13 steps to cello bliss—a panel of experts offer their advice
by Heather K. Scott
Great job!” your teacher exclaims at a recent lesson. “Your tone has really improved, but I think that old rental is beginning to hold you back. Time for us to talk about buying a step-up instrument.” Indeed, that old beat-up, but nice-sounding rental from a local dealer has served you well—but now your skills as a player are beginning to develop and your teacher senses that you’ve become a serious student.
It is time for an upgrade.
After a couple weeks of research and a handful of phone calls back and forth to your teacher, you set off to visit several dealers in search of a cello equal to your needs. But after your first shop visit, you find yourself feeling woefully overwhelmed and still underprepared for the daunting task of selecting a step-up instrument.
Adult beginners and younger students alike face a unique set of dilemmas when shopping for an instrument, especially if they do so without the advice and experience of a seasoned player. Instrument setup can make or break even the best cello, and knowing what to look for and what will best suit your needs is not as easy as it sounds.
Additionally, budget constraints, teachers who suggest only particular brands (be sure to read the Strings article on teacher commissions, “An Elegy for Ethics?”), and not knowing what the market has to offer or how to best evaluate instruments, can contribute to the difficulty beginners face when shopping for that first step-up cello.
But don’t despair. You can find a decent step-up instrument for between $895 and $5,000. First you’ll need a primer in craftsmanship and some tips on how to shop and what to look for. Armed with this knowledge, you should be able to walk into any shop in the world and identify the best cello in your price range.
At First Glance
Strings contacted several leading cello manufacturers and requested their best-selling cellos priced under $5,000. In all, we received instruments from 13 different manufacturers—most, but not all, tailored specifically to the student player. We then invited an expert panel composed of four musicians (Sandy Walsh-Wilson of the Alexander String Quartet, classical and Celtic cellist Natalie Haas, Mark Summer of the Turtle Island String Quartet, and period instrumentalist Paul Hale of the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra) and one luthier (cello maker Peter Van Arsdale) to evaluate the instruments on three main points: craftsmanship, quality of sound, and playability.
Upon reviewing this collection of readily available instruments, it’s obvious that you can find well-crafted, good-sounding, and easy-to-play cellos in this price bracket—cellos some of our panelists confided they’d happily perform on in concert, and might even be interested in purchasing for outdoor performance or as a second instrument.
“Really cheap instruments don’t want to be played up [in the upper positions], but these instruments don’t seem to have that problem,” observes Summer. “Compared to rental instruments I’ve seen,” he adds, “some of which are less than acceptable, these are all good instruments. Any one of these test cellos could make some player happy. They are all good value.”
So here are 13 pointers on purchasing a step-up cello, inspired, coincidentally, by the 13 cellos our expert panel reviewed.
It’s All in the Wood
Contrary to the old adage “You can’t judge a book by its cover,” you can often judge an instrument by its appearance. When viewing cellos at your local violin shop, you will instinctively reach for a rich, warm-colored cello with just the right amount of varnish, beautiful flaming, and gorgeous grain rather than a lacquer-finished, candy-apple–red instrument.
Beautiful varnish is not merely aesthetically pleasing. The quality of a cello’s varnish will, in fact, affect how an instrument sounds and how that sound will change and mature over the years. Heavily applied varnish can prevent an instrument from “opening up” sonically and cause it to resonate less and less as you play.
Most players don’t agree on what color of varnish is best (walnut, chocolate, blond, reddish-orange, and so on). But they do generally agree on how much varnish should be applied to an instrument: most believe that less is best. As Walsh-Wilson confides, “I don’t want [my] instrument to be weighed down by varnish.”
Quality of wood is an important factor in choosing an instrument. Look for instruments made with spruce tops and maple ribs and bottoms. Lesser-quality laminated wood, although durable, is not conducive for good sound (you can spot a laminated cello by looking at the edges of the f-holes, which will reveal the layered cross section). “There are several indicators to help you judge the relative quality of stringed instruments,” says Greg Schoeneck, national sales manager for stringed instruments at Conn-Selmer, Inc. (adjuster and finisher of William Lewis & Son, Glaesel, and Scherl & Roth stringed instruments). “Perhaps the easiest to see is the ‘flame’. This is the horizontal bar of contrasting light and dark under the varnish in the wood itself. Generally, the more densely flamed the back, sides, and neck are, the more expensive the wood.”
