Making a Qin – Design Considerations


INTRODUCTION

There are many, many design considerations and options that are available to the aspiring qin maker in their quest to making a qin. Perhaps too many to cover in a single blog post, but I would like to bring to light some of these considerations for prospective qin builders or those who may be interested in making their own qin. In my previous posts, I discussed some of my experience in making the qin, as well as some pros and cons of the process. Perhaps I am a bit biased, but for me, the pros of making a qin far outweigh the cons, and I hope to provide further information as a guide. Below are some of the major design considerations I have found important to think about for building a qin, particularly for those who would like to explore alternative qin designs. This is written more as an introductory guide for those looking to start their own qin, though there is plenty of information that goes into more advanced topics and design considerations of experienced instrument making in general (gathered from over a decade of tinkering with and crafting many musical instruments.)


WOOD SELECTION

This is probably one of the biggest and first considerations you are likely to make when designing a qin, or any instrument for that matter. This also happens to be one of my favorite parts of designing an instrument as well! There are so many beautiful woods out there just waiting to be used and explored! Take for example, the guitar – there is an incredibly dizzying and endless array of combinations of woods out there, with not only aesthetic beauty but functionality in partly influencing the tone of the instrument. Though there is always a lot of debate on wood selection, wood types do have a significant effect on tone of the instrument. Lots of other factors come into play, but wood plays a significant role in itself. In addition, certain woods are better for certain parts of the instrument. For stringed instruments, the top wood or soundboard needs to be a lighter wood with good vibrational characteristics to be able to react to the vibrations induced by the strings. The bottom board (for a qin), or the back and sides (for other stringed instruments) are generally harder and denser woods, which reflect the vibrations in the sound cavity (though this is not always the case – for example, the Japanese koto uses paulownia for both the top and bottom, though using such a soft wood for both boards is not very common with stringed instruments, and some stringed instruments, such as the ichigenkin or the kantele, have open backed designs.)

For a qin, you will be presented with two major options in wood selection, which depends on what type of qin you want to make – you can stick with traditional woods if you are going for a traditional style qin, or you can go with non-traditional woods, which offers many unique advantages and many more options. Now, one is not necessarily better than the other – it just comes down to personal taste. For myself, I have always preferred to show off the natural beauty of the wood, as well as design instruments to have both aesthetically pleasing wood combinations as well as designing for tone. And by using alternative woods, you have an opportunity to create a very unique qin for yourself. However, you can definitely use non-traditional woods with the traditional lacquer approach, which also opens up some opportunities for tone customization as well.

The traditional qin uses paulownia for the top board, and most often catalpa for the bottom board. Paulownia is pretty much one of the exclusive woods for wood-topped, zither-type stringed instruments in Asia, and are used for example, for the guzheng and guqin in China, the koto and ichigenkin in Japan, and the gayegeum and geomongo in Korea. Paulownia is a very unique wood, as it has the highest strength to weight ratio of any wood, being not only one of the lightest woods in the world, but very strong and acoustically very resonant. This makes it as an ideal candidate for the top board, and is used almost exclusively for the qin top (minus some other alternative but similar woods occasionally used, and us few, handful of makers who have explored other wood options, some radically non-traditional woods). Paulownia is also common in China and other parts of Asia. I have found however that it is a bit harder to find here in the U.S.. In addition, if you are looking to make a qin with natural wood, paulownia tends to be a bit on the bland side for grain and color. For all of its excellent acoustical properties, a major downside of it being one of the softest woods in the world is just that – it is VERY soft, and requires a very hard finish to protect it. Other woods, such as spruce or redwood, while still soft woods, are not as easy to dent or damage.

The bottom board for traditional qin, as mentioned above, uses a relatively little known or used wood in the west, called catalpa. Unlike its topboard counterpart, catalpa really has no special merits or advantages as a bottom board, and seems like just an average wood selection regarding its physical properties, and in my opinion, does not seem to be really all that great of a selection of wood in regards to instrument design. For a qin that will be covered completely in lacquer, this doesn’t really present too much of a problem (since it is already so commonly used), but if you decide to go with a clear-coated qin, there are a huge number of woods out there to choose from – the backboard selection is far greater than what can be used for the top, and there are many more exquisite woods out there that can be used. However, even with a lacquered qin, there is nothing saying you cannot use other woods, such as maple, for the back, and I would even recommend exploring these other alternatives, which would be much ore acoustically advantageous in my opinion. Though the backboard does play an effect in shaping the tone, the wood selection is far less critical than for the top board. My next post will be dedicated exclusively to looking at and comparing the various physical properties of traditional and alternative wood choices for a qin, and dive much more into possible selections and combinations.

For a non-traditional qin, this is were the fun really begins! For the top board, generally the harder and more dense the wood chosen, the brighter the sound. There is an obvious limit to what can be used: the harder and denser the wood, in theory the thinner it needs to be to be able to be influenced by the string vibrations – you definitely would not find a wood topped stringed instrument out there that uses ebony for the soundboard! There are many choices however to choose from besides paulownia: woods like spruce, redwood, cedar, cypress, and butternut are all great potential candidates, and some of these woods, such as spruce, have many different species and selections under them as well. Generally top board woods will be a bit more plain, with the exception of woods such as figured or curly redwood. Personally for myself, redwood is my absolute #1 choice – not only is it exquisite looking in its figured form, but is an exceptional tonewood for stringed instruments, having great acoustical properties, and is generally on the warmer side in regards to tone, where other popular wood choices such as spruce tend to be brighter (not a bad thing!) and more plain looking (also not necessarily a bad thing!)

For the other parts of the qin, such as the bridge, nut, scholar’s caps, wild geese feet, peg protectors, and tuning pegs, rosewoods or some other very hard woods are used. There are many, many options for woods to use out there, and the woods can either be left bare or lacquered over for both traditional and non-traditional qin. As long as a very hard, heavy, and dense wood is chosen, the selection is really not critical in regards to sound production, and serves as more of an aesthetic choice (though I am sure that there may be some small effect on the tone as well). The wood should be hard and strong enough to prevent wear from the constant contact and force exerted on it by the strings, and is also the wood that directly transfers the vibrations to the soundboard and is in direct contact with the strings. Rosewoods and ebonies are a common choice.


DESIGN – SHAPE OR STYLE

Preliminary Design Sketch
Preliminary Design Sketch

Perhaps the next major design choice that you may come across is what shape or style do you want the qin to be? Again, there are two major options here: follow a traditional style, or go with a non-traditional shape. It could possibly be argued that the style might have some effect on tone, but I believe this is negligible compared to the actual craftsmanship and shaping of the soundboard, as well as other features such as wood selection, finish, and nut/bridge placement.

Fortunately, there are lots of traditional designs to choose from, ranging from simple and elegant, to more complex, to a bit odd. One of the most common and popular styles is the Confucian, or Zhong Ni style, a very simple and effective design. Other even simpler minimalist but elegant designs include the Lu Qi (green silk) style, Zheng He (straight) style, or one of my personal favorites, the Hun Tun (not sure the translation) rounded style. Examples of all these styles can be seen on Peiyou Chang’s page about qin styles at her site at http://www.peiyouqin.com/form1.html, or John Thompson’s page on qin styles at his site http://www.silkqin.com/02qnpu/05tydq/ty2a.htm.

For my qin, I had originally wanted to make either the banana leaf style (jiaoye) or luoxia style. Both of these styles are on the more complex side, and are both favorites and some of the more unique shapes for qin. They also seem to be popular selections, more so the banana leaf style than the luoxia, the latter of which I see turn up less often, and the banana leaf style can be found in many shops. However, I figure if I am already going to spend lots of time and money to make the qin out of unique woods, why follow convention and use a style that already exists and that lots of people already have? To further make this qin uniquely my own, I decided to use a non-traditional shape of my own design, one that (hopefully) had not been made before. I spent quite a bit of time planning and designing out the

shape of my qin, taking bits and pieces and other features from styles and qin I liked, as well as adding my own unique touches. It took me a bit over a month to go from rough conceptual drawings to a full scale, fully dimensioned master template. I ended up with a qin that combined aspects from the banana leaf style, bamboo style, Lian Zhu form, as well as some other unique touches that do not quite fall into any one particular style. This is a great way to make the qin more of your own, and to have a unique style that expresses your own personality, and adding even more uniqueness to a custom qin design.

