Let’s learn some history
The earliest discovery of this complex instrument is thought to be back in the 16th century when Andrea Amati first stared making the instruments for Charles IX, the King of France. During this initial period of design and reproduction, not too many people played the cello, and the instrument was much too expensive for peasants and even many middle-class musicians. The cellos capabilities went largely unexplored and therefore didn’t gain popularity until the six famous cello suites composed by Bach in the early 18th century captivated the attention of commoner and king alike. Stradivarius, the famous cello maker, also began building and tweaking with his designs around this time (late 17th century to early 18th century). His designs set the bar for the standard size cello we now know, and along with the earliest Amati designs some of these cellos (as far back as the 16th century) are still played today.
In fact, Stradavarius and Amati cello’s have for the most part stood the test of time, and they are among the most expensive cellos in the world. Modern manufacturers do their best to model instruments after these famous cellos, not only to preserve the sacred art of the luthier’s craft, but because the sound of the Stradivarius and Amati cellos have only improved with age. And that is the test of a good instrument, one which beats hundreds of years and actually improves beyond the original quality of the first piece ever played upon it.
How to choose a cello
It is, or should be, necessary for you or an expert to measure yourself or a child before making a final decision on what size of cello to purchase. First off, remember that the cello is played in a sitting position, so this should also be the position at which you measure yourself or another. Sit down so that your knees are bent at direct 90-degree angles – not only is this proper competition form, but it will provide the best measurement. If you need to visit a store for this next part and sit with one of their cellos, or if you need to call up a friend and borrow their cello, then certainly do so! Seated, the instruments upper rim should comfortably rest on your sternum (or breastbone) with your left knee touching the curve of the cello’s lower corner. Next, the C string peg (in regards to the thickest string) should be very near your left ear, though the neck of the cello should be a few inches away from your shoulder.
This positioning is ideal for your left hand to reach both ends of the fingerboard, assuming your hand size naturally matches your height. Hand size is another factor which few don’t compensate for! If you have unnaturally small hands for your size, you might want to consider a smaller instrument; a larger instrument has the potential to throw your balance off completely and quite possibly induce tension in your left hand.
Always remember that your child is going to grow, and where you might be buying the perfect sized cello for them right now, it might be better to let them struggle at first with a larger cello which they will grow into. A common size chart is included below, and further on we have listed the three cello choices – classic, electric, and silent – which may also be variables in making the best choice for you or a loved one.
The acoustic or ‘classic’ cello represents the graceful and original styling of an art form and classic cello players keep that art from dying out by playing music on a cello which no other instrument could possibly produce the same. The sounds produced are fully echoic and natural, and offer sustained vibrato, sliding notes, controlled reverberation, but only to those who have trained and are skilled enough to reproduce these sounds. Without the full wooden bodies all integrated into a single design – no uncoupling or dismantling possible (other than the strings) – these hollow and haunting reverberating wood sounds could not be possible. Electric cellos do something similar, but many argue it has its differences and is not nearly as pure – or as wholly traditional – as a cello which features entirely hand-carved components: neck, sides, back, pegs, tailpiece, and fingerboard.
Two great examples of the classic cello in its traditional form are the D Z strad Cello Model 101 (though this does have upgraded strings) and the Cecilio CCO-500.
At first glance, you can already tell the difference between the Cecilio CECO-3DW Electric Cello and the other cellos on our list. It’s much slimmer because it doesn’t require as much echoic sound as a full-wooden bodied classic cello, and it also has the major difference of needed a battery to be powered and being auxiliary cord capable. The electric cello can be played over speakers with a purity of sound that would be distorted if you were just holding a microphone up to a regular cello. In fact, electric cellos typically have no resonating chamber at all – no hollowed center – and they produce their sound through electric amplification rather than acoustic. One of the advantages of choosing an electric over a classic is that you can produce a unique capacity for sound effects such as the ‘wah’, distortions, and chorus. Some of these cellos even have extra strings for an extended range.
The Yamaha SVC50SK is a great example of a silent cello – its lightweight, doesn’t require a resonating chamber (like the classic cello), but can really only be played over speakers (be plugged in) or into your headphones. Unlike the electric cello, which unplugged from speakers sounds about as loud as an unplugged electric guitar (meaning you’d hear it well in a room but not down the hall), the silent cello is about as loud as a whisper unless plugged in. This makes it easy to practice late at night or in quieter environments – though you could always plug in headphones – and once plugged into speakers, the silent cello has a built-in volume control so that you can play as loudly as you want for whatever size of room or concert you’re working. Like the electric cello, keep in mind that its best to learn your craft on a classic cello – this is because there are physical differences in the way these cello types are held and the amount of bow pressure you apply to a classic cello vs. an electric or silent cello.
