Looking to buy a Tsugaru Shamisen!

Hi Bachido! As the title states, I'm looking to buy a tsugaru style shamisen, and I'm a little lost.

I've been playing with my beginner shamisen (naguata) for a good several years now and I would like to upgrade a little. I just don't know what kind of quality instrument I should be looking for and what price range that would lie at.

I've seen the really gorgeous custom shamisen Kyle makes, as well as the more standard ones that are available to buy through Bachido.
I've also heard/seen some of the shamisen Catherine Thompson has made and that she's made one for another bachido member a few months back, I believe.
Lastly, I've seen some on some unknown to me website that I have no idea the credibility of, and there's also e-bay but that can also be somewhat of a gamble.

Basically, I would like your guys' honest opinions on what a worthwhile buy is and I would hope to see what kind of options lie ahead of me.

Alright that pretty much sums it up. Thanks for your help in advance!

(As a side note: I already have a decent amount of accessories so certain package deals would probably be a little redundant for me. I have koma i'm comfortable with, as well as a good bachi, so if I were to look at certain accessories it would be more along the lines of doukake, neo, etc.)

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Hey Tino!

I guess this is really an opinion thing haha. I'm not sure if be able to outline everything that makes a high quality shamisen so great (stuff like nice wood like kouki or high quality natural/Artificial skin is the stuff that inmediately comes to mind, an ayasugi dou (ridged, cut pattern on the inside) typically denotes higher quality and is way pricier but has little real effect beyond aesthetics imo).

But I'll say, I have the Akatsuki with ripple and I love it so much haha. Ripple as shamisen skins go is very bright and vibrant sounding, like a tournament style natural skin. It's very well suited to the louder and more percussive modern styles prevalent in Tsugaru, and it gives it a really full and bright sound.

It's totally personal preference what specific shamisen/skin combo you get, the wood and skin are generally the best indicators of quality without first hearing the instrument. Plus fancy itomaki like nejiri ones look awesome :p

I feel a lot better using bachido over eBay though - on eBay only a few actually good condition tsugaru shamisen show up every now and then, it's not all that often either. At least here it's consistent and quality :D

Places like you-four, e-kameya, shamisen katoh, shishido's site, etc. are very reputable and knowledgable as well!

As for doukake, cloth vs laquer is just personal preference and I've only ever looked at them here and at you-four shamisen but those that I've seen and used (I have one of kyles handmade ones) are amazing! And well afaik neo are neo :p I'm not aware of a whole lot of difference in those, but maybe someone else is :D I just picked mine to match a red doukake haha

Hope this helps!

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Thanks for the reply.

As a more general question regarding shamisen, how much of a difference is there between playing futozao and chuuzao necks? The beginner's shamisen I play is chuuzao, so would it be a big transition with a normal futozao shamisen?

I know Kyle says that he prefers futozao neck, but I was wondering how much of a change in sound/ease of playing there would be.

I am also considering getting a proper case for shamisen since right now I just use a soft guitar case which obviously isn't the most suited to shamisen. So time for the age old question concerning cases: soft or hard for shamisen?

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Any time! :D

Well, a normal futozao sao is around 30mm wide whereas a normal chuuzao is around 28.5mm. I've personally only ever played on a futozao, but from my understanding the sound doesn't change but in my opinion the width of the futozao gives it a very comfortable amount of space for the fast techniques (Kamashi, uchi, hajiki, etc.) employed in tsugaru music that I wouldn't necessarily want to sacrifice any room for. I'm sure it's totally doable in a chuuzao, but I don't have much of an inclination to try playing tsugaru style on something slimmer - futozao seems fine the way it is to me! I've never heard anything bad about chuuzao in tsugaru shamisen, but I'm used to what I have I guess and don't much feel any need to shrink that down at all, even by 1.5mm :p

As cases go it depends on if you travel a lot. If you're running all over the place a pack case or if you need to disassemble a mitsuori case would be my preferences, but for one or two sporadic trips/performances every once in a while I've used a hard case and it's great. The hard case is nice for home use and taking it out every once in a while if you don't have to lug it too far, but (as I learned on my way to a concert last year haha) your arm is gonna be killing you after a long walk :p so go for something with straps! A backpack style pack case gives me more peace of mind than just a soft case though.

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I have started with tsugaru (futozao), and recently tried my friend's nagauta, not sure what zao… but woah, so light! technique came so easy! Tsugaru is way heavier, it takes time to get the balance.

I have hard and soft case, I wish they can be more practical…
There's no compartment in my hardcase, only a little bag inside, so I can only store a few things. The softcase has a compartment, but it's hard to close and I am always afraid of breaking my bachi in there. It's also uncomfortable to carry. Better than nothing, of course.
My hard case only has a handle. I have seen back pack style, which would be easier to carry, I believe.

