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Shamisen vs. Banjo – Is Shamisen JUST a Japanese Banjo? (There’s MORE!)

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Still confused between these two instruments? Here’s  quick precap before we dive into a detailed comparison!

ShamisenBanjo
SoundA shamisen’s tone is comparable to the American banjo’s in certain ways since the drum-like groove intensifies the rhythm of the strings.The sound of the banjo is somewhat bright and twangy.
StringsIt is available in three strings version.It is available in four and five strings versions.
HeightIt is often found in 2.6 inches of height.It is often found in 26 ¼ inches of height.

Shamisen

One of the classic percussion instruments of Japan is the string instrument shamisen. It has a thick neck around which threads are attached and played, and a hardwood body is covered in artificial or actual leather. 

The variety of Shamisen’s melodic manifestations appeals to people the most. The Shamisen is a unique tool in that it can produce both powerful and delicate tones.

The Shamisen’s History

The Shamisen, albeit providing all the information from the Chinese sanxian, most likely came to Japan from the Ryukyu Islands around the middle of the 16th century. The Shamisen was acquired by traveling biwa musicians after it arrived in Japan. 

These musicians may have altered the covering from snake to more resilient cat fur and introduced the Sawari niche to make the Shamisen seem more similar to the largely correspond.

This fundamental form has been developed throughout the years in a variety of shapes to accommodate the many musical influences among which the Shamisen has become known.

The Shamisen’s Type

According to the breadth of the neck, there are three different varieties of Shamisen: the futozao (broad neck), the chzao (medium-wide neck), as well as the hosozao (narrow neck).

The futozao on the left, mostly in the photograph, has a neck that is more than three centimeters broad, and the instrument’s body is likewise rather substantial. 

The Tsugaru region’s music and gidayu theatrical recitations both employ this kind of Shamisen.

The chzao, in the center, has a neck approximately 2.6 and 2.7 centimeters broad. This kind of Shamisen frequently accompanies Jiuta and many folk tunes. 

The hosozao, to the right, has a neck less than 2.5 cm broad. Most classical music, like nagauta (kabuki music) or zoku’uta, uses this kind of Shamisen (traditional fold music).

The Shamisen Is Made Out Of Wood

Mahogany, Chinese quince, and red sandalwood are the three major types of wood utilized in the construction of the Shamisen.

Mahogany, a dark reddish-brown wood that started to be utilized after the Meiji era, is the wood that is seen on the left inside the photograph. 

Its usual hardness and weight make it resilient to bending. Chinese quince (ochre), which is primarily used to manufacture Shamisen for practice, is in the center.

It has a rougher yet softer touch compared to mahogany and red sandalwood. Red sandalwood, which is dark and thick like mahogany, is on the right.

Many Shamisen Body Types

Chinese quince, which is softer than red sandalwood or mahogany, is used to make the shamisen body. The maru’uchi-d, which has a spherical inside, and the ayasugi-d, which has a zigzagging engraving on the inside, are the two different varieties of shamisen bodies.

The latter’s zigzagging design enhances microscopic acoustic waves to improve audio quality further.

The Type Of Shamisen Skin

The sound quality may be significantly changed by the thickness of such skin and the way it is spread across the body. Thicker skin makes lighter sounds, whereas a bit more empathy makes heavier noises.

After washing, the skin is moistened with water to keep it pliable before even being overly strained. Here is when the shamisen maker’s abilities really shine.

How To Make Shamisen?

An average shamisen is created through 68 different processes. The tenji (head and top of the neck), Sao (neck), and dō (body) are the three basic divisions (body). Each component is made individually and then put together. 

We discussed building a shamisen with player and shamisen manufacturer Satoshi Nonaka, whose studio is situated in Higashiyama’s Ajiki Alley, where many ancient machiya and nagaya residences were constructed over a century ago. Let us examine the manufacturing process for each part.

Making the neck

This section explains the construction of the neck. The wood, which is the most important component of building a shamisen, is moved straight all along the woodgrain in the first process, known as kidori. 

The timber is then coarsely planed, and the top’s warp and the back’s overall shape are next formed. The wood is thoroughly polished down with a whetstone after being finer-shaven to the appropriate form.

Fittings

The top part, the middle region, and the lower portion make up the neck. Fittings are used to bring these three pieces together. These parts of the Shamisen are frequently kept separate and transported in the case. 

With the use of a gin and tonic or a chisel, the tenons are precisely crafted. An expert can only make perfectly fitting removable components.