Master template and tracing template for a unique guqin design
Guqin Master and Tracing Template

Another factor to consider in the general shape is the amount of flatness or roundness for the top board. Qin tops can greatly vary in their degree of side-to-side curvature, ranging from rather flat top styles (like my own qin) to highly rounded tops. Certain styles of qin may lend themselves better to varying degrees of curvature, such as the Hun Tun style, which may favor a more curved top profile, though this is largely up to the maker. Other styles, such as the banana leaf style or bamboo style, lend themselves to more intricate carving details on the side – depending on how you design the qin, this may or may not have an effect on tone. Too much excess solid wood on the sides could be detrimental to tone.

Besides the string length, board thicknesses, and general average size, you also have some degree of freedom of how large the overall qin is. This is mainly the total width and length of the qin. Qin come in varying sizes, some small and narrow, others longer and wider. My personal qin is a rather large qin, particularly wider than average. My qin is 8″ wide at the head, 8.5″ at its widest point, 6.75″ at the nut end, and 49″ total length. Depending on the design you choose, the head and foot ends of the qin can be wide or narrow, though qin taper from wider at the head end to narrower at the foot end, and depending on the design, can have a wider “shoulder” between these two points. Just be aware (as I am learning now) that a larger qin might have trouble finding a suitable carrying case, in which you may have to make your own or modify some other case to fit the larger qin dimensions. These choices however are mainly an aesthetic choice based on personal preference.

For the shape and style, my recommendation is just follow your instinct: if you want a traditional shape qin, go for it. If you want a unique qin shape that is your own design, then definitely go for it as well. Since you most likely will have to dimension out the details yourself either way, and since there really aren’t any templates you can trace out for the qin, adding custom touches really has no detriment. Personally for myself, I would say go for a unique custom qin shape! Truly make your qin your own!


PHYSICAL DIMENSIONS

There are several critical dimensions that need to be adhered to and have minimum leeway for interpretation, but there are many other dimensions in the design that lend themselves for interpretation.

STRING VIBRATING LENGTH
Perhaps the single most important dimension is the vibrating length of the string. This length is set between the inner edges of the bridge and the nut (facing each other), and determines the scale and hui placement. This can vary slightly between qin, but the amount of variation is minimal – generally from 43″ to 44.5″, with 44″ being a common (and probably the safest) length. The shorter the vibrating length, the closer the hui, and visa-versa. The vibrating length also plays a factor in timbre and string dynamics, but having such a narrow margin to work with anyway on the qin this may not be as big of an issue. For my own personal qin, I designed it with the maximum recommended length in mind, at about 44.5″. Note again that this is not the total length of the qin, but the distance between the inner edges of the bridge and the nut.

LENGTHWISE SOUNDBOARD CURVE

An example of the lengthwise soundbaord curve on a guqin soundboard
Guqin Lengthwise Curve

A second and very important dimension is lengthwise soundboard curve. This is a rather subtle curve, but is present in most fretboards of fretless stringed instruments – placing a long enough ruler, about 3′ or so, across the top of a properly profiled qin, you should see a very shallow dip running along the length of the qin. This curve can also be seen in instruments such as the violin and cello, though less pronounced than the qin. This generally starts at about hui 13, and ends at about hui 5, with the deepest part located between hui 7 and 8. This curve is only about 1-2mm normally, and is critical to prevent buzzing along the qin top. This particular stage of making the qin, and during the buzz checking phase, I have found, is one of the most time consuming parts of the process. Going very slowly and carefully is good practice for this stage, since it is very easy to over-concentrate sanding/shaping on one spot, which can greatly affect the areas around it. Starting from the center and gradually sweeping back and forth through the center, working your way to the edges is the best way to start. This is also the phase where you really learn to string the instrument – if you don’t have a rig to hold the strings over the top, you will spend a lot of time stringing and unstringing the qin as you check for buzzes along the length. This curve also can affect the overall string height of the qin as well – too much curve may guarantee little to no buzzing, but the action, especially at hui 7, may be too high as a result. On my own qin, due to a light miscalculation, I made this curve a bit too deep, which did result in a slightly higher string height than I intended. However, I generally play my qin now tuned very low with silk strings, usually down to G1, and this presents presents not much of an issue for playability (I have found that I prefer lower tuning anyway, and in an upcoming blog post I will discuss changes in timbre due to string tension and how one can optimize this for their qin – not all strings are the same, and some may work better at lower tunings than others).

STRING HEIGHT
Relating to the previous point is string height. Obviously, lower action is better, and makes the qin much easier to play, having less “resistance” when pressing down on the qin top. This measurement is usually taken at hui 7. However, there will be a minimum that is reasonably attainable – 5mm at hui 7 is probably the lowest you can reasonably get without buzzing, and to help compensate for the extra diameter of the lower strings, the lower strings may have slightly higher action than the upper strings. On the flip side, too high action will make the qin unplayable, and still does not guarantee there will not be buzzing anywhere if your lengthwise curve is not shaped well enough. Above 10mm you will probably run into issues – however, this can be compensated for with lower string tension and a proper lengthwise curve if done correctly. Generally a good rule of thumb is between 5-7mm at hui 7, with the higher strings can be a little closer than the lower ones. String height is governed by three main points on the qin: nut height, bridge height, and lengthwise curve depth. Nut height should not be more than 1mm, and the closer to the top without buzzing, the better. Bridge height is the primary modifier for overall string height, and usually to change overall string height for a qin you generally lower the bridge, or prop the string up more underneath the string on the bridge with a thin piece of whatever, such as plastic, wood, paper, etc. There is a curve starting from about hui 3 that goes down to the base of the bridge, and generally continues to the end of the qin, past the chenglu, which also determines overall relative bridge height. This is the main area that kind of threw off my own measurements a bit, with a miscalculation of only a few mm making a noticeable difference in string height. There is however a simple way to estimate total string height as well as calculate what changes where will affect the height using very simple trigonometry and free CAD software which I will dedicate both a whole information page to as well as a blog post to in the future. This can also be reasonably drawn out and calculated by hand as well, and I have found a simple little trick into “simulating” lower bridge height and the effect at hui 7 which I will explain in a future post as well.

TOP AND BOTTOM BOARD THICKNESSES
A fourth is starting board thicknesses for the top and bottom boards. The top board should be around 1.5″ thick – thinner than this may result in too flat of a qin top or not enough room to carve the curves on both the top and underneath the soundboard. Having it a bit thicker always allows you a bit more wiggle room when shaping the board, and can always be thinned out after – better to have a bit more excess and plane/sand it off than having not enough and ending up with too thin a board! The qin soundboard, for a stringed instrument, is surprisingly thick – much thicker than conventional than intuition might expect for a stringed instrument. However this is necessary for being able to properly carve the outside and inside, and is certainly one of the features that gives the qin its unique tone. The bottom board is generally about 3/8″ thick, and again is less critical than the top board in selection, though too thin may be prone to damage and too thick may be unnecessary excess and weight – 3/8″ is a good and common thickness, and fairly standard to get.

A side note to be aware of for options regarding the bottom board. There are qin designs where the bottom board is carved out like the top board (though flat along its area since the board is flat as well in general, and much more shallow). This also means that the top board can be thinner, with the total internal volume is split (not evenly though) between the carved top board and carved bottom board. This design however, as far as I am aware, is much less common, and more time consuming and possibly a bit more tricky, and for your first qin I would recommend the standard approach, though this way is certainly made much more accessible with access to a router.

