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Guzheng: The Chinese Zither

The guzheng is a traditional Chinese plucked instrument that belongs to the zither family of musical instruments. It has a history of over 2,500 years. The modern guzheng is about 64 inches in length, has 21 strings, and is tuned in a major pentatonic scale.

The instrument

A guzheng-like instrument is believed to have developed during the Qin Dynasty (221 B.C. to 206 B.C.). It originally had about 12 strings. “Until 1961, the common guzheng had 18 strings. In 1961 Xu Zhengao, together with Wang Xunzhi, introduced the first 21-string guzheng after two years of research and development. In 1961, they also invented the ‘S-shaped’ left string rest, which was quickly adopted by all guzheng makers and is still used today, whether in the shape of the letter ‘S,’ ‘C,’ etc.,” according to Seattle Guzheng.

Though the 21-string version is the most commonly used, traditional musicians from the coastal areas of China and Taiwan continue to use 16-string ones. Some even use customized ones with 34 strings. Originally, the strings were made of silk. In the 20th century, metal strings began to be used. Today, most guzheng performers use an instrument with steel strings that are wound with nylon. This multi-material string enables the guzheng to produce a higher volume while retaining a reasonable timbre. The instrument has a huge resonant cavity made from wu tong wood. Artists also tend to customize their guzhengs with unique decorations that can include carved art, paintings, calligraphy, etc.

(Image: Screenshot / YouTube)
Artists tend to customize their guzheng with unique decorations that can include carved art, paintings, calligraphy, etc. (Image: Screenshot / YouTube)

A guzheng weighs around 20 to 30 pounds on average and is usually chunky. But despite its looks, the instrument is easy to carry. There is normally a compartment to the right side of the strings that the players use to store their tuners, extra strings, extra bridges, and so on. Ever since it was invented, the guzheng has inspired the creation of similar instruments in Asia. Some of the most popular ones include the dan tranh of Vietnam, koto in Japan, and kayagum in Korea.

Playing the guzheng

Traditional players use their right hand to pluck the notes and the left hand to add some ornamentation to the music like vibrato and pitch slides. A modern technique inspired by Western music uses the left hand to provide bass notes and harmony. This essentially allows the guzheng to have a greater musical range. On the downside, the technique sacrifices the ornamentation traditionally provided by the left hand.

Practitioners wear fake nails called finger picks when playing the instrument. These are usually made from turtle shells. “Guzheng players use a cloth tape that was made to tape the picks on the top of their right-hand fingers. Not all of them, only the first four. As one increases in level, they would also wear the finger picks on their left hand too. These not only protect your fingers from blistering, but also make sure that the sound comes out bright and not muffled when the string is plucked,” according to Sheet Music Plus.

(Image: Screenshot / YouTube)
Guzheng players wear finger picks that are attached to their fingers with cloth tape. (Image: Screenshot / YouTube)

There are two groups of guzheng playing styles — Northern and Southern schools. These are further subdivided based on the regions like Henan, Hakka, Shandong, and so on. In modern times, players often mix the techniques from both schools, essentially creating new styles. The guzheng is also being increasingly used in other genres of music like jazz and rock.

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