1. Where are the guzheng made?
A: Currently there are four major places that are making guzhengs in China. Xi'an, Shanghai, Yangzhou, and Henan. Each place has its unique method of making, and the tones of the guzhengs are distinctive from each other.
Shanghai guzhengs, represnted by Dunhuang brand and its affiliation, are known for their sweetness and brightness.
Xi'an guzhengs, represnted by Scarlet Bird Zhuque brand of Xi'an Music Conservatory and Dongyun brand of Master Zai Jirong, are known for their superb bass and robust volume. A glorious sound that only grand piano can compare.
Yangzhou guzhengs, represented by 3 major brands, Tianyi, Long Feng, Jinyun, are known for their diversity. Among them, Tianyi guzhengs offer the most versatility, while Jinyun guzhengs offer the most pureness, and Long Feng guzhengs provide an ancient tone.
Henan Guzhengs, represented by Zhongzhou brand, are similar to Shanghai guzhengs but inferior in tone. They often make the low end ones for the Shanghai companies.
There are also currently a number of makers that are making guzhengs in Taiwan.
KaoHsiong's Master Chai Yuanhong, who is also a professional guzheng player himself, is known for his understanding of what the musicians need in the instrument. He majored in sound engineering, and applies scientific measurement to the construction of the soundboard. His instruments, Songbo guzheng, sound pure, clean and balanced, and easy to play with.
Taichung's Master Ji and Hong Sheng are known for his over 50 years' experience who has been making guzhengs since the early steel-stringed to the 21-nylon-stringed of present time. Their guzhengs sound warm and full.
2. How are the soundboards dried? And what's the effect on the sound?
A: There are 3 different drying methods that are adopted by the guzheng factories, 100% natural air-drying, oven drying, and flame drying.
Xi'an Scarlet Bird brand guzhengs, some Taiwan guzhengs, some Yangzhou brands and some Henan brands use 100% air-drying method. It requires wood to expose to natural air for at least 1 year after it's cut. The result is a warm wood tone that's signature of an acoustic instrument. The color of the soundboard retains the natural wood color in light yellow.
Shanghai guzhengs are famous for their oven-drying method. The soundboard is dark brown in color. It puts soundboards in a big heating oven with humidity control. The result of this method offers a crispy and sweet tone that many people fall in love with right away.
Yangzhou guzhengs are known for their flame-drying method. This uses a fire gun directly flame the soundboards and yields a charcoal color board. It is the most cost-effective method, since the board can be dried in just 30 minutes. However, the sound of flame-dried boards are rather thin and metallic. The top layer cells of the wood are basically killed using flame-drying. Most Yangzhou brands use this drying method except custom orders. Sound of China does not carry any flame-dried instruments.
3. How to determine the quality of a guzheng soundboard?
A: Soundboard is the most important factor that determines the sound quality of a guzheng. Soundboard is the media that transmit the sound wave into the sound box. Therefore, the quality of the soundboard is really important for a guzheng instrument. Most guzhengs have paulownia as the soundboard. Although some innovative makers start using spruce for the sound boards, most makers still use paulownia as the soundboards. “Sound of China” distinguishes the quality of paulownia soundboard into 5 grades, and we strictly require our makers to follow this standard.
The basic grade is taken from outer piece of a flatsawn-cut wood. This soundboard has a rather big core part of the wood. The grains are in parabola shape rather than straight lines, and they are loose and uneven. The sound quality of this piece is generally not clear as desired. It's more blurry and muddy.
The intermediate grade is taken from the second outer piece of a flat-sawn-cut wood. The grains are tighter and straighter compare to the basic grade. The sound is cleaner.
The professional grade is taken from middle part of a flatsawn-cut wood. This soundboard has straight grains but less evenly spaced. The center core is more obvious. The sound is cleaner and tighter.
The concert grade is the one taken from the near inner piece of a flatsaw-cut wood or a loose quartersawn-cut piece. This sound has straight grains. Some center core of the wood is shown. The sound is clean and rich.