HUI PLACEMENT

Guqin hui position marker alignment
Guqin Hui Alignment

Hui placement has two features: actual hui-to-hui spacing, and width-wise placement. Distance between hui is purely mathematical, and is governed first and foremost by the vibrating length of the string, which is the distance between the inner surfaces of the bridge and the nut. A great guide to hui placement can be found at Jim Binkley’s site on his page relating to hui: http://littleoldqinmaker.blogspot.com/2015/01/the-hui-mother-of-pearl-markers-for.html. These dimensions are really non-negotiable, though a mm or two off will not be the end of the world, since a qin player relies on sound and tone rather than absolute position of the hui, since thicker strings will be slightly off than the thinner ones due to string mechanics. Hui placement in relation to string 1 also has some leeway, but the general rule is not too close or far from the string, and absolutely never directly under it. On my qin, my hui range from about 4-6mm from the edge of the string to the closest edge of the hui.


 DESIGN – EXTRA FEATURES (HUI, SCHOLARS CAPS, PEG PROTECTORS, ETC.)

BRIDGE

Side view of a guqin bridge (yueshan) and bridge accessory (chenglu) made of gabon ebony, inserted into a routed channel in the qin top
Guqin Yueshan and Chenglu Insert

Besides the actual height, there are many different options for bridge design and placement. For placement on the soundboard, you have three major options: shape the profile to the top curve of the qin and glue it to the surface, routing a channel partway into the soundboard and gluing it in the channel, or mounting it straight down to the bottom board. The last two options are the most recommended options, as they would provide far better sound coupling and transfer to the qin soundboard than just gluing it to the top. These two methods also provide for a more secure and solid connection and run much less risk of being knocked or pulled off, especially if they are glued and mounted tightly in the routed channel with the chenglu. For my own qin, I decided to route the channel about halfway down into the soundboard, and fully to each end. The bridge and chenglu can be mounted either fully across the width of the soundboard, or left partly inside the width of the top. I would imagine that the more contact the bridge has with the top, the better the sound transfer, so having it go across the full width of the top may be the better (and easier) option, though this can also be an aesthetic style choice as well.

CHENGLU
The chenglu, or bridge accessory, sits right behind the bridge, and is the piece that has the holes drilled through it where the rongkou come through to secure the strings. Again, the same options are present here as they are for the bridge: glued to the top of the soundboard, routed and seated halfway down, or completely down to the bottom board as well, in addition to being either slightly inset widthwise from the sides, or all the way to the edges of the qin. This is also mainly an aesthetic choice, but note that it may also have an indirect effect on tone as well: chances are, the chenglu and bridge will be the same wood, which will most likely be very hard and dense. Since they will be glued snugly in place together and in the same channel (assuming you go with a routed mounting method or fully to the bottom board) this will provide additional contact to the qin as well as with the bridge, and may provide additional sound transfer channels to the top and/or bottom boards. In addition, regardless of style chosen, the top of the chenglu generally sits a bit higher than the top of the soundboard. There is nowhere however that says you can’t make it flush with the top, but general practice is to have it slightly raised. My chenglu rises about about 2.5-3mm from the top surface of the qin soundboard.

The chenglu also serves to set the primary mechanism for string spacing by the hole to hole distance for each rongkou. The spacing I used was a recommended 19mm between the centers of each hole. The holes are generally made very close to the bridge-edge of the chenglu, about 3mm from the edge of the hole to the edge touching the bridge. Unfortunately, I destroyed my first chenglu due to cracking and splitting of part of the wood due to this tight tolerance – start very small, and progress up to the proper hole size of about 5/32″ diameter. It takes longer, but saves you the trouble of remaking this part. I also decided to bump the space between the edge of the hole to the bridge edge by a very tiny fraction of a mm to give me a little more insurance on cracking, since gabon ebony is a bit more prone to cracking.

NUT/DRAGONS GUMS

Front view of a three-piece nut i the dragons gums for a unique guqin
Three-Piece Qin Nut

There are lots of design choices for the nut, and many different styles to choose from. They can be a single piece, multiple pieces, simple, more complicated, have integrated sides to keep strings 1 and 7 from slipping out or be used in conjunction with the scholar’s caps and dragon gum design to achieve this. The nut can also be wider, flat, narrow, or more curved, depending on how you decide to make it. The main purpose is to raise the strings above the soundboard slightly at the end opposite of the bridge, and provide additional support to the strings. In this regard, they must be made of a very hard and durable wood to prevent damage from the pressure exerted on it by the strings. And as long as it is the proper height above the soundboard, and does not create buzzing or is too sharp and damages the strings, then style becomes more of an aesthetic choice.

Scholars caps and nut made from gabon ebony on a unique homemade redwood qin
Three Piece Nut Top w/ Scholars Caps

The nut can generally be mounted inlayed into the soundboard at the edge where the strings cross over the dragon gums, or a long piece running vertically down the dragon gums. Traditionally, the nut is inlayed partly into the soundboard. For my own design, I decided on the “long nut” design, which extends vertically down from the top soundboard to the bottom board. The nut in my design also consists of three pieces: the center wide nut piece, and two thin strips running along the adjacent walls of the dragon gums, and extending up a bit past the nut and the scholars caps. This serves as both an aesthetic style choice, as well as a functional choice to keep string 1 and 7 from slipping and possibly damaging the redwood top around the dragon gums. The width of the nut used on my qin (between the extra pieces on either side for decorative and functional purposes) is 1.5″ wide, with grooves filed on the rounded edge for the strings spaced at very slightly less than 1/4″ between the center of each string.

The end at the dragon’s gums can also be either vertical, or sloped downward towards the underside of the qin. Traditional qin most often use the latter. On my qin, and some other non-traditional qin I have seen, this area, as well as the end edge of the qin, is vertical. This is easier to make, and doesn’t really have that much effect on the qin, though the traditional method may possibly have a smoother transition slope for the strings to follow when transitioning to the underside of the qin. However, this is not an issue as long as the edge of the nut and bottom side of the dragon’s gum are well curved and smoothed to prevent damage to the strings.

Bottom view of a unique qin showing the dragon gum supporter and bottom-side scholars caps
Guqin Dragon Gum Supporter

The area under the nut on the backboard side can also include matching scholar’s caps, or a “gum supporter” areas as well, which can be a thin inlayed piece of wood directly under the strings, which raises the up a bit from the backboard. This can help prevent unwanted buzzing against the backboard, as well as provide some additional aesthetic value. There is a lot of freedom in designing the shape of this piece, and along with the scholar’s caps on the top of the qin, the bottom ones can be used both decoratively as well as functionally to provide additional support to strings 1 and 7 on the sides. For my own qin, I decided to use a matching set of scholar’s caps on the bottom of the qin, as well as incorporate a very unique shaped gum supporter piece, which meets flush to the slightly protruding extended nut at the bottom side of the qin, making one seamless piece.

SCHOLARS CAPS

The scholars caps are curved pieces of wood at the nut end of the qin, on either side of the nut on the soundboard. They can serve as both aesthetic design features and functional features depending on the design of the nut. If the nut incorporates some sort of raised edge at the ends to keep strings 1 and 7 from slipping, then the scholar’s caps can be added for purely aesthetics. If the nut does not have this feature, then the scholar’s caps can further serve this purpose. My design has this raised edge built into the nut, so the scholars caps are purely aesthetic.

There are a wide variety of shapes and designs for the scholar’s caps, but they all share a kind of similar curved profile that follows the edges of the end of the qin. There are a couple of ways to attach them the the qin: either steam bending and gluing thin shaped strips directly to the surface of the soundboard, inlaying them directly into the soundboard, or carving a thicker piece to match the curve and glue it to the top of the soundboard. My previous post goes more into depth on these options, and for my qin, I decided to steam bend the pieces and glue them to the top of the qin. Your qin can have them, but also does not need them (depending on nut design) – there are qin out there with either option, though it is generally much more common for a qin to have them. Size, shape, and style can widely vary, and often times depends on the end profile of the qin.

