song "spanish fly" - i won't admit to anything. i've never seen anyone do tapping on a shamisen).
it's a bit like a pull-off but slightly different. with the pull-off, the tone pitch changes e.g. you hit the string with the bachi to play a "c", then pull of the finger of the left hand and produce a "b". with the shamisen you can do pull-offs without changing the pitch, thus playing the same tone again but the second time it sounds softer.
as shamisen don't come with frets (like the violin, see above) it's easy to slide a note up and down which is also heavily used. on the other hand, chords are not played very often with the shamisen.

a shamisen tabulature (new version)

a traditional shamisen transcription

in the pictures above you can see two transcriptions for shamisen.
the first one is similar to a guitar tabulature. each horizontal line represents a string. the number shows in what position on the fretboard to place the finger. this tabulature uses arabian numerals and is therefore quite easy to read for westerners.
compare this with the traditional tabulature below. there are several significant differences: the empty strings are not written with a 0 but with a kanji: the highest string (top line in the new transcription) is written "五" which means 5 in japanese. surely there must be some misunderstanding as to why the third string of a three-stringed instrument is called 5 but what the heck.
then, instead of writing repeating notes likes 0 0 0, a symbol for repetition is used which looks a bit like a right bracket: ">"
also somewhat confusing is the counting: the empty string is the kanji "五", the second position is written as 1 and the third position is written as 2 - possibly indication that the first position is not used? i don't know...
the notation for the middle string is as follows: 一 for the open string, 二 for the second position on the middle string. the notation for the lower string is almost the same as for the middle string, except that 一, 二 etc. are preceded by the radicalised form of the kanji "人" (man, people) as i cannot write this by itself, i have to give you another kanji in which this part occurs: 侍 (the left part is the people part, btw the whole kanji means "samurai")
of course, there's even more. all the ways to beat a string or to produce a sound have symbols and in the end, a traditional shamisen transcription will look very confusing.


japan wouldn't be japan if there was not a shamisen-game. similar to "guitar hero" (newsletter #13 - careful - old design!) please let me introduce "shamisen brothers", in actual japanese: "shamisen burasaasu".
the principle is the same: strap on your fake shamisen and play the notes appearing on screen. if you score high enough, you're allowed to progress to the next song.

thanks to, my pages have become real multimedia. check out the videos below (you need the flashplayer-plugin to be installed).

Sakura played on a shamisen (note the seiza (sitting position))

I probably wouldn't be me without fooling around a bit. What not to play on a Shamisen.

if this newsletter kicked off your interest in shamisen, i recommend checking out the artists called "yoshida brothers" (in japanese "吉田兄弟") at (link opens in new page/tab).
they're famous for mixing traditional shamisen tunes with modern instruments (guitar, bass, drums) and are known also internationally. in my opinion, their music is an easy access to shamisen.
the yoshida brothers play a style called "tsugura shamisen" which uses a more beat-like style than the shamisen style played by geishas for example which is more flowing.

if you don't get totally turned off by anime, i recommend watching a movie called "Nitaboh" (homepage at, also in english and french), on television in march 2007 and subsequently available on dvd and vhs.
the story is about a boy called Nitaboh who fights evil, giant robots from another dimension by throwing shurikens made of musical notes while scantily-clad highschool girls dance in the background and pokkemon-like monsters accompany him on his journey to mt. fuji.
or not. rather he loses his eye-sight in his childhood and starts learning the shamisen. playing in northern honshuu where the winters are harsh, travelling musicians have a strong tradition and he becomes one of them. he struggles to develop his own style of playing which is not welcome everywhere but in the end he prevails, founding the tsugaru-style.

if you've even come so far as wanting to buy a shamisen, there's a company in chiba (next to tokyo) who produces and ships shamisen abroad, postage including about 50'000 yen (ca. 550 sfr). their store can be found at on

btw, a real shamisen costs about 700 to 2000 sfr.

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