Cost of Ownership

So You Want to Buy a Guzheng

I have good and bad news. The good news: getting started with guzheng is cheaper than with just about any other instrument out there. The bad news: it's still a chunk of money. A new player should expect to spend $700 USD on the instrument and related equipment. Lessons add another $1,000-$2,000 USD per year. That's $1,700-$2,700 for the year or $140 - $225 per month for the first year. From the second year onward you might need to spend $50 for replacement of tape, string, and picks but those are only required on an as-needed basis.

For context: Beginner guitars and ukuleles are typically cheaper than guzheng while violins and cellos are more. Quality beginner violin packages cost about $1,200 before lessons. Cello packages can easily cost $3,000 before lessons. $700 for a performance-ready guzheng, then, is a great deal. If you are really lucky you can get a used instrument for even less.

Let’s get to it! All price estimates are made in August of 2018 for players in North America.

The Instrument

New - $500-$20,000

Dunhuang Guzheng.jpg




Instruments sold in the United States of America start at about $500 USD. These starter instruments are perfectly acceptable for students. Pay attention to shipping costs when shopping. Some sellers include shipping in the total price while others charge for it separately. Shipping a guzheng in North America is generally around $100. Longer distances can be closer to $150. 

It is also possible to have an instrument shipped from Asia but it's usually more risk and trouble than it is worth. Entry-level models range from $150 USD for low-tier brands you will regret buying to $350 for reasonable starter instruments. Those numbers may sound good but you still have to get it here. An English-Language store in Beijing quotes $205 to ship to the USA from China while a store in Singapore quotes $278 USD. Add that to the $350 purchase price and you’ve already exceeded $500. Shipping delays, customs, and changing import restrictions can add to the headache. It is therefore a wiser choice for a beginner to purchase domestically. 

Mass market concert-quality guzheng top out at about $5,000. Beyond that you enter the realm of specialty and master-made instruments. These reach to about $20,000. For example, the wonderful HKZhengArt currently has a Dunhuang for $18,000 USD while ChineseZither.net has a Mitsuya Koto quoted at $16,800. And of course, you can always find something more expensive if you know where to look.

But back to students: $1000 is higher than any new student should pay. Anything higher, say a $1500 instrument, is a jaw-dropping luxury. It's the equivalent of getting a convertible for a student driver. Great if you can afford it but entirely unnecessary. I know musicians who have performed for decades who use sub-$1000 instruments. Any quality guzheng, even entry-level instruments in the $500 range will provide personal enjoyment for decades as long as it is cared for properly, and $800 instruments will wow and amaze. 

Used - $200-$800

Finding a guzheng on the used market in North America is all about location and luck. Major websites such as eBay, Craigslist, and Kijiji average 2-3 used guzheng a month, country-wide. Facebook Marketplace seems to have more, with 5 active the day of this writing (NY, CA, DE, WA). Many are priced close to what you would pay for a new instrument so weigh potential savings against the risks of buying used. Guzheng are more commonly found for sale on the coasts but a few pop up every year in the interiors. It is possible to find a damaged but playable instrument for around $200 if you are patient. Increase your budget to $400 -$500 and you'll have better luck.

$350, $450, and $800 USD are common prices for instruments but there is no accepted way to discount used guzheng. Read listings carefully and discuss price with the seller. I've seen factory-fresh instruments listed as '"antique" and 25-year-old war horses with obvious body damage listed as "like new".

I put the top of the used range at $800 because I do not recommend buying a used instrument for more than $800, especially if this will be your first guzheng. $800 can get you a very nice new instrument from a quality brand without the risks of hidden problems. Now, high-end instruments do occasionally come up for sale and if you know what you are doing you can snag a good deal. In 2017 one $1,000 USD package went up in California that included a microphone amplifier and various accessories,while two more went up for sale in western Canada for $1400 USD and $2500 USD. The Canadian listings turned out to be worth $1,000-2,000 more than the asking price - but you had to know a good deal to understand why.

Buying used can save you money and is better for the community and the environment, but remember that students need support. Support can come from members of the community or through the staff of a quality store. If you buy used and don't know the guzheng community in your area you also won't have a store to help address issues if they arise.

Rentals - ~$600/year

Rentals are great for verifying a new student's interests. Rent for a few months and if you or your child are still interested, go ahead and buy one. From what I've seen stores and some teachers ask about $50 USD per month. Rent for too long and you'll spend as much in rent as you would if you purchased your own. I like to think of it this way: if you commit to play the instrument for one year, you've given yourself a budget of $600. Buy an instrument for that much at the end of the year you'll either be able to spread the joy of the instrument to someone else or be able to keep playing for free.

