The guzheng (古筝) is one of my favorite instruments in the world. An ancient Chinese plucked-string instrument, today it’s featured prominently in both classical Chinese and modern international compositions. I think of the guzheng as a perfectly balanced mix between a harp and a zither.
The design of this instrument originated in China and quickly travelled to Japan to become the koto, Korea to become the gayageum, Mongolia to become the yatga, and Vietnam to end up a đàn tranh. All of these instruments are built and played similarly but they serve very different purposes in the music of each culture.
A guzheng is also quite similar to another Chinese zither, called a guqin (古琴). The essential difference is that our guzheng features around 18 or 21 moveable bridges underneath its strings, where the guqin has none. Both versions are known for the unique depth of their string resonance.
THE BEAUTY OF ITS SOUND
The magic of this instrument is encapsulated by its ambidexterity as both a solo voice and an accompanying voice to an ensemble (or even to itself). There is such a diverse range of playing styles that have developed over the years, that the best, most masterful music is often known to incorporate several styles at once. Listen to a few examples of performers stretching the guzheng in multiple directions all at once:
Guns N’ Roses Covers
Let’s say you somehow inherit one of these instruments and find yourself unable to resist its beauty and tone. First you will need to tune your guzheng. Typically, they come with a tuning fork inside the sidebox.
Since the strings are organized in sets of 5, they are usually tuned in a major pentatonic scale with 5 notes to an octave (do, re, mi, sol, and la). Scores are written in a numbered notation called jianpu, which just translates the notes of any scale (do, re, mi, fa, sol, la, ti) to sets of numbers 1-7. So, as the most common tuning for the guzheng is the pentatonic scale in D major, the notes that each octave of strings would tune to are:
1 (do) = D, 2 (re) = E, 3 (mi) = F#, 5 (sol) = A, 6 (la) = B
This is not the only common tuning, however. Experiment with a few to see which tunings you like playing in the best! Learning jianpu is very easy. Indicators for octaves, chords, and length of each note are depicted clearly using easy-to-read symbols and notational formatting. Here’s an example of the use of numbered notation.
Now, how to we pluck the strings? Well, you’ll need to affix picks to every finger on your right hand, except for the pinkie, with short strips of tape. Your left hand is used to bend the strings on the other side of the bridges. Once you have a bit more experience, you can wear picks on both hands to play chords and melody simultaneously. The picks used on a guzheng are called daimao and are made from hawksbill turtle shell, but you can also use the smallest guitar picks you can find.
Place the picks point-up on the bottom side of each finger so that it looks like you’ve got nails on both sides, and wrap the tape twice around your finger. Here’s some help:
For lessons, it’s always convenient to find a local teacher, but understandably, this may be difficult. So if you are like me and love learning online through videos and tutorials, I strongly recommend this series offered by Sounds of China on YouTube. And you can find excellent resources, sheet music, and practice guides at chinesezither.net.
Wu Fei is a brilliant performer who pushes herself to explore improvisation and modern composition with undying energy and passion. She employs many styles of playing and often prepares her guzheng with tiny objects hanging from the strings in order to give them a more percussive timbre.
This video features her chatting about the instrument and her relationship with it. (Check out how the wind blows through it to produce beautiful natural tones at 7:30!)
Master performer Xu Fengxia is another pioneer of modern free improvisation on the guzheng. She is constantly touring worldwide both solo and in innovative new music ensembles. Xu also sings and teaches classes internationally.
American composer, Lou Silver Harrison (1917-2003), who composed some of the most influential 20th century avant-garde music from the US, incorporated guzheng into many of his pieces and even played it himself!
Love learning about obscure instruments? Check in with the full “What the Heck is a…” series here!