Far East ATLAS of Plucked Instruments

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Far East

This is a long page. Most of the plucked instruments of the Far East look quite similar, clearly originating from a single (Chinese) source.

Even the names are often quite similar, although usually you can distinguish (by small differences) the instruments from each particular country. So on this page you find the instruments from China, Mongolia, Tuva, Japan and Korea. Because Vietnam (where over the years/centuries lots of Chinese refugies have moved to) appears to have very similar instruments, this country is also included on this page.

For Tibet and West China and some folk instruments see Central Asia.

For Philippines see
South East Asia.


top China
example : bought in Hongkong 1984
L=1020 B=315 H=70mm
scale 725mm
You Tube

The pipa is the main lute of China. Old pictures show it must have been known for more than 2000 years; it is still the most popular plucked instrument. See under for another type of pipa. The name comes from the finger movement : pi (= play forward) and pa (= play backward).

The body and neck of the pipa are carved from one block of heavy hardwood, painted black. The front is made from some soft wood. The first 6 frets are triangles of wood, with a bone rim. The other (about 25) frets are small strips of bamboo, about 1cm high, glued on the front in a (nowadays) normal western scale of 12 tones to an octave.

The peghead is sickle-shaped and ends in a curl to the front, with a special Chinese type decoration of different woods. The 4 long grooved friction pegs (ending with slices of different woods) are on both sides of the open peghead. The 4 silk strings are fixed to a nicely shaped bamboo bridge, glued to the front. There is no soundhole, except one tiny hole under the bridge. Tuning is A d e a.

The pipa used to be played with bare fingers, although since the original silk string are replaced by steel strings (for more volume) it is played with nail picks, taped to the thumb and all fingers, or with a plectrum. It is usually played in an upright position with the body resting on the left thigh. The picking direction is opposite that of guitar-playing : the fingers flick out and the thumb pulls up (nail first). Often a mandoline-like tremelo is used, by playing "rolls" with alternating fingers.

The music is (for centuries) written in special tablature, indicating string, fret position, finger, direction, volume, etc. The pipa is used in all Chinese orchestras for accompaniment, but there are many solo pieces, usually reflecting some mood, or celebrating some historical happening (often some battle).

For more information about the history of the pipa see : Liufangmusic.



example : bought via internet from Apollo'sAxes, 2005
L=730 B=310 H=85mm
You Tube

The ruan is the Chinese "mandolin". It comes in several sizes : gaoyinruan (soprano), xiaoruan (alto), zhongruan (tenor), daruan (bass) and diyinruan (contrabass). Only the zhongruan (tenor) and daruan (bass) are commonly used in Chinese orchestras.

The body of the ruan is made from 2 round pieces of soft wood of about 30 cm diameter for front and back, with a shallow rim of hardwood around them. Usually there are two soundholes (round or other shape) on the front.

The neck is joined to the body, and has a raised fretboard. The peghead is sickle-shaped and ends in a curl to the front, with a special Chinese type of decoration, made of different woods. The frets are small strips of bamboo (or plastic), glued on the fretboard, in a normal western scale (12 frets to an octave).

The 4 long (grooved) friction pegs are placed two on each side of the pegbox. They have an invisible tuning mechanism inside the peghead, which turns the pin on the front of the closed peghead.
The 4 steel strings run over a loose bamboo bridge to a wooden stringholder at the bottom of the body.
Tuning could be G d g d' / G d a e' (tenor) and D A d a / C G d a (bass).

The ruan is played with a plectrum. With sizes ranging from large, medium to small, the modern ruan is capable of producing a variety of tones that range from rich to delicate. It is often used in orchestral performances, as well as for accompaniment of folk operas.

the tuning machines are inside the closed peghead, with traditional looking pegs For much more information about Chinese instruments, see : Chinese music.


example : bought from Ray Man Musicshop, London 1977
L=640 B=370 H=40mm
scale 370mm
You Tube
yueqin / yueh qin

The yueqin (or yueh qin, or yueh chin) is the Chinese "moon-guitar" and looks quite similar to the ruan. For the different yueqin from Taiwan see under. and the Japanese Gekkin see Japan.

The body of the yueqin is made from 2 round pieces of soft wood of about 30 cm diameter, for front and back, with a shallow rim of bended hardwood around them (thinner than the ruan). There is only one tiny sound hole under the bridge.

The short neck with the pegbox is made of one piece of wood and goes through a hole in the side of the body. The peghead is sickle-shaped and ends in a curl to the front, on which a flat piece of wood is glued, usually with special woodcarvings or some ivory/plastic decoration.
The 4 long (grooved) friction pegs (with often different coloured slices on the ends) are on both sides of the half-open pegbox.
The frets are small strips of bamboo, glued on the neck and front, in a Chinese scale (7 to an octave) or nowadays also in a western scale.

The 4 silk (or nylon or metal) strings are fixed to a (half round) hardwood bridge which is glued to the front. Tuning of the 4 strings could be : g d' g' d''.
Some yueqin have the 4 strings in two double courses, and some have only 3 single strings.

The yueqin is played with a long plectrum, in mandolin-style.



example : bought via eBay 2006
L=630 B=235 H=65mm
scale 410mm
You Tube

The liuqin (pronunciation: Lee-oo-chin) or liuyeqin, is the small relative of the pipa. It's name derives from the fact that it looks like a willow leaf (ye is leaf, liu is Chinese for willow). It would originally have been made of willow too, but new models are made of tong and sandal wood. The example instrument is a modern, cheaper version where everything black is made of black plastic.

In general the liuqin is made like the pipa. So the body, neck and pegbox are carved from one piece of hardwood, and painted black. The front is made from some softwood. All frets are made from strips of bamboo and in a normal western scale. Usually there are two soundholes next to the strings on the front, each covered with an ivory (now always plastic) pierced rosette.

The pegbox is sickle-shaped with a forward curl that ends with a special decoration of different woods/plastics. It has 4 long grooved wooden pegs, two on each side of the open pegbox. The 4 steel strings run over a small (rounded) bamboo bridge to some pins on the edge of the body. The tuning is g d' g' d''.