Other Costs of Ownership

Nails

1st year cost: $0-$12

Nails, picks, or plectra, as they are called, are the next thing to get after purchasing an instrument. Any hard material can be used to make nails though different materials provide different sounds. The best nails are solid and rigid. The go-to material used to be a type of turtle shell, but unsustainable hunting drove the turtles near extinction. They are still at high risk. It's better for the future of guzheng players and for the environment to use other materials while the turtle population regrows. Plastics, resins, stone, bone, bamboo, and even metal have been used to pluck long zithers over human history.  You can find the material that sounds right for you without endangering the future.

Nails range from less than $0.75 USD per nail for cheaper plastics to $5.00 or more per nail for higher quality pieces. That is a range of $6-40 USD total for the 8 picks needed to cover both hands. Instruments are often sold with a basic set of nails - thin plastic sets that are very similar to guitar picks. These are enough to get you started. And, if you lose one of these cheap nails you can fashion a replacement out of a guitar pick.  

Higher quality nails tend to be thicker with more care given to their shape. They can include tapered edges, curved surfaces, and sculpted indentations for your fingers. Midway between the free plastic and the more expensive picks are the intermediate sets for $10-12 USD. Even at that price you should have some choices regarding the size, thickness, indentation pattern, and material.

Materials you might see include:

  • Cellulose, Acetate, Nylon, ABS - these are different types of plastics. Man made.

  • Resin - plastic-like substance derived from plants. Man made.

  • Ox Horn - made from exactly that, the horn of various forms of domesticated cattle. I haven't had the privilege to use these but have plans too. Enriched or hardened horn could offer an interesting alternative to turtle shell picks.

  • Bone, teeth, antler - Harder to find and not commonly used. They can be made from the bones, teeth, and antlers of various animals. Nothing wrong with that unless that animal is an elephant.

  • Bamboo - exactly that. Less common in modern times.

  • "Natural Materials", "Natural Marine Keratin" - these are phrases used to hide the actual material while suggesting that they are Turtle Shell. That is problematic. If you do want to buy nails with this material listed them ask the seller what they are made of. If they say they are made of turtle shell don’t buy them. See below.

  • Turtle Shell - the shell of any one of 7 sea turtles. DO NOT BUY THESE. Sea turtle populations are losing out to human activity.

 Endangered turtles killed for smuggling. Smugglers captured by Chinese authorities in November 2016 in Guangxi. Story source  here  and  here . Image taken from Naira Naija News.

Endangered turtles killed for smuggling. Smugglers captured by Chinese authorities in November 2016 in Guangxi. Story source here and here. Image taken from Naira Naija News.

The longer people buy turtle products the greater the chance we'll drive them to extinction.

High quality plastics and ox horn will give you a great sound. Buy them instead.

It is theoretically possible for nails to be made from non-endangered turtles BUT! Unless you can get proof which species the nails come from you could be encouraging the destruction of a species. Stay away.

  • Pangolin - supposedly nails crafted from the scales of the Pangolin. DO NOT BUY THESE. Pangolin are a critically endangered anteater that lives in Asia and Africa. Much like turtle shell, any nails you find labeled Pangolin are probably ox horn imitations.

  • Ivory - DO NOT BUY THESE. The Ivory trade has led to the near destruction of Elephants around the world. Purchasing them and moving them out of China and into your home country breaks laws in every country involved. You’d think people wouldn’t sell them and yet… I was offered a set of “Elephant Teeth” nails on a recent shopping trip with such nonchalance it was disturbing.

Tape

1st year: $12

Guzheng Tapes.jpg

Tape is used to attach the nails to the fingers. You'll want a breathable tape with an adhesive that doesn't bother your skin. Cloth tapes are common though other forms of tape can work. A good place to start is with guzheng or pipa tape from a music store or woven First Aid or medical tape from a pharmacy or drug store. You'll typically want lengths of 2.5 to 4 inches per finger. Assuming you tape all four fingers every week, a 5-meter roll of tape will last about 8 weeks. Rolls are typically $1-$2

Strings

1st year: $0-$30

Guzheng Strings.jpg

Strings can last for more than one year. If one happens to break you can order an individual replacement for $1.50-$3 USD. Complete sets range from $30-$70. String quality has a large impact on instrument sound so buy the best strings you can afford. Most new instruments come with several replacement strings as part of their purchase price. 

