The shamisen is a traditional Japanese string instrument and if you’ve ever watched any old Japanese films than you might recognise it as the instrument often played by geisha to entertain their guests.

A shamisen has three strings and is usually plucked with a big triangular plectrum called a bachi. It sounds a little like a banjo but with a certain ‘twang’ that for me sounds unmistakably Japanese. Apparently it is traditionally made out of dog or cat skin and on the best instruments you can still make out where the nipple used to be!

The shamisen’s history goes back to the 16th century but at the beginning of the 20th century a new style of playing began to emerge, based around traditional folk songs but using improvisation to show off it’s performer’s virtuoso fingerpicking…

More recently a new generation of players have taken the instrument even further, as I found out when I was sitting in a ramen shop last week, slurping my noodles to some serious shamisen jamming! At one point the unmistakable tones of the start of Michael Jackson’s Beat It came on over the stereo and, although there’s no way my description could do it any justice, I was particularly taken by the ‘call and response’ chorus. Have a listen…

Genius! I later found out that it’s by an artist called Agatsuma Hiromitsu from his album Plays Standards, which also features his shamisen versions of Mission Impossible and Scarborough Fair. Check it out!

Oh and if you’re still not satisfied then you can even have a go yourself on this virtual shamisen

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