Shamisen Types and Styles
There are three main sizes of shamisen, designated according to the thickness of the neck (hosozao, or thin neck; chuuzao, or medium neck and futozao, or thick neck), and many different performance styles. Each style is commonly associated with a particular neck size, but the styles don’t necessarily require specific sizes. For example, nagauta style players usually use hosozao size (thin neck) shamisen, but they have also been made with surprisingly thick necks. Shamisen for tsugaru style are generally futozao size (thick neck), but the instruments are also sometimes made as hosozao (thin neck) to accommodate smaller-sized players.
Hosozao (Thin Neck Size)
Hosozao shamisen are generally used for nagauta, kouta and hauta (old popular song).
As the chief instrument used in Kabuki, it is played in a wide range of modes to suit the action on stage, from very slow, regular, lyrical lines to rapid and dramatic accenting techniques. Nagauta bachi are traditionally made from ivory, but are more commonly wood or hard plastic.
Futozao (Thick Neck Size)
Futozao shamisen are commonly used for tsugaru (a more modern, improvisational playing style) and gidayu (a dramatic accompaniment evolved from the bunraku puppet-theatre.)
The tsugaru style is said to have originated on the streets by the bousama (blind musicians), who developed this livelier style to attract audiences. In recent years, thanks to the many talented musicians who perform the tsugaru style (Yoshida Brothers, Wagakki Band) and to movies such as Kubo and the Three Strings, the style has been brought to popularity on the world stage. The tsugaru bachi (plectrum) is comparatively smaller, and the instrument’s koma (bridge) has a relatively short height of 8mm. Both of these features facilitate the aggressive mode of playing which characterizes the tsugaru style.
Unlike the solo-centric and showy tsugaru style, the gidayu style was developed to accompany dramatic performances. This style uses a bachi with 7mm thick tips, unlike the thin 1~2mm bachi tips used for tsugaru shamisen, and the instrument’s koma is around 19mm tall. The extreme sizes/thicknesses of the accessories lend to the gidayu shamisen’s unique, biwa-like tone.
Chuuzao (Medium Neck Size)
Chuzao shamisen are commonly used for jiuta (traditional classical music) and minyo (Japanese folk songs.)
Considered to be one of the more refined shamisen styles, jiuta means “songs of the country.” From the early 18th century, jiuta shamisen / koto duets became common, and there is now a very close relationship between the two instruments. The bachi used in jiuta can be as wide as 14cm.
The minyo (folk song) style is often connected to forms of work or specific trades, and many were originally sung as working songs or during workers’ break times. Other minyo are simply entertainment, dance accompaniment, or components of religious rituals. The minyo style can be played with any shamisen size.