A Japanese guitar-like instrument, a small box (covered with cat or dog skin -- ooh yukky!), a long neck which can be dismantled for transportation*, and three strings. These can be variously tuned: in a kabuki play, solemn music or hon-choshi is done in B-E-B', cheerful music or ni-agari is done in B-F#-B', and serene or melancholy music or san-sagari is in B-E-A.

The samisen is also the principal instrument in bunraku or puppet drama. It was introduced from the Ryukyu Islands in the sixteenth century. It is played with a bachi, a large plectrum with a percussive effect. A geisha is expected to be able to accompany herself on the samisen.

A very taut version of the instrument from Hokkaido is known as the Tsugaru samisen; it is covered in dog skin.

The plectrum can be made of tortoiseshell, the box from koki (Indian barwood), and other bits are ivory, so more or less the entire thing bar the skin is now illegal to make because it's all endangered species.

It is usually known in the West as samisen, the Kyoto form of the name: in Tokyo it is shamisen. It comes from the Okinawan jamisen or sanshin, which has a more oval box and is covered in snakeskin. This derives from the Chinese sanxian.

* This doesn't mean you can reassemble the pieces into a form of transportation, like a pogo stick or one of these new-fangled mini-scooters, though no doubt some canny Japanese inventor is sanding and polishing one such device even as we speak; it just means you can disassemble it to transport it. Sorry about the ambiguity.

A three-stringed Japanese musical instrument, the shamisen is shaped like a banjo but has no frets. A pick is used to strike the strings, and the instrument is almost always used as accompaniment for a singer. The shamisen's pitch depends on the range of the singer, but there are three standard tunings. The first, hon-choshi, consists of a perfect fifth and a perfect fourth. Raising the second string produces niagari-choshi, a fifth and a fourth, and lowering the third string results in san-sagari, two fourths.

Originally from China through Okinawa in the mid-sixteenth century, the shamisen developed its own style in Japan. It is commonly used to accompany Kabuki, folk songs (min-yo), and epic songs (naga-uta). Geisha also play the shamisen as part of the entertainment services they provide.

Sam"i*sen (?), n. [Jap.] (Mus.)

A Japanese musical instrument with three strings, resembling a guitar or banjo.


© Webster 1913.

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