WILD GEESE FEET

Wild geese feet made of gabon ebony on a unique homemade qin
Wild Geese Feet

The wild geese feet are the two protruding feet on the underside of the qin nearest to the nut-end, where the strings wrap around during tuning after they pass over the nut and through the dragons gums. Shapes and styles can vary widely for these, and a lot comes down to personal preference. They should hover be at least thick enough to prevent from snapping due to the stresses put on them by the strings, as well as be tall enough to make wrapping do-able, but not so tall that they are awkward. There are three major parts to the wild geese feet – the end that is inserted into the chiseled or drilled holes in the bottom of the qin, the protruding leg piece that the strings are wrapped around, and the wider foot piece which rests on the table while the qin is being played.

There are two main profiles that I have seen – either circular, or more square like. Note that the insert portion, the leg, and the foot do not need to all be the same profile. This means you can have all three parts be circular, all three parts be more square-like, or having various matched combinations. Note a potential benefit however of having a square portion of the leg which the stings wrap around is that it provides a bit better gripping surface than a smooth rounded shape, though you will want to round the corners a bit to prevent damage or excessive wear on the strings if you go with this profile. Also not that the benefit of making it all round is that if you have access to a lathe, you can not only get some very precise and even tolerances, but you can get some pretty fancy and intricate shaped feet. The feet on my qin for example uses a square profile for the insert, a rounded-square profile for the wrapping section, and an octagonal profile for the foot. The wrapping section is a 5/8″ x 5/8″ rounded square, and is 7/8″ high. The insert is also a 5/8″ x 5/8″ square, and I believe is about between 1″ to 1.25″ long (I don’t remember exactly how much I inserted into the qin, and can’t seem to find my notes regarding this aspect.) The feet are 1.25″ in diameter and 0.5″ thick. Overall, I believe the wild geese feet on my qin may be on the slightly larger side, but it matches with the qin, since the qin is a larger than average qin as well. Originally, I wanted to make the feet some crazy-awesome carved talons or claws, but after working with the gabon ebony, which is insanely hard for wood, I decided against it. My carving skills are not quite there yet, though if I decide to make another qin I think it would be a pretty cool feature to have! Note that the feet, when fully inserted, should be as even as possible when the qin is placed on the table – you definitely do not want your qin rocking back and forth as you play due to uneven feet.

Another note to consider is either permanently gluing the wild geese feet in, or friction fitting them into the qin, so that they could be removed if necessary. Apparently, it is traditional for the feet to be friction fit, and I remember some raised eyebrows when describing to some players that the feet for my qin are glued in. However, at least for myself, I feel that if the feet are an integral part of the qin, and you will have no intention to remove the feet in the future, then it does absolutely no harm to glue them into place. This can also ensure that the feet will not be ripped out of the holes due to the force exerted on them by the strings if the insert portion or hole is too loose and not shaped well, and also prevents them from general loosening with constant wrapping and unwrapping (if you happen to be changing or testing a lot of strings).

PEG PROTECTOR(S)
The peg protector (or protectors depending on qin design) is/are the feet at the bridge side of the qin. I describe them in either single or plural form since you can generally have one or two on your qin. A single peg protector design is almost exclusively found on the banana-leaf style qin, and is actually shaped to look like the stem portion of a banana leaf. Almost all other qin have two matching feet however located at the end corners of the qin. Note that these feet are actually shorter than the tuning pegs – both the tuning pegs and the feet rest off the edge of the table when played. These “feet” are not feet for resting the qin on like the wild geese feet, but are put in place to help keep players from bumping into the tuning pegs and possibly de-tuning them.

Guqin banana leaf style inspired peg protector made from gabon ebony on a unique homemade qin
Peg Protector

There are many shapes and styles, ranging from very simple to much more elaborate. For example, my qin utilizes a banana leaf style inspired peg protector, even though it is not a banana leaf style qin. Often times they are simple tilted trapezoidal shapes, but I have seen some qin with very complicated, more modern style carved feet. There aren’t really any hard rules or restrictions, and I would say this part of the qin allows itself to a lot of creative freedom. I guess in this regard the major dimensional restraints would be height and depth – you will most likely not want to make it higher than the tuning pegs (it may look awkward or strange), and you do not want it too deep or close to the tuning pegs otherwise it will be very difficult to tune the qin. The base of my peg protector starts as a 1.625″ x 1.625″ square, tapering down to the chiseled and shaped profile that stands about 2″‘ high, and is set about 3/16″ into the backboard. There are also one of two options available for attaching the feet: either gluing them directly to the surface, or routing/chiseling a slot for it to be glued into. Chiseling out this small slot will add extra strength to the joint, and is what I would recommend, It takes longer, but is the stronger of the two options. Also on traditional qin, the lacquering job makes the feet look like they are one solid piece with the whole qin. However, if you go the non-traditional approach and have the woods showing, it gives you the option of choosing some contrasting wood colors for a more unique look (as was done with my qin to match the rest of the gabon ebony pieces.)

There are a couple of variations to these parts though, like any part of the qin. A qin could be made to not have them, and would be more of an aesthetic design choice than anything else. I have also come across a rather unique qin that has the entire back portion carved as a kind of scroll-carving, going across the entire width of the back of the qin, as one large, carved peg protector.

PEG POOL
The peg pool is the area on the backboard where the tuning pegs rest, and the holes for the rongkou are that goes through the body to the top of the qin, out the chenglu. The peg pool is usually  shallow inset, about 1/16″ or so into the backboard, generally rectangular in profile. There are two main options that you can do when designing this part: just carve/route out the area directly to depth into the backboard, or inlay a strip of wood into a slightly deeper routed area, for a decorative effect. I decided to inlay the peg pool area with a thin, 3/32″ strip of ebony, to match the rest of the ebony accessories and trimming on my qin. This means I had to route the initial peg pool slightly deeper – in this case, I routed down about 5/32″ so I could get the inlay about 1/16″ inset into the backboard. The shape, as mentioned above, is generally a rectangle. I originally wanted to make some unique, fancy shape, but realizing that inlaying this would be quite difficult, I decided to stick with a standard shape. Sometimes simple is the most elegant solution. For either method, the peg pool should be flat and level – this is particularly true when inlaying a strip of wood, and if you are inlaying it snug, make sure you can press or clamp it all the way flush with the bottom of the carved area. Sizes of the peg pool can also vary – from narrower and tighter dimensioned (closer to the tuning peg holes) or a bit larger. These dimensions also vary based on the spacing of the drilled holes for the rongkou, as well as the overall width and profile of the head of the qin where the chenglu is located. For example, my peg pool is a rectangular 1″ x 5.75″, where the total width of the qin at that point is 7″.

Regardless of the method chosen for the peg pool design however, it should be left rough and unfinished so there is more friction to keep the tuning pegs from slipping. I sanded the peg pool with 60 grit sandpaper and left it at that, though I did also add the danish oil to it during the pre-polishing stage, which when dry, would not increase smoothness since it soaks into the wood.  I also rub a generous amount of violin rosin in the peg pool – this works wonders for keeping the pegs from slipping. At the very beginning when the rosin is applied, it may create a bit too much friction, but after several tunings and de-tunings it gets much better to turn while retaining its tuning.

TUNING PEGS

The tuning pegs, like the peg protectors, hui, and wild geese feet, offer a lot of potential in terms to customization. The tuning pegs offer this even more so in that unlike the other above mentioned parts (unless you have traditionally non-glued wild geese feet) are interchangeable and not actually attached to the qin. This means you can make as many set of tuning pegs you want, of all shapes, styles, and materials!

Guqin tuning pegs hand turned on a mini lathe made from gabon ebony, shown with handmade silk rongkou
Handmade Tuning Pegs and Silk Rongkou

For material, the most common and obvious choice is wood. There are so many exquisite woods out there, and the tuning pegs are small enough that you could make them out of the most expensive and exotic woods and still pay next to nothing. Their size actually coincides perfectly with wood turning blanks for pens – these can range generally from 0.5″ to 0.75″ squares, and come in a dizzying variety of woods, stabilized woods, other hardened non-wood materials, and various laminated woods. I chose gabon ebony for mine to match the rest of the gabon ebony on my qin, but I have been tempted to explore other types. Some really awesome choices would be looking at exotic burl woods, which offer incredible swirling and unique figure. Other materials that show up include jade, and along those lines you could probably make them out of other carvable stone such as soapstone, in addition to imitation ivory, plastics, and resins. There are some new modern tuning pegs that also have mechanisms built into them for more precise tuning which I haven’t tried, but personally for myself I prefer traditional silk cords (which you can easily make and customize yourself as well).

