What is so appealing about the cello?
Is it its sound? Its shape?
And why do so many people overlook this beautiful instrument?
Well probably for these reasons:
- It’s big
- It’s expensive
- It’s hard to play
I have some good news though: these are also all excellent reasons to actually play the cello.
So if your dream is to play Bach like Yo Yo Ma or actually not even play classical music…
Well, you’ve come to the right place as I have for you in today’s article everything you need to know to get started on the cello
A Brief History
The cello first appeared in Italy during the early 16th century, alongside the violin and viola. At the time though, the instrument was pretty different from how we know it today…
And the luthier that actually gave it its current appearance is probably the most well-known violin maker to have ever existed…
You guessed it: it’s Antonio Stradivari. In case you didn’t know, Stradivari actually built a wide range of instruments, including cellos.
Cello come in various sizes, depending on the height of the player.
Most smaller cellos are aimed at children.
To find out which cello size suits your height, you can either try them out for yourself until you find one whose C-string tuning peg sits right by your left ear.
In the case you can’t try one for yourself, you can refer to the following table:
Anatomy of the Cello
The cello is really just a big violin, and apart from the tuning, these 2 instruments share the exact same components and use the same building methods.
Now, although there are over 70 different pieces in a cello, for the sake of this article I will only focus on the most important ones:
The ones that affect the sound the most.
Now, these are:
- The Bassbar
- The Soundpost
- The Tailpiece
So let’s look into these part with more details. First off…
1. The Bassbar
The bassbar is a wooden stick placed under the 2 lower strings of the cello, which runs through the whole length of the body.
Its role is to strengthen the structure of the cello as well as to transmit sound from the bridge across the top of the cello.
The 3 factors that affect the bassbar are:
- its thickness
- its height
- how well glued to the plate it is
All of these factors affect the sound of the cello
2. The Soundpost
The soundpost basically has the same role as the bassbar, but for the back plate of the cello.
- Serve as a direct link between the bridge and the back plate, thus transmitting the vibration between these very plates
- Serve as a structural support to keep the top plate from collapsing under the downforce applied by the strings
Now, the biggest varying factor of the soundpost is its position.
There are no set in stone rules as to how to obtain a specific sound depending on the soundpost position, BUT most sources agree on the following:
- you’ll get a slightly brighter sound the closer the soundpost is to the bridge…
- and a warmer sound the further away it is from the bridge.
Now just to be clear, we’re literally talking differences of millimeters here.
Obviously the soundpost is rarely of any concern for beginners, but if you decide you want to tweak your cello one day, it is always useful to know in which fashion you’ll need to move it to get the desired sound.
And in case you feel confident enough to try and to this yourself, you’ll need one of these tool:
3. The Tailpiece
Historically, tailpieces have been made out of wood, notably:
- Ebony – which is generally found on high end models
- Rosewood – which is rarer nowadays because of rosewood’s protection
- Pernambuco – many cello players only swear by this wood because of its sound properties
As well as of synthetic materials:
- Aluminium – which are very light andd cheap and are the most common tailpieces
- Plastic – which is the second most common material
- Carbon fiber – which many cellists say produce a richer, clearer sound.
Oddly enough, the tailpiece was never a subject of much discussion among luthiers…
But the launch of carbon-fiber tailpieces on the market was a complete game changer as for the volume, and response of the cello.
Some professional cellists found that carbon fiber tailpieces could improve even the sound of very expensive, high end cello.
Tailpieces can come with, or without fine tuners. But most sources advise to get one with fine tuners since the cello is pretty difficult to tune using the tuning pegs only.
2. The Endpin
Fun fact, the endpin wasn’t invented until the late 19th century.
Most beginners don’t wrack their brain around the endpin, and rightfully so: it is definitely not a major subject of concern, at least not when starting out.
However, since it pretty much decides the position of the cello, and therefore of the player, it’s important you know there are various types of endpins, and positions.
The 2 big categories are:
- Straight/Parallel – which is parallel to the body of the cello
- Tortelier-style/Bent endpins – which is slightly angled towards the inside
Now, different musicians use different types of endpins. But there is some consensus on why you would want to use a bent endpin.
