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Kitagawa Utamaro, "Flowers of Edo: Young Woman's Narrative Chanting to the Samisen", ca. 1880
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A Japanese man playing a shamisen while another sings

A shamisen or samisen (三味線 lit: 3 taste strings) is a 3-stringed musical instrument played with a plectrum. It came from the sanshin (a close ancestor from the southernmost Japanese prefecture of Okinawa and often the main instrument in contemporary music from that area) which in turn evolved from the Chinese sanxian, and ultimately from Central Asian instruments.

The pronunciation in Japanese is usually "shamisen" (rarely "sa") but sometimes "jamisen" when used as a suffix (e.g. Tsugaru-jamisen - for the style played in the Aomori region).

It is similar in length to a guitar, but its neck is much slimmer and it is played with a larger plectrum, called a "bachi".

The shamisen can be played solo or with other shamisen, in ensembles with other Japanese instruments, with singing such as nagauta, or as an accompaniment to drama, notably kabuki and bunraku. Both men and women traditionally played the shamisen.

In the early part of the 20th Century, a blind musician named Chikuzan Takahashi evolved a new style of playing, based on traditional folk songs ("min'you") but involving much improvisation and flashy fingerwork. This style - now known as Tsugaru-jamisen, after Chikuzan's home region in the north of Honshu - is very popular in Japan. The Tsugaru-jamisen style is sometimes compared to bluegrass banjo.

The sound of a shamisen is created in a similar way to that of a banjo, using a drum, known as a "dou", to amplify the sound of the strings. The skin is usually from a dog or cat. On the skin of some of the best shamisens, the position of the cat's nipples can be seen.

The three strings are traditionally made of silk. The lowest passes over a small hump at the "nut" end so that it buzzes, creating a characteristic sound known as "sawari". (This is a little like the "buzzing" of a sitar.)

The upper part of the dou is often protected by a cover known as a "dou kake", and players often wear a little glove on their left hand, to facilitate sliding up and down the neck. This glove is known as a "yubi kake". There may also be a cover on the "head" of the instrument.

See also

Listen to a shamisen ( fr:Shamisen it:Shamisen ja:三味線 pt:Sangen sv:Shamisen


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