Two instruments for different uses
What are the differences between acoustic and electric cellos? Why use an electric cello rather than an acoustic one? What are the advantages of each instrument?
These questions are common among “classical” musicians, who tend to have preconceived ideas about electric musical instruments. You shouldn’t have the same expectations of an acoustic or electric cello. They have the same name, they’re both cellos, but they’re very different, and they’re not used in the same way. Your choice of acoustic or electric cello will depend on your needs!
Are classical and electric guitars still compared today? The answer is: no! For musicians and non-musicians alike, it’s obvious that you won’t see an electric guitar at a flamenco concert, and you won’t see a flamenco guitar on a hard rock stage. It’s not because they know the true differences between each instrument, but because it’s now part of our cultural heritage that each guitar is associated with a universe. The same applies to violins, violas, double basses and cellos. Have you ever seen an electric cello played in a classical orchestra? No, because it doesn’t really belong there. Sometimes you come across one, but most of the time it’s a soloist who plays it at the front of the stage. It’s never a member of the orchestra.
It’s important to understand that an acoustic guitar cannot play the same role as an electric guitar. Each has its own specificities, advantages and disadvantages! It’s exactly the same with cellos!
Solid body VS hollow body
Acoustic cellos have a hollow body. They have a resonance chamber that allows the bow’s friction with the strings to reverberate acoustically. This hollow body is the source of the distinctive sound of acoustic instruments.
Most electric cellos have a solid body, without a resonance box. This body can be assembled from several parts, or made from a single piece of wood from which the body is built. The second option is the most optimal soundwise, because sound waves can travel freely through the instrument’s body. Our Horizon electric cello has a solid wooden body constructed from a single piece of ash or maple wood.
Electric cellos are also less sensitive to climatic conditions and better suited for difficult weather conditions (humidity, heat, etc.).
Acoustic sound production VS electric sound production
The resonance box and soundholes of an acoustic cello produce sound. When the bow rubs against the strings, sound propagates through the resonance box and is naturally amplified by it. As its name implies, the resonance box makes the sound resonate. It acts as a natural amplifier.
An electric cello has no resonance box, so it produces sound in a completely different way. It uses a bridge equipped with one or more sound transducers. This part is often called a pickup. These pickups are usually piezos. They can convert physical vibrations into an electrical signal. This signal is then sent to an amplifier, which amplifies it. This is the same principle used on electric guitars or any other amplified instrument (electric violin, electro-acoustic guitar, etc.) The only difference between these instruments may be the type of pickups used. Generally speaking, bowed string instruments use electric piezo pickups, while electric guitars have magnetic pickups. We published a detailed article on the subject and how pickups work in music.
Traditional design VS limitless design
Classical cellos all have a common aesthetic. They always have the same shape and specific dimensions. Bowed string instruments come in the following sizes: 1/10, 1/8, 1/4, 3/4, 1/2, 4/4.
These dimensions have been defined over time by luthiers, and every luthier now strives to respect them. They can be found in modern lutherie manuals.
On the other hand, electric instruments have no visual limits. There are no manuals or rules in electric lutherie. Each luthier is free to do whatever works for them. However, they preserve important elements of the cello, such as neck length, thumb rest and string height, to make it more comfortable for the cellist to play. The goal is not to create a new instrument, but to turn the acoustic cello into an electric version for other uses.
The transition from an acoustic to an electric cello is easier if some key points of the acoustic cello are respected. The player has to quickly find the same sensations between the two instruments. That’s why electric celloo are the same size as acoustic cellos.
Parts that aren’t crucial to the proper functioning of an electric cello can be removed to create a unique design, make the instrument easier to carry and use, make it lighter, allow the musician to move around while playing, and so on. For example, you don’t have to keep the same layout of the soundbox. More material means more weight. If electric cellos kept the entire shape of the cello, the instrument would weigh too much. That’s why many manufacturers remove all unnecessary parts from an electric cello.
Another advantage of an electric cello is how easy it is to transport. They are often lighter and fit into a smaller carrying bag compared to the huge case of a conventional cello. Travelling with an electric cello is much simpler. For example, our Horizon electric cello can be taken as a carry-on, since it’s no bigger than an electric guitar.
Different sound capabilities
Electric cellos have their own sound advantages. They can’t produce the natural acoustic sound of a cello, but they do have other capabilities.
The sound produced by an electric cello can be easily amplified. You can connect the cello to an amplifier or any other amplifier system. The connection is made using a jack cable or with a wireless system. The volume is controlled either directly on the instrument with the volume knob, or on the amplifier. Delivering a strong, powerful signal is easy. This can’t be done with an acoustic instrument, unless it has an amplification system.
