Those used in Ryukyuan music are the sanshin, the koto, the kokyū, the flute and various drums. Many Chinese instruments were also commonly played in Ryūkyū, but most of these disappeared together with the tradition of Chinese music performance.
The principal instrument, the sanshin, acquired a certain status as the instrument of the leisured man of culture, similar in this respect to the long zither qin in China. Its use was originally restricted to the nobility, and it was made by a government department within the Kaizuri Bugyōsho (‘Shell-polishing’ Office) ministry. Various models were created under a rigorous system of quality control. Differing mainly with regard to the shape of the neck, the models include Fēbaru (the earliest type), Chinen-dēku, Kuba-shunden, Kuba-nu-funi, Makabi and Yuna, the last two types being most common today.
The sanshin is an adaptation of the Chinese Sanxian three-string plucked lute, which was introduced into Ryūkyū from China after the establishment of a Chinese community in the Kume-mura district of Naha some time after 1392. The sanshin was later introduced into Japan, where it served as the basis for development of the shamisen (see §II, 6 above). The sanxian, sanshin and shamisen have the same basic structure, consisting of a long neck inserted into a wooden body. The neck of the sanshin is made of ebony, red sandalwood or a similar hard wood. The best quality wood was formerly obtained from Yaeyama, but depletion of forest resources there has resulted in the wood being imported mainly from the Philippines. The fingerboard measures approximately 48 cm from the upper bridge to the body, which is covered on both sides with snakeskin obtained from a Thai python; it is slightly rounded and measures approximately 19 cm in length and width. The instrument has three strings, the first (lowest) known as the ‘male string’ (ūjiru), the second as the ‘middle string’ (nakajiru) and the third as the ‘female string’ (mījiru). In classical music it is sounded with a large finger-shaped plectrum made of water buffalo horn placed on the index finger of the right hand. In Amami, the instrument is sounded with a long bamboo sliver.
The basic right-hand playing technique involves a succession of downstrokes; upstrokes are used on weak beats. Stylized movements of the right hand are used on beats when the sanshin is silent. Changes of position are relatively rare in the left hand since, in contrast to the shamisen, all the required pitches can generally be obtained without such changes. When a change is required, no more than two positions are ever used. Left-hand finger technique employs only the index, middle and little fingers and includes striking a pitch on the fingerboard and holding it (uchi-utu), striking a pitch and immediately releasing it (uchinuchi-utu), and plucking the string one degree of the scale above the required pitch (kachi-utu). The standard tuning for ensemble performance is c–f–c' (honchōshī), with the basic pitch varying depending on the range of the singer; solo performers may vary the tunings between A–d–a' and d–a–d'. Niagi is employed especially in solo songs; ichiagi (also known as Tō-nu-tsindami, ‘Chinese tuning’) is used in several pieces from Yaeyama and in the music for the Chinese-style drama tāfākū; and sansagi or ichiniagi is the most common tuning in modern folk song (ex.19).
The Koto used in Okinawan music is the long type of instrument (see also §II, 4 above), with the extra length required because of the relatively low pitch range of the instrument in Okinawa. It is played with rounded plectra set on the thumb, index finger and middle finger of the right hand, with the player kneeling square to the instrument. The koto is generally used in an accompanying role, with the two bottom strings used only in the solo danmono pieces.
The kokyū bowed lute is a miniature version of the sanshin and was modelled in this respect on its Japanese counterpart. Like the flute, its function is to add colour to the main melodic line. Picture scrolls suggest that Chinese bowed lutes and flute were formerly used.
Percussion instruments include the ancient chijin drum used by priestesses, the pārankū single-headed drum used in eisāperformances and the sanba wooden clappers used to enhance rhythmic excitement in fast music.