Shamisen Accessories: What you need for a basic setup

Getting a brand new shamisen and need accessories? Find out what you really need!

It’s common to think that the shamisen maker is the one who puts on the strings, koma (bridge) and other accessories before selling. While that’s true for makers who sell their instruments direct to customers, established workshops like Tokyo Wagakki make their shamisen at a wholesale level. In the wholesale relationship, workshops like Tokyo Wagakki only build the barebones instrument, and after it is sold to the retailer, the retailer will then attach the skin and accessories.

Shamisen accessories

Shamisen like the Raven, Akatsuki, and Rose are made this way. Once the fine folks at Tokyo Wagakki build one of these shamisen, they send it to our Bachido partner Yanaka-san who then attaches the skin and prepares it for shipping to the lucky new owner!

Shamisen accessories
Shamisen accessories
Why aren’t accessories included for your Tokyo Wagakki shamisen?2023-12-08T21:06:32+00:00

Excellent question! The reason is fundamentally due to Nitta-san (who fulfills accessory orders) and Yanaka-san (who fulfills Tokyo Wagakki Shamisen) living a 15 hours drive apart from each other. We’ve tried ways of having them send accessories to each other to combine, but that resulted in overall higher shipping costs and longer fulfillment times. Thus, fulfilling Tokyo Wagakki instruments and shamisen accessories separately was the best way to get all items to their new owners. :-)

Shamisen accessories

We have prepared Accessory Sets to make it easy for newcomers to get their new shamisen ready to play. With that being said, the sets consist of the most affordable items with no color selections offered (our choice please!). There’s a wide selection of accessories available, and so if you are willing to take some time to hand select the contents of your set, you can choose the exact styles and colors you want and lock in the best experience! In this article, I’ll help explain what you need!

What items you really need2023-12-08T21:13:35+00:00

As shamisen is relatively obscure and shrouded in some degree of mystery, it’s very easy for some folks to treat the shamisen as something more sacred than any other instrument, and thus push misconceptions based on what they don’t know. Practically speaking, the shamisen is just like any other instrument. It has it’s unique traits, but all instruments have their own unique traits. In an effort to lift the veil of mystery off of the shamisen, I strive to emphasize the practical (sometimes physics-based) reasons behind the elements of shamisen. For example, some folks have said, “You need a polishing cloth to play shamisen, because you must wipe your shamisen after every session otherwise you will ruin it!” In my opinion, such a statement is coming from a source of fear and ignorance, rather than understanding and experience. What’s worse is that a newcomer, who has no experience to rely on, is likely to hear that and make decisions based on someone else’s fear and ignorance. Because of that, I recommend being very careful of where you get your shamisen information, because in my estimation, over 85% of people really don’t know the reason behind elements of shamisen yet will speak like they do.

So the way I recommend items is just like my response to the statement of “You need a polishing cloth to play shamisen, because you must wipe your shamisen after every session otherwise you will ruin it!”. Practically speaking, you don’t “need” a polishing cloth to play shamisen. It is good to have for long-term care, but because your shamisen will still make sound without the presence of a polishing cloth, I don’t consider that as something “needed to play”.

And with that, the following list of recommended items are sorted from “essential” (in the sense of “your shamisen will not make sound without it”) to “it’s good to have” (in the sense of “it’s not required to play, but you might see benefit to having it”).

Neo (string tailpiece)2023-12-08T21:15:24+00:00
Shamisen accessories
The tailpiece which the strings tie to. I consider this the most essential item because without it, the strings have nothing to tie to, and thus no sound can be made.
It is possible to make your own using instructions from Shamisen of Japan (link) or this video (link) (Yes, I need to refilm it in higher quality at some point), or you might be able to find a used one at an auction site. But no matter what, the neo is essential for making a shamisen playable.
Ito (Strings)2023-12-08T21:26:18+00:00
shamisen accessories

Equally essential are the strings, as no sound can be made without them (other than spanking the dou like a drum, of course). All strings break eventually (how long they last depends on how often it’s played and how much force the player uses), so it’s always good to stock up on extras. For peace of mind, I keep a minimum of two ichi-no-ito (silk), four ni-no-ito (tetron), and five san-no-ito (nylon). However, if you prefer every string to be silk strings, it’s safe to order more as silk strings break quicker than tetron or nylon.

It’s important to select the strings type for your particular shamisen. For example, if you have a nagauta shamisen, select strings specifically for nagauta style. Even if you want to learn tsugaru style on a nagauta shamisen (which is perfectly fine to do), you still need nagauta strings because the thickness of those strings match the diameter of the string holes in the shamisen’s itomaki (tuning peg).

The strings made for a tsugaru shamisen (specifically the ichi no ito, or the first string) is considerably thicker, and won’t fit into the hole of a nagauta shamisen’s itomaki (without drilling a wider hole).

shamisen accessories

Tsugaru string (Left); Nagauta string (Right)

Koma (Bridge)2023-12-08T21:30:32+00:00

The koma is essential as it’s the part which transfers the vibration from of the string to the skin, which broadcasts the sound you hear!

shamisen accessories

There are many types of koma to choose from, and they all produce subtle differences in tone. One isn’t necessarily better than another, so I’d recommend getting whichever you’re most attracted to and I’m sure it will be perfect for you. Over time, you can collect different koma as you seek to fine-tune your shamisen’s tone.

shamisen accessories
Alternative to Koma2023-12-08T21:32:46+00:00

Alternative: Although a koma is required for a standard shamisen setup, practically speaking, the koma is simply a bridge to carry the string vibrations to the skin. If you can’t afford a koma or want an effective substitute, you can easily replace it with a shortened pencil or a chopstick to make your shamisen playable.

shamisen accessories

The tone won’t be as good as a professionally made koma, but it will allow the shamisen to produce sound. Often, if I need to study a short phrase on shamisen for a few minutes, I’ll just slide in a pencil because I don’t need it to sound perfect, just good enough for quick practice.