For size, you generally do not want to make them too thin, too thick, or too short. They are pretty much almost always as long or more often longer than the peg protectors. The hole down the length of the tuning peg plays into this as well (more so for the width of the peg) – I used the same hole size that was drilled for the chenglu, at 5/32″ diameter. My tuning pegs are also on the larger side as well, at almost 7/16″ wide at the base, and 2 1/8″ tall.

The style is where you have the most freedom. Most players prefer tuning pegs with some sort of ridges, grooves, or “grip” feature to make then easier to turn during tuning. They can be hand carved, turned on the lathe, or a combination of both. My pegs were turned on the lathe, and this was my first time actually doing any wood turning. It was definitely a lot of fun, and really opens up a lot of cool options for your tuning pegs – anywhere from simple and elegant to extremely fancy! I stayed a bit on the simpler side for mine, though I tried to pick a profile that is a bit unique and uncommon. When my skills improve and I find the time, I would like to try to make myself a new set of more fancy and complicated pegs, or several decorative sets to have.

DRAGON POND AND PHOENIX POOL (SOUNDHOLES)
Besides some variation in size, there are two major options to choose from for the shape: rectangular holes, or the less common round holes for the dragon pond and phoenix pool. Placement of these holes under the soundboard, as well as the size and use with or without nayin, will have some effect on the overall sound and possible volume of the qin.

Most qin you will find comes with rectangular sound holes. These can be either sharp edged corners, or varying degrees of rounded edge corners, all the way to completely rounded ends. As mentioned above however, qin can also have completely round, circular soundholes. Though it would be highly unconventional, I am sure that you can explore alternatives to these as well, including other carved/curved profiles, or even designs like several circles in a series. For your first qin, it may be safer to stick with a simpler soundhole shape, but if you are confident in your skills or want something really different, then certainly go for it.

Factors like size, shape, position, and coupling with the nayin can also have an effect on tone, and is one of those things that without a lot of experience having made lots of qin with all these features, that educated guessing and intuition comes into play. For example, the first parameter you could most easily predict is how the physical size affects tone. A larger soundhole will result in a larger opening, thus most likely increasing volume and openness – a smaller soundhole may result in a quieter qin with a more bottled sound. This factor relies a lot in the nayin design – having no nayin may result in a louder more open tone, while a very tall nayin close to the hole may result in a much softer tone. Note that one is in no way necessarily better than the other. Soundboard thickness, wood type, and internal cavity profile all still play an important role. As you can see, there are tons of variables that can effect tone, so it is not completely safe to rely on any one factor to determine tone. You need to look at all of your other previous design choices, and select the one that you think will match well together. This again goes back to experience and intuition. And the matter of tone is also highly subjective as well – some may like a very open, loud qin, while others might find it too empty or noisy. Conversely, some might like softer, more “bottled” qin, while others may find it too quiet. It really depends on what you prefer. In this case, I would recommend that you listen to as many recordings, videos, and if possible, seeing live performances of the qin as possible to get a feel for the different timbres of different types of qin. Once you find a sound you like, you can start planning and designing for that qin tone in mind.

Guqin dragon pool with no nayin sound absorbers
Dragon Pool, No Nayin

To give you an example, we can look at the design choices for my qin that led to the choice for soundhole size for me. I originally planned on using silk strings – however, I wanted to design the qin to have a louder volume with silk strings without being too open or empty sounding. To increase volume, I designed the qin to maximize volume and vibrating areas inside of the qin. That included carving very close to the bridge, the nut, and even in the head section between the very end and the chenglu. Depth affects resonance and volume as well, so with all of this vibrating space, I did not want an overly deep qin internally. I also eliminated the soundposts and nayin as well. To compensate for the difference in responsiveness, I selected the more dense side of my top board to be used for the thicker strings, and the less dense side for the thinner strings. I also shaped the inside profile to be slightly thicker under the first string, and progress thinner to the seventh string. I also made my qin extra wide so that the walls on the side nearest the thickest string and the thinnest string were not too close to the strings, which could result in uneven tone or damping of response of these two strings. Since the redwood is heavier and denser than paulownia traditionally used, I could afford to make the soundboard slightly thinner to compensate for this density increase as well. Its vibrational response would also be less than paulownia, which means I could potentially open up the soundholes for a louder tone without necessarily making it too open since I did not include nayin. Thus at this point, in conjunction with other parameters, I chose to have my soundholes slightly larger than average. The dragon pool is 1 1/8″ x 8 3/4″, and the phoenix pond is  1 1/16″ x 5 1/8″ – both of which have slightly rounded corners (for shape design choice). The result of this whole process ended up with a qin decently close to what I was aiming for. There are certainly improvements to be made, but still turned out very well. I will dedicate an upcoming future post to further looking at these design tradeoffs when designing for a particular timbre in mind.

HUI
Hui, or the position markers, have a lot of freedom in material choice. There is a bit of a restriction for size, since you do not want to make them too massive to where they would look bad, or too small that they are hard to see when playing. Hui also follow a pattern where the 7th (center) hui is the largest, with hui 4, 5, 6, 8, 9, and 10 on either side being slightly smaller, and the remaining hui going down again in size as well. For my qin, hui 7 is a 10mm diameter dot, hui 4, 5, 6, 8, 9, and 10 are 8mm diameter dots, and hui 1, 2, 3, 11, 12, and 13 are 6.35mm diameter dots. Hui spacing is absolutely set based on mathematical formula which is based on the string vibrating length, but in regards to design, there are many options to choose from. In most instances, the hui are made from mother of pearl dots. The bright white material stands out well against most qin tops except unconventional tops using a lighter wood, and they are very cheap and easy to get. For my own qin, I decided to use paua abalone shell for the inlay – it is much less commonly used, and provides an interesting contrast to the redwood top, in addition to having very unique, swirling patterns. I also chose the color to match the color of silk thread I selected for the rongkou, which is a deep, vibrant greenish-blue, to provide a striking contrast against the deep red qin top and jet black bridge, chenglu, and tuning pegs For the seventh hui, which is the largest hui dot on the qin, I also managed to find a dot that appears to have a pattern resembling a misty mountain landscape. Historically, lots of materials were used: shell, metal, stones – the choice is really up to you. In just about every case, the dots are also just circular markers, though I did come across an exquisitely stunning, unconventional modern qin online that used markers shaped like different flying birds inlayed into the soundboard. For conventional shell dots however, there are many suppliers online that sell these dots for use in guitar making. However, you can really use anything that can be inlayed into the soundboard, and it does not necessarily have to be restricted to conventional circular shapes.


 INTERNAL CARVING – NAYIN (SOUND ABSORBERS) AND SOUND POSTS, WITH OR WITHOUT?

This is an interesting topic, and certainly one up for debate. This section follows heavily in conjunction for what I wrote about in discussing design choices regarding soundhole size, as well as designing for tone below. As mentioned before, due to the highly complex nature of this discussion, which includes many variables, I will further elaborate more in a dedicated post looking at design trade-offs when designing for tone, which heavily relies on the choices made for internal carving of the qin soundboard. Since internal carving is also such a large subject in itself, and I have already touched upon various aspects of it already in this post, then I will focus specifically more on the nayin and sound posts themselves in this section.