Schoeneck adds that buyers should avoid instruments in which the flame has been artificially created. “Real flame is iridescent,” he says, “The dark bars become light and the light become dark as the instrument is moved.”
A cello’s grain will also affect how the instrument performs. A cello’s spruce top should have tight grain at its center, under the fingerboard and bridge, growing gradually wider and wider as it reaches out toward the bouts.
Note the quality of the ebony. Schoeneck explains, “Better grades of ebony have tighter grain; the very best being so close-grained that it may appear to be perfectly smooth.”
Also “avoid something painted,” adds cellist, teacher, and Strings contributor Sarah Freiberg. “Is the fingerboard made from real ebony—it should be! Otherwise the wood is likely to be softer, and won’t last as long. Also, the paint starts to wear away.”
As you look over any cello, check the surface for excessive wear, cracks, or breaks. Your instrument and its wood should be in playing condition—free of any problems that can worsen over time or with prolonged playing. Are the bouts in good condition? There shouldn’t be any cracks or chips, either of which can spell disaster later.
“Other things to look for include real, inlayed purfling,” recommends Freiberg. Purfling is the inlaid decoration around the top, and sometimes back, edges of an instrument. “Real purfling prevents cracks. It’s true that some great makers cheated and painted the purfling on, but the real thing keeps the cello from cracking when it gets inadvertently knocked at the edges.”
A poorly setup cello, no matter how well it was made, can sound more like a screeching cat than a strong, deep, resonant bass voice with a bright, but not tinny, upper register. Everything from choice of strings to tail-gut material and placement to peg fit influences a cello’s playability and performance. “Mechanics are so important,” explains Walsh-Wilson. Besides sounding terrible, poor setup can render a potentially good-sounding instrument unplayable. Simply replacing a poorly fit sound post, cutting a new bridge, adjusting the fittings, or trying out different strings can vastly improve an instrument that might have previously sounded less than desirable.
Does the bridge fit correctly? Look at how the feet sit against the top of the cello; they should exactly fit the belly of the instrument, with the thickness of the feet measuring about 2mm thick (about the thickness of three credit cards; one credit card measures .7 to .8mm). The bridge should stand straight with just a slight curve when you look at it from the side (the flat side of the bridge faces the tailpiece and should form a right angle with the top of the cello if viewed from the bass side). Good-quality bridges are generally made out of dense maple, close grained, and highly flamed. Also, note how the strings fit the grooves in the bridge. (Each groove should be properly spaced and deep enough to hold the string securely, but not so deep as to impair the vibration of the string.)
Do the fingerboard and neck feel and look smooth? As you play, feel around the fingerboard for bubbles and dimples in the wood (especially along the long joint between the fingerboard and the neck). A good dealer will make sure that the fingerboard is properly planed and free from any imperfections. You can check this easily by looking closely at the fingerboard: while seated as if playing, position your instrument so that the scroll is even with your chin; in good light, look down the fingerboard—the light should play evenly across the curves of the fingerboard. Another important factor is the long, shallow dip, or scoop, in a properly planed fingerboard. Depress the string at the nut end and at the bridge end of the fingerboard and you can see the scoop at the midpoint of the string. The distance between the string and the fingerboard should be about .9mm on the treble side and 1mm–1.4mm (about two credit cards) on the bass side.
While checking the fingerboard, also observe the neck—it should also be straight, smooth, and without bumps or pits (a good neck will not be varnished, but instead treated with an oil finish).
Are the strings well-suited to the instrument, or are they a one-size-fits-all solution? If you feel that the strings are impeding the sound of the instrument, be sure to ask your dealer if you can try a different set. (Our reviewers like Larsen, Thomastik-Infeld’s Red and Blue, and Jaeger).
