What is it like to learn shamisen?

September 30, 2020

What is it like to learn shamisen?

The shamisen is a three stringed traditional instrument from Japan. I’ve heard of the shamisen in passing, but it wasn’t until I saw a street busker in Kyoto playing Tsugaru Shamisen that I decided I wanted to try it. I got around to buying a beginner shamisen online last year, and had a quick primer lesson with the very talented musician, Alcvin Ramos, but I didn’t really try to play the shamisen until the quiet months of 2020.

There are several different styles of playing the shamisen, and the differences are in the size of the shamisen, and how you hold the instrument and bachi. Yes the plectrum is called a bachi, just like in taiko. Also similar to a taiko drum, the wood body is skinned on the front and back. Where you strike the body with the bachi will change the volume, loudest in the middle, and quiet near the edge. I found that my taiko experience really helped with figuring out how to strike the bachi on the strings and body. The power starts at the top of the arm, through the elbow, and wrist.

The shamisen may look like an intimidating instrument to play, but I believe you don’t need a musical background. The notes are numbers that correspond to the position on each string. There is a cheat sheet sticker that can go on the shamisen to help you figure it out. It is really helpful because the shamisen doesn’t have any frets. Usually the right hand will play with the bachi, and the left hand will press the strings, but the instrument can be set up to be reversed if you are left handed. I find that I struggle more with the left hand because I don’t have any stringed instrument experience.

Shamisen isn’t as popular as Taiko internationally, so it may be hard to find a teacher or group to play with. I practice with video lessons online from Bachido. They have been an amazing force for spreading the Shamisen spirit internationally. I was sad to hear of the decreasing popularity of Shamisen in Japan. One of the highly regarded Shamisen makers in Japan, Tokyo Wagakki, almost shut down due to Covid slowing everything down. I decided to take the plunge and upgrade to a bigger shamisen from them, sized for Tsugaru style playing. If you want to check the Tsugaru shamisen style out, some of the popular artists are Yoshida Brothers and Ki&Ki.

Midnight Taiko fans who were lucky enough to attend the Shinbokukai concert last year will already have seen shamisen on stage, as brought by artists Alcvin Ramos, and Anny Lin, from Dahaza. It truly is a captivating instrument!