Cello originated from the Italian word violoncello which means “little violine” and only became popularly abbreviated as “cello” in the 20th century. It’s part of the violin family but has several differences. It has a flat back instead of a curved back, a c hole instead of f hole, and six strings instead of four strings, just to name a few.
The cello only gained prominence in the 18th century. The 20th-century cello virtuoso Mstislav Rostropovich made it even more popular when he commissioned and premiered over 100 works for his cello. The stringed instrument has become a fixture in the opera.
Some of the most popular contemporary cellists are Yo-Yo Ma and Jacqueline de Pru.
Table of Contents
- Materials Used to Make Cellos
- How Cellos are Made
- Types and Characteristics of Cello Strings
Acoustic cellos merely refer to the cellos that are not electric and are played without plugging them into an electrical outlet. More often than not, this is the type of cello found when you’re listening to an orchestra.
Carbon Fiber Cellos
Most carbon fiber cellos are produced by a company called Luis & Clark. They are the same size as a full-size cello, with the main difference being they do not have any cornices. A cornice is an indentation that is found on the sides of the cello, and which is used for support. Since carbon fiber is a very strong and sturdy material, cornices are simply not necessary on these types of cellos. Carbon fiber cellos have a richer, fuller sound than cellos made of other materials, which is why this type of cello is so popular.
Electric cellos are plugged into an electrical outlet and often produce a fuller, louder sound. Most experts agree that if you wish to play an electric cello, you should learn on a regular acoustic cello first. The technique is the same; however, if you are a beginner, it is usually very difficult to learn on an electric cello.
Also called a 4/4 cello, the full-size cello has four strings – C, G, D, and A. It usually measures from thirty to forty-eight inches in height, and it is the most common and well-liked type of cello used today, particularly for professional musicians. Often, the backs and sides are made out of a different material than the other parts of the cello, and they are often lacquer-coated as well.
These don’t necessarily constitute another type of cello, but each country can make its own version of a cello. They are all played the same, but there can be slight variations in the design and style, depending on where they are made. Under this category, there are Chinese cellos, Italian cellos, Belgian cellos, French cellos, and Viennese cellos, among others.
Small Scale Cellos
In addition to a full-size cello, there are numerous small-scale cellos, and they include 7/8, ¾, ½, ¼, 1/8, and 1/10. Although some people assume that the smaller cellos have a different sound or other characteristics, this is not true. In fact, the only difference in the smaller cellos is their size, and the reason they are made small is to accommodate smaller players. If you have a child who is interested in learning to play the cello, therefore, these small-scale cellos are just right.
Materials Used to Make Cellos
Basswood is a light, fairly softwood that finishes and glues very well. Basswood gives musical instruments such as cellos a nice, warm tone, and it is usually light in color and has hardly any grain patterns. The wood is found in trees within the Linden family, which consists of approximately 30 different types of trees. It is also used to make various types of mats and baskets.
Ebony is a very thick type of wood that is black in color and has a fine texture and a finish that is very smooth, especially when it is polished. There are many different species of this type of wood, and some types are even multi-colored rather than solid black. Because of its strength and other characteristics, ebony is often used for ornamental or decorative products, including musical instruments such as cellos.
There are over 120 types of maple, and the trees appear in Asia, northern Africa, throughout Europe, and in North America. Often called sugar maple or rock maple, this type of wood can come in colors that range from off-white to a reddish-brown color. Its grain patterns are usually either quilted or curly grain patterns. It usually has a straight or slightly wavy grain, as well as a fine, even texture.
Poplar wood is usually a light cream to a yellowish-brown color, but it can also consist of grey or green streaks. There is even a type called rainbow poplar, which consists of a variety of bright or dark colors, but this type usually isn’t used for making cellos. With a natural luster that is usually very low, poplar has a medium texture and a straight and even grain.
Spruce is usually divided into two main types: Norway spruce and black spruce, but there are many other types of spruce as well. Spruce wood is a soft type of wood with a strength-to-weight ratio that is very good. Not only is spruce a common type of wood used in musical instruments, but it is also used in the construction of various types of aircraft. There are also types of pine that resemble spruce, but these are usually not used when making cellos. Spruce comes in a wide variety of colors and shades.
There are approximately four hundred different types of willow trees, and in addition to the manufacturing of musical instruments such as cellos, willow is also used to make items such as art supplies including charcoal, various landscaping needs, and products such as dolls, tool handles, poles, and brooms. Willow is classified as hardwood, but it is much softer than other types of wood and has a high moisture content.
How Cellos are Made
- Cellos usually have tops made of spruce and backs, sides, and necks made of maple
- Willow and poplar can also be used for the backs and sides
- Some cellos are made of laminated wood, which means that they are less expensive and therefore appropriate for beginning musicians
- Laminated cellos are also more durable, so if a young person drops them, it likely won’t break
- Cello-makers usually make the top and back of the instrument by hand, although the lower-priced instruments can be produced by machines
- The border on the top and back of the cello often has a decorative border inlay, called purfling, which prevents the wood from cracking
Types of Cello Bows
Cello bows are usually made out of one of three different materials: Brazilwood, which includes various types of hardwood from Brazil, a very high-grade wood that comes from Brazil, and carbon fiber, which is usually chosen with cellos made of this material. Of course, there are other materials that are occasionally used to make bows, including fiberglass, which is a less expensive type of material, and those made of Pernambuco wood, which is considered the finest and most expensive types of bows.
In addition, various parts on the bow can be made of a different material than the rest of the bow. The “frog,” the part of the bow that holds the horsehair and which is used to adjust the tension of the bow, is often made of ebony with tortoiseshell and ivory decorations, and the grip can be made of silk or whalebone, with leather or snakeskin for the thumb cushion. Other parts of the bow, including the tip, can be made of materials such as bone or ivory, as well as metals such as silver, gold, or even nickel.
In addition to various materials, cello bows come in two main shapes, as well. The most common type of bows are round in shape, but you can also find them in a more horizontal shape, which tends to be a little stiffer than the round ones and produces a little different sound, making them the more preferred choice among professional or more experienced musicians.
In some instances, rock musicians have used cello bows to play their electric guitars, and there are also bows that are curved in design instead of straight.
Types and Characteristics of Cello Strings
Core strings are usually made out of sheep gut, although many are made out of synthetic material. Often, metal is wound over the core, and these strings tend to have a very rich tone when played.
The all-metal type of cello strings has a loud, bright sound, and they are made out of 100% metal and nothing else.
Cello strings come in various widths, sometimes called gauges. The sound produced when playing the cello is greatly influenced by the gauge of the string. There is no “right” or “wrong” when it comes to these sounds, so you can experiment and determine which gauge you prefer. As a general rule, thicker strings need more tension, but they have a fuller sound, even though their response time is often a little bit slower.
On the other hand, the strings with a smaller, thinner gauge respond faster and have a more focused sound. However, thinner strings don’t have the same punch as the thicker ones. If you aren’t sure which types of strings to choose, there are medium-gauge strings, which are the ones included in most standard string sets. These are also easier to learn on, so they are the perfect choice when you’re a beginning musician.