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.