The liuqin is played with a plectrum, and is mainly used in the accompaniment of folk operas, although quite often it can be heard as a solo instrument. Because of its shorter strings & relatively small resonator, the liuqin is noted for high pitches and distinctively bright tones.

On some liuqins the tail has a special device to fine-tune the strings.
nanyin pipa
example :
bought via Chinese friend in Quanzhou 2009
L=960 B=320 H=50mm
scale 720mm
You Tube
solo with song
You Tube
Nanyin ensemble

The frets on the example are made from turtle-like plastic.
nanyin pipa

Besides the normal pipa there is an other style pipa, called the nanyin pipa, (or short : nanpa) or "Nanguan pipa" ("southern pipa") or sometimes "horizontally held pipa". It is mainly used in the Fujian region (South East) and on Taiwan.

The body is more or less the same as the normal pipa, the main differences are the frets, the pegbox and the black coloured soundboard.
The neck and body are carved from one piece of wood (less heavy than the normal pipa). The peghead is made separate. The front falls within a rounded rim of the body and slightly bends in. It has a small crescent-shaped sound hole on both sides of the strings, and a small diamond shaped hole under the bridge.

The nanyin pipa has only 4 triangular frets (instead of the 6 of the normal pipa, missing the lowest and the top one), made of triangular pieces of wood, covered with sea turtle shell. The 10 lower frets are made of the same thin material and in a diatonic scale. The fingerboard on both sides of the triangular frets is covered with mother-of-pearl.

The peghead looks more like a biwa of Japan, bending back. It ends in a flat, rounded scoope. The tuning pegs are long and rounded, like the normal pipa.

The number of (nylon) strings and tuning is also similar, but this pipa is not played vertical (resting on the knee), but horizontal, like a guitar. It seems this instrument and playing style (with a plectrum) is older than the normal pipa.

Nanyin is a traditional opera sung in the Minnan (south Fujian) dialect. Closely tied with imperial and Buddhist music, poetic rhythm and drama tunes from Central China, Nanyin is accompanied by a band of erxian (fiddle), sanxian, dongxiao (flute), nanpa (bent-neck pipa) and paiban (clappers).

In 2009 Unesco inscribed the Nanyin on the "Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity".



example right : bought from bookshop in Rotterdam 2004
(left : picture from Chinese website)
L=890 B=145 H=75mm
scale 650mm
You Tube
the large sanxian
You Tube
the small sanxian


The sanxian (or san-hsien, which literally means "3 strings" in Chinese) is a popular Chinese banjo. It comes in two sizes : a small one (body diameter 14 cm) and a big one (body diameter 24 cm).

The body is made from a hoop of hardwood, with on front and back a snake skin (python), glued all around the edge of the rounded wooden front and back.

The neck is made of hardwood, with a joined-on pegbox of similar wood. The pegbox has a slight curve to the back. The 3 long grooved friction pegs are cone shaped with strips of different woods at the ends. Two are on the right side and one is on the left side of the open pegbox.
The 3 silk strings run over a small wooden bridge to a separate rounded wooden pin at the bottom of the body.

The sanxian is played with a plectrum. With a strong, rich tone and a notably wide range, it is widely used in accompaniment as well as orchestral and solo performances.

The big sanxian (which has a less sharp sound) is used to accompany songs.


The example instrument has a special wooden capodastre on the neck, through which all 3 strings go; by sliding this up and down the neck the easiest range for the singer can be found, without re-tuning.

example : bought via eBay, 2003
L=1230 B=200 H=50mm
scale 1110mm
You Tube

guqin/ ku chin

The qin or guqin (or old spelling chin or guchin) is a seven string fretless zither, and one of the oldest instruments. Because it was played by the higher classes it was also known as the "lute" of China. In Chinese, "gu" means "old", and "qin" means "musical instrument". So although it was historically known as CHIN, during the last century is has been widely called GUCHIN.

The body of the guqin is made from a big plank of hardwood (of about 1.20 meter), hollowed out from the back. The bottom is covered with a flat plank. The entire body is painted with black lacquer. In the bottom plank is a long slit (soundhole), which is covered on the inside with half a bamboo pole. Is has two round "feet" at the left side. The 7 silk strings are fixed on the right side to pegs that can be twisted (and therefore tuning the strings) from the bottom up. The strings run to a small bone bridge at the left end of the soundbox, and are then fixed at the bottom to some tuning device near the feet. The seven strings can be tuned in a variety of keys, but the basic tuning is: C D F G A c d. On the far side of the top string (the thickest, furthest from the player) are 13 white dots to indicate the flageolet points.

The guqin is played by laying it flat on a table and plucking it with the right hand. The left hand shortens the strings (more or less holding the thumb sideways) by pressing the string down on the soundboard - often sliding up and down. Also a variety of flageolets can be produced. Because of this technic of shortening the strings, it is the only zither included here on the website.

Maybe there are thousands of chin pieces in existence, some from 500 AD and many of these pieces are still played today. The music is in tablature, which gives detailed information about place, string, finger, direction, volume, etc.

There is much symbolism surrounding the instrument. For example, it measures 3' 6.5" (Chinese feet and inches), to symbolise the 365 days of the year; the upper surface is rounded, representing the sky, the bottom is flat and represents the earth.
The five strings of the earliest chins symbolise the five elements: Metal, Wood, Water, Fire and Earth. Finally, the 13 mother-of-pearl inlays along the outer edge represent the 13 months of the lunar year.

In Imperial China, a well educated scholar was expected to be skilled in four arts: chess, calligraphy, poetry, and chin.

For more information about the guqin see silk.qin.com.
example :
bought via eBay, 2010
L=920 B=260 H=60mm
scale 630mm
You Tube
flower shape
You Tube
banjo shape

The qinqin (or chinchin, but same pronounciation) is a plucked instrument mainly used in folk music in South China.

The qinqin can be found with several body shapes :
1. The traditional type qinqin often has a round or flower-shaped body (like the Vietnamese Dan Sen), or with six or eight (straight) sides.
The back and the front are made of unvarnished soft wood, with dark coloured hard wood for the sides. It has no soundhole.
The neck and the pegbox are often similar with the other Chinese instruments, with high frets, curled and decorated pegbox tops, and 3 large rounded pegs. The 3 (now nylon) strings run to a carved bridge, fixed to the front.

