Of all traditional Japanese instruments, the shamisen is the most famous. This string instrument is suitable for many types of traditional performances, because it is capable of producing a wide range of timbres.
The shamisen is said to be based on the Chinese sangen, which came to Japan via the Ryukyu Islands (present-day Okinawa). The body of the shamisen is a wooden frame covered with a taut animal skin. The three strings, which stretch from the body to the top of the neck, are plucked with a large plectrum. When the shamisen was first brought to Japan it was plucked with a small pick on the forefinger, but biwa musicians changed this. Their instrument, which is a kind of short-necked lute, came to Japan before the shamisen and is played with a plectrum. Biwa musicians began using their plectrum on the shamisen, giving the instrument a wider range of timbre.
When the plectrum strikes the shamisen strings from above, it hits not only the strings but the skin as well. This adds a sound much like a beaten drum. On the other hand, when the plectrum strikes the strings from below, the skin is not hit and the sound is more delicate. Another technique involves plucking the strings with the fingers of the left hand, to produce a more graceful timbre. The shamisen's ability to create a variety of timbres is its most distinguishing feature.
The timbre of the shamisen can also be changed by modifying the strings, neck and plectrumchanging their size, thickness and weight, or using different materials to make them. There are almost 20 different types of shamisen, each with a different pitch and timbre. Musicians choose the one most suitable for the genre of music they will play. Shamisen all have the same length, but the strings, neck and plectrum can vary considerably, creating a register that can vary by up to one octave from one instrument to another. In the case of Western string instruments, timbre and pitch range are changed mainly by using an instrument of a different size, such as a viola instead of a violin.
Sometimes the shamisen accompanies a narrator who chants a story in a loud voice. Then the musician will need thick strings and a thick plectrum. But when a geisha sings a love song, strings with a delicate timbre are needed. Kabuki accompaniment and short kouta ballads also require different timbres, and the shamisen was modified for them as well. Other traditional instruments, too, have been slightly modified to produce the desired timbre, and musicians also make adjustments during the performance with the same aim in mind.
We see, then, that Japanese traditional music is quite varied. The variety comes mainly from the different techniques used to create a wide range of timbrethe color of Japanese sound.