How is the sound made?
In the case of the cello – and other instruments with a resonating chamber – vibrations are created and move through the air in order to make oscillating sound waves. Specifically, for sawing or plucking strings, the frequency at which a cellist plays alters how the sound waves translate into different tones for an audience to hear. The strings – traditionally made from aluminum, titanium, or a combination of elements – create the vibration which in turn resonates in the cello’s hollow chamber. The reason songs can be played this way on a wooden instrument is mainly to do with the thickness of each string being vibrated slowly or quickly, and the resonating pitch we then hear from the cello (very high to very deep).
The more you learn to play, the more techniques that will exist for your song-play – such as pressing a string against the fingerboard while playing in order to dampen (or shorten) the amount of vibration to create a deeper sound. Other techniques will, of course, rely fully on how the cellist implements their bow. With a bow and four strings, the cello can create a variety of sound with high or low pitches and longer or shorter notes. Additionally, the bow is capable of engaging a string far longer than a human finger ever could, and it is for this reason the cello is so famous for its longer notes and intense vibrato.
Fine tips on playing the instrument
Correct bow form isn’t just something people made up to make children uncomfortable during concerts and competitions, it is a necessity which will affect how the cello is played. Some fine tips for perfecting your form: always grab the bow by the frog (or the bit at the back of the bow) and never by the hair itself; remember that the oil from your fingers will hurt the horsehair drawn across a bow. Use a relaxed soft hand grip; no pressing of the thumb; and saw with the whole arm from shoulder blade to fingertip.
Tuning the bow: believe it or not, bow hair also needs to be tightened. The ideal tightness of your bow should not keep the bow stick-straight, but instead, allow it a bit of bend where the hair itself is the width of a pencil.
How to take good care of your cello
Correct cello storage will make all the difference! You want to keep this instrument safe – dropping it or knocking into it could create possible fractures in the wood which will affect the overall sound. Soft cases are great storage at home, but if you’re going on the road you should invest in a hard-shell case – and then keep these cases in areas which aren’t heavily trafficked portions of your home and which will keep your instrument dry at room temperature. Additionally, give your bow some slack before you store it because storing a taught bow can lead to damage over time. For cello sound and bow care itself, apply rosin as needed, but remember that this is not necessary every time your play and can create flaky buildup on your strings.
Know your goals
Many amateurs don’t have a set plan or goal before deciding to learn the cello, and this can often lead to an expensive instrument being rather neglected by its owner who never took the time to learn the cello and then improve upon the basic skills. Goals will propel your learning process along, even if your first goal is to work with an instructor once a week. Youtube really won’t cut it! If you want to learn the cello, find and pay a local cellist, student, or school instructor.
Decide where you want to play your cello – just at home for friends, out on the streets, in the school orchestra, with a band, or out in concert on your own. Deciding where you want to play will not only give you a ‘playability’ goal but may give you ideas for songs to practice and commit to memory. For instance, a cellist wanting to play on the streets will make song choices different from those of a competitive cellist playing Bach.
Features to consider while choosing a cello
The following features are important and necessary to the cello, they will affect your ability to play it, as well as its ability to play certain songs or handle certain conditions. You’ll have seen many of these features listed in the detailed descriptions above, and we hope to answer any and all of the questions you have about them.
Our guide mostly recognizes and promotes full-sized 4/4 cellos – the perfect size for an intermediate to beginner young adult or adult. However, many of the listed options also offer additional standard sizes for younger ages and different hand sizes. Remember that for the best play, you need to choose a cello that will fit your height. This said, don’t be surprised when most professional orchestras require the 4/4 instrument – this is because it produces the widest range of sounds orchestras are typically looking for. Looking for better specifics, please view the size chart and measuring advice listed above. For electric cellos specifically, you can usually expect these to be the full 4/4 size. Also, one of the classic cellos on our list with the most size options is the Cremona SC-100.
Materials and finish
The traditional cello design takes a spruce top and incorporates it with maple sides, back, and neck – take for instance the Merano Cello for beginners. Periodically you will see poplar used on the back and sides, and there is some preference on how this affects sound – though many agree different woods just influence the style rather than the tone. Be wary of laminated wooden cellos because these are generally very cheap and won’t produce the same sound quality as a full wood model. If any cello has ‘layers’ rather than one solid piece, then it uses a cheaper laminated design; the price will reflect this.
Pegs, fingerboards, and tailpiece. These are typically made out of a darker – mainly for style – and stronger wood because most of the pressure and tension is applied to these areas and they need to hold up against it. You’ll notice that ebony is the most typical material used for these facets. However, something can still be strong and stylish, like the Cecilio CCO-300 which uses boxwood for these components.
