Buying an erhu can be a daunting task if you do not know anything about the instrument. Heck, it can also be a daunting task even if you have been playing for quite a while.
There are so many variables on the erhu that affect the erhu in various ways.
There is the wood, the workmanship, the snakeskin, the shape of the resonator and where the maker hails from.
In this series of blogposts, I will try to give you as much information, in the simplest way, to help you decide on which erhu to choose, whether you are a beginner, intermediate or advanced player.
Information is given to the best of our knowledge and experience. Some opinions if subjective, will be indicated.
Erhu references of course will be made to the erhus that we sell at our Erhu online store.
So where do you start?
The easiest way, though not necessarily the best way for someone to decide is to base it on cost.
The cheapest Erhu out there in the market can be as low as US$50 and an Indian small leaf sandalwood by a reputable maker can cost more than US$10,000.
There are 3 things that affect the price of the Erhu: Wood, snakeskin, maker.
Let’s talk about the wood used first.
The woods used to make Erhu varies a lot.
The most common would be Rosewood and the most rare and valuable would be Indian small leaf sandalwood. In addition to those woods are Ebony, Violet Sandalwood, Black sandalwood etc
For each kind of wood there are also varying qualities, depending on where it hails from and also the age of the wood. Usually the older the the wood the better.
Take rosewoods as an example: The cheapest rosewood used would be young rosewood and they often come with a bright hue. The older rosewoods we called them aged rosewoods and can range from US$600 to US$1500.
Moving upwards would be the “Ming Qing” rosewoods where the woods are harvest from furniture from the “Ming Qing” dynasty costing upwards from US$2000.
You might have noticed that part of the resonator / soundbox of the erhu is made from python skin. The skin of the python is specifically selected because it has great elasticity (think python swallowing a cow). Nothing even comes close.
But not all pythons skins are created equal. Different python skin has different elasticity. Even the skin on different parts of a python has different elasticity.
The better skin the higher the price.
When the maker is making an Erhu with a good piece of wood, he will want to also pair it with a good piece of snakeskin, so as not to ‘waste’ a good piece of wood.
A good piece of wood with a good piece of snakeskin would then produce an Erhu with a better tone quality, and also a higher price tag.
There is also the issue of farmed python versus wild python. Wild pythons move a around much more hence their skin has much better elasticity than farmed pythons, hence there are very much sought after.
But nowadays all erhus are made from farmed pythons. And the secret environmentalist in you might be glad to know that the pythons were not specifically farmed for erhus. The skins are usually the by product of what they are actually farmed for.
There are more than a thousand different Erhu makers in China.
They learned from different masters and have varying skill levels in making an Erhu.
Just like chefs, some chefs are better at cooking than others.
In the hands of a skilful and experienced erhu maker, the Erhu would have a better resulting tone using the same type of wood and snakeskin.
Hence a reputable maker with a good name and track record would command a premium for their erhus.
Which tone is better sometimes is a subjective thing.
But some erhus really sound better and play better – objectively.
There are 3 distinct type of Erhu tones, namely Suzhou, Shanghai and Beijing. Click here to read more about it.
All in all, the price of an erhu is determined by the type of wood used, the quality of snakeskin used and who makes it.
Before we go into Erhus by price points, here are 2 additional factors to be aware of when buying an Erhu.
This refers to the sensitivity and responsiveness of the instrument to produce a clean tone.
An instrument with easy play-ability requires less effort to produce a decent sound.
An instrument that is demanding requires a lot of physical effort to produce a decent sound.
This is quite an important factor for me. I am more of a leisure player and I would like to have an instrument that I can easily play easy listening pieces.
This refers to how well / fine the instrument is made.
For Chinese instruments, this is not something you can be picky about. Sad to say, Chinese instruments’ workmanship still has a long way to go if you compare it with western instruments.
It is common to see scratches, a little lopsided baseplate, rough edges, pegs that do not fit perfectly etc, even by reputable makers.
It seems the makers are more interested in the sound of the instrument more than anything else.
But having said that, there are still makers with good workmanship out there.
The easiest way to base your purchase on would be how much budget you have.
Let me break down the Erhus into different tiers based on their prices. (Reference made according to the erhus on our online store: https://www.easonmusicstore.com)
For a beginner or someone who is just curious to try it for the first time, there is always this urge to buy the cheapest Erhu they can find.
There are a lot of places on the internet selling these US$50 Erhus but I wouldn’t touch them with a five foot pole.
They are usually made of poor materials and produces a scratchy and harsh tone that no amount of accessories upgrade will help.
If you are someone wanting to try the Erhu for a first time, not knowing where you would go, I can understand that you don’t want to spend too much money
But you also would not want to buy something that makes you sound bad too.
You don’t want to be in the position where you sound bad, but you are not sure if its because of your skills or the instrument.
Erhus in this category represents the minimum quality you need to start your Erhu journey.
The Erhus here though cheap, sounds decent to good and is guaranteed to work.
The ones on the higher end of the scale can pack a punch also.
The cheapest Erhu that we have is young rosewood Erhu by a maker in Tianjin called LJF.
This Erhu feels lightweight but sounds and plays decently.
This is the least you need, to know that its probably you sounding bad, rather than the instrument.
In this category we also have our best selling Erhu – the Shanghai Rosewood Erhu by Shanghai Dunhuang.
This was our most popular model before the Young Rosewood came along.
It has a pleasant, sweet and warm tone and has good play-ability.
Compared to the Young Rosewood Erhu the tone has slightly more body and richness.
The workmanship is also pretty good.
LJF also has a better Erhu model that is made from Black Rosewood.
