The cello is a stringed instrument that is generally considered to be used exclusively in orchestral music, but this isn’t quite true. Sure, it’s a staple of the classical orchestra, but the cello is often found in all sorts of contemporary music, especially jazz!
I never knew this when I started to play the cello – I began learning the instrument with a classical music focus, and I couldn’t believe it when I was invited to join a jazz ensemble in high school. It was some of the most fun I have ever had playing the cello, and I’d encourage you to try it out too.
However, this raises a few questions – how do you find the best jazz cello, and is there a difference between standard cellos and jazz cellos? I wondered this a lot as a beginner, but through my experience, I’ve learned the answers. Read on to find out what I discovered!
What Is the Difference Between a Classical Cello and a Jazz Cello?
Jazz is a musical genre that challenges the boundaries of traditional classical music, prompting musicians to deviate away from the conservative norms and experiment with technique and tonality. This causes many to assume that you would need a different type of cello to achieve a jazz style, but you might be surprised that this is not the case.
Any cello can be used for classical, jazz, or any other style. The instruments are identical, and the differences all come down to technique and performance style. For example, jazz cellists may experiment with their technique a lot more by bending their notes or creating flourishes and decorations that would never fit in a classical orchestra.
Furthermore, the cello is generally performed either as a solo instrument or within a string ensemble when it comes to classical music. In jazz, on the other hand, it often replaces other bass instruments such as the bass guitar or double bass and will often be assigned an additional musical section in which the musician can show off their skills in the form of a solo.
So, the differences all come down to the performance technique, but this doesn’t mean that there aren’t certain properties that you should look for in a jazz cello. Let’s take a look at the qualities you should search for.
What to Look for In a Jazz Cello
As I already mentioned, the main difference between a jazz cello and a classical cello is simply how it is played. However, there are still several things that you will need to investigate to find the perfect cello for jazz music. Let’s break down the key elements you should consider.
Cost and Quality
One of the most stressful elements about purchasing a cello is comparing the cost and the quality. Not everyone has the cash to purchase a $2,000 cello, and it is always tempting to buy a cheaper alternative. However, many people consider this to be a bad move when it comes to classical cello performance. Expensive cellos usually indicated high-quality wood and assembly, and orchestras will encourage this to optimize the sound of their cellists.
However, if you are looking to purchase a cello to play within a jazz ensemble, this expectation might be a bit lower. I have always looked at jazz as a rebellious and experimental genre. The earliest jazz musicians weren’t fussed about how expensive or fancy their instruments were. It was all about making new and innovative music, breaking boundaries, and not bank accounts!
I would honestly recommend that you simply find a cello that fits your budget. It’s inevitable that if you save up extra cash, you’re going to be able to afford a better cello, but not everyone can justify these high costs. Only purchase a cello that you can afford – after all, the most important thing is that the instrument is comfortable, sounds good, and is appropriately sized for you.
However, I wouldn’t recommend that you cheap out either, as this could result in the purchase of a very low-quality instrument. You don’t need to break the bank to find a prestigious cello that is dreamed about by classical musicians, but you should invest at least $1000 generally. It’s worth mentioning though that you will need additional amplification to play the cello as part of a jazz ensemble, and this might cost you some extra cash. Let’s investigate that now.
Electric Cellos and Amplification
I don’t think that purchasing an insanely high-quality cello is necessary for jazz music, but there is one thing that you will need to seek out – a cello with excellent amplification. I can always remember my first rehearsal with that high-school jazz ensemble. I had tons of experience performing in large concert halls with excellent acoustics, and I knew that these classical instruments were designed to be heard in perfect equilibrium.
This is simply not the case with jazz ensembles. I started jamming along with the jazz band, only to be told that nobody could hear me. There was a loud jazz drummer behind me, and the electric guitarist was completely overpowering. They needed me to play louder, but there was nothing I could do about that, so they decided to mic my instrument up.
