Guzheng Buying Guide
Choosing Your First Instrument
This article is for buying brand new guzheng. Visit the Used guide to get advice on buying second hand.
Expect to spend $400-$900 on your first guzheng. Stick to one of the big three brands: Dunhuang, Tianyi, or Scarlet Bird (Zhuque). A $400-$600 instrument should list Rosewood for the frame. A $600-$900 instrument should list something exotic sounding like Paduk, Bubinga, Sandalwood, African Blackwood or similar. Both price ranges should list Paulownia, Wutong, Paotong, or Firmiana Simplex for the soundboard. Make sure your guzheng comes with stands and a soft case. Those are expensive to buy separate. Also make sure you receive or order a tuning wrench and nails.
Ready for the Details?
To pick the guzheng that’s right for you, you need to understand:
Your price range.
What a Reasonable Price is.
Guzheng Price Range and Tier
Guzheng are arranged into Tiers, like “Student”, “Professional”, etc. Every store uses different terms so we’ll use price instead.
Tier 0: <$400. Tier 1: $400-$600. Tier 2: $600-$900. Tier 3: $900-$1500. Tier 4: $1,500-$4,000. Tier 5: $4,000-$20,000+.
The first thing to know is that “cheap” does not mean “bad”. The guzheng is relatively easy to make and still produce fantastic music. All of these tiers will last for years if you take care of them.
Tier 0 are almost always “travel-sized”. They are the cheapest because they are smaller and use less and cheaper material.
Tier 1 instruments from reputable sellers are ideal for students, especially if you are unsure of how committed the student is. Decorations and finishes are simpler to keep costs down. The individual notes may not be as clear or ring as long as higher tiers but you’ll still have a great time. After about 2 years your ear and skill will have developed enough you might appreciate an upgrade.
Tier 2 instruments sound better than Tier 1 guzheng and have more effort in their decorations. More attention is paid to the soundboards, tuning them to produce stronger bass or treble notes. In guzheng talk, people say the sound is “bright” when it has stronger high notes and “dark” when it has stronger low notes. You may want to buy in this price range if you have a very critical ear and/or already know what type of sound you want.
Tier 3: Most first-time buyers pick Tier 1 or 2. Buying a Tier 3 for a new student is like buying a convertible for a first-time driver. It’s a nice luxury but is more than a new student needs. Instrument makers customize the sound characteristics of the Tier 3 instruments to fit specific tonalities. Once you’re in Tier 3 you’ll consider things like the genre of music you prefer to play, the techniques you use, and of course, how the guzheng looks. But again - Tier 1 or 2 is GZA’s recommendation for a first instrument.
Understanding Guzheng Descriptions
Once you determine what tier instrument you want to buy you’ll need to understand how they are described. A typical guzheng seller will list: the frame wood, brand, and soundboard wood; provide pictures of the decorations, and list what accessories are included.
Frame woods are advertised first, usually in the title. They determine the look of the instrument with ~some impact on the sound. Tier 1 instruments will be labeled “rosewood”. This is a generic term for many red-tinted woods. They are interchangeable so people don’t keep track. Starting with Tier 2, expect to see specific woods named like Paduk, Bubinga, and others. If a Tier 2 instrument lists Rosewood it might be overpriced, or the seller might not have the correct translation for the actual wood. Ask for the Chinese characters and search them in the database on the Woods page to see what it actually is.
The Top 3 Guzheng brands are Dunhuang, Tianyi, and Scarlet Bird (Zhuque). Buy from one of them and you’ll be fine. There are dozens if not hundreds of other brands out there, all with different levels of craftsmanship and value for the price. Go outside the top 3 and you’ll risk getting something that under performs - but then again, maybe you find a great value. Some stores will custom order instruments and create their own brands. These can provide great value for a lower price but relies on the store’s expertise.
“Paulownia” is the standard wood for the soundboard of all guzheng, regardless of tier. You may also see Wutong, Firmiana Simplex, or Paotong, they are effectively synonyms. You can read the details on the Woods page. Any other wood is unusual and may indicate something strange is going on.
Decorations come in all shapes and sizes including polished wood, printed graphics, paintings, fabric, carvings, stone inlays, and various other. Beauty (and value) is in the eye of the beholder. The more you look at guzheng the more you’ll get a feel for the quality of artwork in each tier. It can be hard to guess the decoration method from photos - is a decoration painted on an instrument, screen printed on, or inlaid? Take a careful look and ask the seller. It’s important to be happy with what you buy.
Most new guzheng come with everything you need to start playing: Beginning nails, stands, a soft case, and a tuning wrench. Missing any of these four will make your life difficult. Some sellers add goodies like tuners, extra strings, brushes, and similar accessories. They are nice, but only add about $50 USD to the value. You can buy them elsewhere if needed.
If you feel overwhelmed, that’s okay. All you really need to know is below.
Is the Price Reasonable?
If you are buying guzheng in the $400-$600 range (Tier 1) expect the listing to say it is made of Paulownia and Rosewood. Tier 2 instruments ($600-$900) will have Paulownia soundboards and a more specific exotic frame wood. If a Tier 2 has Rosewood listed, something is up. If a Tier 1 has anything besides Rosewood listed, something is up.
That’s the basics for buying a new instrument. There’s always more you can learn.
On Sound Samples, Video Recordings
Stores often record videos of their instrument being played to give an idea of the sound. These are better than nothing but don’t capture the full sound of the instrument. The sound you are hearing has gone through a microphone, software encoding, compression, video processing, software decoding, and speakers all before it gets to you. The sound loses some of itself at every step along that journey. If you are torn between two instruments the best thing you can do is visit both in person. Beyond that, just remember that the guzheng you buy may sound a bit different from the one that came out of your speakers.
Some sellers try to describe the sound of their instruments. Here are a few words you are likely to see:
Resonant: The instrument vibrates audibly for a long time. Every guzheng resonates, some longer than others.
Clear: The primary frequencies of a string are significantly louder than their secondary frequencies. If our ears pick up the main frequencies easily we say it is ‘clear’.
Muddy: The opposite of clear, the primary note is much closer in volume to the secondary notes. At one point in history “muddy” was the preferred quality.
Deep, Dark: Emphasized bass notes.
Bright, Light: Emphasized treble notes.