Styles of Shamisen

First, let’s learn about the four main styles of shamisen, including the Okinawan ancestor.

Tsugaru Shamisen (futozao)
  津軽三味線 (太棹)

This is the largest shamisen. It is called, “futozao shamisen”, which means “thick neck shamisen”. Because the tsugaru style is commonly played on this shamisen, it is referred to as “tsugaru shamisen”. The style taught at Bachido is tsugaru, so the futozao is recommended.

History of the Futozao (Tsugaru) Shamisen
Older styles of shamisen were played in small, quiet rooms. The skin on the shamisen was delicate cat skin, and so it was played softly. However, the tsugaru style originated outdoors, on streets and at festivals by blind musicians. Played outdoors, it had to be played louder to get attention of money (or food) carrying public. Hitting the skin harder made skins break, so the shamisen was rebuilt to accommodate the need for more volume. It became larger and had a thick dog skin so it could withstand hard strikes from the bachi. (plectrum) The futozao shamisen is still evolving to this day, as professional shamisen stars have their shamisen custom made.

Jiuta shamisen (Chuuzao)
  地歌三味線 (中棹)

“Chuuzao” means “middle-sized neck”, and the most common style played is Jiuta.

Can the Tsugaru style be played on a non-tsugaru shamisen?
Good question! Many will say that tsugaru style should never be played on these smaller shamisen. However, if you have a hosozao shamisen and want to try tsugaru style, there is no reason not to. After all, tsugaru style had originated on these older shamisen. Starting tsugaru style on these shamisen is a perfectly fine, as long as you are gentle on the skin. Many start learning tsugaru style on a nagauta shamisen because it’s either cheaper, or inherited. At some point, they upgrade to a tsugaru shamisen so they can achieve the percussive tsugaru aesthetic.

What’s the difference?

Itomaki (tuning pegs)
The itomaki of a tsugaru shamisen are about 2.5cm at the thickest point, much thicker than the other shamisen. Just by looking at the two shamisen below, you can tell which one is the tsugaru shamisen. (especially since we have them labeled!)

Kawa (skin)
When the skin is glued to the dou (body), extra skin is glued to the sides.
On a tsugaru shamisen, the length of skin stuck to the sides is about 2.5cm long. On the other two shamisen, the extra skin is about 5mm long.

Nagauta Shamisen (Hosozao)
  長唄三味線  (細棹)


Hosozao means “thin neck”, and the style most commonly played on this shamisen is Nagauta.

The difference between nagauta/jiuta shamisen

Though it’s easy to differentiate from the tsugaru shamisen by the size of the itomaki, it looks much more similar to the nagauta shamisen, because the itomaki are more similar. This is the best way to find the difference is looking at the base of the sao (neck), called the Hatomune.

Hatomune (slope at the end of neck)
The hatomune of a jiuta shamisen cuts off sharply, whereas the hatomune of a nagauta shamisen slopes downward.

Gidayu Shamisen
 義太夫三味線

Gidayu was started by Takemoto gidayū (1651-1714). He was a big part of bunraku in Osaka. He developed the style to be played along with the plays of Chikamatsu Monzaemon. The plays of Gidayu were written to be acted by puppets, and generally one singer did all the voices and described all the scenes and emotions of the characters. Very demanding work, and sometimes the narrator switched with another narrator halfway through the play. Later on, the plays were adapted to Kabuki theatre, where the bunraku puppets were replaced with kabuki actors, who read the lines instead of the narrator.

How to recognize a Gidayu shamisen

The Gidayu shamisen looks cross-between a nagauta shamisen and a tsugaru shamisen. Like the tsugaru shamisen, there is about 2.5cm of skin attached to the sides of the dou and a thick neck. But like the nagauta shamisen, the neck swoops down, rather than cutting off sharply (which the tsugaru/jiuta shamisen both have)

Sanshin
 三線

The Sanshin is from Okinawa. Though not technically a shamisen, it is sometimes confused as one because Ebay auctions often sell sanshin, labeling them as shamisen.

How to recognize a sanshin

Err… really? ;-)