No more acoustic feedback!
Many cellists have already experienced acoustic feedback on stage. Acoustic feedback is an unwanted sound phenomenon. It sounds like a loud whistling noise, unpleasant to the human ear. It happens when the sound produced by a microphone is amplified by an amplifier and recaptured by the same microphone. This creates a sound loop that gradually amplifies until it becomes an extremely high-pitched noise. Acoustic instruments are prone to this. Amplifying a classical instrument presents a number of challenges, and feedback is the sworn enemy of every musician and engineer.
Amplifying an acoustic instrument is always tricky. It involves installing a microphone on the instrument, or using a small transducer placed on the instrument. Unfortunately, in either case, the acoustic instrument can still be subject to feedback. Electric cellos are not really prone to feedback.
Adding effects to the signal
The amplified sound of an electric cello needs to be coupled to an effects processor or individual effects pedals. Cellists use the same pedals as electric bassists and guitarists.
Effects allow you to modify your sound to suit your style. For example, if you want to get a more classical sound, you can add a little reverb and delay. On the other hand, if you want to sound like a rock band, you’ll want to add saturation effects like distortion.
With an electric cello, it’s important to work on the sound produced so that it matches what you want. You can certainly get closer to an acoustic sound by creating an effect chain with a classic cello impulse response file. We listed the most common cello effects in a previous article.
In all cases, a classical cello is intended for classical music or an acoustic setting. Whereas an electric cello is intended for modern music that requires amplification and modulation of the sound produced.
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Which cello strings should you use?
All cello strings work equally well with both classical and electric cellos. Cellos have 4 strings: C, G, D, A (from lowest to highest). Some cellists install the same strings on their electric and acoustic cellos. We suggest you experiment before making your decision. String properties play a major role in the sound capacity of an acoustic instrument. This is not really the case with an electric instrument. The price of the strings and how you feel while playing are more important than the physical properties.
Some electric cellos have 5 or 6 strings, which extend the instrument’s range towards the treble and bass. In this case, there’s a lower string (F) and/or a higher string (E).
Sensations and playing techniques
New playing positions
All electric cellos feature new support systems. The traditional position of the cellist is seated, so manufacturers try to offer a similar seating position. As a result, the position of the cello is identical between the two instruments, and requires no special adjustment.
Most electric cellos can also be played standing up, with the help of other support accessories! The Horizon cello comes with 3 support accessories: a endpin, a harness and a tripod. The spike and tripod systems allow you to play in either sitting or standing position. However, they position the cellist somewhere on stage. The harness allows the cello to be supported on the body, giving the cellist the freedom to move on stage. Below, cellist Cello Azul using our Horizon electric cello on his harness.
No more resonance chamber
The biggest difficulty for a classical cellist who switches to an electric cello is the perception of sound in space. The cellist is used to the natural amplification produced by the resonance chamber, and will have to adapt to a less immediate sound feedback. By using an amplifier, sound in space seems less sudden. This is less noticeable for a cellist than for a violinist or violist. The latter play with their ear almost glued to their instrument, giving them immediate sound feedback. Their transition to electric is usually more destabilizing. A cellist’s ear is not pressed against the instrument, so they feel less of a difference.
Adapting certain playing techniques
All the playing techniques learned with an acoustic cello are useful with an electric cello. They are identical and are played the same way. However, sound production is different and requires small adjustments, especially in bow pressure. The bow pressure needs to be controlled on a pickup with sensors that convert vibrations into an electrical signal. These sensors can’t translate the nuances produced by the bow. The more pressure the cellist exerts on the strings, the duller, more restrained the sound becomes.
Which cellists use electric cellos?
The acoustic cello and the electric cello are two cellos with different uses and attributes.
Cellists who choose an electric cello are looking to break away from classical music. For the most part, they bought an electric cello to play a completely different type of music, such as rock, jazz, pop and so on. This type of modern music requires real amplification on stage. The cello needs to be connected to a mixing board like all the other instruments on stage. The cello can’t be heard without amplification, because natural amplification would be drowned out by the sound of all the amplified instruments. When amplification is needed, an acoustic cello isn’t the best choice.
Most cellists with an electric cello also have an acoustic cello. They don’t limit themselves to one musical instrument. Most of them play in different musical formations. They go for the instrument best suited to the group and to the conditions on stage. They practice on both instruments, so they’re comfortable on both.
Images and sources: 3Dvarius, Cello Azul, Leah Metzler, Mélanie, Eduardo