This Erhu is very responsive and easy to play.
The tone, albeit slightly thin, is mellow and warm.
Definitely better than its predecessor.
The last in this category is another Shanghai Dunhuang Erhu.
It is made from red sandalwood, one of the cheapest sandalwood used to make starter Erhus.
In the looks department, it looks very much like the rosewood version.
The tone however is richer and more articulate than the rosewood version.
For people who want to invest a little more in a better instrument, this category are mid range Erhus with woods like Ebony, Black Sandalwood and Aged Rosewood.
Compared the Erhus in Tier C, they have a richer sound and better articulation.
Ebony wood instruments are usually mellow, warm and most importantly not so bright, which is something that appeals to westerners.
Aged rosewoods are sweet, warm and bright.
They have good articulation and the harshness / brightness will taper off after it seasons.
Black Sandalwood are heavy and dense woods, with a tone that is sort of an ‘in between’ the Ebony and Aged rosewood.
This is the lowest priced Erhu by Zhejiang Maker Yu Kai Ming, one we have worked closely together for sometime.
It is articulate, bright and responsive.
It has a thinner sound than more expensive Erhus but it does not seem as thin when you play it, only when you compare it.
One of the models from Shanghai Dunhuang that comes with bronze tuners for easy tuner or friction tuners like all others.
It is clean, clear and responsive, hence it is very easy to handle and easy on the ears as well.
Not a penetrative tone but more of an area effect.
One of our best sellers from Zhejiang maker Yu Kai Ming.
An affordable aged rosewood Erhu that is bright, articulate and sweet.
It has a rich tone compared to the Erhus listed above and is very responsive.
And it is relatively loud, bordering on a little brash when its new and not run in.
This is a Violet Sandalwood Erhu from Shanghai Dunhuang.
It is sweet, clean and rich, and very responsive to touch.
We find it a very versatile instrument that can play all genres of tunes.
In this category you have people who are serious about the instrument.
You can be a beginner but you love the instrument so much and are determined to mount a serious challenge. For that you need a serious weapon and the Erhus in this category are what you would be looking at.
Either that or you are an intermediate player who is looking for an upgrade to something that is good enough for recordings and solo performance
The Erhus in Tier A are made from Violet sandalwood, Black sandalwood and Aged Rosewood
Not only are they richer tone, they have an added complexity to the tone.
One of these should last you for a long time, till you decide that you want another different kind of tone.
Hu Han Rou is one great Shanghai Erhu maker and this is her entry level Erhu made from black sandalwood.
Her Erhus are best described as feminine and cultured, as opposed to brash and loud.
Her Erhus also have this lush and grainy tone undertone.
This particular Erhu has all of those qualities in addition to sounding warm and mellow.
A better quality aged rosewood Erhu by Yu Kai Ming compared to the one in Tier B.
Sweet and resonant with a stronger and more robust tone.
As with all Yu Kai Ming Erhus very responsive and easy to play.
Wan Qi Xing Erhus has been around for the longest time.
We grew up playing his aged rosewoods alot so its kind of a nostalgic name for us.
Production has been taken over by his sons and workers (cos he’s pretty old), but the quality is still there.
It sounds articulate, bright and warm, with that distinct sweet Suzhou tone.
This is an aged rosewood erhu from Shanghai Dunhuang.
Like the Ivory coast sandalwood Erhu from Shanghai Erhu, this erhu is clean and rich with an added sweetness to the tone.
It is also very responsive and easy to play.
This is made of better quality aged rosewood and snakeskin compared to his professional aged rosewood Erhu.
It is sweet, articulate, not as brash and has a more rounded tone relatively.
The tone feels deeper and stronger as well.
The best selling Erhu from Hu Han Rou.
The tone is sweet, articulate, lushful and rounded.
Along with that signature feminine voice.
The Erhus in the Tier S are a cut above the rest.
They are louder, more articulate, richer and the tone has more underlying complexities.
They also have a high volume threshold, which means you can play very loud without the sound breaking.
They are made using the best of materials and the snakeskin is usually thicker and tighter.
These Erhus need more time to run-in and have the potential to sound so much better than when they are new.
You can be a beginner who want a really good instrument, but you will need some hard playing to get the instrument to its full potential.
Or you can be an intermediate to advanced player looking to upgrade your instrument to something that you will not need to upgrade again for the foreseeable future.
Seasoned violin or cello players can consider these, since your ears are conditioned to fine instruments.
This is an Erhu by Shanghai maker Hu Han Rou.
Its tone is sweet, rich, clean and rounded.
Loud but not brash, penetrative yet not jarring.
This is a Suzhou Erhu by maker Xu Chun Feng.
The tone is very clean and one of the few Erhus with really clean and strong high registers.
Has that typical warm and sweet Suzhou tone.
Also check out its equivalent with a headstock depicting lily ponds here.
This Erhu has a rich, clean and loud tone.
Compared to his other Erhus the tone is more rounded yet robust and strong.
Comes with a special decorative headstock.
One of the higher end Erhus from Hu Han Rou.
This Erhu gives a sweet, warm and rich tone.
Very resonant and projects very well.
Indian small leaf sandalwood is the most prized wood used to make Erhus.
The sound of this Erhu attests to why this is so.
The tone produced is smooth, creamy and rich with different layers of colorful overtones.
It clearly sounds more exquisite compared to the other Erhus listed above.
So there you have it! Some of our humble recommendations of our Erhus if you are considering to get one.
If you need more help in choosing the perfect Erhu for yourself, please feel free to drop us an email at [email protected] We will be glad to give you our honest opinion as well as show you more sound or video demos.