Do the fittings match the instrument? More importantly, do they work? Fancy fittings do not a good instrument make and poor fittings can ruin the playability of any instrument. On some instruments, fancy pegs, endpins, or tailpieces can be a sign of a dealer trying to pass off a lesser-quality instrument on an unsuspecting buyer.
Pegs should turn easily and stay in tune (pegs that are too tight or too loose are a sign of improper setup). Also, check that the peg ends are flush with the scroll head—they should not extend out from the scroll, and should indent only slightly into the peg box.
Is the endpin firmly set and does it retract properly? Does the length suit your needs? (Endpins come in either 18-inch or 20-inch sizes, and in a variety of metals.) An endpin that completely disengages from its plug can be an advantage, according to Van Arsdale. “This gives you the option of changing it out,” he says. Does the endpin feel too heavy? Many dealers now offer carbon-fiber endpins. These lighter options, some weighing as little as five ounces, are becoming increasingly popular (although the jury is still out on whether or how they alter the sound of the cello). Endpin prices vary from as little as $40 to as much as $185 and higher.
Note the tailpiece—is it the correct size for the instrument? Does it have built-in fine tuners? (Built-in fine tuners are preferable because they are lighter than tuners you would install and they maintain the proper proportion of string length in front of and behind the bridge.) Is the tailpiece made of plastic, ebony, or composite materials? (Plastic won’t resound as nicely as ebony or composite materials when you lightly wrap it with a knuckle.)
Take a peek through an f-hole and look at the sound post. This small dowel of wood should have no visible cracks or splinters. And it should be positioned about a finger’s width from the bridge and behind the right bridge foot. It should also not be leaning, nor should it dimple the top of the cello—you should be able to see this from the outside. (Also, it shouldn’t distort the shape of
The Price Is Right
Before settling in for a test drive with your favorite cellos, you’ll need to take a look at those price tags—for some cellists, this is the least favorite part of shopping. Cellos can be expensive, and if your favorite prospect needs additional setup work, that final cost can add up quickly. So plan accordingly.
Before getting out your checkbook, check to see if the cello’s price tag matches its aesthetics and craftsmanship, setup, and playability. Does the instrument require more setup in addition to the purchase price? Will the dealer include the setup work in the price or is there an additional fee?
You should also check to see if the dealer accepts trade-ins. If so, in the future you will be able to upgrade the cello for a new one more suited to your growing skill level and needs.
The Test Drive
It’s finally time to sit down and play the cellos that have passed your assessment test, fit within your budget, and spark your interest. Many dealers offer a quiet practice room for playing instruments. Most dealers will let you take your favorite cello home for a test drive.
If you are able to arrange a take-home trial period, be sure to audition your instrument not just at home, but at school, at orchestra rehearsal, in lessons, and wherever else you perform. Instruments will sound different in different venues, and being able to evaluate how your instrument responds—and blends—in small practice rooms, larger rehearsal rooms with other players (in either a chamber or orchestral setting), and in performance halls can influence your final decision.
Enlist the help of a parent, teacher, musician, or friend to listen as you play. Celtic cellist and teacher Natalie Haas suggests, “Get as many other people as you can to listen to you playing this new instrument.”
An unbiased teacher can be an important asset as you go through this selection process, as pointed out by Rebecca Ensley, instrument and shop manager for the past 13 years at Southwest Strings (a company that wasn’t able to send an instrument in time for our review, but offers a wide range of cellos under $5,000).
“When choosing an instrument as a beginner (or even as an advanced musician), it’s always good to seek the advice of a qualified teacher. A good teacher will have some knowledge of makers’ names and reputations in the music industry. Ask the teacher to both play, and listen to someone else play, the potential instrument.”
As you play, keep two important factors in mind: tone and playability. Your instrument should not only sound good under your ear, but also across the room—or even at the back of a concert hall. Tone and volume should be even across all strings and in all registers. Choosing a cello is a subjective, gut-feeling endeavor. If an instrument passes your initial evaluation, sounds “right” to you, and feels good under your bow and fingers, trust your instincts—chances are good that you’ve found your match.
“Tone is definitely the most important factor [when buying an instrument], but it has to feel good, too,” Haas says.