Finding a cello that has excellent amplification is a good start, but there’s only so far you can go with an acoustic instrument. Amplifying your cello with a microphone is usually the typical response, but it can be very difficult to capture the complex tones of the instrument with a single microphone. The same problem lies with applying a pickup to your cello. There are simply too many acoustic sweet spots on the instrument for a DIY pickup job.
Your best bet is to purchase an electric cello. This might seem counterintuitive, but trust me – it will save you so much hassle within jazz ensembles. You can skip the stress of installing your own pickups or carrying a complex microphone setup everywhere you go. Simply plug your cello into the PA like you would with an electric guitar, and you’re ready to go! The best thing about this is you could even plug into some effects pedals if you fancy playing in a truly experimental and innovative style!
The final key element that I would recommend applies to all cellists – find a jazz cello that fits your size! Just because jazz is more liberal and improvisatory does not mean that you should change the way you hold your cello. You still need to be able to hold it comfortably and explore the fingerboard with ease, regardless of whether you choose to sit or stand.
The only way to ensure this is to purchase a jazz cello that fits you. If you are a young person or an adult purchasing a cello for a child, consider buying a child-size instrument such as a ¼ or a ½ cello. However, if you are an adult, you will probably be fine with a full-sized 4/4 unless you are a smaller person, in which case a 7/8 might be more appropriate.
At the end of the day, there’s only one way to figure all of this stuff out. Head into a music store, ask the sales team if you can try out a few cello sizes, and find the instrument size that fits your body type. It’s as simple as that, yet it’s an incredibly important step, regardless of whether you want to play jazz or classical music.
My Top Jazz Cello Recommendations
We’ve taken a quick look at some of the important things that you will need to consider when purchasing a jazz cello, so let’s now take a look at some examples. I’ve tested the following models out in both classical and jazz scenarios, and I can guarantee that they will all truly allow you to shine in a jazz ensemble.
DZ Strad Model 101
As I mentioned earlier, if you’re on a budget then it is always going to be best to find a cello for jazz music that has a price tag of at least $1,000. This may sound like a lot, but it’s a reasonable price to pay for high-quality cellos, and DZ Strad is a brand that helps you do exactly this.
In particular, their Model 101 has always been a favorite recommendation of mine. It’s a high-quality instrument that resonates beautifully and sounds fantastic despite its target audience of beginners. However, there are some compromises – it’s assembled in factories, produced with rosewood as opposed to ebony, and most importantly, its amplification is pretty standard.
This instrument will sound great in a jazz ensemble. There’s no doubt about that, but you will either need to apply a pickup or mic it up.
- Very affordable for a high-quality beginners jazz cello at around $1,400
- Beautiful sound and good projection
- Made by DZ Strad, a brand with an excellent reputation
- The amplification is good but pretty standard, and you will need to mic it up for jazz ensembles
- Uses cheaper and less sturdy rosewood instead of ebony for the fingerboard and other parts
- Assembled in factories, as opposed to being handmade
Luis and Clark Carbon Fiber Cello
The typical wooden design of cellos was designed to provide ideal amplification within the classical environment of a concert hall, but the introduction of the instrument to contemporary music has resulted in some design innovations.
A prime example of this is how Luis and Clark use carbon fiber to produce their cellos, with the massive benefit of increasing the resonance and amplification of the instrument. That’s not the only benefit though – carbon fiber means that cellos are lighter, stronger, immune to temperature changes, and difficult to damage.
It’s also a more environmentally friendly option, as ebony is a material retrieved from the tusks of endangered animals. All of this sounds great, but there’s a catch – carbon fiber instruments are very expensive upgrades, with this model, in particular, costing over $7,000. Yikes!
- A carbon fiber build, massively increasing the resonance and amplification in comparison to traditional cellos
- Lighter and more sturdy, making it a great option for the traveling jazz cellist
- More environmentally friendly
- The body does not react to temperature changes
- I love the look of carbon fiber instruments, but many people think they look too futuristic and less rustic than traditional cellos.
- A very expensive option
- The amplification is great, but it still may require a microphone or pickup
The carbon fiber build of the previous Luis and Clark model is beautiful and beneficial to your amplification, but this is only going to get you so far. If you want to ensure that your cello can be heard within the hustle and bustle of a jazz club, you should seriously consider getting an electric cello.