A bent endpin essentially provides these advantages:
- It allows for a more relaxed playing – since you don’t need to play as hard on the strings to produce a good sound, and can instead rely on the weight of your arms “falling” on the strings
- It is suited for tall cellists – who would otherwise have their legs stick out too much, compromising their overall playing comfort
One of the first cellist to have used the bent endpin is also the most famous cellist of the 20th century: Mstislav Rostropovich.
He is also one of the main reason so many cello players started using a bent endpin after having seen him do so.
Most endpins — straight or bent — can slide back in the cello when you’re done playing, and some bent endpins models are adjustable, so you can set the length and the angle exactly the way you want.
They’re easy to install in case you don’t like your current one, so here are the models I recommend:
How to find the right endpin length/position
Since the endpin is the single most important element that affects your overall position on the cello, needless to say its precise adjustment is NOT to be taken lightly.
Of course it all depends on your height but as a rule of thumb, you shouldn’t have to pull the endpin more than a foot out. Then, make sure the C string peg is on your left ear’s level.
Some sources advise the cello should lie on your chest at a 45° angle.
Not to be overlooked, the bow is as important a piece of the cello as the instrument itself.
Bows are comprised of 3 main elements:
- The stick – which can be made out of wood, carbon fiber or fiberglass
- The hair – most bows use horse hair, and high end ones use Mongolian horse hair
- The frog – which can be more or less ornamented depending on the price of the bow
Now, the advantage of carbon fiber bows over wood bows is that, for the same amount of money – or even less in some cases – you would pay for a wood bow, you get a more “balanced” bow, with better weight distribution.
Of course this might just be sales pitch but the fact is that you can get a decent carbon fiber under $100, whereas high quality wood bows are much more expensive, especially those made out of pernambuco wood.
Some cello players say that the feeling when handling a carbon fiber bow is incomparable to a regular wood one, and they wouldn’t go back.
The “bow routine“
Although the bow doesn’t require much maintenance, there are a few steps you need to get used to do before you start playing, and after you’re done playing:
- Tighten your bow before starting to play; loosen it when you’re finished – this prevents the hair from getting damaged and the stick from suffering excessive wear and tear
- Rosin it before playing – or you (almost) won’t get any sound out of it
For the rosin, any violin/viola/cello model should do, but here are the ones I reocmmend:
As for the bows, check out the models I recommend:
For this list, I decided to order the cellos under 2 categories:
- Under $1000 – which are mostly all China made
- Above $1000 – which are handmade by luthiers
LYKOS Acoustic cello – (Amazon)
Yizhen G Acoustic cello – (Amazon)
Coofel 3/4 Acoustic cello – (Amazon)
- Thomann Student Set – (Thomann)
- Thomann Cassic Cello Set – (Thomann)
- Yamaha VC 5S44 – (Thomann)
- Stentor SR1102 – (Thomann)
- Stentor SR1108 – (Thomann)
- Yamaha 5S44 – (Thomann)
- Yamaha VC 7SG44 – (Thomann)
- DZ Strad 101 – (Amazon)
DZ Strad 150 – (Amazon)
DZ Strad 600 – (Amazon)
- Maple Leaf Strings Master Xu Collection – (Amazon)
- Edgar Russ Montagnana – (Thomann)
Rarely do beginners think about their cello’s strings, at least not when they acquire it…
Which is completely normal since they usually don’t have to worry about them.
However, there will come a time where you need to change them, so instead of waiting to be caught off guard, why not learn whatr you can right now?
The first thing to know about cello strings is that, depsite their high price tag, you won’t have to change your string nearly as often as you would on, say, a guitar, since the wear and tear process is much slower.
The 3 other things to know about cello strings are:
- When to change them
- How to change them
- How to choose the right string set
And so let’s start answering these questions right now, shall we?
1. When to change your cello strings
That’s probably the first question beginners ask themselves:
How do I know I need to replace my strings?