You may also see that carbon fiber materials are growing more popular – typically used to make boats and airplanes. It’s surprising, but carbon fiber instruments do seem to produce quality sound equal to the classic wooden cello, while also providing a more durable and lighter instrument body. If you decide to go this route, there are no carbon fiber cellos on our list, but for your specific goals know that they have been reported as strong instruments to play out on the streets (where hard elements are possible).
Electric cellos are, of course, in a class all their own. Don’t expect them to produce the rich sound that traditional materials can create, but also know that they’re fantastic for certain venues and songs. They are incredibly quiet and use a mixture of wooden materials with metal and plastic composites.
Cello pegs need to stand up against the tension of the taut strings they tune, which means they need to be made from strong hardwood materials – though there are less flattering metal pegs which are sometimes used. Typically, these will be made out of ebony and will need very infrequent replacement over the years.
The fingerboard, also known as the fretboard (on fretted instruments) is one of the most important components of all string instruments. On the cello, it is a thin long strip of wood which is either laminated or finished up to the neck; the strings run along this fingerboard between the nut and the bridge, and its here that a musician presses down on the strings will bowing (or plucking) to change the vibrating length and pitch of each cord. This is also called ‘stopping’ the strings. An easy fingerboard which will increase a beginners’ learning curve belongs to the Merano Cello.
The tailpiece is traditionally made of ebony or sometimes stronger hardwoods and alloys like steel. It attaches the cello string to the lower end of the cello and often has one or more fine tuners which are used to increase the tension of each cello string. By tightening these fine tuners, you raise the pitch, and by loosening them you lower it. The Cecilio CCO-500 has four nickel plated fine tuners which improve the pitch and pair it with an excellent full-bodied design.
Typically, cello strings are all-metal or wound metal over a specific core, the difference is that the first (all-metal) tend to have a bright more echoing sound, whereas strings with a core sound fuller and richer in tone. You may want to quickly change the strings on your cello, no matter what those strings are made from or how they’re designed. This is because manufacturers normally make their own strings or ship in strings from the cheapest source, and they don’t have to tell you the brand or material of each string. Picking a trustworthy brand and stringing an instrument yourself will have an immediate effect on the sound of your cello. There are many different types of cello strings, though the most popular brands are Pirastro, Thomastik-Infeld, and Larsen. Keep in mind that strings also come in different gauges and widths, and the more experienced you become, the more you might want to mix and match strings – many professionals do this. For the best results, you should consider something similar to the D Z Strad Cello Model 101 which uses D’Addario Prelude Strings. Or listen to artists you love and find out what brands they use.
Although we realize that all the options on our list are cello and bow purchases, experts suggest that you shouldn’t purchase a bow until you’ve chosen a cello. This is because bows respond differently to different instruments. However, with that in mind, many of these manufacturers – such as the Cecilio brand – do extensive testing before pairing the perfect bow with each of their cellos. Do some research and find out if you want your own custom bow, but until then the bow which comes with purchase should work for basic training and smaller performances. A rule of thumb for buying your own bow: its cost will generally be 20-35% of your cellos total cost.
Rosin is made out of resin gathered from pine and other coniferous trees, which you then apply to the horsehair on your bow before playing. This coating on your bow makes it stickier and therefore provides more friction and vibration against each string. Rosin helps give you a heavier but more controlled sound. Rosin strengths vary and can normally be purchased as darker or medium-strength. The strength typically depends on your preference.
The endpin is the little bit of metal extending from the cellos bottom. For the most ideal comfort level, look for adjustable end pins which can move up and down to increase or decrease the height of your cello.
Soft cases are great storage at home or in school, but if you’re going on the road you should invest in a hard-shell case. Most of the models on our list feature either both cases together or a choice of one or the other. Cases can also easily be purchased separately later on, though make sure you get the right size for your instrument.
Does appearance matter?
For the beginner appearance really shouldn’t be the most important thing – although you’ll probably be more inclined to play a unique instrument than you might a regular one. For professionals, appearance may now be very important to you, but understand that functionality (or sound and playability) always comes before appearance. It is the beauty of the music which will most impress a person; the beauty of the instrument (at least in looks) is the second value.
Some useful accessories
The bow and bridge will either improve your instrument or dampen its potential. For things such as adding a specific bow or bridge to your instrument, consult a local luthier or professional cellist. These professionals will always have advice and options you can try out in order to find the cello accessories that you like. Other easily advised accessories to have: a cello stand for your home, extra strings, and an electric clip-on tuner.
Your ideal warranty should be a year or more that offers full protection against any unlikely manufacturing defects or additional damages during shipping. Some cellos can be very expensive, and for a $500.00 cello a year warranty is perfect. For any cello $1,000.00 or more, consider asking the manufacturer if they provide a longer warranty.