2. The more modern type qinqin may look like a guitar (similar to a dobro), or like a banjo. It always has a round banjo-like skin on the front - often made of snake skin (python). They usually have a guitar-like neck (with metal inlayed frets), and a flat peghead with tuners from behind.
The 3 (metal) strings running over a loose small wooden bridge in the middle of the skin, to a stringholder at the edge of the body.

The frets are often layed out with 7 equal intervals in an octave scale.
Sometimes only two strings are used, or the first course is double.

The qinqin is usually strummed with a plectrum or with the forefinger, and mainly used to accompany singing folk songs.

The main difference with the flower-shaped Dan Sen from Vietnam is the number of strings: 3 for the qinqin and 2 for the Dan Sen.


left :
a qinqin with guitar-shaped body and small banjo skin,
bought from bookshop Rotterdam 1995
L=810, B=279 H=50mm . scale 550mm

a real banjo-shaped qinqin
(picture from eBay)


example :
bought at an auction from Collection Piet van Boxtel, Holland, 2022

L=1000 B=220 H=35mm
scale 760mm
You Tube
You Tube


The shuangqing (or shuangqin) is an instrument that is related to the qinqin, but is longer, has 4 strings in two pairs, and has an octagonal body.
In Japan a smaller, but similar looking instrument would be called genkwan.

The body is made from 8 short bended pieces of hardwood for the sides, to form an octagonal shape. The front and back are covered with a thin piece of hardwood. Like the qinqin, it has no soundhole.

The neck with the pegbox is made from a long piece of hardwood and goes through the body.
The end of the pegbox is quite flat and has a slight curve to the front.

The neck has 13 high white bone (or ivory) frets in a scale of 7 (more or less) equal intervals for an octave.

The 4 long grooved friction pegs are cone shaped, and placed two on each side of the open pegbox.

The 4 silk (or nylon) strings run in two courses to holes in a carved small bone (or horn) bridge, glued to the front.
Tuning is probably all 4 strings to the same pitch, or to a fifth.

The shuangqing is played with a plectrum.

The shuangqing is hardly used anymore, but was populair in South China, playing in an ensemble with Shifan style music.

top Naxi
example :
picture from ATLAS visitor
L= ~1030 B= H=mm
scale 0mm
You Tube

sugudu / hubo / huobusi

This lute-type instrument is apparently now quite rare and only used by the Naxi people in Southwest China. It originated from Mongolia, and seems quite similar (and related) to the dramyen of Tibet. It is called sugudu, but also huobusi or hubo.

The body and neck of a sugudu is made from one piece of wood, hollowed out. The bottom half is covered with skin (often python snake, but also goat is used), and the top half with a thin piece of wood; there is a narrow slit between the two halfs. The wooden top has a few small soundholes in it.

The neck is long and fretless, and ends with a similar peghead, which is straight or slightly slanting to the left. It is partial open on the back.
The 4 strings (3 silk, 1 metal) are tuned by 4 long round friction pegs, which are all on the left side of the pegbox. This is the only plucked instrument with this feature (but see under for the huobusi).

Tuning is E A d g. The left hand uses mainly the index finger for all the notes, while the right hand thumb and index finger are used for plucking.

The sugudu is used for playing in a small group (with flutes, 2-string fiddles, pipa and sanxian) or to play solos.

For more information : sugudu.

picture from website
example :
bought via eBay from Eastfelicity, China 2012
L= 900 B=320 H=90mm
scale 480mm
You Tube


This new guitar-type instrument is loosely based on the sugundu (see above) and named huobusi (or huobosi - all meaning "musical instrument").
It is used in Inner Mongolia and comes in different sizes (primo, alto, tenor).

The body of this huobusi is made like a guitar, but the (quite thick) front and back are slightly overhanging the sides. The bottom half follows the roundings of a normal guitar, but the top half has sharper curves. The soundholes on both sides of the bridge are decorative holes in a vague f-style. There are decorative black/white painted curly lines on the front, around the edges on the top half and along the bottom half.

The short neck has a rather long tuning head, which has tuning machines hidden inside (like the ruan), with all the 4 tuning pegs (which turn the machines) on the left side (like on the sugudu). The tuning pegs have the shape of the end of an arrow. The front of the tuning head is decorated with cut-out white plastic, with the glued-on top end in a shape resembling a Chinese helmet (or more likely : a bow-and-arrow).

The thick fretboard has metal frets, and the long part over the soundboard is free from it. The 4 steel strings run over a large loose wooden bridge to holes in an extension on the bottom of the body.

Tuning could be similar to the sugudu : A d g c, or like the pipa : A c d a, or ?.

The huobusi is played with a plectrum (like the ruan) and probably used for playing in a small group or to play solos.

example :
picture from website hongxiao.com
L=~1000 B= H=mm
scale 0mm
You Tube


The tianqin is popular amongst the Zhuang people. It looks very much like the dan tinh from Vietnam (see under). The main difference is the peghead. Most of the Zhuangs live in southwest China's Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region. The Bupian people call it dingding.

The tianqin is made from a small gourd (about 10cm diameter), with a thin piece of wood glued on the opening. It has a very long slender neck which is stuck through the gourd, and ends in a long peghead. The two friction pegs are on both sides of the peghead. The peghead extents quite a long way and is decorated with carvings.

It has 2 silk (or nylon) strings which run over a small loose wooden bridge to the end of the neck that sticks out of the body.

The tianqin is played by strumming, and usually with more players together, to accompany singing and dancing.

picture from gxl.net


dong pipa
example :
bought via Yoycart.com, China 2016
L=880 B=160 H=50mm
scale 645mm
You Tube

dong pipa

The dong pipa is popular amongst the Dong people. It resembles the sung from Thailand (see page South East Asia). The Dong minority live in southwest China's Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region and Guizhou Province, as well as in south China's Hunan and Hubei provinces.

The body (and first part of the neck) of the dong pipa is made from one piece of wood, hollowed out from the front. The soundboard is a piece of wood glued on the front. The body may be in the shape of a heart, a square or a bit rounded. The neck with the pegbox is made from another piece of wood, and joined halfway the neck to the body. It usually resembles the neck of a sanxien (China) or shamisen (Japan). It has 2 or 3 inlayed metal frets. In general the instrument will look a bit rustic.

