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A shamisen or samisen (Japanese: 三味線, literally "three taste strings"), also called sangen (literally "three strings") is a three-stringed musical instrument played with a plectrum called a bachi. The pronunciation in Japanese is usually "shamisen" (in western Japan, and often in Edo-period sources "samisen") but sometimes "jamisen" when used as a suffix (e.g. Tsugaru-jamisen).
(N.B. This article uses the Hepburn romanization in accordance with Wikipedia policy. Some Japanese web pages, however, use the Kunrei-shiki (ISO 3602) and Nihon-shiki (ISO 3602 Strict) romanizations, according to which Shamisen becomes Syamisen, Jamisen Zyamisen, Bachi Bati, and Tsugaru Tugaru.)
The shamisen is similar in length to a guitar, but its neck is much slimmer and without frets. Its drum-like rounded rectangular body, known as the dō, is covered front and back with skin in the manner of a banjo, and amplifies the sound of the strings. The skin is usually from a dog or cat, but in the past a special type of paper was used and recently various types of plastics are being tried. On the skin of some of the best shamisen, the position of the cat's nipples can still be seen. 
The three strings are traditionally made of silk, or, more recently, nylon. The lowest passes over a small hump at the "nut" end so that it buzzes, creating a characteristic sound known as sawari (somewhat reminiscent of the "buzzing" of a sitar, which is called jawari). The upper part of the dō is almost always protected by a cover known as a dō kake, and players often wear a little band of cloth on their left hand to facilitate sliding up and down the neck. This band is known as a yubikake. There may also be a cover on the head of the instrument, known as a tenjin.
In most genres the shamisen is played with a large weighted plectrum called a bachi, which was traditionally made with ivory or tortoise shell but which now is usually wooden, and which is in the shape likened to a ginkgo leaf. The sound of a shamisen is similar in some respects to that of the American banjo, in that the drum-like skin-covered body, known as a dō, amplifies the sound of the strings. As in the clawhammer style of American banjo playing, the bachi is often used to strike both string and skin, creating a highly percussive sound.
In kouta (小唄)(short song) and occasionally in other genres the shamisen is plucked with the fingers.
History and genres
The shamisen derives from the sanshin (三線)(a close ancestor from the southernmost Japanese prefecture of Okinawa and one of the primary instruments used in that area), which in turn evolved from the Chinese sanxian, itself deriving ultimately from Central Asian instruments.
The shamisen can be played solo or with other shamisen, in ensembles with other Japanese instruments, with singing such as nagauta (長唄), or as an accompaniment to drama, notably kabuki (歌舞伎) and bunraku (文楽). Both men and women traditionally played the shamisen.
The most famous and perhaps most demanding of the narrative styles is gidayū, named after Takemoto Gidayū (1651-1714), who was heavily involved in the bunraku puppet-theater tradition in Osaka. The gidayū shamisen and its plectrum are the largest of the shamisen family, and the singer-narrator is required to speak the roles of the play, as well as to sing all the commentaries on the action. The singer-narrator role is often so vocally taxing that the performers are changed halfway through a scene. There is little notated in the books (maruhon) of the tradition except the words and the names of certain appropriate generic shamisen responses. The shamisen player must know the entire work perfectly in order to respond effectively to the interpretations of the text by the singer-narrator. From the 19th century female performers known as onna-jōruri or onna gidayū also carried on this concert tradition.
In the early part of the 20th century, blind musicians, including Shirakawa Gunpachirō (1909-1962), Takahashi Chikuzan (1910-1998), and sighted ones such as Kida Rinshōe (1911-1979), evolved a new style of playing, based on traditional folk songs ("min'yō") but involving much improvisation and flashy fingerwork. This style - now known as Tsugaru-jamisen, after the home region of this style in the north of Honshū - continues to be relatively popular in Japan. The virtuosic Tsugaru-jamisen style is sometimes compared to bluegrass banjo.
One contemporary shamisen player, Takeharu Kunimoto, plays bluegrass music on the shamisen, having spent a year studying bluegrass at East Tennessee State University and performing with a bluegrass band based there. Another player using the Tsugaru-jamisen in non-traditional genres is Michihiro Sato, who plays free improvisation on the instrument. The Japanese American jazz pianist Glenn Horiuchi played shamisen in his performances and recordings.
Kouta (小唄) is the style of song learned by geisha and maiko. Its name literally means "small" or "short song," which contrasts with the music genre found in bunraku and kabuki, otherwise known as nagauta (長唄) (long song).
Jiuta (地唄), or literally "earthen music" is a more classical style of shamisen music.
Variations in Construction and Playing Style
Shamisens vary in shape and size, depending on what genre the shamisen is used in. For example, the Tsugaru-Jamisen is quite a recent innovation, and is purposefully constructed much larger than traditional style shamisens. Its body is much larger, and its neck is much longer and thicker than the traditional nagauta and/or jiuta shamisens.
The bachi or plectrums used to play the shamisens also differ in shape. The bachi used for nagauta and jiuta shamisens are very triangular in shape, often having very sharp points. The Gidayu shamisen uses a very slender bachi, having a more subtle triangular shape. The bachi used in tsugaru-jamisen has a noticeable triangular shape, but is still less pronounced than the bachi used in nagauta and jiuta.
Shamisen used for traditional genres of Japanese music, such as jiuta, kouta and nagauta, adhere to very strict standards. Purists of these genres demand that the shamisens be made of the correct wood, the correct skin, and are played with the correct bachi. There is little room for variation. The tsugaru-jamisen, on the other hand, has lent itself to modern use, and is used in modern genres such as jazz and rock. As a more open instrument, variations of it exist for show. The tuning pegs and batchi, which are usually fashioned out of ivory or turtle shell for example, are sometimes made of acrylic material to give the shamisen a more modern, flashy look. Recently, avante garde inventors have developed a tsugaru-jamisen with electric pickups to be used with amplifiers, like the electric guitar: the electric tsugaru-jamisen has been born.
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