Ok so apart from obvious situations such as a strings breaking, there a few signs strings give that you should change them:
- They sound dull – no matter how much rosin you apply to your bow, your string just doesn’t sound good
- They’re hard to tune – you keep tuning the string(s) and it/they keep(s) falling out of tune
- They look worn out – sometimes the strings visually show wear and tear
If you ever notice one of these occuring, it’s time to change your strings… And so, next up:
2. How to change your strings
And to do so, follow the steps shown in the video below:
3. How to choose the right string set
Now for the — probably — hardest part: choosing the right string set.
There are 3 main factors affecting strings’ quality and sound. These are:
- The gauge – which refers to the thickness of the string
- The material – which refers to the material(s) used to manufacture the string
- The brand – different brands produce different types of strings
So let’s look into it a bit more, shall we?
1. The Gauge
The gauge of a string refers to its thickness, or diameter.
There are 3 different gauges: light, medium and heavy.
- Light gauges – require less tension to be brought to pitch and produce a bright sound
- Medium gauges – are the most popular strings and unless you specifically know what you’re looking for, most sources recommend you start with medium gauge strings
- Heavy gauges – require much more tension to be brought to pitch. As a result, they produce a richer, fuller sound but their response time is slower.
As a rule of thumb, always start with medium gauge strings to see how your instrument reacts to the more balanced model of the manufacturer.
Then, if you feel like trying something else do keep in mind that acoustic cellos are organic instrument and therefore the same set of strings might not sound the same on another cello.
2. The Material
Cello strings are either wound metal around a different material core, or all metal.
The core can be made of synthetic material or sheep gut.
- All metal strings – produce the brightest sound of all,
- Synthetic or gut cores – produce a richer tone.
Sometimes you’ll find tungsten for the winding material. The advantage of this material is that it is significantly sutdier than other materials…
Allowing for extra projection, especially when coupled with a steel core.
Tip: It is common in the cello community to mix different types of sets for each string (i.e. one type of material for the C string, and another for the D string)…
The reason why is because many cellists prefer sturdier C and G strings for example so as to provide a more focused sound, and lighter D and A strings to make them sound brighter.
In fact, you can often buy packages of “pre-mixed” string sets as you’ll further down.
3. The Brand
The reason the brand is as important as the 2 previous factors is precisely because some brands only produce certain types of strings, so you’ll want to know which ones produce which.
- Larsen – without a doubt the most popular brand
- Thomastik – they have a synthetic steel core
- Pirastro – they’re the only brand to still manufacture gut core strings
- Jargar – They’re the cheapest of strings but a very solid choice for beginners
- D’Addario – a reference on the string market, D’Addario is always a reliable brand
Anyway if you’re just starting out and are looking for a good combo, MOST people recommend you choose Jargar Medium for D and A string and D’Addario Helicore for C and G strings:
Another popular combo is Larsen Soloist for D and A strings and Thomastik Spirocore for C and G strings. Check them out here:
- Click here to compare prices: (Amazon)
- D’Addario Heliocore (Stranded steelcore) – (Amazon/Thomann)
- Larsen Soloist A string only (Alloy steel) (Amazon/Thomann)
- D’Addario Kaplan (steelcore titanium wounded steelcore – (Amazon/Thomann)
- Jargar Classic (coated steelcore) – (Amazon/Thomann)
- Thomastik Spirocore (tungsten wounded spiral core) – (Amazon/Thomann)
- Pirastro Evah Pirazzi Gold (high end steel/tungsten) – (Amazon/Thomann)
- Pirastro Gold (gut core) – (Amazon)
- Pirastro Chorda – (Amazon/Thomann)
- Larsen Magnacore C string (tungsten wound steel core) – (Amazon/Thomann)
3 Electric Cellos to Check Out
Sometimes refered to as silent cellos, electric cellos offer 3 main benefits:
- Ability to practice silently – they almost don’t make any noise when played without amplification/with headphones plugged in
- Portability – some models can be disassembled to occupy even less space
- Sound shaping possibilities – of course, the main advantage of an electric instrument is often the ability to tweak its sound as you please. And electric cellos are no exception.
Now keep in mind not even the most high end model can replicate the “organic” sound of an acoustic cello, although they do get very close… And many users actually consider electric cellos simply a different instrument.
That is, they simply don’t use it for the same purposes as an acoustic one.
Of course if you can’t afford both an acoustic and an electric cello, rest assured you can still practice correctly on an electric cello.