The 4 (or 5) strings are tuned with long rounded pegs on both sides of the open flat peghead. The metal strings run over a small loose wooden (or metal) bridge to a small fixing device at the end of the body. Usually there are 3 courses, with the first (and second) string double.

The dong pipa is played by strumming, usually to accompany singing and dancing.

picture from hausa.cri.cn

yueqin Yi minority
example : bought via Yoycart.com, China 2016
L=700 B=380 H=50mm
scale 480mm
You Tube
yueqin Yi minority
example : bought via Yoycart.com, China 2016
L=660 B=320 H=50mm
scale 360mm
You Tube

yueqin of the Yi minority

The Yi ethnic minority uses a yueqin (moon-guitar), which is quite similar to the one used by the Han Chinese. However they call it : xianzi, kuzhu or sixian. The difference with the yueqin is mainly in decorations and soundholes, but sometimes also the body shape and the number of strings.

(picture top left from englishpeopledaily)

(picture top right from arts.cultural-china)

left an octagonal yueqin or xianzi, highly decorated
(picture from espanol.cri.cn)

right a yueqin or kuzhu from the Yi in Yunnan Province, with 4 rosettes
(picture from Flickr)

yueqin taiwan
example :
bought via eBay, 2010
L=650 B=280 H=60mm
scale 460mm
You Tube

yueqin taiwan

In South China and on the island Taiwan they use a special type of yueqin.

This instrument looks like a hybrid of all Chinese plucked instruments : the round body of a yueqin, the neck with the frets of a pipa, the tuning head of a sanxian and the size of a ruan !

The flat round body of this yueqin is made of wood (back and side), with a thin piece of unvarnished soft wood glued to the front, on top of the sides. The neck and pegbox are made from another piece of wood. The frets are made of bamboo wood and in a diatonic (western) scale, with the first four frets made of triangular pieces, and the rest of thin high pieces. It has a small round soundhole under the bridge.
The instrument is left in basic wood colour (the back and sides of the example are covered with wood-like plastic), not painted black like most Chinese instruments. It seems made in size medium (the example) and large.

The 2 (sometimes 3) nylon strings are tuned with long rounded pegs on both sides of the open peghead, and run to a halfround wooden bridge, fixed at the end of the soundboard. Tuning could be something like : d a'.

The yueqin is played by strumming both strings with a plectrum (or finger), but only the first one is fingered. It is mainly used to accompany singing, or in small instrumental groups. It seems very popular with schoolchildren in Taiwan.



example : bought via internet from Sound-of-Nature, 2004
L=970 B=215 H=650mm
scale 700mm
You Tube
tobshuur (inner Mongolia, China)

In the Chinese Province of Inner Mongolia they use a fretless tobshuur (or tovshur) that looks very much like the well known cello of the Mongolians, the Morin Khuur. It seems made in a factory.

The body is built like a guitar, with some soft wood front. The body shape is usually quite rectangular, or bottle shape - it may vary between makers. The back, sides and neck are painted. The sound holes could be like two f-holes or just a single round hole. The decoration lines near the edge and the Mongolian signs are painted on the wood.

The neck is flush with the soundboard and it has no fingerboard and no frets. The neck ends with a joined-on pegbox, often with a carved horse head, but other makers use the design of the Chinese sanxian. The two (nylon) strings are tuned with flat T-shaped wooden pegs, one on each side of the open pegbox.

The strings go over a small loose bridge and are fixed by tying through two holes in a strip of wood at the bottom of the body.

The tobshuur is strummed with the right finger (or a plectrum) and often only the first string is fingered (and the second with the thumb). It is mainly used to accompany throat singing.





example : bought via internet from Sound-of-Nature, 2004
L=880 B=210 H=80mm
scale 620mm
You Tube
tobshuur (Mongolia - the state)

In Mongolia (the country) the tobshuur has a different shape. Although it used to be made with a skin top (like a banjo), nowadays they have changed to wooden tops for more volume. Also quite recently the idea of a swan has turned up. On CD's of Mongolian music these instruments are now often called "swan-neck-lutes". The idea of the swan is not only used for the shape of the head, but also for the two sound-holes (cut in the front), and the carving on the body. It seems not factory made. The instrument resembles much the Tuva bowed-lute igli, which has a skin front and a horsehead peghead.

The body of this tobshuur is carved from one piece of wood. The back has some carving in the shape of two wings. The neck is joined to the body and is, together with the peghead, made of one piece of wood. The peghead has a carving of a swan head. The eyes and the beack are painted. The fretless neck is flush with the soundboard and has no fingerboard (the black is painted on).

The tobshuur has two (now nylon) strings, tuned with a round wooden tuning peg on each side of the (open on the back) pegbox. The strings go through holes near the nut to the back. The strings go over a rather big loose wooden bridge, and are fixed to a wooden pin at the end of the body.

The tobshuur is strummed with the right finger and often only the first string is fingered (or the second with the thumb). It is mainly used to accompany singing.





topshur / khomys
example : bought via internet from Khomys .com, Novosibirsk, USSR, 2004

L=860 B=190 H=80mm
scale 60mm
You Tube
You Tube
a group
topshur / khomys (USSR)

This is another tobshuur or as it is called in USSR : topshur or khomys. It looks more like the traditional tobshuur, as it has a skin front. So it also looks like the Tuva bowed-lute igli.

The body of the topshur is carved from a solid block of wood in a smooth oval shape, and a small round soundhole in middle of the the back. The leather skin is not glued, but stretched by means of many pieces of (nylon) rope all around the back of the wooden body. In the skin are 3 small decoration holes. The neck and (square) peghead are made from a separate piece of wood. All the wood is painted dark brown.

The topshur has two nylon (guitar) strings, which are tuned by a round wooden peg on each side of the (open on the back) pegbox. The strings go passed a plastic nut through small holes to the back. At the other end they run over a rather big loose wooden bridge to a small wooden pin at the end of the body.

The neck is not rounded, but 5-sided and slightly raised above the skin; it has no fret board. The frets are in western scale, and are made of wound nylon, but in one long binding, so all frets are joined.

The topshur is strummed with the right finger and often only the first string is fingered. It is mainly used to accompany singing.