Making of body

These days, machines are used more and more in the shamisen body’s construction, but this is how one might be made by hand.

The outside edges of equal sections of Chinese hawthorn or walnut woodblocks are planned, while the inside portion is rounded out.

Skin Extension Or Stretching

The portions of the skin that will be glued to the frame structure are first wet, and then they have scraped away with a scrubbing brush or sandpaper. The skin is then clipped with specific pegs along its four sides. 

The tools

In the 68 stages required to create a shamisen, a variety of instruments, including chisels, planes, and files, are generally utilized. Shamisen is currently largely created by several artisans depending on the components.

We will examine the equipment Tomofumi Nonaka, who is a responsible charge of creating the neck, uses.

Planes

Shamisen manufacturers’ planes are slightly different from those carpenters use. Japanese wood is significantly softer than foreign wood, like mahogany. Let us examine the two kinds of planes that Mr. Nonaka flies.

Innovations And Customs

Japanese schoolchildren are now accustomed to seeing traditional Japanese instruments like the Shamisen because they were made a required element of music education starting about 2004.

This equipment has also been adapted into several musical genres and employed by rock bands. 

The Shamisen will undoubtedly continue to adopt new musical genres in the future since it is a flexible instrument that can change with the times and accommodate various playing and musical techniques.

Banjo

Slaves popularized the banjo, a stringed percussion instrument of African descent, throughout the United States and later transferred it to Europe. 

Banju and bania are two examples of similar names for African stringed instruments.

The banjo has such a percussion body, and the parchment abdomen is fastened to the frame with a screw and hoop. It is possible to adjust the belly’s tension using screw gurneys. 

The strings are connected to a tailpiece by passing across a pressure bridge modeled after a violin. The long neck was given frets in the 1890s, and tuning pegs were replaced with a mechanical headstock with screws. 

Four gut strings were employed in the first banjos; five to nine steel strands were eventually added.

There are five metal strings on a typical banjo. Four are adjusted from the head, often from middle C (as notated) to C′-G′-B′-D′′ upward. 

The crepe myrtle (drone, or thumb), a smaller thread attached to a screw in the middle of the banjo neck, comes before the C string.

The note that it is attuned to is the second G beyond middle C. The notated frequency is an octave higher than the real pitch. 

There are several banjo variations. The chanterelle is absent from banjos performed with a pick or plectrum as opposed to the fingers. 

The chanterelle, adjusted from the head, goes beneath the fretboard to appear at the fifth fret on a zither banjo, where the parchment is hung in a resonance that projects the sound forward.

Both jazz bands and traditional American music frequently use the banjo.

The Banjo’s Journey

The banjo had ingrained itself into American society by the 1850s. Publishers of music books and producers of banjos worked to boost sales among the growing White middle class for the rest of the century. 

Their efforts to elevate the guitar caused it to lose its connection to its African origins. The procedure resulted in substantial modifications to banjos’ construction, look, and vocabulary.

Americana And The Banjo

In the middle of the 1960s, when Bob Dylan connected in, and the Byrds began performing traditional music with acoustic guitars, the popular musical revival began to lean more toward folk rock. 

With their record Darling of the Rodeo, which many consider being one of the earliest country-rock albums, the Byrds returned the genre home in 1968.

John Hartford and Roger McGuinn, for whom the electrical 12-string rhythm section helped define the Byrds’ early work, performed banjo on a few tunes.

Banjo of Today

Nowadays, almost every musical genre features a banjo. In both traditional and progressive, bluegrass, ancient, and Americana cultures are still popular on records, in live performances, and at gatherings where performers and fans congregate. 

Mumford & Sons and the Avett Brothers are two folk-rock acts that have popularized the guitar among younger audiences. The capabilities of the banjo have expanded over the years thanks to masters like Bela Fleck.

Is Shamisen Hard To Learn?

A traditional Japanese guitar-like instrument is called a shamisen. The three silk strings provide extremely lovely and cool tones.

Although a little challenging, everyone will undoubtedly have fun. Since I am a competent musician with 27 years of teaching experience, even absolute novices will love playing.

Step 1

First, you must sit down and spread your knees to your waist. Make a space between your knees that is about the size of two fists. After that, put a rubber pad in the center of your right lap, where you will be holding the Shamisen.

Step 2

Do not hold it too close to your body, please. Hold a bachi with your right hand bent in a circle.