One of the best electric models I’ve tried is Bridge’s Draco. This instrument combines a gorgeous carbon fiber aesthetic with the power of a 1/4″ jack output, meaning that you can plug this into any PA system, effects pedal, or mixer. Ultimately, this means that volume should never be a problem again, you can always ensure that you will be heard next to a loud drum kit.
It also comes with a carbon fiber composite bow, and the body is complemented by kevlar composite, and this produces a warm resonance that is seriously difficult to come by.
- ¼” jack output, meaning you can plug into any audio system and perform as loud as you need to
- Built with stunning carbon fiber and kevlar composite, making it a lightweight instrument that is rich in harmonics
- Comes with a carbon fiber composite bow and a fiberglass case
- Much like the Luis and Clark model, some people simply do not like the aesthetic of carbon fiber cellos
- Very expensive, not recommended for beginners
Eastman Albert Nebel VL601
The last jazz cello on my list is the Albert Nebel VL601+, an electric cello coming from one of my favorite brands, Eastman strings. Firstly, this is a very popular choice for jazz cellists due to the traditional wooden design. I personally really like carbon fiber instruments, but I still prefer traditionally built cellos, and if that sounds like you then this is an option to consider.
It can be plugged into any audio system, it’s hand-carved from German spruce and maple, and the wood used is aged for many years to optimize the complexity of the tone that the instrument can produce. Finally, the instrument is hand-inlaid with purfling, and whilst this looks gorgeous, it serves a more important purpose – protecting the instrument from temperature changes and cosmetic damage.
Overall, this is an instrument that brings you all of the benefits of carbon fiber cellos whilst providing you with the means to amplify it all within a stunning and traditional design. Beautiful.
- Fitted with a 1/4″ jack and pickup, allowing the instrument to be plugged into any audio system
- Hand-carved from German spruce and maple
- Hand-inlaid purfling that protects the instrument from temperature changes and cosmetic damage
- Eastman Strings has a seriously good reputation for quality control and customer service
- One of the more expensive Eastman Strings options (although it’s cheaper than most carbon fiber options)
- Made from wood, therefore being heavier than carbon fiber cellos and thus harder to transport
If you’ve made it this far, you should now have a great understanding of what makes an excellent jazz cello and some of my top recommendations. To draw this guide to a close, I’m going to finish things off with a quick FAQ – I hope it helps you!
Answer: When searching for a jazz cello, you should consider all qualities you would look for in a regular cello, but you should focus on finding something with excellent amplification to be heard within a loud jazz ensemble.
Answer: Electric cellos are generally better options for jazz music as the instrumentation you will perform around will be louder than a typical classical orchestra, and electric cellos can be played as loud as you need them to be.
Answer: Carbon fiber cellos are lighter and more durable than wooden cellos, but these benefits will come with a serious price tag and an aesthetic that not everybody likes.
Answer: Many excellent cello brands have an audience of jazz musicians, but I would personally recommend Eastman Strings, Bridge, or DZ Strad for their stellar reputation.
Finding a jazz cello (or any instrument for that matter) can be a really difficult task, so much so that it can become overwhelming and even put you off learning the instrument. I truly hope that this guide has helped you understand what you should be looking for, where you should look to purchase your cello, and the differences between jazz and classical cello performance.
I cannot recommend the Eastman Strings Albert Nebel VL601+ enough – it’s a beautifully crafted cello fitted with pickups and a ¼” jack, meaning that you can truly shine in a jazz ensemble without being concerned about being too quiet. It’s also a great option if you’re a fan of traditional wooden cellos, reluctant to venture into the world of carbon fiber.
Good luck on your journey. I am sure that you will find something that fits your style. Finally, don’t forget that it’s not about the tools but the way you use them. Jazz is all about pushing the envelope, breaking boundaries, and innovating your cello technique, so always keep that in mind when practicing on your brand new jazz cello!
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