Note that a "khomus" is the name of a jaw harp.

The back of the topshur, with the ropes to fix the skin.

shanz / shudraga
example : seen during concert in Holland
L=0 B=0 H=0mm
scale 00mm
You Tube
You Tube
shanz / shudraga

This instrument is in fact the large size Chinese sanxian, which is often used in the Mongolian area, and there called shanz or shudraga.

It has three nylon strings and is played in similar style (with plectrum) to accompany singing.


top Tuva
example :
bought from Tuva via eBay 2007
L=980 B=200 H=75mm
scale 610mm
You Tube

In Tuva (a small USSR republic just north-west of Mongolia) they use a kind of plucked instrument which is quite similar to the tobshuur, but called doshpuluur (also spelled : toshpulur, tochpuluur, dospulur, etc.)

It is a kind of banjo, but usually with a square wooden body, with goatskin on both sides. Sometimes (pine) wood is used for this.

The (pine wood) neck is long and has two or three metal strings. Often the peghead has a carving of a horse (very common around Mongolia). Some instruments have a few frets. Nowadays the strings are the lower 3 guitar strings, tuned with 3 separate guitar-tuners; the long wooden pegs are just for decoration.

Tuning could be C G c.

The doshpuluur is played strumming (usually only the first string is fingered, the other string(s) are drones), to accompany throat singing.


left :
Choduraa Tumat from Tuva playing square box doshpuluur
(from Russian website)

example :
bought via internet from Tuvatrader 2007
L=1000 B=360 H=40mm
scale 660mm
You Tube

In Tuva they use a second kind of plucked instrument, which is quite similar to the shudraga and called the chanzy (also seen : chanzi and tyanzi). It is regarded as a special shaped doshpuluur.

The chanzy is a kind of (round) banjo, with a (goat or snake) skin glued on the front of a round wooden hoop. It has some decorative wooden box around it (made of triplex), in a kind of heart shape (some call it kidney-shape). Usually it has two similar soundholes and some painted decoration. The example instrument has a Ying-Yang shaped black plastic scratchplate glued to the skin.

The neck is long and made of pine wood. Some models have frets, others not or (like the example) only drawn on.
Like on the doshpuluur the three (nylon) strings are tuned by modern guitar tuners - the long pegs are just for decoration. Often the peghead has a carving of a horse (very common on instruments around Mongolia).
The 3 guitar-strings run over a rather large loose bridge on the skin to a wooden stringholder, which is fixed with a rope to a pin on the bottom of the body.

Tuning could be F c f.

The chanzy is played strumming (usually only the first string is fingered, the other string(s) are drones), to accompany throat singing.
from Russian website

top Japan
example : bought from Ray Man Musicshop, London 1990
L=980 B=220 H=100mm
scale 765mm
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traditional style
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in Bunraku
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modern shamisen-rock



The shamisen (or samisen) is the most well known Japanese plucked instrument, which arrived around the 16th C in mainland Japan via the Chinese sanxian and the Okinawa sanshin. Both predecessors used python snake as skin, but for some reason (probably the lack of snake skin) the Japanese started using the skin of dog, or cat (which is more expensive because you can get less skin from one cat...). Nowadays also plastic is used, like on western banjos. Putting on a skin at the very high tension that is required, is work for specialists. As is the woodwork : the neck is made of 3 pieces which fit together (with special lips and holes) so tightly that you can hardly see the joins.

The body of the shamisen is made from 4 pieces of hardwood, joined so they make an almost square hoop. On front and back a white (dog or cat) skin is glued. The neck is made from 3 pieces of hard wood : one goes through the body, (with the endpin used to fix the strings to); the middle is just a piece of neck and the top piece has the pegbox glued to it. The fretless neck is halfround and has no fretboard. The pegbox has a curve to the back and ends in a rather sharp edge - often protected by a piece of black plastic. The left side of the body is protected with a piece of decorative cardboard.

The 3 silk strings can be tuned by 3 long wooden tuning pegs on the side of the open pegbox : two on the right, one on the left. The rim of the holes is made of copper. The brass nut is only for the first 2 strings; the 3rd string runs over a cavity to make the string buzzing, like the biwa strings. Sometimes it can be adjusted with a screw.

The strings run over a loose small, neatly carved bamboo bridge, and are tied to 3 coloured silk ropes. These are fixed to the end of the neck sticking through the body. By slightly loosening the strings, these ropes come loose from the pin and the strings can be wound around the pegs, the neck taken in pieces and the entire shamisen fits in a small bag.

The shamisen is played with an enormous triangular plectrum (of different kinds of wood, but nowadays often made of plastic or partly tortoise shell), which not only picks the strings, but also hits the skin to accent certain notes. The music is written in Japanese tablature, which gives quite detailed instructions how to play.

The shamisen comes in slightly different sizes for different types of music. The most well-known use is in the BUNRAKU puppet theater. The shamisen is becoming very popular again in a quick and vigorous style :"shamisen-rock".

For more information see Shamisen.

example : bought via eBay, 2004
L=900 B=290 H=200mm
scale 710mm
You Tube


The biwa is the Japanese lute, and looks much like its predecessor -the Chinese pipa. However it is quite differently played and the sound is also completely different. There exist several types of biwa, which differ in size and tuning, like the gaku biwa, the chikuzen biwa and the satsuma biwa. For more information see Biwa and Taiko-center.

The body of the biwa is carved from one piece of hardwood, with a thin softwood soundboard, slightly rounded. This has two half moon shaped soundholes, with bone inlay around them. The back has vague carvings, like glued-on papers. The neck is part of the body (although on the example both the neck and the pegbox can be taken separate). The 5 (or 4) high frets (and the top bridge) are made from small "piles" of different woods, with a rounded top. The pegbox is square and bends backwards, ending in a kind of upwards curl.

The 4 (or 5) silk strings are tuned with long round wooden tuning pegs, 2 on each side of the open bexbox. They are fixed to the bridge, which is a carved piece of wood glued to the front, and has bone (?) decoration on the sides and around the string fixing holes.

