Buying USed Guzheng
Used guzheng are an affordable option for new players. But if you are new, how do you know if an instrument is worth buying? Read this guide of course! I wrote this because I have seen too many damaged instruments listed as “like new” and too many modern instrument sold as “antique” (if it has 21 strings it isn’t “antique”). Read on to learn about what a reasonable price is and what issues make an instrument worth less. If you want to buy a new instrument, check out the Buy New guide.
This guide is intended for instruments that are less than 30 years old. Scroll down for pictures of different types of issues.
Carefully tune and play the guzheng. If it sounds good, was well maintained, and has no damage, expect to pay 2/3 of what it would be brand new.
The price of a used instrument should represent the quality of its sound, how much performance life the instrument has left, and its appeal as a work of art. Modern instruments give us a baseline to compare against.
The “2/3 of original price” is just a guideline. A more complicated recommendation is: At 3 years: 70% of purchase price. At 5 years, 60%. At 10 years, 50%. Beyond 10 years the main issues become wear, tear, and damage. These will push prices below that 50%.
There are multiple Tiers of guzheng, think “Beginner”, “Professional”, etc. Different stores apply different labels to each tier so we’ll go by price.
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+.
Tier 0 is for travel-sized and smaller instruments. You give up sound quality but they are easier to travel with. Build quality and decoration are typically simple and inexpensive. Tier 1 is for new students. They sound good but may not emphasize certain ranges. Decorations are on the simpler and less expensive side. Tier 2 has improved sound and decoration and may use some higher-quality woods. Tier 3 sees further gains in sound and decoration as well as better woods. Tier 4 makes substantial gains in wood quality, artistic effort, and overall appeal. Tier 5 is everything again and then some- woods aged for 50 years, personal projects by master craftsmen, precious inlays, factory specials… the range is vast.
Most used instruments are Tiers 1-3. Tier 0 are less desirable so fewer are purchased. Tiers 4 and 5 are rarer and don’t get resold as often. Your challenge as you evaluate a guzheng is to figure out what tier it came from, how old it is, and then look for issues that would lower the value and price.
We could collectively push for lower prices but we need to find a balance. Lowering the prices of used instruments reduces the demand for new instruments and thus, how many new instruments stores can sell. It also reduces what players can resell their instruments for in the future. We want stores in business, we want to be able to resell our instruments, but we also want good, affordable, used guzheng so newcomers can enjoy this incredible instrument. That said, let’s talk about how we approach balanced prices.
The price for a used guzheng should be based on its sound quality, performance life left, and its appeal as a work of art. The first two decrease with age, the third may not.
First, on sound quality: How does the guzheng sound now? Tune it and play it. Are notes clear and distinguishable or do they all blur together? Are there any strange metallic sounds, buzzings, or weird secondary noises? Does a particular string sound dead or dull? All in all, do you like how it sounds? A well-made, high-level instrument will sound terrific. A low-grade or damaged instrument may not be pleasing even when tuned. The better it sounds now, the more it should cost.
Second, on performance lifespan: mass-market Tier 1-Tier 3 guzheng change their sound over time. The current preference is for the sound of younger guzheng. So, age reduces price. Put another way, for how many more years will you like its sound? How may years do you have before you would not play it for other people? This is less of a concern if you intend to only play privately. This is a serious consideration if you are performing publicly. The older it is the less performance life it has left, so the less it should cost.
Third: Guzheng are works of art. Many owners enjoy displaying the instrument in their home. The better it looks, the higher it should cost. This is subjective; I’ve seen Tier 2 guzheng that were more appealing to me than Tier 4. If there is visible damage, markings, or cracks, the "art” value of the instrument may drop. But then again, you may prefer the historic look of an aged, cracked instrument. As I said, it’s subjective.
Fourth: Prices change over time. Whether it be inflation, exchange rate, or demand, guzheng change in price over time. Expect used guzheng to be priced as fractions of current prices, not what was paid when it was first purchased.
Price Sanity Check
A brand new Dunhuang Duo Crane style is currently $600-1000 USD depending on the particular model (Feb 2019). Buy a 10-year old instrument from a retiring teacher and this price guide says you should pay $300-$500. That feels right.