The nayin are a rather interesting and unique feature to the qin. Also known as “sound absorbers”, these are raised areas carved from the soundboard directly over the soundholes of the qin. If you look on the inside of the qin, you will most likely see this feature, and may look like the soundboard is closer to the backboard than it actually is. From what I understand, it seems like these features help retain some of the sound inside the qin, so that it is not too open, loud, or excessively empty or noisy sounding. However, when making nayin for your own qin, there is a lot of variability: size, thickness, and overlap over the soundholes can not only affect tone, but responsiveness as well. If not made properly, or balanced well, then pressed areas where the nayin are will be less responsive and not balanced compared to pressed notes without the nayin. This is due primarily to the fact that the nayin are essentially extra thick areas of the soundboard . Now, depending on how the rest of the soundboard is made, as well as overall width, internal cavity structure, and relationship of walls to the strings, the nayin can also improve balance. However, there are other design features that can be employed to provide better overall balance to the qin, such as varying thickness of the soundboard based on string position, other internal carved features, and wood choice. For my own qin making, I find that it is safer and easier to design around a qin that has a particularly shaped internal soundboard structure rather than relying on guesswork for nayin. Again though, for a paulownia topped qin, the nayin may not necessarily be all that bad, but I can’t tell you which is better either way, as it depends heavily on all other qin making design choices.

In addition to the nayin, there are two soundposts inside the qin, that connect from the top board to the backboard of the qin. These are located somewhere on either side of the dragon pool, named the “pillar of heaven” (upper rounded post) and the “pillar of earth” (lower square post). Like the nayin, qin can be made either with them or without them, and how they effect tone and response varies on a qin to qin basis. I have heard that there are some theories that they help decrease warpage, though I find these two small posts probably have little to no effect on such a large instrument. I also believe that these posts, since they are glued to both the top and the bottom boards, would decrease response since you are providing anchor points that are not along the edges of the boards, which would affect vibration in those areas, and would most likely decrease the response of pressed notes above the pillars. Depending on wood used, this may or may not be bad – pualownia is known for being a very resonant wood, so traditionally they may have been employed to help decrease its resonance, but I am certainly not an authority on this, it’s just a guess. For my own qin designs however, and for non-traditional wood choices, I would say it would be fairly safe to make the qin without them, and I do not intend to install them on any foreseeable qin builds myself.

On my own qin, I decided to exclude both the soundposts as well as the nayin for several reasons. The primary reason however was the difference in wood used for the topboard – redwood is denser and heavier than paulownia, so the vibrational dynamics and response of the wood are different. Because of this, I could use the difference to my advantage, and design a qin using intuition and educated guesswork based on my experience with woods, materials, and engineering, to come up with tradeoffs to better suit my goals to proper design considerations. I also used the thought of varying the thickness of the soundboard to create better balance as well, and taking this a step farther, even used the side with the more dense wood on the thicker string side, and further adjusting the thickness to compensate for this change in density as well. Again, there are no set formulas or rules to follow, and a lot is based on educated guesses. While I can’t necessarily give a very direct or clear answer on this, the point is more to exemplify some of the more advanced design considerations to take account for and think of when designing your qin and aiming for a higher quality instrument.


 STRINGS

Various qin strings side by side, from left to right: metal-nylon, longren binxian, experimental nylon, experimental polyester, taigu silk, o real silk
Various Qin Strings

What strings do you aim to use for your qin? Do you want metal, or silk? A qin can be more optimized for one or the other, so deciding what strings you would like could save some headaches in the event that you decide to switch later. However, in general, if you make a qin for silk strings, you can probably use metal strings without worry of buzzing, though the string action may feel a bit higher for it. However, a metal-nylon string designed qin might have buzzing issues if switched to silk afterwards. Composite strings, such as Longren Binxian, can be used on either style without much issue. The major factors that strings influence in the design includes string height, soundboard profile, and finish (timbre is the main point, though this is much more complex than can be presented here). Silk strings, due to larger diameters, lower tension, and greater flexibility, may require slightly higher string action to compensate and prevent buzzing. This also directly affects the lengthwise curve profile, which determine whether or not your qin will buzz with your chosen strings. Finish is a whole animal in its self, and generally for a qin, regardless of strings, a very hard and durable finish is required to prevent wear and damage to the soundboard as you press and play strings on its surface. There is however, an exception to this – if you decide to use a softer finish, such as shellac (generally not recommended unless several considerations are taken into account, and you understand and accept what you are potentially getting yourself into, which I will dedicate an upcoming post exclusively to), then silk strings should be your choice. For my own qin, I decided to use a french polished shellac finish, which really limits me to silk strings (though composite strings are generally not as damaging as metal-nylon, though still a bit more than silk). The wood I used, curly old growth redwood, is also harder and more durable than paulownia, giving it an advantage for use with potentially softer than traditional lacquer finishes. Spruce is even harder, so its has benefits in this regard as well.

Also note that silk strings will have lower volume than metal-nylon strings, and composite strings will fall between the two, so internal qin structure coupled with wood choices may be modified to compensate a bit depending on the effect you would like to achieve, though this can take a good deal of experience and very good educated guesswork to get right.


 TONE

This one is a bit tricky if you have never designed or made instruments before, or worked with wood in the context of musicality. Though there are too many factors involved to always fully control the tone to exactly what you want, there are some major decisions you can make that can influence it one way or another. Some factors to design for can include brightness vs. mellowness, loud vs. soft, and full vs. empty.

Perhaps the biggest factor that influences upon all of these considerations is the soundboard: how it is shaped, as well as the wood chosen. For example, spruce is generally brighter in tone than cedar or redwood. Tapping on the board can help determine its response to vibrational input and how “musical” the piece is. Woods from the same species, and even the same tree, can have very different characteristics. For example, on my qin topwood, I found that the wood was slightly harder and denser on one side than the other, so I purposely used the denser and harder side for the side underneath the thicker strings. Thickness of the soundboard, which is determined primarily by the internal carving, plays possibly one of the biggest factors in tone of the qin. Too thick and it will not vibrate, sounding dull or too quite. Too thin however might sound to open, loud, or empty, though if this is how you want your qin to sound, then follow what sound you prefer. Generally however, a good balance in thickness is best. The qin soundboard is a big piece of wood to carve – any area underneath has the potential to affect sound both locally for pressed notes, and globally as a whole per string. For example, on my qin, I decided to make the area under the thicker strings a bit thicker than the thinner strings, trying to progress from thick to thin widthwise in a smooth transition along the entire length of the qin. Also important to not forget, is the top profile of the qin it is not uniform along the entire length, so the inside should follow the shape accordingly.

Another factor relating to the soundboard and timbre is the overall empty space inside the qin – a larger cavity will generally result in not only a louder qin, but if it is too large it may feel too resonant or have too much echo. Again, if this is the effect you are aiming for, then there is nothing saying you cannot make a qin like this. Other factors that play into this includes how thin the walls are, and how far you carve towards the nut and the bridge end. For my qin, I wanted to maximize the available area under the soundboard, so I carved the soundboard very close to the nut and the bridge, as well as the area behind the bridge (the “forehead” region).

One of the benefits of using alternative woods is that it has the potential to free you from traditional constraints. In designing my qin, I had the overall intent of making a qin primarily for silk strings. I chose woods that I thought would compliment each other well together tonally, to produce a warm mellow tone. My qin was designed internally however to try to improve the volume of the qin when using silk strings, while maintaining a full and warm sound – in essence, designed to get the best of both worlds. Some sacrifices were made though (nothing is for free), but I believe I achieved the overall tone I was originally looking for. Interestingly and unexpectedly, my qin design also resulted in a slight extra peak in the upper range when compared with other traditional qin, around the 1khz region, which seems to amplify the metallic sound of metal-nylon strings more – however, as a positive tradeoff, it seems to sound better on the lower end with lower tuning. This overall process of shaping the tone requires a lot of planning and mainly educated guesswork coupled with experience, but it can be achieved by looking at trade-offs between wood hardness, density, combinations, an internal profile, which can offer unique potential in further customization of a qin tone.