The biwa is played with a big size triangular plectrum, which not only hits the strings but also the soundboard. Often there is a piece of decorative leather or paper glued to the front where the plectrum hits the wood. Because of the round shape of the top of the frets the strings buzz, which is the typical sound of the biwa. Occasionally the strings are pressed down between the frets to get the pitches in between the fixed frets.

As biwas are rarely made anymore, you are lucky to find one - the example instrument has burn marks on the front, and missed the pegs and one fret, which are replaced by some look-alikes.



example : bought via eBay from Japan 2004

L=780 B=190 H=75mm
scale 600mm
You Tube
You Tube
kankara sanshin
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The sanshin is a kind of banjo, like the Chinese sanxian (where the name seems to come from) and its close relative : the Japanese shamisen. It is the "national" instrument of Okinawa - one of the Japanese islands.

The body of the sanshin is made from some pieces of wood glued together to form an almost round hoop. On front and back a skin is glued. This used to be made from python, but nowadays often a nylon skin with python imprint is used. The fretless neck with (shamisen-style) pegbox is made from one piece of wood, painted all black.

The 3 nylon strings are tuned with 3 long round wooden pegs (often black with white endings), 2 on the right and one on the left of the open pegbox. The strings run over a small loose plastic bridge to a decorative piece of rope-knot which is hooked on a pin at the bottom of the body. Around the body is a piece of cloth with embroidery with special Okinawa decoration patterns.
The tuning could be something like : c f c'.

The sanshin is played with a special finger-like plectrum, which fits over the index finger. It is made of horn or nowadays : plastic. The sanshin is mainly used to accompany folk songs.

For more information see simplesanshin.

At the end of WorldWarII materials were scarce and the body was made of empty milk tins : these simple instruments are now again available : the kankara sanshin.

kankara sanshin
example :
bought via eBay
from Japan 2013

L=750 B=155 H=85mm
scale 570mm

Note that a similar shamisen/sanshin made with an unvarnished wooden body is called : gottan.
example :
bought via Etsy.com from Klektik, 2016
L=670 B=365 H=35mm
scale 430mm
You Tube


The gekkin is the close relative of the Chinese yueqin, and nowadays the instrument is not made in Japan anymore : all instruments now come from China, and are in fact normal yueqin (see China).

The old gekkin (made in Japan) was almost the same as the modern yueqin : so also two circles of softwood for soundboard and back, but now glued on top of the narrow strip of hardwood for the sides. Inside the body is a long circular piece of wire that makes a jingling sound when the instruments is shaken/played.
It has a short separate neck (which runs through the body), with a sickle shape pegbox, ending in a separate decorative plate at the front with some woodcarving. Frets are bamboo, ivory or bone strips, glued to the fingerboard. They are usually in a western diatonic scale.

The four (silk) strings are tuned with long rounded friction pegs, two on each side of the open pegbox. The strings (in two double courses) are tied to the bridge, which is a half round piece of hard wood, glued to the front. Tuning would probably be all strings to the same pitch.

On most old Japanese instruments the front was decorated with glued-on dark coloured wooden ornaments and near the bridge a square piece of cloth or snake skin.

The gekkin is played with a long thin plectrum to accompany Chinese folksongs, but the instrument is not often used anymore.

For some information about repairing old gekkin : see charliezhang (in Japanese).



example : bought via eBay, 2008
L=690 B=130 H=75mm scale 500mm

Electronic taishogoto, from Japanese website Jamabika
You Tube
normal playing
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special playing


It may be a surprise to find the simple folk-like Indian bulbul tarang (see India) to be quite popular in Japan, where it is called taishogoto (also spelled: taisho-koto). Maybe this is the reason why this instrument is often called "Japanese Banjo". Some instruments are electric and even have electronic devices attached to it.

Basically the taishogoto is a long acoustic sound box, with strings on top (close together), which can be tuned on the left side, and strummed with a pick on the right side. With the left hand you can press typewriter-like keys, which press down small metal bars on the strings, and work as frets (although there are real frets as well).

The keys are usually numbered (both in India and Japan, music is notated in numbers, like our do, re, mi), according to their relative pitch.

The taishogoto is usually played by large groups of women playing together popular music.

See more information here : Taishoharp.





dang bipa hyang bipa wolgeum
pictures from website Korea-fans.com

Korea does not have many plucked instruments, just a few zithers.

In the past there were lute-like instruments, based on Japanese and Chinese originals. However these instruments are no longer used. Just to show you, here some pictures I found on a website.

These included some pipa/biwa type lutes, like:
- the 4 string dang bipa
- the 5 string hyang bipa

The round moon-guitar type instrument was called wolgeum, which had 4 strings.

For more information see Koreanmusic.

It seems at least the Hyang bipa is getting a revival :

You Tube
hyang bipa
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dang bipa and wolgeum
example : picture taken in Holland during concert by
The Court Music Troupe of the National Gugak Centre
L=~1500 B=~200 H=~60mm
scale ~1300mm
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You Tube
a modern use


The komungo (or also called geomungo) is a long zither, quite similar to the Japanese koto or to the Korean gayagum. Although normal zithers are excluded from this website, the komungo is fretted, so several strings can be used for different pitches.

The body is usually made from paulownia wood, hollowed out at the bottom like a half tube. The back and both ends are pieces of hardwood. There are 16 fixed frets for the 3 inner strings and 3 movable bridges for the 3 outer strings (which are always played open). Two open strings are on the far side of the player, and one is nearest the player. The high frets are made of hardwood.

The 6 silk strings are at the right side of the player fixed to a small piece of wood, and run from underneath through a hole in the body, over the wide nut/bridge to the other side of the zither and are there tied with a special knot to a long silk rope, which is tied to the end of the body.

The komungo is played sitting cross-legged with the right side of the instrument on the lap. The strings are not strummed with the fingers, but with a bamboo stick as plectrum. Nevertheless, the sound is quite similar to the koto and kayagum, which are always played with (long) open strings. The hitting of the strings with the stick can sound quite percussive.


example :
L=~700 B=0 H=0mm
scale ~430mm
You Tube


The oungum (also spelled : eoeungeum) is an instrument made and found only in North Korea. It is there the national instrument.

According to legend it was designed in 1962 by fellow students of chairman Kim Jong Il and named by him. It is said to be based on the original hyang bipa.