Bachi (Plectrum)2023-12-08T21:37:22+00:00
Shamisen accessories

If you want to achieve the authentic shamisen tone and experience, the bachi is an essential item. Interestingly enough, I wouldn’t necessarily consider it a “needed to play” item because practically speaking, you can still make sound by plucking the strings with your fingers, a guitar pick, or a range of items!

That being said, a big part of the shamisen’s unique tone is influenced by the bachi (as it can create both strong percussive and melodic tone at the same time), and so I would highly recommend getting one. The bachi’s large size does make it a bit awkward to wield in the beginning, and so whenever it starts to feel too uncomfortable to use, it’s perfectly fine to temporarily switch to fingers or a guitar pick. (After all, the most important element of learning is to keeping the experience fun and engaging. If the challenge becomes frustrating, that’s counterproductive to learning.) Eventually, your comfort with the bachi will grow and it will become your favorite plectrum!

shamisen accessories

Striking strings with the front of the fingernail is a great way to achieve a simple snappy tone!

Which bachi should you choose?2023-12-08T21:39:24+00:00
This really depends on your budget. Plastic bachi are the most affordable type, but it’s rigidity often makes the playing experience frustrating (especially as a newcomer)
If you can afford it, you won’t regret investing in a high end bachi (like a Pantera Bachi or Signature Bachi), as it glides across the strings like butter and makes the experience infinitely more enjoyable. If you aren’t able to make such an investment yet, I’d recommend checking out a Wooden Bachi, as they offer a bit more flexibility while at a relatively low price point.
Shamisen accessories
Yubikake2023-12-08T21:40:31+00:00

While not needed to make the shamisen playable, a yubikake makes the shamisen much, much easier to play. The shamisen is highly polished and moving a bare hand on the polished sao (neck) immediately creates friction. As there’s only three strings, playing songs on shamisen often requires sliding up and down the sao (neck) frequently, and the friction buildup makes playing more difficult and can be very frustrating. The yubikake eliminates all friction and allows your hand to effortlessly slide across the sao. You can still play shamisen without it, but using it greatly improves your experience.

Dou Gomu / Hiza Gomu2023-12-08T21:43:08+00:00
Shamisen accessories

Dou Gomu come in larger sheets, but can be trimmed to a smaller size for a cleaner look! (Shown here)

Like the rest of the shamisen, the highly polished surface of the dou (soundbox) is immensely gorgeous. The downside is that it can easily slide off your leg while you play! The dou gomu is a rubber pad which adheres to the corner of dou, allowing the dou to sit securely on your leg without slipping. The hiza gomu (coming soon!) is the classical version which doesn’t attach to the dou. Rather, it’s a larger pad which lays over your leg, and the shamisen sits on. The dou gomu is very convenient and is used by most all tsugaru shamisen players. The only downside of it is the rubber does hide some of the beautiful wood, and dries out after about five years and needs to be replaced. (It’s much more difficult to remove after it’s dry and crumbly, so better to replace them earlier than later!)

Again, you can still play shamisen without it, but the frustration of the dou slipping off your leg while you play is real.

Fujaku2023-12-08T21:56:07+00:00

Although this is near the bottom, I consider the fujaku an essential item for all newcomers to shamisen. Basically, it is an adhesive strip showing all the position locations on the sao. In my opinion, it is the key component for being able to enjoy playing shamisen from the first day you pick it up. When you use a fujaku, you can start learning songs quickly by matching the numbers on shamisen tableture with the numbers on the fujaku. By knowing where the positions are, you can simultaneously build confidence and muscle memory at the same time!

Eventually, you’ll build enough muscle memory to the point where you can remove the fujaku and your hands will instinctively know where to go. Although a shamisen is absolutely playable without a fujaku, if you’re brand new to shamisen (or musical instruments in general), consider the fujaku to be at the top of this list.

Check out the Fujaku in the Bachido Store!

Doukake2023-12-08T21:47:21+00:00
Shamisen accessories

This decorative arm cover is more of a useful tool when the shamisen has natural skin, as the cover prevents sweat from your arm from weakening the water soluble glue. Although¬† moisture isn’t a factor with synthetic skin though, the smooth doukake is nice for shamisen with a woven skin like Hibiki, which can feel slightly abrasive if the arm is pressed against it for an extended period of time.

Everything Else2023-12-08T21:49:11+00:00

Those are what I’d consider the most essential items for your first accessory set, but there’s still many more items which can be very beneficial depending on your needs. I’d highly recommend checking out Cases & Fukuro should you want to give your shamisen gear some extra protection, or possibly Scorebooks and Media to grab a few songbooks to expand your repertoire! But all of that is optional goods to benefit your experience along the way. As long as you’ve selected the items recommended above, you’ll have a great accessory set to start your shamisen journey!!

By |2023-12-08T22:06:34+00:00December 8, 2023|Shamipedia|0 Comments

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