Purchase "Type B" strings. They are an improvement over the older standard string, Type A. Most modern instruments are built for Type B strings which use a higher tension. You may also encounter Type C strings. These are intended for diatonic tunings, something beginners don't need to worry about.

Stands

1st year: $0 (or $30 or $60)

Folding Guzheng Stands.jpg

Stands are typically included with instruments both new and old. If you do need a set you can expect to pay $60 for a decent two-piece stand or $100 or more for a 3-piece stand. Two piece stands are two sets of folding legs that support each end of the instrument. 3-piece stands are made of two vertical supports that are held in place by a crosspiece. 2-piece stands are lighter and portable, while 3-piece stands are more stable and look fancier.

A western alternative is an x-brace keyboard stand. These sell for $30-$60 USD and are more adjustable and easier to find than guzheng stands. They can also be adjusted to fit your personal height preference whereas guzheng stands cannot. Keyboard stands are especially helpful if you have long legs. Just make sure the stand you are looking at can support your instrument in the right places at the right height.

Bonus: Some x-brace keyboard stands can support a guzheng at such a height that you can stand while playing it.

Seat

1st year: $0

Special stools can be purchased but they aren't needed. Most players practice and perform on whatever chair is available. Use one from around your house or go to a second-hand store to find a chair or stool you like sitting on. The most important thing is to make sure you sit in an ergonomic position with proper posture when you play. The chair should be high enough that your feet are flat on the floor and your thigh bones are parallel to the ground or sloping slightly downward towards your knees. Padded seats can make longer practice sessions far more enjoyable.

Tuner

1st year: $0-$20

Guzheng Tuners.jpg

Simple tuners are often included in new instrument purchases. They can also be purchased separately. Any guitar tuner that can distinguish between natural and sharp notes will work. There are also a variety of free tuning apps available for smartphones. Specialty guzheng tuners can be purchased for $5-$20 USD.

Case

1st year: $0-$60.

Green Guzheng Case.jpg

Most new instruments come with a case. If yours didn't, buy a case. Cases protect your guzheng and make it easy to carry. Soft cases are essentially fabric and won't offer much protection from collisions but will keep out dust. They range from $50-$70 and can be made waterproof. Hard cases offer full protection but can be heavier and significantly larger than the instrument. Hard cases are almost impossible to find in North America. I know of only one retailer that has a hard case for sale and they ask $700. 

Hard cases can be purchased in Asia starting at about $100 USD. Shipping to North America would follow a similar trend as shipping an instrument itself, $200-$300. As a new student you probably won't be traveling that much so a soft case should be fine.

Humidity Control

1st year: $60 plus cost of water and electricity

When the cold weather comes you will need a humidifier to keep your guzheng from cracking and a hygrometer to measure the humidity in the air. You can read more in the Care and Maintenance section. You have a variety to chose from but even the cheapest humidifiers will be tens of dollars. Between that and a hygrometer, budget around $60 USD for humidity control.

Learning Materials

1st year: $0-$40

This is a big range because of the options available to you. There are a variety of video lessons and training materials available online in English for free. The Chinese-language guzheng websites have loads more. 

A book of lessons will typically cost you from $5-$20 USD. Any given book could give you enough for several months to several years depending on how quickly you work through it and how much the book has. Some teachers ask you to purchase a book to learn alongside lessons while others may provide the learning materials for free.

Lessons

1st year: $1500-$2500

Learning with an actual teacher provides more information and yields better outcomes than self-learning alone. Self learning is great! But a single lesson with a teacher can be worth several hours of personal trial and error. It can also prevent you from developing posture and technique problems that you have to overcome later. That said, lessons are the largest cost of playing the guzheng. Your best bet is to find the balance of lessons and self-learning that work for you.

The estimate that a year of lessons would cost $1500-$2500 assumes a weekly lesson of between $30 and $50 per week for 48 weeks. That leaves 4 weeks left over for vacations, busy schedules, and the like. To spread your budget you could take lessons less frequently and fill in the time with extra practice and self study, or look for group lesson discounts to defer the cost among several students. An increasing number of teachers are offering video lessons as well - perhaps you could work out a mix of in-person lessons and video checkups. Discuss your particular balance with your teacher. In my estimate at the top of the page I drop the numbers to $1,000-$2,000 to account for the fact that most students go less than 48 times per year. School summers, family events, and other real-world events typically take up some time.

There you have it! If you have any questions about these numbers or any of the topics mentioned feel free to send an email below.