After years of renting the cello and mastering your skills, you’ve reached the next level – purchasing your very own bowed string instrument. Whether you take the new or used route, there are some things you can look for to ensure you’re buying a quality cello that will provide years of enjoyment. Construction and condition are 2 key details you need to keep in mind during your search.
If you’re considering a carved instrument, check for cracks over the top and back. Hairline cracks will appear as a faint, white line running in the direction of the grain on the top.
Inspect the plate-to-rib seams too. These need to be tightly glued. To do this, bend your index finger and tap lightly, as if gently knocking on a door, around the edge of the instrument. If there is an open seam, you’ll hear a clicking sound as if something is loose. While not a major issue, the open seam will have to be glued so the instrument doesn’t lose sound.
Taking a gun barrel view down the neck with the eye centered at the top of the scroll is also a good idea. This helps you determine the squareness of the neck position. The fingerboard should be exactly between the two F holes. If it’s not and leans toward one hole, the neck is not set squarely. This means the instrument won’t be able to play in tune because the fifths across the strings won’t be true.
Strings should not vibrate against the fingerboard during forte passages so it’s important to note if the bridge and nut have adequate height. The curvature of the bridge needs to be just enough so that the bow doesn’t catch two strings at once when drawn. Too much curvature isn’t good either as the bow arm or wrist will then need to travel excessively to cross strings.
Pegs should turn smoothly and stay put.
There should be 4-string adjusters on the tailpiece, either integrated or separated. You may prefer to have adjusters on the 2 upper strings only when perlon strings are used for the 2 lower strings.
The endpin helps to support the instrument and shouldn’t be too short as you use it to adjust the height. Anadjustable rod of 18 to 22 inches is ideal as it allows for good height flexibility and the correct position of both the left hand and the bow arm, which then increases the comfort level of the cello player. Some cellos feature a very long endpin so the instrument can be placed in a more horizontal position but that can cause unwanted vibrations inside the cello from the un-extended portion. If a lengthy endpin rod is your preference, test the instrument throughout its range to see if any sympathetic vibration is being produced. Also ensure that the endpin rod is anchored to the wooden portion from inside the cello. This is important as the rod could fall out when it’s being extended and land on your foot.
A bow is usually supplied when buying a beginner’s cello but they are often low-end versions that aren’t straight and don’t hold the hair well. Since having the right bow makes a huge difference in how the cello will sound and how you will play, you might want to consider upgrading. A solid suggestion for novice players is a fiberglass bow, or something similar, as they’re always straight and maintain their proper curvature. A fiberglass bow is fairly inexpensive, dependable and replacement parts are readily available. If a more advanced bow is what you’re looking for, there are several options ranging from a higher-grade brazilwood to a professional-grade pernambuco wood bow. Carbon fiber bows are another viable choice and are preferred by many professional players.Remember, as a cellist, you’re bowing against gravity so it’s important that the bow not be too heavy at the tip and feel comfortable in your hand. Extra weight anywhere on the bow makes it harder to maintain a straight bow stroke.
All of the above suggestions and checklists apply to a used cello as well. When considering a used cello, you also have to take into account any prior repairs and how they were performed. Older cellos are sure to have had some visible repair work done and cracks on the top are not uncommon. The issue is whether the crack was repaired well and properly because if it wasn’t, that can affect the sound of the instrument. Here’s what to look for. Cracks on the top plate should be repaired with small cleats placed along the crack on the underside of the top. In order to do this, the top of the instrument needs to be removed and that’s something only a professional violin-maker should do.A repaired crack should be perfectly level to the touch and the only thing you should see is a dark line along the grain. If the crack doesn’t feel level then it hasn’t been properly fixed. The same standard of being perfectly level also applies to the repair of cracked ribs. Be sure to also check that the neck angle is within reason too. The angle of projection or neck angle changesas the instrument ages. Neck and fingerboards tend to slowly fall toward the top plate, thus lowering the projection. When this happens, the bridge needs to be lowered to readjust the distance between the strings and fingerboard for proper proportion. But if the neck falls too low, it reaches a point where the bridge can’t be lowered any further. When this happens, a neck reset is required and those are very costly. If the top of the bridge where the strings rest is almost on top of the heart-shaped cut out in the center of the bridge, that’s a telltale sign that the neck angle is too low.
While the look of a shiny, new instrument is always appealing, a used, older cello can be just as joyful to play as long as it’s sturdy and any required repairs were done properly. Buying a used cello in poor condition and not maintained properly won’t be of any benefit to you as you’ll probably spend more time having it repaired than making music.