1. Where are guzheng instruments manufactured?
Currently there are four major areas of guzheng production in China: Xi'an, Shanghai, Yangzhou and Henan. Each area has its unique production method and produces guzhengs with quite distinctive sounds.
Shanghai guzhengs, represented by the Dunhuang brand and its affiliates, are known for their sweetness and brightness.
Xi'an guzhengs, represented by the Scarlet Bird Zhuque brand of Xi'an Music Conservatory and the Dongyun brand of Master Zai Jirong, are known for their superb bass and robust volume. A glorious sound that compares only to the grand piano.
Yangzhou guzhengs, represented by three major brands, Tianyi, Long Feng and Jinyun, are known for their diversity. Among them, Tianyi guzhengs offer the most versatility, while Jinyun guzhengs offer the greatest purity, and Long Feng guzhengs provide an antique type of sound.
Henan Guzhengs, represented by the Zhongzhou brand, are similar to Shanghai guzhengs but inferior in sound. They often produce low-end instruments for the Shanghai companies.
There are currently also a number of guzheng makers manufacturing instruments in Taiwan. Master Chai Yuanhong in Kaohsiung, himself a professional guzheng player, is known for his understanding of what musicians are looking for in an instrument. Having majored in sound engineering, he applies scientific measurement to the construction of the soundboard. His instruments, Songbo guzhengs, have a pure, clean and balanced sound, and are easy to play.
Masters Ji and Hong Sheng in Taichung are known for their over 50 years of experience in guzheng construction. They have been in production since the days of the early steelstringed instruments right up to today's the 21-nylon-stringed instruments. The sound of their guzhengs is warm and full.
2. How are the soundboards dried? And how does this affect the sound?
There are three different drying methods adopted by guzheng workshops: 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 the 100% air-drying method. This requires the wood to be exposed to natural air for at least one year after being cut. The result is a warm woody sound that is the true signature of an acoustic instrument. With air-drying, the soundboard retains the natural light-yellow color of the wood.
Shanghai guzhengs are well known for being manufactured with the oven-drying method. Here the soundboards are placed in a big oven that has humidity control. The result of this process is a crispy, sweet sound that many people fall in love with right away. Oven-drying turns the soundboard dark brown in color.
Yangzhou guzhengs are known for being manufactured with the flame-drying method. Here a fire gun is used to fire a flame directly onto the soundboard, creating a charcoal colored board. This is the most cost-effective method, because the board can be dried in just 30 minutes. However, the sound of flame-dried soundboards is rather thin and metallic because flame-drying basically kills the top layer of wood cells. Sound of China does not carry any flame-dried instruments.
3. How can I determine the quality of a guzheng soundboard?
The soundboard is the most important factor that affects the sound quality of a guzheng because it is the medium for transmitting the sound waves into the sound box. The quality of the soundboard is therefore crucial in determining the instrument's quality. Most guzheng soundboards are made of paulownia wood. Although some innovative makers have begun using spruce instead, most of them still use paulownia.
We at Sound of China distinguish the quality of paulownia soundboards into five grades, and we require our makers to strictly follow this standard.
The basic grade soundboard is made from outer pieces of flatsawn wood. The wood of this soundboard has a rather large core. The grains are in parabola shape instead of in straight lines, and they are loose and uneven in density. Because the center core of the wood is somewhat unstable and uneven, it is not the best choice for a guzheng soundboard. The sound quality of this basic soundboard is therefore not as clear as desired – it is somewhat blurry and muddy.
The intermediate grade soundboard is made from second outer pieces of flatsawn wood. The grains are tighter and straighter than the basic grade pieces, making the sound cleaner.
The professional grade soundboard is made from middle sections of flatsawn wood. The grains are straight but less evenly spaced, and the center core is visible. The sound of the professional grade soundboard is clean and tight.
The concert grade soundboard is made from near inner pieces of flatsawn wood or from a loose quartersawn piece. The grains are straight, while the whole piece still displays some center core. The sound is clean and rich.