Step 3

Your right hand should be relaxed when holding a bachi like an egg. Put your thumb on the bachi’s mountain edge and hold the other side while bending your right hand in a circle. 

Your right hand should be relaxed when holding a bachi like an egg. Put your thumb on the bachi’s mountain edge, and then gently grip one side with your index, middle, and third fingers in a line. 

On the same side as your thumb are your small fingers. Bent your right hand in a circle while holding a bachi with care on the same side as the small fingers.

Tsugaru shamisen is loud and vivacious in contrast to the more subdued Shamisen playing that you could hear in a place like Kyoto. This has to do with where the playing style first emerged. 

The Tsugaru shamisen is believed to have been created in the late nineteenth century by blind itinerant musicians who made a living by giving street performances in the Tsugaru area.

In those days, there was no technology like microphones or loudspeakers, so street musicians had to play loudly to draw an audience.

They would vigorously strike the strings with the bachi plectrum as if pounding a percussion instrument to produce a more robust sound, which produced a passionate and acrobatic playing style.

This is a major factor in the Tsugaru shamisen’s continued appeal since it makes the instrument suitable for a variety of musical genres, including contemporary ones like rock and jazz.

You might be tempted to compare the Tsugaru shamisen player’s dexterous plucking and “shredding” on an electric guitar while listening to a particularly powerful performance.

Playing Shamisen Tunes On Banjo?

A number of people performed in a group that included a shamisen and a banjo; however, they were certain that it was doable.

While the majority of the ideas in our original songs were taken from shamisen songs, one of the songs, “Soran-Bushi,” was a copy of an old Japanese ocean ballad.

What Is The Most Popular Shamisen Music In Japan?

Tsugaru-shamisen, a form of acoustic Shamisen that belongs to the folk music genre, is among the most well-known (more or less).

This type of folk shamisen music is performed on a Futozao (wide neck) shamisen and originates from the Tsugaru peninsula (Aomori prefecture). 

It is considered among the best shamisen music to be ever played. Its articulation includes percussion hits to add a layer of rhythmic energy (a “groove” of sorts). 

Virtuosic skill and improvisation are regular features of the Tsugaru-shamisen style, which is very well-liked by modern listeners. There are also arrangements of several songs for vocal chamber groups. 

Although the rock-influenced Yoshida Twins is currently the most well-known Tsugaru-Shamisen combo, Takahashi Chikuzan is traditionally regarded as one of the most significant Tsugaru Shamisen players.

Why Are Shamisen So Expensive?

Since the Beginner’s Shamisen was released in 2015, the creator has been crafting these guitars from a plentiful supply of 30-year-old Karin wood.

Materials were substantially less expensive back then, which made these Shamisen even more accessible to customers. 

However, by the middle of 2022, the maker’s stock had run out because of how well-liked the Beginner’s Shamisen was.

The price would rise by $200 as Karin wood is now considerably more costly, which I believe is excessive for an accessible material. 

The maker is buying secondhand hosozao/nagauta shamisen and completely refurbishing them to a brand-new condition to maintain the same price. 

New itomaki is installed, mitsuori connections are refitted, all the components are relacquered, and metal components are polished. In essence, every effort is made to restore worn Shamisen to like-new condition.

Frequently Asked Question

Is learning the banjo challenging?

These plateaus and elevations appear at various times for various instruments and playing styles. However, the 5-string banjo includes all of these significant learning elevation points at the very beginning, rendering it one of the quickest guitars to pick up.

Shamisen is tuned in what way?

Shamisen is often tuned in the D-G-D key, with such a spectrum of D beyond middle C to F two arpeggios higher. Continuous notes may be played with the bachi’s ascending and descending strokes (plectrum.) Shamisen sounds fade away fast, making prolonged sounds only feasible with tremolo.

What kind of wood are Shamisen constructed of?

Although rosewood, walnut, and mulberry are also utilized, the most coveted wood for shamisen construction is koki, an extremely durable imported kind of rosewood. The Sao (neck) measures 62.5 cm in length.

However, the thickness varies according to particular Shamisen’s style.
Hence, always been interested in the technique and repertoire of the Shamisen since it has a beautiful tone that is somewhat closer to a banjo than a guitar. I adore Takeharu Kunimoto, who uses it in more conventional Western ways. 

However, the evolution of the Shamisen, in my opinion, had nothing to do with the invention of the guitar. They are most likely merely two distinct branches that separated from the earlier Arab instruments.