Tag Archives: Asia

Erhu, Zhonghu, Pipa, and Guzheng

There are three traditional chinese instruments that I find fascinating: Erhu, Pipa, and Guzheng.

ErhuThe Erhu (二胡) is a two stringed bowed instrument that is played like a viola da gamba, resting the instrument on a leg and bowing with a loosely-haired bow that is situated between the two strings and pulled in a similar style as a German bass bow or gamba bow.

(Incidentally, the chinese word for “to play a stringed instrument” is “l��,” (���) or “to pull.” For example, a literal translation inquiring about one’s violin-playing capabilities might be phrased as “n�� hu√� l�� xi��o t√≠ q√≠n ma?” (�Ω��������∞���������?) Or: “Can you pull the violin?”)

This afternoon as I was hanging out in my parents-in-law’s house, I noticed two erhu’s sitting in the corner, and Yingwen’s dad said he had been learning the instrument over the past year or so. I asked him to show me how it was done and he obliged, demonstrating the basics of bowing and fingering technique.

The two strings are tuned a fifth apart, and they are close enough so that both strings are fingered at the same time. But you don’t bow both strings at the same time. The bow hair runs between the two strings and you change the direction of force in or out to alternate which string you are hitting. To increase bow hair tension, you have to use your fingers to pull the hair out away from the stick, similar to many historic western string instruments.

Fingering is also slightly different than your traditional western string instrument, in that there is no fingerboard. You simply lay the finger at the point where you want to stop the string and out comes the note.

Other than all that, it feels very much like playing a very tiny bass with a German bow. Not too bad at all. I noodled around until I found a decent rendition of the melody from Dvo≈�√�k’s 9th Symphony, 2nd movement – pentatonic scale, common to both American spirituals, the blues, and traditional Chinese music.

The zh≈�ngh√∫ (�∏≠�ɰ) is a deeper-pitched version of the erhu. I would seriously like to pick one of these types of instruments up, and figured I’d go for zhonghu since I tend toward the lower-pitched spectrum of instruments.

The p√≠p√� (����∂) is a kind of Chinese plucked string instrument similar to a guitar or lute. This instrument is even more interesting to me than the pipa. I have one recording of solo pipa performance and it is quite an interesting style. From what I can tell, the right hand technique is pretty challenging with it’s sustained tremolos. I’m hoping we can swing by a music instrument shop sometime while we’re here so I can take a look and possibly try one out.

Guzheng PlayerFinally, the g��zh��ng (�����) is another Chinese plucked string instrument, but this one sits on a table and is rather long at about one meter long. It is like a harp or a zither, with moveable independent bridges underneath each string.

If I had free time (ha ha ha ha ha), I’d try learning each one of these instruments. This is the great thing about vacations when you’re an over-busy person: being able to try out something new and different.