 FINISH

examples of different finishes. From left to right: behlen's rock hard urethane, ruby shellac, amber shellac
Urethane, Ruby Shellac, Amber Shellac

Finishing an instrument is never an easy task, and a qin, being both a large instrument as well as one that requires a very hard, durable finish is no exception. Traditional lacquer methods and techniques are very laborious and time consuming, but produce some of the most durable and hard finishes in the world. The main component of the lacquer, urushi, is derived from the sap of a species of poison oak, and is both toxic in its uncured form and difficult to work with, not to mention difficult to get outside of China and Japan. There are other alternatives such as cashew lacquer, other lacquers, urethanes, varnishes, epoxies and resins, and shellac. Shellac is almost universally not recommended due to it being the softest and least durable of the finishes, but there are some caveats that can be exploited to its benefit for a qin, and does have some advantages over other finishes. However, it is generally much more recommended to go with lacquer, epoxy based, or other hard finishes such as urethane. Each has strengths and weaknesses, and in a few upcoming posts I will describe my rather painful experience with finishing the qin. Regardless of finish chosen, it most be applied very smooth across the top of the soundboard, and should be durable enough to withstand constant wear from playing the instrument.


CONCLUSION

I hope you enjoyed this introductory guide to some aspects of qin design. It is certainly not a thoroughly exhaustive or comprehensive step-by-step guide, but hopefully serves to help start thinking about some important parameters when deciding to tackle a qin build. If you are looking to build a qin and would like more specifics or further questions about various parts of the design or would like advice, leave a comment below or contact me directly and I will try and provide as much assistance as I can in the process. It is certainly not an easy task, but it always helps to have someone who has done it before provide advice to help avoid potential pitfalls or disaster, and I always enjoy discussing design work and instrument making with fellow craftsmen and craftswomen.


 

6 thoughts on “Making a Qin – Design Considerations

  1. Thank you for the excellent and informative article!

    At the risk of being cursed for blasphemy, I ask: has anyone attempted to or succeeded in modernizing the ‘tuning system’ of the guqin? What I refer to is the use of mechanical or geared tuners instead of the tying of tensed string around the goose feet by dint of physical strength, and the twisting of knots in the topside pegs?

    1. Mark,

      Thank you for your comment! To answer your question, yes the tuning system for the guqin has been modernized, or at least some small attempts have been made. I have seen instances of this for both the end at the goose feet as well as the rongkou knots, although it is very limited for both. For the geese feet, there is a device that fits between the feet and uses zither pins to fasten and tension the strings. You can see an example of this here, the third picture down the page: http://www.chineseculture.net/musicmall/instruments/htmls/guqin/hanmuqin.htm

      For the rongkou knots, I have heard some more “modernized” version exists. I have not used it or seen it in real life, but supposedly it holds tuning better than traditional knots, but I am not exactly sure how it works. Here is a link to an example of this style of tuning peg: http://www.redmusicshop.com/Guqin%20Tuning%20Pegs,%20All-Purpose,%20XuanJi%20Brand,%201%20Set

      However, I don’t believe I have actually seen a geared system for either side as you have suggested. But I don’t see why such a system could not be implemented on the guqin. I could definitely see some geared system being used in place of the knot side, which could be implemented the same way that guitar tuners use a worm-gear mechanism, and feed the mechanism through the chenglu holes so that the tuning dials are still under the qin. I believe that modernized tuning has been implemented similarly with the erhu, where a geared system is attached to the pegs holding the strings. Something could also be made with mechanically geared geese feet that could rotate and be locked in place through a gearing mechanism. So I definitely think it’s possible! I think the difficulty is mainly that it is challenging to implement such changes to a very traditional and rooted instrument, both practically as well as ideologically (hence your comment about being cursed for blasphemy, which I certainly understand.) As you have probably seen, even my own qin strongly defies conventional qin standards in several ways, and would probably raise objections from more hardcore traditionalists, but I see no harm in experimenting and giving it a shot!

      To take this one step further, and join you in being cursed for blasphemy as well, I have thought about ways of implementing an adjustable bridge mechanism. If you could adjust the height of each string, it could give a lot of flexibility between different types of strings and response to suit the player. Based on measurements and calculations, for an average guqin, a 1mm change in height at the bridge corresponds to a 0.5mm change in height at hui 7, so twice the change at the bridge is needed to change the height at the center point of the string between the bridge and the nut. The challenge is mainly making it look good, function well, and allow for solid sound transfer to the body of the qin, but it could be do-able, and even particularly well suited for electrically amplified solid-body qin (I have seen this style of qin before, made by a qin player named Stephen Dydo – really cool qin! Despite being solid body, it still sounds like a qin that is amplified!)

  2. Thank you for your wonderful article.
    Recently my friend Wing decided to study the guqin. She purchased a moderate quality guqin from China for about $1000. This is what she just wrote to me.

    “I didn’t get much time to play on the guqin yet. I like it. But, when I take it to my teacher, her comment is the first sting is too above level, it make it very hard to push on. The high key sound pretty nice, but the lowest key on seven sting. She said she hardly tell any different at well. Laughs. She think this is not very well made.”

    I was wondering what you would advise? I don’t know much, if anything, about guqin, but was thinking that replacing the strings with a better quality might improve things and eliminate that as a possible problem. Is there a way to adjust the string height? Could the string quality / type be causing the problem with the string height?

    Thanks for your consideration.

    Best Wishes,
    Kevin

    1. Kevin,

      Thank you for your comment and for your question! I would be more than happy to provide whatever assistance I can for yourself and your friend regarding these questions for the qin. There are a few things to consider first in response to your questions:

      1.) Overall string height, for any string, is a function of four main dimensions: the height of the bridge, the height of the nut, the depth of the lengthwise curve in the soundboard, and to a very small and mostly negligible extent, the diameter of the string (this however mainly is only important when switching from something like metal-nylon to larger diameter silk and accounting for buzzing). It is certainly possible to adjust string height, but there are serious things to consider. First, since this is a finished qin, string height can only be practically adjusted by the height at the bridge primarily, since reworking the body would be out of the question for a fully lacquered qin (unless you really know what you are doing, but this is not something anyone but knowledgeable makers could undertake without ruining the instrument.) While you can make a very minute adjustment at the nut, this change would be so small it would not really affect all that much, since the nut should be absolutely no higher than 1mm from the top of the soundboard, and would only see a marginal, if any difference at all, in the playability of the upper positions.

      2.) Adjusting the height of the bridge also needs to take into consideration the curve along the soundboard. There will be an optimal point at which there will be no buzzing along the soundboard for a given string, tension, and height. If the bridge is lowered too much, and the curve in the soundboard is not properly shaped to accommodate this change, then there may be buzzing, in which case the string will have to be propped up with something underneath at the soundboard. What is this lengthwise curve that I speak of? If you put a 3-4 foot ruler along the surface of the qin, you will notice that it is not straight: it should in fact make a very shallow u-curve, deepest between position 7-8, and going back up at either side. This depth should really only be about 1-2mm, but is crucial to make sure there is no buzzing. This is true for any fret-less instrument where the string is pressed down to the surface: violin, cello, shamisen, etc.

      3.) A good rule of thumb in checking string height is measuring at the center position, or position 7. This does not have to be uniform for all the strings, and for qin that use silk strings, the first strings can be a bit higher to account for the larger amplitude vibrations of these strings. However, this height should fall somewhere between 5mm and 7mm.

      4.) String quality does not impact the string height in any way. However, there is another factor of strings that is very important in terms of playability that can be exploited in this case, and that is string tension. Obviously, the higher the tension of the string, the more resistance you will feel. This comes primarily from two sources: the material/construction method of the string itself (primarily the core), and the tuning of the string.

      First off, there are some key things that we can determine about your friend’s qin and setup to get a better idea of what is going on. For starters, what strings is she using? I would be very confident to bet they are most likely metal-nylon strings, which are the vast majority of strings out there. Does she know what strings and/or brand she is using? If she is using mn strings, and is learning from an instructor, then I can almost guarantee she is tuning the instrument to standard “modern” tuning, in which the first string starts at C2. Second, is it just the first string that is too high, or are there other issues with the qin as well, based on what her instructor told her? There are some very simple measurements that she can take herself that will be helpful here. If she measures the string height at position 7, from the top of the soundboard to the bottom of the string, what does she get?