So, how exactly do you test an instrument’s tone? First, choose one passage from a piece you’re comfortable with and know well—particularly an excerpt that utilizes all strings and multiple playing positions. Listen to the instrument’s volume and projection as you play. Is it able to maintain a wide dynamic range, in lower and higher registers, and in first and upper positions? Does it sound good both under the ear and to an audience?
A cello with good tone will project well and cover a wide dynamic range, from the softest pianissimo to the loudest fortissimo, in a clear, distinct voice. Bass instruments can sometimes sound muddy in the lower registers, so be sure to listen for articulation as you play the C and G strings. As you observe tone, especially on the C string, also check the response. The lower, heavier strings should elicit the sound you want—both in volume and in timbre. If you have to work too hard, put down the instrument and move on to another.
Evaluate the tone across all four strings. Does the cello maintain an even sound and tone in the lower, middle, and upper registers? Does the sound hold up as you play in upper positions closer to the bridge?
Check for wolf tones—a possible sign of a good-quality cello. The same resonances necessary to make a good-sounding instrument increase the likelihood of a wolf.
Instrument maker Chris Dungey, interviewed in a forthcoming Strings article on wolf tones, describes the wolf as “a result of the instability between the vibration of the body of the cello and the vibration of the affected string, which then serve to cancel each other out. The note has barely begun to sound when it disappears. This is repeated again and again and results in the stuttering sound so often heard. . . .
“The wolf note is therefore not the result of a basic structural failure, a faulty repair job, or a misplaced sound post, but, rather, it is an intrinsic characteristic of the instrument. Every properly proportioned cello has a wolf note.”
But be aware of how prominent the wolf tones are—if you find them too overpowering, ask your dealer to install a wolf eliminator and give the instrument a second try. If you play the instrument with a wolf eliminator, listen with care—eliminators can also mute other, desirable harmonics.
Finally, does the instrument feel muffled? Does it take little or much effort to elicit decent tone and volume?
In addition to sounding good, your instrument should be comfortable to play. Under your command, it should vary smoothly in volume, tone, and pitch. Notes should be where you’d expect them, pegs and tuners should work and hold tune well, and the instrument as a whole should feel comfortable and responsive under your fingers and bow.
Are the strings responsive and is the action comfortable? You should be able to depress notes smoothly and easily, without much effort—and definitely without feeling like the string is “cutting” into your fingertips. The cello should speak easily, and you should be able to elicit equally loud or soft volume in first position as well as higher positions closer to the bridge.
Equally important, the strings should be spaced properly, allowing each one to vibrate freely without hitting nearby strings.
(We experienced this problem with one of our test cellos. When played in an upper position, the C and G strings knocked together as they vibrated.)
When looking for a new cello, you want to look for obvious mistakes in the workmanship. Minor flaws on an otherwise good-sounding and comfortable-feeling cello can add character and enhance an instrument. “Yes, even Stradivari made mistakes,” says Van Arsdale.
“The difference, however, is that he made them artfully.”
While this price bracket is on the lower end of the cello spectrum, these instruments attest that you don’t have to settle for lesser quality, as Walsh-Wilson points out.
“Impressive,” he says of the 13 instruments the panel evaluated. “It’s reassuring that you can get good instruments in this range.”
A Selected List of 13 Affordable Cellos
Details on the specific cellos we reviewed are presented in information boxes peppered throughout the article, arranged in alphabetical order by manufacturer’s name. Specifications can be found on the manufacturers’ websites.
Setup can change the sound of any instrument. Keep in mind that individual shops will set up instruments in different ways—and most will work with you to find a setup that best suits your needs. (Most of the cellos we received were ready to play upon arrival, but three were not: the Scott Cao, Music Link, and Stentor Music cellos. Luthier George Peacock of San Francisco reset the soundposts and bridges on these instruments for us.)
STC 750S: $2,500
A copy of the Montagnana “Sleeping Beauty” cello (1739), this cello performed well and reviewers admired its warm voice, easy response, and open, full, and even tone. It also sounded equally strong in both the upper and lower registers. Www.scottcaoviolins.com.
