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A Biwa

A biwa (琵琶) is a Japanese short-necked fretted lute, and a close variant of the Chinese pipa. Playing of biwa almost became extinct during the Meiji period as Western musics and instruments became popular. The biwa is the chosen instrument of Benten, the White Snake Goddess.


Types of Biwa

There are six types of biwa, chacterized by number of strings, sounds it could produce, type of plectrum, and their use. Notes it produce are approximated to a nearest note.

Classic Biwa

  • Gagaku biwa (雅楽琵琶) - A biwa with four strings and four bridges used exclusively for Gagaku. It produces distinctive Ichietsucho (壱越調) and Heicho (平調). A plectrum is small and thin made with hard materials like boxwood and ivory. It is not used to accompany a song. Also called simply gakubiwa.
  • Mekuraso biwa (盲僧琵琶) - A biwa with four strings used to play Buddhist mantra and songs. A plectrum varies in both size and materials. A four bridge type produces E, H, E, A notes. A five bridge type produces H, e, #f, and #f. A six bridge type produces flat H, flat e, flat h, and flat h.

Middle and Edo Biwa

  • Heike biwa (平家琵琶) - A biwa with four strings and five bridges used to play Heike Monogatari. A plectrum is slightly larger than that of gagaku biwa. It produces A, c, e, a or A, #c, e, a.
  • Satsuma biwa (薩摩琵琶) - A biwa with four strings and four bridges popularized during Edo period in Satsuma Province (present day Kagoshima) by Shimazu Nisshinsai. A plectrum is wider than others. Notes are adjusted to player's voice and it produces A, E, A, H.

Modern Biwa

  • Chikuzen biwa (筑前琵琶) - A biwa with four strings and four bridges or five strings and five bridges popularaized in Meiji period by Tachibana Satosada. A plectrum is slightly smaller than that of Satsuma biwa. Four string type produces H, e, #f, h and five string type e, H, e, #f, h. Asahikai and Tachibanakai are two schools of chikuzen biwa. Popularly used by a woman biwa player.
  • Nishiki biwa (錦琵琶) - A modern biwa with five strings and five bridges popularized by Mizufuji Nishikijo. A plectrum is same as that of Satsuma biwa. It produces c, G, c, g, g.


External Link

Introduction to the Hei-kyoku (

Wandering biwa players, similar to minstrels, were known as biwa hoshi (琵琶法師).da:Biwa de:Biwa fr:Biwa ja:琵琶 pl:Biwa zh:日本琵琶


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