The oungum is about the size of a mandola. It is made like a flat back mandolin, with a pear shaped body and a round soundhole.

The fretboard is slightly higher then the front and runs up to the soundhole. It has frets in a normal western scale.

The tuning head is half open with two large round friction pegs on both sides. Modern ones have internal machines with knobs on the front.
The top of the tuning head is slightly bended back.

The 4 metal strings run over a quite large loose bridge to a separate wooden stringholder, which is fixed to the end of the body. A modern version is with a wooden cover over the full width of the body.

The oungum is played (solo or in an ensemble) with a plectrum in a mandolin-style, with often lots of tremelo.

a modern version oungum >>



In Vietnam most instrument resemble quite closely the Chinese ones, some even have similar nbyang bipaames. However some instruments only exist in Vietnam, like the Dan Day and Dan Bau (DAN means LUTE).
In general the Vietnamese instruments nowadays seem to be very highly decorated, with lots of inlayed mother-of-pearl all over the instrument.

Much information about Vietnamese instruments can be found on : vietnam culture, and about Vietnamese music :

dan nguet / dan kim
example : bought via internet from Hong Nhung in Vietnam, 2006
L=1000 B=370 H=60mm
scale 720mm
You Tube

dan nguyet / dan kim

The Dan Nguyet or Dan Kim is a relative of the Chinese yueqin or ruan, but with a much longer neck and only two strings.

The front and back of the body of the Dan Nguyet are made from a round piece of unvarnished soft wood (diameter of about 350 mm). The side is made of bended hardwood, about 60 mm in height. There is no soundhole. The neck is separate, without a fingerboard and glued to the body. The peghead is made from one piece, slightly sickle shaped and ending in a spade-like backward curve.

On both sides of the open pegbox is a long rounded tuning peg, ending with decorative slices of different materials. Often the Dan Nguet still has holes for 4 pegs, but nowadays only 2 strings (and pegs) are used.
The frets are high pieces of hardwood, with the rim of bamboo. They are in a kind of pentatonic scale, based on 7 intervals in an octave. Two nylon strings (tuned to a fifth or a fourth) run to a carved wooden bridge, glued to low end of the soundboard.

In the past fingernails were used to play Dan Nguyet. Nowadays, they play it with a plastic or tortoise-shell plectrum.

Dan Nguyet is used to accompany singing, in ceremonial music and in the traditional orchestra.

Vietnamese instruments are nowadays highly decorated with many mother-of-pearl figures inlayed on sides, neck, pegbox and bridge.


dan sen
example : bought via internet from Hong Nhung in Vietnam, 2004
L=890 B=280 H=50mm
scale 630mm
You Tube

dan sen

The Dan Sen is a slightly smaller instrument than the Dan Nguyet, but is in fact made in the same way.

The body of the Dan Sen has the shape of a flower (with 6 "petals") and two thin nylon strings. Its origin is the Chinese qinqin (which usually has 3 strings).
In addition to the different body shape compared to the Dan Nguyet, the frets of the Dan Sen are fixed in a diatonic scale instead of the pentatonic scale of the Dan Nguyet, but still based on 7 intervals in an octave.

The side of the body, the bridge, and the neck are highly decorated with inlay mother-of-pearl.

It is only used in the Hat Boi (Traditional Drama) in South Vietnam.

detail of the inlay on the side of the dan sen
dan doan
example : bought via internet from Etnian.com, 2010
L=610 B=360 H=55mm
scale 340mm
You Tube

dan doan

The Dan Doan looks very similar to the Chinese yueqin ("moon-guitar"). It is sometimes also called Dan Nhat or Dan Tu.

The body of a Dan Doan is made of a long bended strip of hardwood. The almost circular shaped front and back are made of unvarnished softwood. The short neck is separate and is inserted into a square hole in the body. The frets are strips of (rough) bamboo, glued to the neck and soundboard, in a diatonic scale.

The open tuning head curls slightly to the back, and has 4 long round tuning pegs (two on each side). The four (sometimes three) nylon single strings run to a half round bridge, glued to the soundboard. There are no sound holes anywhere.

It is played with a plectrum.


dan day
example : bought via internet from Hong Ngung in Vietnam, 2004
L=1240 B=230 H=55mm
scale 940mm
You Tube

dan day

The Dan Day is the main lute of the Viet majority. Its literary name is "Vo de cam" or "bottom-less lute". It can be found only in Vietnam.

The sound box of a Dan Day has the shape of a trapezium of hardwood with sides of about 28x20 cm, and a depth of about 6 cm. The soundboard is made of unvarnished light softwood.

The back is also softwood, but with a rectangular sound hole, covered with a wooden rosette. The very long neck (about 80 cm body to nut) is glued into the body (it seems to go right to the bottom with a pole) and continues into the peghead, which widens in a curved banian leaf shape. It has 3 long rounded pegs : two at the right and one at the left side of the pegbox, which is open on the back.

There are no frets on the top half of the neck, only lower down are 10 high frets, made of hardwood with a rim of bamboo. The 3 nylon strings run to a box-shaped bridge, glued to the front.
The tuning of the Dan Day is in 4ths. When the player presses at the first fret over the three strings, the three tones are : g c' f'.

The playing of the traditional Dan Day differs from other lutes by something peculiar : open strings are never played.

It used to be exclusively played by men to accompany the "A Dao" (or "Ca tru") singing genre in North Vietnam.

dan tam
example : bought via eBay, 2006
L=900 B=150 H=80mm
scale ~550mm
You Tube
You Tube

dan tam

This three-stringed banjo-lute is used by several ethnic groups in Vietnam. The Viet call it Dan Tam, whereas the Ha Nhi call it Ta in.
The Dan Tam exists in three sizes: large, medium, and small. The small one is the most popular. It is quite similar to the Chinese sanxian, and a relative of the Japanese shamisen, and the Mongolian shanz.

The sound box of the Dan Tam is oval-shaped, with (python) snake skin on the front. In fact the front is rounded wood, with a small square hole in the middle; the skin seems to be glued to the rounded edge.

The back and sides of the body are made of wood. The back has a carved soundhole. The neck is made of hard wood and fretless. There are three round wooden pegs, two on the right, one on the left of the open pegbox. The three strings were traditionally made of twisted silk, but are nowadays usually nylon. They run through a small wooden device bound to the neck that can slide up and down, providing a movable nut (and scale length). Tuning is normally f c' f'.