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Hellooooooo!

Basically, I would like your guys' honest opinions on what a worthwhile buy is and I would hope to see what kind of options lie ahead of me.

First, remember that it's not really an upgrade to go from nagauta to tsugaru.

It's an instrument change.

Generally speaking, what Ian said about the characteristics of quality instruments is true.

A “basic” tsugaru shamisen is made from karin (red oak), has a nobezao (single piece neck), a yamasawari (non-mechanical, non adjustable sawari) and a marudou (smooth body).

It may have a natural skin, such as lower quality (and more loosely stretched) dog, goat, or kangaroo; or it may have an old style PU leather. It probably has ebony itomaki. It has no special wood grain.

A “high quality” tsugaru shamisen is made from kouki (red sandal wood), has a mitsuori sao (three piece neck) with gold fittings for longevity and “better” tone and guide rails to ease assembly and disassembly of the neck, has an azuma sawari (adjustable sawari knob), has komochi ayasugi bori (an extra-complex herringbone pattern baffle) in the dou, the end of the sao is likely protected by a metal cap.

It may have a natural skin, such as higher quality (and tightly stretched) dog, or it may use a new style artificial skin like Ripple. It probably has ebony itomaki, but may use ivory instead. The azuma sawari may also be ivory instead of wood. It likely has a special wood grain called トチ.

Mileage with this guide will vary due to the prevalence of custom jobs.

That said:

To be completely honest, most of the “high quality” characteristics are negligible or come down to personal taste. I tend to find that karin and shitan shamisen are warmer sounding than kouki, which tends towards being quite bright. I personally prefer shitan to kouki, since it stradles the line quite well.

Ayasugibori do impact the sound. It's noticeable, but small and to be honest isn't really a plus or negative. If you like bright, clean sounds you'll like it. If you prefer a bit more warmth, you'll prefer a maruuchidou. The shamisen from Bachido (Sakura, Eclipse, Akatsuki too, if I'm not mistake) are all Maruuchi.

Looser skins usually have more resonance and are warmer, the tighter taikai style skins are much cleaner sounding - which I find boring. They're great for showing off technique, which is why they show up at tournaments.

Neck Size

A hosozao (such as the Beginners's) is 2.3 - 2.5/2.6 cm
A chuuzao is 2.6 - 2.7/2.8
A futozao is 2.8 - 3.5

Older shamisen tend to be on the low end of their range, newer ones on the farther end due to changes of taste over time. Neck size indicates the amount of space you have to play on, and will influence your final finger positions for difference notes.

Some also say that a bigger neck leads to a stronger sound, since there's more material to carry the vibration.

I'm on the short end for an American, but about average size for a person living in Japan. Old style, truly hosozao shamisen are hard to me to play properly; but the absurdly huge 3.3-3.5 futozaos are no better.

I'm very comfortable in the 2.8 - 3.1 range of necks.

(As a side note: I already have a decent amount of accessories so certain package deals would probably be a little redundant for me. I have koma i'm comfortable with, as well as a good bachi, so if I were to look at certain accessories it would be more along the lines of doukake, neo, etc.)

Accessories are size specific. That's the only real difference. My tsugaru doukake is leather because I cannot be arsed to buy a new one. My other shamisen use more traditional paper/fiber ones.

Case wise:

A mitsuori case is only good with a mitsuori shamisen, but it great for flying internationally with.

A fullsize hard case is good for domestic ventures.

I use a weather resistant soft case with a strap for my tsugaru, and hard cases for everything else.

Something weather proofed is ideal, but those tend to be in the 200 dollar range here in Japan.

An acquaintance of mine has a weather proof hard case with straps that I am eternally jealous of.

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Hi Tino
I'm finishing a Mai Daeng Tsugaru Shamisen at the moment. Probably get photos and a sound/video thing up later this week coming at some point.
Will post a message here when done. It has a goatskin kawahari on it, with white tamarind wood itomaki (pegs), adjustable azuma sawari with a bone insert and a bone kamigoma (nut), my usual sakura pattern red and black lacquered yuzen doukake.
It's not on my page yet but here is my website in case you'd like to have a look around: http://musicforestinstruments.wordpress.com
cheers!
Cath

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Thanks for the great information everyone! Your advice and more research is really helping me decide on how to best approach my shopping, haha.

I'll keep you posted on what I decide.

And just to clarify, I know it's not really and “upgrade”, that was poor phrasing on my part. It just seemed appropriate at the time since I play tsugaru style mostly, so I think it'll be a change for the better to get a instrument better suited to that style.

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