Though the exact history is debatable, it’s a widely accepted fact that the shamisen’s ancestor is the Chinese Sanxian. The Sanxian also made it’s way to Okinawa, where it was adapted and became the Sanshin.

The Sanxian

The Sanshin

While both SanXian (三弦) and Sanshin (三線) literally translate as “Three Strings”, the Shamisen (三味線) literally translate as “Three Flavor Strings”.

I’ve never known exactly why the word ‘flavor’ is used, though it is fun to announce, “Ladies and gentleman, it’s time to listen to the soothing sounds of the ol’ Flavor Strings!” However, I’ve gained so much respect for the word ‘flavor’ as I’ve reached greater fluency over the years. Who knows if a deeper meaning for the word was intended, (probably not) but to me, it’s almost a perfect description of shamisen!

Initially, the ultimate goal of playing shamisen is simply to play the correct notes in correct order without accidentally striking the wrong string. That’s about it! Of course, that’s always the first goal when starting a new instrument or language. Keeping it simple and practical until it becomes natural.

A time when young Kyle’s ultimate goal was to learn a minyo piece note-for-note (smiling came later)

When natural fluency is achieved, the brain won’t need to actively focus on the strings, and so is open for new insights and observations. When this happened with me, the idea of flavors started to sink in.

Fundamentally, the shamisen really isn’t a difficult instrument. (The bachi is another story) It only has three strings and is mostly melodic based. Having a low entry point (a good thing!), complete beginners can get started and play a simple song right away. (Simple to start, but like any instrument, has unlimited potential.)

Everyone can start shamisen!

For me, this is where the concept of flavors come in. This simple instrument has a multitude of ways to easily change the tone and feeling of a song. Even playing a simple song, there are so many ways we can transform the feeling by adding flavors with our shamisen.