The shamisen is a lute-like instrument with three strings and a very long neck. The body is made out of wood and covered with cat or dog skin. The three strings are made of silk. The lowest passes over a small hump at the “nut” end so that it buzzes, creating a characteristic sound known as sawari (This is a little like the “buzzing” of a sitar, which is called jawari). In most genres the shamisen is played with a large weighted plectrum called a bachi, traditionally made with ivory or tortoise shell. The sound of a shamisen is similar in some respects to that of the American banjo, in that the drum-like skin-covered body 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.
As often to be found in Japanese arts, the shamisen has its origins in China. From China the instrument came to the Southern Islands of Ryukyu (Okinawa). In Okinawa the instrument is covered with snakeskin and is played with a small oval plectrum, but when the instrument was introduced into mainland Japan, a number of changes were made. Instead of snakeskin, it was covered with cat ot dog skin and was played with a large plectrum similar to that used for the biwa. Around the late 15th century it arrived on the Japanese main island and soon became popular. It was first used by street singers and geishas and considered a lower class instrument. The shamisen plays a major role in kabuki, and in bunraku, Japanese puppet theater. It was and is still used as principal instrument for background music in kabuki plays. And with the rising attraction of kabuki during the Edo period, the popularity of this musical instrument soared. During the 19th century, the shamisen rose to become a classical concert instrument.
“Ozatsuma” (from Kabuki)
“Mushi no Aikata” (Insect Interlude)