      Now, as I mentioned above, the bridge can be adjusted if needed. However, it takes a 1mm change in height at the bridge for the string to shift 0.5mm in the same direction at position 7. If the height is maybe 8mm, it would still take a 2mm change in bridge height to bring it down to 7mm at the center position. This is a fair amount of material. The curve of the bridge also needs to be well shaped that it does not induce buzzing, and changing the height needs to be done very slowly so that buzzing does not occur if lowered too much. If she puts a 3-4 foot ruler across the top, and measures the gap at position 7, what does she get? A deeper gap leaves more room for adjustment. While this route is certainly do-able, for someone with little no experience in qin making or modification, this can be a very risky and potentially costly alternative, and if she doesn’t have the experience prior, or the confidence, I would not recommend it at this point, and would be a more of a last resort measure in this case. But there are some tricks we can employ to potentially mitigate this effect for the time being.

      For one thing, string quality, as you mentioned, can certainly help. Although it will not affect string height, the tension of the string plays a major role in the resistance one feels when playing. Even across metal-nylon strings, despite all being solid monofilament steel cores, they can exhibit varying amounts of flexibility, depending on steel used and the gauge. This relates back to my questions about what strings she is using. For example, I first tested a super cheap set of Dunhuang brand metal strings, which were so incredibly stiff they sounded awful on my qin, and were near impossible to string, and had very high tension. Switching to another cheap set, a starter Yuesheng brand set, there was a noticeable difference in the strings, the latter being much easier to string, and sounding less harsh, and more flexible. Despite this however, you will still find that for similar equivalent gauges, at the same tuning, the tension will be relatively similar. Remember what I mentioned above, that tension is determined by string construction, and tuning. If she is absolutely stuck with metal-core strings for the time being, then some solutions could be: changing to a better quality set of strings/more flexible set of strings, or playing at reduced tuning. This will not change the height, but may make it easier to play. Of the three, the easiest and cheapest solution to start playing around with would be simply to lower the tuning of the qin. This however is not a permanent fix to the problem, but again, depending on her qin setup and string height measurements, could help with playability. What is the lowest she can tune her qin before she starts seeing buzzing? This could also be a potential indicator if she would like to switch to other types of string materials in he future. For my qin, I can lower silk strings (which have a much larger vibrational amplitude than metal) to about G1 for the first string before I start getting issues with buzzing, and generally play around G#1. This is obviously far lower than conventional standards, even for silk strings. However, I have experienced the same problem as your friend. On my own qin, string action is a bit higher than it should be. Tuning to full standard pitch makes it rather tough to play, however when I lower the tuning, even though the height is still a bit higher, the resistance is low enough to play comfortably without any issues. Again, this is not as much of an issue for my qin since I am playing with silk strings and not metal core, and built my qin specifically for silk strings, which brings me to the next possible option. There are other string types out there besides metal core – namely composite, or silk. Both can be rather expensive, and provide a different playing experience and feel from conventional and popular metal-core strings. There are very few silk string players out there compared to metal-core string players. These types of strings have naturally lower stiffness, and as such, can be tuned to similar pitch with much reduced tension, making it easier to play. Silk however needs to be tuned lower than modern tuning since they will not last at such high tensions. They also require some special care, and can be rougher to play on depending on quality, and are much quieter in volume. In addition, if a qin was built for metal-core strings, then there is a good possibility that there may be a lot of buzzing if switched to silk strings. Composite strings, such as Longren Binxian, may not have this issue. However, the current composite strings out there that are offered have the most plain, and perhaps dull response, of the three string types (I can actually prove this, and have data to back this up on my site) – there is always a trade-off to consider. They are in between the loudness of metal and silk, and are quite smooth, and have lower tension, but the tone quality suffers greatly.

      This is obviously a huge amount of information, and can be very confusing, especially or those who have not worked with qins or played them before. I would again be more than happy to help out your friend personally and see if we can come up with a solution. I think perhaps the best way would to maybe start a communication through email or some other form of chat so we can work on the details more closely. There are some simple measurements I mentioned above she can make, and some simple things she can start exploring first to see if it helps. I can also provide pictures and diagrams of how I take measurements at various places on the qin for reference too, which can be confusing as well, and can probably make better suggestions after I get more details about her qin, strings, and setup. While adjusting the bridge height is an option, I think we can wait on that as an absolute last resort, and for the time being, would not recommend making physical modifications to it just yet. I can be easily reached at guqinreflections@gmail.com so we can start communicating closer and try to see if we can resolve this. I can also offer to communicate through other means such as phone if needed, but group email might be the best way to get the ball rolling on this. I can certainly answer any additional questions you may have directly posted to this article, but it may be faster and more efficient to work on this through more direct communication means.

      Sincerely,

      Michael

  3. Dear Michael

    Thank you for your kind advice.
    Wing has the metal-nylon, Yuesheng Qin strings and doesn’t want to change the strings. Your suggestion to lower the tuning seems practical. However, since she is just learning the fingering, I’m uncertain how the stops might be affected? She will have to let us know how this works out.

    Best Wishes,
    Kevin

    1. Kevin,

      Thank you for your reply. One advantage about the qin is that tuning is relative, and therefore the finger techniques and stop positions are not dependent on how high or low the strings are tuned. When learning from traditional qin notation, the notation describes the right and left hand techniques and finger positions, instead of an absolute note like Western staff notation. Therefore, as long as the strings are tuned to the same interval, then she can learn any song on any relative tuning. Take for example one of the most simple and basic songs one might start learning on, Xianweng Cao, which calls for standard tuning. Standard modern tuning for metal core strings starts at C2, and progresses from string 1 (low) to string 7 (high in the following interval: C2 D2 F2 G2 A2 C3 D3. As long as the intervals are kept the same, then it doesn’t matter if tuning starts at C2 or anything higher or lower – the results will be the same, except at a different pitch. So if Wing lowers her tuning of the first string to let’s say B1, which is a half step lower, then as long as she lowers the rest of the strings by the same half-step interval, she can play any song that requires the above standard tuning the same.

      One thing to note is that as a traditional instrument, one might find very strong resistance to the normal excepted standards and methods, so depending on her teacher’s philosophy and mentality, she may or may not allow her to lower the tuning (I have even heard of cases which go so far to say that certain teachers even ban the use of a particular type of string!) Again, in her case, lowering string tension will only be a temporary fix if the higher string action is causing playability issues or makes it more difficult to play, but even this has its limits – for any given string, the effect will be more or less noticeable only relative to the initial starting height. The higher the string from optimum, the more lower you would have to go to compensate, and there may come a point where the string action is just too high to justify lowering tension by enough to make it playable (unless the qin has a very unique and non-conventional setup, such as my own personal qin). I would recommend she measure the height from the top of the soundboard to the bottom of the first string at position 7 – the ideal height falls between 5-7mm. This will be a very simple measurement that can give a good idea about the situation she is in for her qin and what maybe the best course of action is. If it gets to around 10mm, then you start to get very noticeable detrimental playability for standard tuning, especially for metal core strings, and in this case even lowering the bridge may not help all that much. If this is the case that the string height at position 7 is 10mm or more for just string 1, then possibly the best alternative in the long run is to ask for an exchange. However, slightly higher than 7mm is workable, and does allow for potential bridge adjustment if she decides to go this route in the future.

      If your friend has any other questions, or would like any advice in general, then she is more than welcome to ask away (advice, information, and help here is always free!) If you have explored the rest of Guqin Reflections, you will find that I have taken a very unique and different approach to the qin outside the norm, and have specialized in the more scientific/engineering analysis of the qin and the strings rather than the usual cultural study, as well as non-conventional methods for qin and string making (I have found a surprising amount of misconceptions about the working of the sound mechanisms for the qin, and strings in particular for the qin among players in general, which this website aims to help clear up and correct in part, since there is shockingly little scientific study on the qin and strings itelf). I also have access to resources and other players, and there are plenty of sites, groups, and sources that I can help point her to should she need additional information on her new endeavors in learning the qin.

      Sincerely,

      Michael

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