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 and painted black. The front is made from 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 to the front, in the normal Western scale of 12 tones to an octave.

The peghead is sickle-shaped and ends with a curl in 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, and glued to the front. There is no soundhole, except one tiny hole under the bridge. The 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 greater 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 to 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 happenings (often some battle).


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