New Shamisen, so many questions... (which type? what do I need? advice?)

Hey guys,

I hope I post this into the right category…

I just registered here because a half year ago I found a Shamisen on Ebay by chance and it was a real bargain (you probably wouldn't believe me if I told you the price), from a seller who didn't know very much about this instrument (else I hope he or she would have included a bachi). Since then I have become a regular visitor to this forum which is indeed very helpful :)

As I got it right before I had to leave for Japan, I didn't have time yet to post here, but now that I want use the opportunity of being here to buy stuff, I have so many questions. After reading me through the internet I have concluded that I probably got a Nagauta Shamisen. Could I be right?

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In any case it is a starter shamisen as it has a positions sticker attached. I don't know what materials it is made of, but I guess no really good ones. Two of the attached strings have already broken and the skin has some dents.

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So now I'm on a mission to get everything I need to start learning. Help… I have so many questions. I would really appreciate any answers and advices.

  1. I need to get new strings. I concluded that I'll need nylon for the first and tetron for the second and probably for the third string as well, if I don't want to risk them breaking again soon. Am I right? What are your experiences with strings?
  2. How do I fix the skin? Any advice?
  3. How do you tune your instruments? Do I really need the Korg-tuner?
  4. Can you help me deciding on the size of a tenjinbukuro? My Shamisen has none and so I don't know what size would fit. My tenjin measures something between 6 and 6,2 cm. Would that be the size 19?
  5. I'm not such a big fan of Nagauta, I'd rather try out Kouta and Jiuta. Do I need a special koma for this or would the standard plastic one I have now do as well? And I've read that playing without bachi on tetron and nylon strings is hurtful for the fingers. What are your experiences? Have you ever played Kouta with a plectrum? And how can I learn more about the differences between both styles?
  6. Is it possible to play bushi and other Tsugaru-styles on Nagauta?
  7. Are these kind of cases foldable? I'd like to have a transport case for my Shamisen, but can't take a hardcase with me on my flight. So I'd need something that fits into my backpack.

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  1. On a flea market here in Kyôto (I simply love them!) I found a boxwood bachi, about 19,1 cm long, 10,2 cm wide and weighing 115g. Am I correct if I assume that this is a 30 monme-Bachi and suitable for my case? It fits into my hand very nicely.

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  1. And finally, do you have any recommendations for books (English or Japanese) for self-learning? Or how do you teach yourself?

I will be really happy about any answers and advices you can give me.

Btw, I'm from South Germany, so if there's anybody is in my area… send me a message!

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Thank you, I'll try to stop by someday :)

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Well first of all welcome! :D

I'll try to answer as many of these as I'd be able to.

So first of all yes! That is a nagauta.
I'll go number by number of the ones I can help out with:

  1. I always use nylon and tetron for the first and second string, but the ichi no ito (the big one :p) I always use silk. You can use silk for all of them technically (and some really prefer it) but it's far more delicate and expensive. Using a silk ichi no ito ensures good tone, but of the three it's the most durable of the silk strings and using tetron and nylon for the other two still sounds great and they hold up very well.

  2. I'm not an expert on kawahari, but a local shop is probably the best way to go with that. Bachido also offers reskinning options.

  3. I do most of my tuning by ear, but I use a little korg to hone in on specific notes when playing with others. Once you memorize the intervals between honchoushi, niagari, and sansagari, it isn't too tough to get in the ballpark and if you have to tune specifically the korg helps nicely. A popular alternative is a hougaku pitch pipe, which you just blow into and produce a note to tune to.

  4. Sorry, I'm not very good with measurements, hopefully someone can help though!

  5. Well this kind of depends. Traditionally (particularly if you intend to perform or study under teacher) it's very important to use the proper materials and accessories, including particular kinds of koma. If you intend to play for yourself it can be a bit more lax, but you might not get the exact tone you're looking for. for jiuta, a lead-weighted jiuta koma is ideal. While I've seen people play kouta songs with a bachi (often switching between kouta and hauta, like in yose bayashi) I haven't played either styles so I don't really know about the feel for playing them.

  6. Absolutely! I'm a Tsugaru guy myself so this is where I can help the most :p the thing to be careful of is your bachi technique. In Tsugaru music typically you strike fast and hard in a way that could be damaging to a non-tsugaru shamisen. If you lighten your touch a little compared to Tsugaru-shamisen players, you can absolutely play all the same songs. It just might seem a bit tougher with the thinner Sao.

  7. That kind of case should be foldable, though I don't know how bulky it would still be all folded up.

  8. Also I suck at bachi identification sorry :p

  9. Not for jiuta/kouta, but for Tsugaru/Iwate/Akita minyo I strongly recommend the Oyama Ryu books for tablature/sheet music, the Nitta Ryu book for Tsugaru + modern compositions with detailed explanations (in Japanese) of each, the Fujimoto Ryu books for minyo from around Japan (for tablature) and the Tsugaru Shamisen ALL IN ONE book for a nice mix of traditional and modern pieces like the Yoshida Brothers. Kouzan Oyama (Shamimaster Toshi, Shishido, etc.) shamimaster.com has tons of resources both free and paid alike, and he sells a lot of great books as well as providing a lot of free resources.

I hope this helps!

Edited 2 times; last edited Jan 5, 2018 by Ian S.
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Hello and welcome Brigit ! 115 g and other measurements (19,1 cm long, 10,2 cm wide) are those of a nagauta bachi . And yes it is a 30 momme bachi. A momme is 3.75 g. Regards

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1) In Japan you could probably just walk into a shamisen store and ask for a string set (non-silk/beginner). Probably a good idea to get a spare set as well.