The collection grade soundboard is made from innermost pieces of flatsawn wood or from a refined quartersawn piece. The grains are straight, even and tight. The center core of the wood is minimal and not obvious. The sound is very clean, clear, rich and focused.
Besides the quality of the soundboard, the skill of a guzheng maker is just as important for determining instrument quality. A good maker is able to shape a second-grade piece in such a way as to produce the sound quality of a first-grade soundboard. Conversely, machine cutting can lower the value of a top-grade soundboard piece – or even destroy it entirely.
4. Which is better for a soundboard, wide grains or tight grains?
The width of the grains is correlated to the age of a tree. The outer edge of a tree usually has wider grains, while the inner part has tighter grains. Weather and climate are also determining factors here. A good guzheng soundboard should sound focused. A soundboard with wider grains sounds loose, while one with tighter grains sounds bright and focused. An ideal soundboard will therefore have wide grains in the bottom-range area and tight grains in the high-range area. Generally, the best width for high-range grain is between 0.5-1.5cm; the ideal width for low-range grain is between 2.0-3.0cm.
5. Why are hardwoods such as rosewood, red sandalwood (zitan) or nanmu not used for the soundboard?
A guzheng soundboard requires a soft wood that will easily transmit sound waves. Paulownia and spruce have the ideal density for this very purpose.
6. How should the soundboard be cleaned?
It should be wiped clean with a clean dry cloth or brush. Water or a wet towel should never be used. Orange oil also never!
7. What are the materials used for the guzheng frame?
The guzheng frame requires hardwood materials that are dense enough to bounce the sound back into the sound box. Common hardwoods in use are zitan, nanmu, mahogany, East Indian rosewood, Madagascar rosewood, Thai rosewood and Burmese rosewood. Different hardwood frames affect the tone of the guzheng, while the quality of the soundboard affects the quality of its sound. If you are interested in learning more about the different types of frame woods, please read the article Common Frame Woods Used in Guzheng Construction.
8. How is cracking of the side frame avoidable?
Hardwoods are obtained mostly from Southeast Asia with its humid climate. When brought to a dryer place, they will tend to crack. A good way to care for the side frame is to apply some orange or lemon oil on it every week within the first year of purchase. After a year of this conditioning, the hardwood becomes stable and will not crack so easily.
9. Does the decoration on the side boards affect the sound quality?
Not at all.
10. What is the difference between a paulownia back board and a plywood back board?
The back board is also an important factor that determines the sound quality of a guzheng. The back board bounces the sound back while absorbing the sound passing down. A plywood back board does little in absorbing the sound, allowing the sound to become blurred inside the sound box. A guzheng with a plywood back board never sounds clear: even after tuning the instrument 10 times, it will still sound out of tune!
11. What material is used for the bridges?
Guzheng bridges transmit the vibration of the strings into the sound box. To transmit the vibrations easily, bridges should also be made of high-density hardwood. Generally, various rosewoods are good materials for the bridge body. Ivory, bone or plastic are used for the bridge tips. A zitan bridge with an ivory tip is known to be the best material, but is hardly seen nowadays.
12. Does the shape of the bridge affect the sound quality of a guzheng?
The bridge shape and height, and the size of the tips all affect sound quality. Higher bridges usually produce a brighter and louder sound, while low bridges produce a more solid and focused sound.
13. Why does Sound of China offer so many different kinds of strings?
Different strings also affect sound quality. For example, Yuesheng strings sound warm and mellow and are easy to bend, while Dunhuang B strings sound bright and sweet, and are harder to bend. Since players often have different needs in relation to sound effects, Sound of China offers a variety of professional strings to satisfy different tastes.
14. How often do I need to change the strings?
Beginners usually change a string only when it breaks. That is fine, as beginners do not pluck the strings as strongly as professionals. However, for players who play the guzheng daily, we recommend changing the strings as needed. While strings in the low range might last two years or more, strings in the high range should be changed every 6-12 months. Whenever you feel a string does not sound as bright as it should, that means it is time to change it.