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What is a Shamisen?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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A shamisen is a Japanese stringed instrument which has a sound similar to that of a banjo. Shamisens have been used in Japan since at least the 17th century, and they commonly make appearances in traditional Japanese music. Today, shamisens are played at arts and culture festivals, musical performances, theatre and dance shows, and other traditional Japanese venues, and they are also sometimes included in modern compositions which take advantage of the unique sound of the shamisen and other traditional Japanese instruments to create a very distinctive feel.

The roots of the shamisen are ancient. The Egyptians made an instrument very similar in form and style to the shamisen, and this instrument undoubtedly spread to the Middle East, trickling slowly from there across Asia. It is probable that the shamisen is descended from instruments brought over from China, although the Japanese have created their own unique interpretation of this ancient stringed instrument. There are also several different styles of Japanese shamisen, each with its own sound and accompanying musical styles.

There are two main parts to a shamisen: a rectangular body like a drum and a long hollow neck. Three strings run up the body and along the neck, and to play the shamisen, musicians use a plectrum, which is traditionally made from ivory. The body of the shamisen is covered in a hide skin, with paper and sometimes plastics sometimes being used as well, while the strings are traditionally made from silk, although nylon is acceptable.

There are a number of ways to use the shamisen. Shamisens may be played alone in solo performance, and they can also be accompanied with singing and dancing. They are also popular in kabuki, a form of Japanese theatre, and they may appear in compositions for ensembles as well. Many people link the shamisen with geisha culture, as these famous Japanese entertainers have often performed on the shamisen for their guests.

If you live in an area with a large Japanese population, you may be able to hear a shamisen performance. Shamisen players also sometimes visit various regions for cultural festivals and solo concerts. If you are interested in learning to play this instrument, your best resource is a shop which sells musical instruments, especially if you can find one which specializes in Asian instruments. The staff at such a shop can help you find an instructor in your area, if one exists, and they can also provide you with an instrument to play.

Musical Expert is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Musical Expert researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By anon336198 — On May 27, 2013

This gave me lots of info which was good for my project because I do not know a lot about Japan or the Japanese people.

By MrMoody — On Sep 03, 2011

@NathanG - Every year at our church we have something called Christmas Around the World during the Christmas season.

We fill the gymnasium with booths representing various cultures and stuff. People put on various cultural performances and serve samples of their food. We have a very international church so there is wide variety in the performances.

Anyway, we have a Japanese group in the church and they play the shamisen guitar along with traditional singing and dancing. I have to say it’s one of the highlights of the evening and it does look like it would be a fun instrument to play.

By NathanG — On Sep 02, 2011

You don’t have to live near a large Japanese community to hear a traditional shamisen being played.

I watched this guy in an online video sharing site play everything from Mozart to the theme song from Star Wars on this instrument. It was amazing. It basically sounds like a lute (which I suppose is what it is).

I don’t know if the fact that it’s only a three stringed instrument makes it easier to play, but it sure looks like it would be a great starter instrument for someone wanting to get into playing cultural music. It seems like it would be far more accessible than a piano or a traditional guitar, but of course looks can be deceiving.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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