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The Sami-Sen

The Sami-Sen

by Nicholas Von Robison

Originally published in American Lutherie #12, 1987 and Big Red Book of American Lutherie Volume One, 2000

The Sami-Sen (pronounced and sometimes spelled “shamisen”) is one of the trinity of Japan’s important musical instruments, the koto and shakuhachi* being the other two. The equivalent of the Chinese san hsien, this three-stringed lute was originally a solo instrument, played by a wife for her husband, or a lone musician for his or her own enjoyment (and Buddha’s too!). Not until the Edo period (early 17th to mid-19th centuries) was the sami-sen used in <em>gagaku</em> (orchestral) and chamber ensembles. In recent years there has been a revival in the ancient solo literature, many of the solo pieces being conceived of as an aid to meditation. Poetic and descriptive song titles that reflect tone-painting are not uncommon.

The drawing was done from an instrument whose equivalent is probably the Volkswagon or the Sears Silvertone. Even though this bottom-of-the-line instrument shows some crudeness (the inside arch to the soundbox sides appears to have been hacked out with an adz), it is still remarkable. The neck joints fit perfectly, and the soundbox wood is a fine-figured, mahogany-like hardwood that is very attractive. Mrs. Richard Ota, a sami-sen teacher and performer, obtained for me strings, bridge, and pegs, and she owns an instrument of similar caliber to mine, plus a really nice instrument. Lacking a fretboard, once the performer’s fingers have put a hollow in the neck from the most used fretting positions after a few years, the neck is useless. For that reason, the serious sami-sen player owns a cheap instrument for practice and a better one reserved for performing.

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