3) You can use a smart phone app. This seems to be a bit off from what professionals tuning by ear prefer (at the Shamicamp the pros seemed to tune a tad lower than what I'd get with the app), but it's good enough for home use - the tuning tends to wander far more during a playing session.

5) I wasn't aware that there is such a big difference between nagauta and kouta - jiuta is obviously special with the different sounding instrument, massive bachi and high koma. I've played a bit of kouta with my regular bone koma + bachi, and haven't noticed anything being off, beside my playing. I haven't played enough without a bachi to hurt my fingers - maybe my fingers are made of steel :_) Googling, youtube and the forum may be decent sources. Or you can go to Japan and find a teacher.

9) Check out the Bachido video lessons, those are very good for picking up basics. And get some books with notes while in Japan, at least Shamisen Katou had them readily available (have 1-2 books with a mix of nagauta, kouta etc pieces) and probably many stores are similar.

Edited Jan 5, 2018 by Yatagarasu R
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Greetings, Brigit.

Without measurements, it's hard to identify the specific subtype of instrument you have but it is, very likely a nagauta.

If you're interested in the specific type, I'd need to know the width of the neck (at the top and at the bottom) and the dimensions of the body.

In lieu of that, you can also check underneath the doukake.

Nagauta doukake are marked with either 長唄 or nothing
Go-rin-dai (for kouta and minyo) are marked as 五厘大
Ichi-bu-go-rin-dai/ni-bu-dai (usually for jiuta) are labeled as 一分五厘大/二分大/地唄
Go-bu-dai (for tsugaru and gidayu) should be marked as 五分大/津軽
ate.

Keep in mind that go-rin-dai shamisen can use nagauta doukake if it's not made from laquer.

1- String wise, invest in 1 Silk - 2 Silk - 3 Nylon. Tetron can be used in place of the 2nd Silk if you're worried about longevity, but it's stiffer and less pleasant to play and hear.

2 - You need to speak with someone who'll do Kawahari for you. Many shamisen shops can direct you.

If you're Kyoto based, Alexander's recommendations would be best.

If you're in Toyama, Nagoya, or Ishikawa, I have some good recommendations and would be happy to introduce you.

3 - You don't need a korg tuner, you can instead use reference tones (found on the net or through a pitch pipe/fork). You can also just tune it to your voice. Shamisen tuning is all about the interaction of your three strings (and possibly your own voice)

If you don't know intervals use this:

http://bachido.com/overview/tuning

4 - I am 0 help here

5 - Nothing is stopping you. Play what you like.

If you want a more traditional sound here are the things you should look into:

A - A nagauta shamisen has a smaller body than a kouta or jiuta shamisen. The sound will be brighter, and tighter.

B - Kouta uses a very tall, broad koma made from wood and bone.
Jiuta uses a broad koma made from wood or buffalo horn and
weighted with lead, silver, or gold.
Both of these produce very different sounds and volumes from the plastic (likely 3.0 height) koma you have.

C - Kouta usually doesn't use a bachi. It occasionally uses a kobachi (which are adorably small and made from ivory) and occasionally finger picks. The most common playing method is using the flesh of your first finger tip. It is not pleasant.

Jiuta utilizes some of the largest and heaviest bachi (21cm or more long, 35 - 45 momme). It's second only to Gidayu in that respect. They're a bit unwieldy, but do create nice sounds. The weight also works well for the delicate, punctuated playing in Jiuta.

Here is a website for Kouta:
http://www.kouta-renmei.org/english.html

Here is a website for Jiuta:
http://shamisen.info/english/oshamisen/

The genre differences between kouta, hauta, jiuta, nagauta, and min'yo are a fun, messy thing.

For now, think of it like this:

Nagauta are long songs, mostly (but not entirely) attached to kabuki.
Kouta are short songs, associated with geisha and about life in the Edo period.
Hauta are romantic songs and there's a large amount of cross-over with kouta.
Jiuta are classical pieces, usually for three piece ensembles. Think chamber music.
Min'yo is a grubby catch-all with virtually no meaning. This is why it is best.

6 - Bushi, like uta, really just means “song”. So no problems there :p.

Just like Ian said:

If you're talking about min'yo, see the above. Nothing is stopping you, play what you like! Tsugaru, as a subtype of min'yo is in the same boat. Yes, your sound will be different, but only in the details.

Some tsugaru specific techniques are more difficult on very think necks. Kamashi (4300) requires much more precision when you've got less space to work on. Bachitzuke can damage your skin prematurely if your thin, non-tsugaru skin isn't protected by a bachikawa.

Not something to really worry about though

7 - You good.

8 - As Patrick said: most likely nagauta.

There is a range of sizes “acceptable” for each genre, with some variation specific to style.

9 - I have teachers, but the Bachido school house and Kyle's live lessons are great. You may also find some scattered lessons on youtube.

As Ian noted, the Fujimoto books are all great. There are also song books available for jiuta and kouta.

Take note! The song books are mostly useful for expanding your repertoire as they don't really teach technique.

For that, I'd recommend Kyle's book, or some of the other options on amazon.co.jp (やさしい三味線教本 and いちばんやさしい三味線レッスン)

Edited 2 times; last edited Jan 5, 2018 by Christopher Brown
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