Put another way: instruments lose $4-$8 of value each month. Again, that seems reasonable. So with 3-30, 5-40 and 10-50 as our discounts, let’s look at other reasons you should ask for lower prices.
All of the earlier pricing math assumes the guzheng is in pristine condition. Most won’t be. You’ll see Wear, Maintenance Issues, Damage, and Build Quality issues that could move the price lower.
Impact: May lower price for artistic reasons. Shouldn’t affect sound.
Wear are marks that come from normal usage. They do not damage the instrument’s sound. Examples include scuffs on the soundboard from the legs of moving bridges, marks on the underside of the guzheng from where it rested on stands; and worn edges on tuning pins.
Use is not a bad thing. Guzheng are meant to be used. A worn instrument connects you to its history and the people who came before you. Therefore, wear should not lower the price. The exception would be if the seller advertises it as “like new” or if you are buying the instrument as a display piece.
Impact: May lower price because of decreased sound quality until fixed and/or the cost of fixing them. May indicate a decreased performance lifespan.
Over time minor issues come up that players can address themselves. These are Maintenance Needs. Examples include: dust on the soundboard; bridges in the wrong order; and broken, loose, damaged, or incorrect strings. Some hardware issues can also fit in this category but may require knowledge of wood and tools to fix. These sorts of issues include: loose hinges, latches, or tuning pins.
Any loose hardware can buzz while playing. Dust makes an instrument sound like it is underwater. Poorly arranged bridges can make it awkward to play. Old or broken strings just sound terrible. All can be solved but all take effort. Replacement strings will cost around $50 USD for a set. A complete bridge removal, reorder, and soundboard cleaning will take about one hour. Replacing the strings as well will take another 20-30 minutes.
Factor that effort and cost in to your price negotiations.
Damage and Cracks
Impact: Lowers the price due to lower artistic value, lower sound quality, and decreased performance lifespan. May not be repairable.
Damage is physical breakage of the structure, the wood, or hardware of the instrument. This could be scuffs, dents, corrosion of metal pieces, or water damage. Repairs need to be carried out by a skilled professional. Damage is usually visible, you’ll find it with a close inspection. That also means it will make the instrument less appealing. Damage will affect the sound quality if it occurs on the soundboard, backboard, or near the strings. Some types of damage can get worse over time. Examples: Cracks, broken pieces, corrosion, and separating glue joints.
Some damage is less likely to get worse but is still unsightly. These include dents, indentations, discolorations, and water damage.
Cracks are the most common form of damage and happen to most instruments. Thankfully they don’t always hurt the guzheng’s sound. Cracks on the head and tail of the instrument are minor. Cracks on the soundboard are a BIG PROBLEM. Cracks on the backboard and sideboards of the frame may or mat not be a problem.
Most non-critical cracks are left unpaired because it is hard to find skilled repairmen and the cost is high. Cracks do reduce the value of the instrument.
Impact: May lower the artistic value and thus price; may affect sound quality in extreme cases; may indicate reduced performance lifespan.
Guzheng are musical instruments. If they are poorly made they might not sound good. Don’t like how an instrument sounds? Don’t buy it.
If you do like how a guzheng sounds you should still look into its build quality. Poor build quality increases the likelihood the guzheng will crack or lose its nice sound over time. Obvious mistakes or sloppiness may also reduce an instrument’s artistic appeal.
Examples of issues to look for include: Seams and joints that do not match, excessive visible glue, uneven coatings and polish, lines that do not connect, underside and head compartments that don’t match the exterior, etc. You judge by looks.
Remember to check the instrument’s underside: visible wood grain on the backboard has come into vogue as proof the guzheng is made of high quality wood. Black paint over plywood was the standard a few decades ago. Sound holes can be rough cut, lined, or lined and reinforced to prevent cracking. Keep an eye out for these aspects to help estimate the skill put into the instrument.
Find a guzheng you like, tune it up, and play it. Expect to pay 2/3 of what it would be brand new. If you can learn the age, you can use an alternative pricing scale: 70% of what it would be brand new if 3 years old, 60% if 5 years, and 50% if 10 years. If you find issues beyond normal wear, haggle the price lower.