The collection grade is taken from the most inner piece of a flatsawn-cut or a refined quartersawn-cut piece. Grains are straight, even and tight. The center core of the wood is minimal and not obvious to be seen. Since the center core part of the wood is more unstable and not even in density, it is not desired for a guzheng soundboard. The sound is very clean, clear, rich and focused.
Besides the quality of the soundboard, the skill of the maker is as important. A good maker is able to shape a second grade piece into a first grade sound quality; while a machine cut might destroy a good first grade board piece.
4. Which is better? Wider grains or tighter grains?
A: The width of the grains is correlated to the age of the tree. Usually, the outer edge of the tree has wider grains, while the inner part has tighter grains. Weather and climate are also factors. A good guzheng sound board should sound focused. A Board with wider grains sounds loose; while a board with tighter grains sounds bright and focused. An ideal board will have loose grains in the bottom low range and tight grains in the high range. Generally, the best width for high range grain is between 0.5cm-1.5cm, and the best width for the low range grain is between 2.0-3.0cm.
5. Why isn’t hard wood such as rosewood, zitan or nanmu used for soundboard?
A: A guzheng soundboard requires a soft wood that is easy for the transmitting of the sound waves. Paulownia or spruce has the ideal density as a guzheng soundboard.
6. How to clean the soundboard?
A: Wipe with dry clean cloth or brush. Do not use water or wet towel to clean the soundboard. Orange oil is a must not!! Use dry clothes only.
7. What are the materials used for the guzheng frame?
A: Guzheng frames desire hard wood materials that are dense enough to kick back the sound into the sound box. Common hard wood used are East Indian Rosewood, zitan Madagascar Rosewood, Thailand Rosewood, Nanmu, mahogany, and Burmese Rosewood. Different hard wood affects the tone of the guzheng, while the quality of the soundboard affects the quality of the sound. If you are interested to find out more about the different types of frame woods, please read "Common Frame Woods used on Guzheng" article.
8. How to avoid cracking of the side frame?
A: The hard wood is mostly from Southeast Asia that has humid climate. When it goes to a dryer place, it tends to crack. A good way to take care of the side board is to apply orange/lemon oil on it every week within the first year of the purchase. After a year, the hard wood gets stable and will not crack easily.
9. Does the decoration on the side boards affect the sound quality?
A: The answer is “No”.
10. What is the difference between a paulownia back board and a plywood back board?
A: Back board is also an important factor that determines the sound quality of a guzheng. The back board kicks back the sound and absorb the sound passing down. A plywood back board does little in absorbing the sound which leaves the sound blurring together inside the sound box. Thus, a guzheng with plywood back board doesn’t sound clear. Even though you tune it 10 times, it still sounds out-of-tune.
11. What’s the material used for bridges?
A: The guzheng bridges transmit the vibration of the strings into the sound box. The bridges should use hard wood with higher in density to transmit the vibration easily. Generally, rosewoods are used for the body. Ivory, bone or plastics are used as the tips. A zitan bridge with ivory tip is known to be the best material, but it's hardly seen nowadays.
12. Does the shape of the bridges affect the sound quality of a guzheng?
A: Yes. The shape, the height, the size of the tips all affect the sound quality. Usually, higher bridges produce brighter and louder sound, while low bridges produce a more solid and focused sound.
13. Why are there so many kinds of strings offered on “Sound of China”?
A: Different strings also affect sound quality. Since players often have different desire on the sound effects, Sound of China offers numbers of professional strings to satisfy different needs. For example, Yuesheng strings sound warm and mellow and is easy to bend, while Dunhuang B strings sound bright and sweet and is harder to bend.
14. How often do I need to change the strings?
A: Beginners usually change a string only when it breaks. That is ok, since beginners do not pluck the strings as strong as professionals. However, for players who play the guzheng daily, we recommend changing the strings as needed. While the strings in the low range might last 2+ years, the strings in the high range should be changed every 6-12 months. Whenever you feel a string does not sound as bright, it’s time to change it.