Chuko Shamisen (Used Shamisen)

It’s no secret that decent shamisen (and bachi) are pretty expensive. You may spend over 100,000 yen on a mid range shamisen without accesories. Why is it so expensive? Mainly because it is brand new. Surprisingly, it is very similar to brand new cars. The moment you drive a brand new car out of the dealership, it loses value immediately. For the exact same reason, truly beautiful shamisen often sell for half price (or more) simply because it is older and has been played before.

Also, another great benefit of chuko hin is that you can find beautiful hand-crafted shamisen. These days, even expensive shamisen are mostly machine-made. Shamisen entirely hand-crafted by a master is a rarity, but you can find them like treasures in the used market!

A common question people ask is, “How does someone determine the price of a chuko shamisen?” Excellent question! Read more below to learn what factors are considered when valuing a used shamisen.

Watch Masahiro Nitta explain the pricing of chuko shamisen.
1. Skin (kawa)
The skin is the biggest factor in setting the price. If the shamisen’s skin is broken, having it replaced can increase the base cost by at least 30,000 yen. However, if the skin is intact and still sounds decent, it won’t be replaced and the shamisen can be sold at a lower price.

2. Neck (sao)
When three piece necks are assembled, the joints must fit tight to allow a smooth playing experience. The neck needs to be carefully checked to ensure this. If the joints don’t fit flush or there are cracks, it must be repaired. However, if the neck fits together perfectly, it can be sold as is for a lower price.

3. Tuning Pegs (itomaki)
Often, tuning pegs of older shamisen are worn down and won’t hold in place. If this is the case, the tuning pegs must be refitted to ensure a tight fit. Again, if they already fit tightly, no repair is needed and so the price can be lowered.

4. Headpiece (tenjin)
Sometimes the tenjin of a high quality shamisen is broken and will require repair. Of course, that doesn’t happen as often and so won’t affect the price as much.

5. Metal Parts (kanagu)
The age and quality of the metal parts (azuma sawari, zagane, rindo, kamigoma) is another factor.

6. Wood quality
Finally, the quality of the wood determines the price. There are three main varieties of wood used for shamisen: Karin, the cheapest grade. Shitan, the mid-range quality. Kouki, the highest grade. You can read more about it here.

7. Accessories (komono)
Often, the price of chuko shamisen is determined by the included accessories! One day I went to Yahoo Auctions and saw an intense auction where the bidding price reached $800 for what appeared to be a severely broken shamisen. Why? Upon examining the picture closely, there was a beautiful bachi, worth at least $1000, included with the shamisen! At least a dozen people were bidding, and you know all they wanted was that bachi. In these cases, the included accessories are just a big a factor as the shamisen itself.

If you can try the chuko shamisen first…

Just like shopping on Ebay, buying used items online without the ability to try it first is always risky. This is especially true for instruments. Perhaps there’s a crack or defect which the seller didn’t notice, or the tone isn’t as good as they think. In any case, sometimes buying a used instrument online is our only available option to get a shamisen, so it’s a risk we must take. However, if you are in Japan or have the option to try the shamisen in person, here’s a few more things you can do to verify the quality!

1. Skin (kawa)
If the skin is intact, take a close look at it.
First, look at the sides of the dou, where the edges of the skin are glued down. How does it look? Often, the edges of the skin will start to peel up, separating from the dou. This itself isn’t a problem. As long as the skin on the topside of the dou is fully glued down, tension will be fine. If this is the case, you can put some elmers glue on the peeling skin and reattach it.

Now, press topside of the dou, where the skin is glued to the wood. If it looks and feels firmly flat, then it is fully glued down. However, if the skin seems slightly raised and depresses when you push down, that means the glue has disintegrated there, and the tension has dropped. The skin should either be replaced, or the price significantly lowered.

2. Neck (sao)
When a shamisen has been frequently played, the neck will naturally wear away on the spots pressed the most – Usually, positions 3, 4, 6, 9, 10. When this happens, it can strongly affect the string’s tone when we press on these worn spots, creating an inferior buzzing (not the good kind) or preventing a resonating tone. When this happens, the topside of the neck needs to be re-leveled with a process called ‘kanberi’. It’s not difficult to do, and most luthiers should be able to re-level the neck for you.

So when you hold the shamisen, simply run your fingers along the topside of the neck. If the neck is worn, you will be able to feel sudden dips or bumps around those main spots!

3. Sawari Yama
The sawari yama is a ridge in the tenjin which causes the warm, buzzing resonation called ‘sawari’. (Learn more about sawari!) If the sawari yama is worn or chipped, the sawari effect won’t engage. Thus, examine the ridge closely. This isn’t a big problem, as any visible chips or depressions can be refilled with a mixture of epoxy and sawdust.