Mar 052012

(You can’t say we don’t try to broaden your musical horizons here at NCS, but today’s guest post by Phro may push them farther than we ever have before.)

Well, there’s been a lot of talk recently about Celtic/bagpipe metal around these here parts. Which is pretty fucking awesome, if I may be so bold as to force my opinion on you like a political advertisement. Nothing wrong with a little sack in your metal, right? (Yeah, that’s the best I have right now…don’t expect anything too funny from this.)

Anyway, all this “traditional instruments doing dirty things with my metal behind closed doors and having babies that clearly are far more awesome than simply genetics should allow” got me thinking about a traditional instrument that I love: the shamisen. (Click here to get some Wikiknowledge dropped on your ass.)

Now, I know every FrownyFaceTrveCvltMetalHeadOfDoom out there thinks his or her favorite thing is the most metal thing of all, so that’s not what I’m going to say. However, if you don’t find yourself rocking (at least just a little) to some good tsugaru-jamisen, I’d say. . . well, I’d say this music probably isn’t for you and that’s tots cool. Seriously. Tots. Cool.

Before we really get started, I’d just like to explain very briefly what the fuck a shamisen is. A lot of people describe it as a Japanese guitar, which is just stupid. I think “Japanese lute” is the most commonly accepted description, but I prefer to think of it like a banjo. (They sound pretty similar to me.) Anyway, they have three strings, a long, thin neck, and a small box body.

Depending on the kind of shamisen, the form and size will be different.The Okinawan shamisen is smaller and the body is usually round and made of snake skin. The “standard” shamisen is about a 3 or 4 feet long with a body of about 10 inches which looks like a box. (It is a box, but the top and bottom are covered with animal skin.) The tsugaru-jamisen is basically a bigger version of the standard one.

Important note: there are no frets and the damn things go out of tune like a drunken sailor, so players are often re-tuning between songs. The largest string also has a natural reverb to it, so it’s the only acoustic instrument I know of that has built-in distortion. (I could just be stupid. Let us know how stupid in the comments below!)

Alright, so, today, for your totally-not-really-all-that-metal-but-kinda-metal entertainment, I’m going to be presenting some shamisen rocking. Pull on your hakama, throw some sen in your wallet, and let’s get this matsuri going.


This is going to be one of only two artists on this list who has an actual Encyclopedia Metallum page ( I would describe the little music I’ve heard by this guy as . . . psychotic black metal. All black metal is pretty psycho, I guess, but the synthesizers on the song below are pretty . . . fucked up. It’s definitely metal with some traditional Japanese instruments thrown in. He has a pretty good blackened death scream/growl going on, too.

(If you’re wondering, it’s vaguely similar to Shangren, which has been featured on NCS before.)


Next, we have a more metal band whose singer uses the shamisen. Unfortunately, they don’t seem to be active right now, but you can check out their MySpace page ( and quite a few videos on YouTube. Like many Japanese bands, they seem to have gotten their start playing on the street, but they did eventually release an album. As far as I can tell, it’s not widely available, so you’ll have to wait for me to get it to hear more about it.

The guitar intro in the following song is a bit long, so you can skip to around 1:00 if you just want to hear some shamisen rocking.


This one is a good next step, since they actually bill themselves as a rock/metal/funk band featuring tsugaru-shamisen. (They claim to be the first, and I have no way to verify this, so . . . maybe?) Anyway, they’re based out of California, and their shamisen player is a guy by the name of Kevin Kmetz. He’s the first non-Japanese person to win a prestigious award for the shamisen (go look up the name if you really want to know). He seems to have pretty eclectic tastes in music, and it shows in the band.

They have electric guitars and drums backing the shamisen, though it’s not all rocking all the time. Personally, I could do with less funk and more rock/metal in some of the songs, but other songs (like the one below) are pretty rocking. (Their Encyclopedia Metallum page is here.)


There’s a good chance you’ve already heard of these guys, actually. They seem to be (or to have been) gaining in popularity recently, and they totally deserve it. They’re less metal and more rock/pop, but when they rock, they good and truly rock. My favorite album by them, though, is called Hishou and it is purely traditional Japanese instruments with no guitars/keyboards. But this is probably their most famous video.

Here’s one that’s just shamisen.

Now, let’s look at some more traditional tsugaru-jamisen players.


This is the guy who popularized the tsugaru-jamisen in Japan. While the shamisen is a pretty essential part of folk music in Japan, it’s particularly the tsugaru-jamisen that’s the rockingest. (It’s also larger than the shamisen used in other Japanese folk music.) His style is considered “hard” in that he really pounds the strings, and it’s that style that you can still see today in the more popular tsugaru-jamisen acts (like the Yoshida Brothers, though I would hesitate to put them strictly under the umbrella of acts influenced by Takahashi).

If you’re looking for some fast, distorted acoustic music, I think this might be man for you to check out. If you want to learn more about him, here’s his Wikipedia page:


This guy is pretty interesting. He won some high-level competitions in Japan before moving to New York on a Rockefeller grant. He’s recorded with a number of musicians, including John Zorn. (Apparently John Zorn is a sax player. I, personally, can’t stand the saxophone, but I guess he’s famous, right?) Anyway, the video below starts pretty slow and then builds to a nice furor. Nothing like Wormrot fucking your brain with a shotgun barrel, but that’s not what this is about, is it? (You can learn more about him on the world wide Wiki:


This is a duo of two young women who are both national competition winners. I discovered them on YouTube by accident. Their style is a bit “softer” than Takahashi Chikuzan’s, though I’m not sure if that’s a result of the recording or not. Anyway, the following video is basically them rocking out and eating some nabe (basically Japanese stew).


