The Spearhead of Expression
For modern shamisen styles, the main point of impact for fashionable expression is the shining itomaki boldly displayed on the top of our shamisen. Whether a player is practicing at home or playing on stage, the itomaki are always the centerpiece of the shamisen’s visual expression. There is a wide array of amazing itomaki available – Spiral, Inlay, Acrylic, even a Sakura (cherry blossom) style!
These ornate itomaki are an incredible display of the maker’s skill. However, although the shape and quality are gorgeous (whether the ornate spiral shape or inlay), I’ve noticed that the wood itself is rather plain. Personally, I love the captivating ribbons and swirls of highly figured woods. Even from an early age, I was mesmerized by chatoyancy (the shimmering optical effect that emerges with figured wood).
While making figured itomaki for my own homemade shamisen, I was struck how nothing like this was available in Japan. Highly figured wood is filled with so many rich and unique patterns, they need no embellishments. Well, if nobody else is going to do so, Bachido might as well make it happen!
Together with my student Chris Took (the star of the free Body Mechanics lesson in the Bachido Schoolhouse), we’ve been crafting these spectacular itomaki with some of the highest Mastergrade level woods in the world. Ranging from highly figured Cocobolo to Amboyna burl, and many more luscious woods to come!
In 2020, I discovered Ben Greenberg (founder of Greenberg Woods), an incredible fellow who is as passionate for woods as I am for shamisen. Just as I started my shamisen journey at age around 13, he too entered the world of woodcrafts early in life. Fueled by passion, he’s already amassed a over decade of experience and knowledge and shares it to the world.
Ben specializes in sourcing mastergrade woods, and most importantly, he does so with an eco-conscious mindfulness for sustainability. I’ve often felt a kindred spirit with him, as we both strive to make our passions accessible to the world and provide experienced education so folks can thrive with informed confidence (as there’s so much incorrect information online, both for shamisen and woodwork). Having had many long discussions with him and getting a deep sense for his honest business practice, Greenberg Woods became my primary source for Bachido Elite Itomaki!
Every set of Elite Itomaki are made with African Blackwood pegs. Blackwood is harder and more stable than ebony, and thus won’t wear as fast as ebony (which is used for all itomaki pegs). Furthermore, African Blackwood has rich figure and varies from deep brown to black grain as well!
Fun Fact: Itomaki are NOT Plug & Play
Itomaki are held in place with friction, and the key to a tight fit is achieving a correct taper so the peg contacts the zagane (metal fitting) just enough. Too much contact, the itomaki is impossible to turn. Too little contact, the itomaki easily slips. (This also happens when itomaki are worn – there’s very little surface contact on the zagane.) Because shamisen are handmade, every shamisen (and even zagane) will vary slightly. Depending on the age or maker, some will vary by as much as 1mm, which is a huge amount for itomaki. Thus, to ensure itomaki will fit and turn perfectly, each set of itomaki are tapered by hand to ensure a tight fit and smooth turn.
Currently, Tokyo Wagakki makes itomaki for maker 95% (rough estimate) of itomaki in Japan. Whether it’s classical itomaki for nagauta shamisen or wild spiral acrylic itomaki, they come from Tokyo Wagakki. When they make itomaki for other makers in Japan, they intentionally shape the peg end very thick so the maker has plenty of excess wood to shave down and achieve the perfect taper. Similarly, Elite Itomaki are also shaped thicker so they can be fitted for a perfect fit.
Installation Options (Home or Professional
Normally, these shaped itomaki pegs are so thick they either require a lathe or hours of sanding to make the pegs thin enough to fit in the zagane. Doable for a specialist’s workshop, but enormous work for the average person. To make Elite Itomaki easier for you to install, we’ve pre-tapered the sets so the fitting is 75% complete. All you need to do is sand the pegs and drill the string holes!
Requirements: Sandpaper (Grit #: 120g, 220g, 320, 400g, 800g. Add 1200g, 1500, and 2000g for higher polish), and drill (1mm and 1.5mm bits for itomaki holes)
Warning: Although Elite Itomaki are specially prepared to make home DIY installation faster, they still require great care (ideally with some woodwork experience) to ensure a perfect fit. Achieving the right taper is a delicate process, and it is easy to sand too much. If too much wood is removed, or if sanded unevenly, the itomaki will wobble and slip easily. Please understand this risk, as there are no refunds if this happens.
For complete installation instructions, watch this video.
Although itomaki can “easily” be installed with simple tools (sandpaper and drill), achieving a good fit is a delicate process which requires great care and patience. If that feels too risky for your new set of Elite Itomaki, simply send me your shamisen (specifically, the top section, called the kamizao) and I will professionally install your itomaki set, using a lathe to maintain a perfect taper and high polished surface. Furthermore, I will drill the string holes. (Customer covers cost of return shipping)
After selecting Professional Installation in the Paypal order box and placing your order, please send an email to store (at) bachido (dot) com, tell me which set you are interested in. If you have a preference for which itomaki to fit in a particular hole, please let me know.
Your Responsibility: Turn with Care
All wood itomaki are very strong when turned evenly, but are weak when the hand exerts a sideways pressure while turning. Cracking can result from unintentionally pulling downwards on the itomaki while twisting. (Case in point, I’ve personally witnessed a burly friend of mine break two of my Japanese-made itomaki due to carelessly yanking down while twisting.) These itomaki are just as strong (perhaps stronger) as Japanese-made itomaki, and you won’t have any problems if you are already experienced with shamisen. :-) This information is important for newcomers, as there are no refunds for snapped itomaki.
- Tsugaru style, fits all Futozao shamisen (does NOT fit Beginner Shamisen/Nagauta/Jiuta)
- Shape: Soragara (star shape)
- Handle: Your choice of Ebony, Cocobolo, and a wide variety of burls/rosewoods.
- Peg: African Blackwood
How to Order
1. View Available Selection: Please check out the selection on the Bachido Elite Itomaki Facebook page and view the itomaki sets available. These sets take a long time to prepare, so if you only see a few sets on the page, please know that more unique sets will be coming soon!
2. Use Paypal Box Below: When you have found your dream itomaki set, go to the Paypal box on this page and select the product code which matches the set you like on the Facebook page.
For example, if you want the Cocobolo Set: COCO 01 on the Facebook page, go to the Paypal box on this page (below) and select “COCO ##” in the Paypal box.
3. Email Me: After you place your order, please send an email to store (at) bachido (dot) com and tell me the number of your selection (For example “COCO 01”, “COCO 03”, etc). If you’ve selected Professional Installation, we will discuss details as well! :-)
Note about Ebony Itomaki Sets: Because gaboon ebony basically looks the same (I.e, very, very dark), individual sets won’t need a code number (unlike the other sets which have unique figure). Simply use the paypal box and place your order. If you selected Professional Installation, please send an email to store (at) bachido (dot) com.