Model 305: $2,575
Set up with good strings (Pirastro) and sporting a warm, dark varnish, this instrument also performed well, but lacked a distinctive sound in the lower register. One reviewer found the C and D strings too closely spaced (they vibrated against one another when played in upper positions), but this could be corrected with better setup. All of our reviewers admired this cello’s bright and even tone. www.eastmanstrings.com.
EVERJOY MUSIC INC.
Model VC520: $2,995
With a heavier tone in the midrange, but a warm, big sound and quick response, the Everjoy model showcased lovely flaming and a class-act setup. Reviewers wondered if the wolf eliminator included with this cello might actually have hampered rather than improved its sound. www.everjoymusic.com.
Model 364 Ruggeri: $5,000
The Ruggeri model was rather impressive. With good strings, an even and balanced tone, exceptional projection, and a high-quality Belgian bridge, this cello inspired Mark Summer to comment, “This doesn’t feel like a step-up instrument.” This cello traveled to us from Germany in nothing but a well-padded cardboard box with bits of sawdust still on its belly, but managed to sound broken-in and rich in tone and character. Www.gill.de.
à l’ancienne $4,950
With beautiful workmanship, a strong setup (good strings and a well-set bridge), even tone, dynamic volume, and an open, loud voice, the à l’ancienne was also easy to play. Reviewers enjoyed the even tone across all strings, but especially liked the D and A for their volume and responsiveness. Www.ifshinviolins.com.
WILLIAM HARRIS LEE & CO.
Francesco Giovanni, Model E17877: $4,900
A robust brown varnish matches this cello’s dark tone. Very responsive, the Giovanni carried a balanced volume across all strings. All of our reviewers remarked on its “alive” sound. Www.whlee.com.
Atelier Model 805: $4,200
Although the C string seemed to need to be set at a higher action (an issue that could
be addressed with an improved setup), the Moreland cello impressed our panel. With a strong, even tone (even in the middle strings); easy, welcome playability; and a big sound, this cello scored high marks with players and maker alike. Www.markmoreland.com.
THE MUSIC LINK
Palatino: $895 (with DuraGuard gig bag)
A difficult instrument to test due to its slipping pegs and poor set of strings, our panelists liked the wood on this cello, and wondered if with a little TLC it might be a stronger instrument. This cello resonated nicely and offered comfortable playability. Www.musiclinkcorp.com.
SAGA MUSICAL INSTRUMENTS
SC-220 Cremona: $995 (with LB bow and TL-30 Travelite case)
Although the Saga was one of the easiest cellos to play in our test group, it was also in need of an improved setup. With a higher bridge, better strings, properly planed fingerboard, and properly fitted neck it could become a strong instrument. It excels in the lower registers, where it produces a strong, warm, bass sound. Www.sagamusic.com.
SAMUEL SHEN MUSICAL INSTRUMENTS
CSC Products/SC800 Gofriller: $3,300 Another instrument that could benefit from easy setup changes, the Shen carried a nice, loud projection, but had a D string in need of a wolf eliminator. With a beautiful back, big sound, even tone, and easy playability (despite high action), this cello could sound even better with very little effort. Www.cscproducts.com.
SNOW STRINGED INSTRUMENTS
The blond varnish on this attractive instrument set it apart from the other cellos we received. Panelists were very taken with the look of this instrument and the care given to its setup. Offering a powerful kick in the lower register, and a quieter upper register, this cello maintained a subtle, well-liked tone across all strings. (800) 645-0703.
STENTOR MUSIC CO.
A testament to different instruments sounding better with different players: although some of our panelists weren’t as attracted to this instrument, Paul Hale in particular gravitated towards it. A warm, soft sound, the choice of aluminum-wound Perlon strings, and a strong D fit in quite well with his playing style. Www.stentor-music.com.
Michael Todd II: $3,995
A well-crafted instrument with good wood, a mellow but full sound, a carbon-fiber endpin, and a dark, quiet tone. Reviewers found a delayed C-string response, but this could easily be remedied in setup. The instrument maintained an even tone across all strings, offered a generous lower register, and a clear, responsive upper end.