Playing is with a plastic plectrum. The tones of the Dan Tam are bright and cheerful. The techniques for the left hand include tremolos, trills, picking, stopping and especially sliding. Full tones, three-quarter tones and quarter-tones can be played. The Dan Tam is often part of an orchestra accompanying Cheo drama.

Left : the back of the body with the soundhole.

Right : the rounded front with the python skin.
dan tyba
example :
bought from Etnian.com, 2010
L=970 B=260 H=50mm
scale 680mm
You Tube
You Tube

dan tyba

The Dan Tyba is very similar to the Chinese pipa. The main difference is that the top six frets are not triangular, but just the same high strips of wood that are used for the rest of the frets. The frets are sometimes in a special oriental scale (7 frets in an octave - like the example), but often in a western scale (sometimes omitting a few frets).

The body of the Dan Tyba is often more slender than the pipa, but you can also find instruments with a quite broad body.

Nowadays the instruments in Vietnam seem to be very highly decorated with mother-of-pearl inlay; not only the neck and bridge, but also the back of the body.
The peghead has often a woodcarving with a picture of a bat.

The 4 strings are made of nylon, and tuned g c' d' g'.

The player uses a plectrum and holds the instrument vertical (like the pipa) or horizontal (like a guitar).

The technique for the left hand, which presses the strings, includes glissando, staccato, arpeggio and tremolo. The Dan Tyba music is light and cheerful. The instrument is played solo or as part of an orchestra or a band accompanying the singing of Hue melodies or operas.

dan bau
example : bought via eBay 2002
L=1030 B=85 H=60mm
scale 910mm
You Tube

dan bau

The Dan Bau is a monocord, a very typical Vietnamese instrument, as it is only played here.

The example is a newer model and designed to fold in half for easy transport and even has a single pickup for electric amplifying.

The body is basically a large box, made of hardwood, about a meter long. The bottom is closed with some flat soft wood. The top is covered with softwood too, but in a slightly concave shape.
There is one metal string which runs from the right side over a tiny bridge through a hole in the top to the back, where it can be tuned by a tuning peg - or nowadays often a huge single tuning machine from a bass guitar.
The string runs slightly upwards to the left side where it is fixed to a long flexible pole made of horn, which stands on the soundbox and ends in a curl. At the fixing point of the string a small round wooden "hat" (formerly a small gourd) is loosely fitted over the pole. As with all Vietnamese instruments the Dan Bau is highly decorated with inlay of mother-of-pearl.

The way of playing is to lay the Dan Bau on a table and hold the pole with the left hand. With the right hand the string is plucked with a long wooden plectrum, and by touching the string at the same time with the side of the right hand flageolets are produced. This is quite tricky as there are no visible orientation points to find the proper spots. However according to legend, the Dan Bau was traditionally played by blind (!) musicians. By bending the pole with the left hand a vibrato, sliding sounds and all notes in between the (few) flageolet notes can be produced.
Today, Dan Bau takes part in the ensembles of theatrical music, and even in groups playing modern music.

example : bought via eBay, 2003
L=980 B=390 H=85mm
scale 630mm
You Tube
You Tube


The ghita (or Dan Ghi-ta) is a remarkable guitar-shaped instrument, but typical of the Vietnamese instruments. It is also called luc huyen cam or vong co guitar (after the music style).

The story is that the Vietnamese who emigrated to the USA in the 1930's were eager to get an instrument that could be played like their home instruments - when you pluck a thin string between high frets (like on the Dan Nguyet for instance) you can easily bend the tone up by pressing a bit harder. To reach that same effect on a guitar (which was easy to buy in USA) they scraped the fingerboard between the frets in a scalloped way; the frets were left in place. (This scalloping is now also used by some western guitarplayers to ease very fast playing).

The number of strings was reduced to 5 (one tuner left open) and they were tuned in an open tuning, like : c f c' g' c''.

The example instrument is actually made in Vietnam (in a hybrid Fender fashion), with 6 tuning machines, but 5 strings, over a loose bridge. The instrument seems to have been bashed about quite a lot and is even painted at some stage. However the special scalloped fingerboard has survived it all.

The Vong Co guitar is nowadays also quite populair in Vietnam, especially for the Vong Co Opera style, and even electric guitars are used, but all with the scalloped fingerboard. See for examples : Saigonstrings.
dan tinh
example : bought via internet from Hong Ngung in Vietnam, 2006
L=1100 B=390 H=115mm
scale 730mm
You Tube

dan tinh

Dan Tinh is a kind of banjo, played by some ethnic groups in north Vietnam. The Tay and Nung calls it Tinh Then, while the Thai ethnic group calls it Tinh Tau ('Tinh' means a lute and 'Tau' means a gourd). It looks identical to the Chinese tianqin.

The body of the Dan Tinh is made from a thick, round bottle-gourd of about 20cm diameter. On the back are 6 small soundholes. The front is often made from thin cinnamon wood which is glued in the rim of the cut-off gourd.

The neck is made of one piece of some hardwood (often 'Thung muc' or strawberry wood) and goes with a pin through the gourd and sticks out at the bottom. Traditionally the length of a Tinh lute is equal to 0.9x the fist’s length of the player (or 75-90 cm). Experience shows that this length would best fit with the player’s voice. There are no frets.

The tuning head is in the shape of a sickle (with the curve to the back), or sometimes a bird, It has two round friction pegs, one on each side. Formerly, the two strings were made from silk, polished with beeswax or the resin of sweet potato leaves. Nowadays they are replaced by normal (less tasty...) nylon strings. They run over a small loose wooden bridge on the front, and are fastened to the neck pin at the bottom of the body.

Dan Tinh has either two or three strings. The two-string Tinh is tuned at a fourth or fifth. The three-string Tinh is the same, with the 3th string tuned an octave lower than the high string.

The Dan Tinh is played with a plectrum. Fingering techniques are mainly glissando, slurring, mordent and vibrating.

Dan Tinh is used by several ethnic groups to accompany singing. It is normally played by men only, but with the 'Then' of the Tay ethnic group it is played by women only.

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