1. Harmonia Electric Cello
This package has pretty much everything you need to get started, at a very low price:
- A cello
- A bow
- A case
Obviously don’t expect high quality at this price-point but most reviews seem to agree that it is acceptable and more than enough for a beginner.
Check it out:
- Click here to compare prices: (Amazon)
2. Yamaha SVC-210
A reference in pretty much EVERY electric version of any instrument, music giant Yamaha managed to deliver once again with its SVC line.
Now these models are a significant step above the previous model, so expect a significant step in terms of pricing too.
Comprised of 3 models, if you are looking for a high quality, portable silent cello, NO OTHER model has so many positive reviews.
It seems most professional cellists praise the playability and build quality of the Yamaha SVC line.
Check them out:
And for the final pick…
3. NS Design Cellos
Founded by Ned Steinberger in the 1970’s, the company is famous in the bass circle for creating the Steinberger bass, also known as “headless bass”.
This success allowed Steinberger to sell his company to Gibson Guitars and focus on bowed string instrument under a new company name: NS Design.
Considered by many cellists as the holy grail of electric cellos, NS Design cellos offer some unique features such as:
- A “stand-up” stand – which allows the player to play standing up
- A “boomerang” strap – which is a fancy name for a versatile strap that allows you to play in virtually any position, including playing with the bow standing up
They currently have 3 lines:
- WAV which is the cheapest line of the brand and is aimed at acoustic cello players wanting to try out an electric cello for the first time
- NXT – which is the mid-range line of the brand and aimed at professionals/advanced musicians
- CR – which is the top of the range
Note that th NXT range offers a fretted version, which is actually the only fretted cello currently available on the market.
Also, a special mention to the unique Omni Bass models, which are a hybrid between bass guitars and a cellos, and can be played both ways.
Check them out:
- NS Design WAV
- NS Design NXT
- NS Design CR
- Omni Bass
Note: the number on the model’s name refers to the number of strings
To finish this post I’d like to mention 3 accessories that will greatly increase your playing comfort.
- AcoustaGrip chest rest
- Endpin rest
- Practice mute
AcoustaGrip Chest Rest
US based company AcoustaGrip specializes in pads made for orchestral string instruments. And while violins and violas are almost always played with some sort of shoulder rest…
The cello isn’t since, well, it is not placed between the chin and the shoulder. However, some players find it painful to let such a heavy instrument rest on their shoulder…
Which is why AcoustaGrip came up with this “cello chest rest”. It’s essentially a foam pad you stick on the back of your cello, on the area that rests on your shoulder.
Users have been reported a significant improvement in playing comfort.
Check it out:
It might appear as a gimmick at first glance…
But the damages a cello endpin can actually cause to certain types of flooring are very real.
And so to prevent this tragic fate from happening, you can use an endpin rest, which grips to the floor and allows you to safely rest your cello’s endpin on it, without fearing scratching your floor.
Some models offer extra features such as a magnet, and some even pretend they can actually improve your sound…
Such as the Advanced Endpin Holder. And if you ever read its reviews you’ll actually notice most users actually do notice an improvement in sound. So there’s that.
Check it out:
- Click here to compare prices – (Amazon)
If you’re really only looking for a regular endpin rest, check out the ones I recommend:
- Conrad Götz Cello Endpin rest (Amazon/Thomann)
- Original Slipstop Endpin rest – (Amazon)
- Gleasel Endpin stop – (Amazon)
The Practice Mute
Just woke up in the middle of the night and feel like playing? Well, haven’t we all gone through that feeling just to find out we actually can’t make noise at night.
But worry not, for there is a solution: using a mute. That’s right, you don’t need a silent or electric cello to play quietly.
If you already have an acoustic cello and don’t feel quite ready to invest into an electric one, the easiest (and much easier) solution is to get yourself a practice mute, which is a little rubber device you place directly on the strings.
Here are the models I recommend:
Check out this video to see how to use a practice mute:
And That’s It
So here you go, the Beginner’s Guide to the Cello for Curious Musicians.
Hopefully I’ve educated you thoroughly enough that you can make an informed purchase.
‘Til next time.