This is a group of three Japanese women who are alumni of the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music (according to their Wikipedia page). I haven’t heard enough of their music to say positively one way or another, but they seem to be mostly making pop/rock. However, they use a few different traditional Japanense instruments, like the koto and shakuhachi, in addition to the shamisen. The following video is a tribute of sorts to the Tale of Genji, one of the most awesome works of fiction ever. (You have no idea how much I’m restraining myself from going off on a tangent about why Genji is fucking awesome.) It also has some pretty awesome noh dancing in it.

Last entry!

Unfortunately, I’m not sure what this woman’s name is. Her style is much “harder” than the last two. That’s all I have to say. Check this shit out.


Alright, that’s it for today. I hope you enjoyed it, and if you didn’t, why the fuck did you read to the end??

  26 Responses to “SHAMISEN ROCK”

  1. Sweet article! It’s great to showcase the instrument this way; to bring some attention away from more popular bands like Cthonic and bring it to the bands who really know how to use this thing well.

    • Glad you liked it. Personally, I’m a big fan of Cthonic’s newest album, but they don’t use they shamisen as far I know. Being Taiwanese, they use an erhu, I think.

  2. GREAT post. I love the shamisen and it’s great to see other people love this instrument, enough to make long-winded posts about it and enough to take years out of their lives to master it.

    • If you think this is long winded, be glad I stopped looking when I did. Hahaha!

      Seriously though, I’m glad you liked it.

  3. Now that was very enjoyable, and educational.

    • This is probably the number one thing I never thought anyone would say about something I wrote. Twilight Zone!

      Also…where have you been? I haven’t seen you posting for a while. Busy with music?

  4. I really liked ALL of this, and ironically I liked the videos of the more traditional music at the end the best.

    Also, more metal guitarists need to play on their knees using paint-scrapers instead of picks.

    • It’s called a bachi. I guess I should have included that bit of information….

      I think the traditional music at the end has a stronger and longer running basis. The kinks have been worked out, if you will. So, it flows a little better, in my opinion.

      Also, I forgot to mention that a lot of shamisen music is based on 2/4 time, which I think makes it feel faster…

  5. Yoshida Borthers are awesome, and so is the shamisen.

    Maybe guitarist should start using a giant spatula instead of a normal guitar pick. Seems to work well with the shamisen..

    • I’m not sure, but I think guitar strings are too close together to use a bachi…. But I’m really not sure.

      And the Yoshida Brothers are freaking awesome!

  6. Can’t figure out if Phro is a Japanese dude rep-ruh-zent’n for his country or some weirdo Japan lover from America……
    Either way, nice article.

    • I think that by virtue of not being an anime/manga otaku and actually having a masters in classical Japanese literature I’m not just some weirdo….but then I guess the tentacle fucking kind of outweighs that….

      • I would say that appreciating classical literature and the intricacies of tentacle sex makes one truly a Master Of Art. Awesome post!

      • Awesome!
        I didn’t intend to sound rude, but I’ve run into A LOT of….weeaboos….. in my lifetime…. (I’m Japanese)

        • It’s cool. I was trying to be funny, and I failed.

          Can you clarify what you mean by Japanese?

          • To clarify myself: your writing seems very American to me, so in wondering if you were born and raised in America or if you just learned hella good English outside of school.

            • Well, I suppose some wouldn’t consider me Japanese, but I am ethnically /mostly/
              Japanese, born to a Japanese family in the US (with some German in places),
              raised speaking Japanese as well as English, raised surrounded by Japanese
              people/culture and I do identify quite a bit with that side of my heritage. I do strongly
              feel that a part of my heart lies in Japan, and I’ve visited many times to see family, etc.
              Therefore, I consider myself Japanese. I am also a Japanese citizen.

              Unfortunately, all you need is a Japanese name (Ami) and slightly slanted eyes for people
              to come up to you with their “OMGZ anime hentai kawaii desuu!!!” stuff….

              • Ah, I see. That’s cool. I know it’s stupid, and possibly marginally offensive, but I wish I’d be raised in a place where I could have started learning Japanese as a youth. I wouldn’t be struggling so much with gendaigo while trying to learn kobun…. Actually, I’m going to be applying to a grad school in Tokyo for next year to try to get a Japanese masters in kotenbungaku. Because one masters isn’t enough? I’m kinda a moron.

                also, I hope I don’t com see off as a weeaboo. Because I wanna punch those fucks in the throat. You have my sympathy.

                • That isn’t stupid at all, I understand that, being a linguophile (I may have just invented that word…)
                  Quite some accomplishments you’re working on! Good luck with them.
                  Nah, you don’t come off like a weeaboo, the whole tentacle thing and masters degree things kinda niz that.

  7. This is a great article, I’ve been actively listening to shamisen music lately, particularly Takahashi Chikuzan. Kevin Kmetz is pretty amazing. He has a killer video of him covering the Trooper by Iron Maiden on YouTube. God of Shamisen are pretty cool, but I have to admit I prefer the sound of the shamisen without any other instruments accompanying it. My real exception to the rule is the track Wipeout by the Japanese band Coaltar of the Deepers. Rocks so, so hard:

    Also, I can’t verify it, but I think that woman in the last video clip you had in this post may beTakahashi Chikuzan’s disciple. After his death he bequeathed her his stage name, and she performs as Takahashi Chikuzan II.

  8. Not sure if its a Shamisen but Persefone from Andorra use traditional Japanese folk passages throughout their heavy prog metal sound. Their older album “Shin Ken” more so but the newer “Spiritual Migration” has some exceptional use of it.

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