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Playing the shamisen

A musician plays the shamisen

Select the instruments above to hear them play together or individually. Learn about these instruments below and play samples.

A banjo-like lute with three strings, the shamisen was brought to Japan from China in the 16th century. Popular in Edo's pleasure districts, the shamisen was often used in Kabuki theater. Made from red sandalwood and ranging from 1.1 to 1.4 meters long, the shamisen has ivory pegs, strings made from twisted silk, and a belly covered in cat or dog skin. The strings, which are of different thickness, are plucked or struck with a tortoise shell pick.

Made from Paulownia wood, the harp-like koto was brought to Japan from China in the 6th century. While early kotos had 5 strings, it now typically has 13 strings made from nylon or silk of the same thickness. Tuned in a pentatonic scale, the strings are stretched tightly over bridges along the length of the instrument which can be moved to change the pitch. Often studied by girls in samurai families, the koto was played as an ensemble or solo instrument.

Made from the lowest section of bamboo, the shakuhachi is an end-blown flute with four front holes and one in back. Generally 1.8 Japanese feet in length, the shakuhachi is named for its dimensions—"shaku" means "foot," and "hachi" means "eight." Originally imported from China, the shakuhachi became the province of Buddhist priests during the Edo period, who alone were permitted to play the instrument.

Often used in traditional Japanese theater, the tsuzumi drum (alternatively spelled "tsuzumi") has two drumheads supported by tension cords which, when pulled, alter the pitch. Using the right hand to strike the drum, the tsutsumi player uses the left hand to hold the drum to the right shoulder.

Meaning "big drum" or "fat drum," taiko encompasses a family of drums that range from the small to the gigantic, whose precursors were designed by Japanese craftsmen more than a thousand years ago. Made from cowhide and generally struck with a stick called bachi, large taiko drums are positioned on stands, with more than one musician often playing. Taiko drums were reputedly played on the battlefield, their rich, rumbling sounds used to intimidate the enemy. During the last 50 years, taiko-style drumming has become immensely popular in Japan, spawning over 8,000 groups.

Dave Iwataki

Shakuhachi courtesy of Monty Levensen; Shamisen and Koto courtesy of Reiko Abata; Taiko courtesy of Mochizuki Taiko; Tsuzmi courtesy of Shigeo Ando

Playing a taiko drum

Taiko drums are made in many sizes

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