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Supposing you have little-to-no experience with instruments in the “string family,” you might ask, ‘Why don’t these instruments have frets in the first place? Do these instruments think they’re better than us? Surely these instruments would be easier to play with frets!’ To which the instruments might reply, ‘Read this article…and don’t call us Shirley.”
So, What is a Fretted Cello?
The short answer: a cello with frets
The longer, non-sarcastic answer:
To start, it will help to understand a fret’s function.
Frets are the raised pieces of metal that run perpendicular to certain stringed instruments’ necks. Stringed instruments create their sound (which is, in and of itself, just vibration of the air) through the vibration of their strings.
Acoustic instruments (for example: acoustic guitar, the string family, even pianos) amplify that sound through their resonating chambers (the instruments’ hollow body), whereas electric instruments amplify that sound through their pick-ups (tiny microphones, basically).
As is the case with all stringed instruments, the shorter and/or thinner a string is, the higher the pitch that will be created. This is true no matter how it is vibrated: struck by a finger, pick, hammer, or played with a bow. Likewise, the longer and/or thicker a string is, the lower the pitch that will be created.
To elucidate: if two strings of the same thickness but different lengths are struck, the shorter string will produce a higher pitch.
Similarly, if two strings of the same length but different thicknesses are struck, the thinner string will produce a higher pitch.
When a musician places their finger (or whatever device. e.g. a capo) behind the fret, the string makes contact with the fret. A string touching a fret does not vibrate beyond that fret, no matter how hard the string is vibrated. This, in effect, momentarily shortens the length of the string as a shorter length (relative to the entire length) of the string is vibrating.
Okay, So That’s the ‘How.’ Now, Why Do We Need Frets?
Well, we don’t technically need frets. After all, the string family has been around for 5-6 centuries, and these instruments haven’t necessitated frets. There are even fretless versions of the instruments that are traditionally engineered with frets.
But they are helpful for a few reasons:
Frets aid in more than just the creation of the sound. They also aid in the playing of the instrument. For instruments like guitars and mandolins, which have the ability -nay, necessity– to play chords, the frets provide a useful visual aid.
Unless you’re playing in an open tuning, chances are you are using a chord shape that necessitates the use of two or more frets for your chord. The frets can act as a chart of sorts, directing the musician where to place their fingers for the optimized tone. Furthermore, playing one note without frets is a challenge and a skill to learn.
Playing multiple notes on different areas of the neck at the same time without frets? Hoo, boy…
Sustain is the length of time that a note rings out following the attack (the initial peak of a sound, how quickly the instrument expresses all of its frequencies, and if there are any differences in the onset of harmonics.).
Woodwind and brass instruments have short sustain.
Their sustain is primarily determined by the length of time the musician blows into the instrument. For those in the string family, the sustain is determined similarly by how long the bow is running along the string (though sustain is also affected by the instrument’s resonating chamber).
For other string instruments that are plucked like guitar and bass, sustain can be affected by a number of factors. Still, altogether a well-engineered instrument will provide a uniform sustain for all notes on the fretboard. ie. no matter at which fret a musician holds a note, the same strength pluck will produce an equal length of sustain.
Furthermore, the sustain is also uniform no matter where behind the fret the musician places their fingers*. This is due to the fact that the string vibrates from the bridge to the fret, not from the musician’s fingers.
*Though better technique calls for musicians to place their fingers just behind the fret
Again, as the string vibrates from the fret to the bridge, the tone produced at each fret will be in tune no matter where along the fretboard the musician plays. (Assuming the open string is in tune and the instrument itself is well-engineered). Each fret will have one semitone difference from an adjacent fret: no more, no less.
So, Does a Fretted Cello Work?
The short answer: Mostly. This instrument will produce cello-like sounds and can be played like a cello.
The longer answer: kind of…not
If we compare the function of a fret from above to a (fretted) cello specifically, we can see why.
Before that, it’s worth noting that the fretless string instruments rely on natural harmonic ratios to produce their sound. While Western music has, in a sense, forced the octave into 12 nice, equally-spaced steps (ie. Equal Temperament), the actual naturally occurring harmonics (ie. the way sounds of the universe naturally work) are slightly different.
Instruments like the violin and cello depend on these naturally occurring harmonics for their unique sound. In fact, this allows these instruments to play what many music theorists would consider the same pitch as two distinct pitches.
Cellos don’t play chords (This is generally a rule and the musical pieces that call for a chord on the cello are the exception). The necessity to have a visual aid on the fretboard is not as high as it is on a guitar, for example.
As noted above, a cello’s sustain is determined primarily by how long the musician runs the bow across the strings. For those plucked instruments, the musician will strike the string and let the instrument’s construction do the rest and/or utilize equipment (eg. guitar pedals) to affect the sustain.
For a cellist, so long as they make a smooth transition when switching the direction of the bow, they can endow their instrument with the illusion of infinite sustain.
Here is where the differences between a fretted cello and a traditional cello come to light. And where, ultimately, if you’re new to the cello, you can make the decision of whether a fretted or traditional cello is the right undertaking for you.
a) If you are considering a fretted cello, chances are you’re new to the cello altogether. In which case, a fretted cello provides some advantages! For starters, having a visual aid of where to place one’s fingers on the neck is a great way to expedite the process of learning the fretboard of your cello.
For example, it’s easier to find and play any note on a traditional cello if you have already gained an understanding of its general area from practice on a fretted cello. There will be adjustments to make, no doubt, if/when you make the switch to a traditional cello.
But ultimately, you’re probably picking up an instrument as a method of manifesting joy into your life, and there’s no shame in taking a shortcut to find that joy sooner! The sooner you have the ability to play music (with or without others) and expand your repertoire beyond exercises, the sooner you’ll be having fun.*
*which is not to say that exercises and practice can’t be fun.
b) Much like frets will help you learn the fretboard, they will also help you stay in tune (relative to the other frets) as you play. As you start your musical journey on the cello and strive to learn the fretboard and the mechanics of moving between notes, it is helpful to not have to ‘fight’ your instrument, so to speak.
As stated above, assuming a well-engineered instrument, each fret will be one semitone difference from its adjacent frets.
c) In any regard, while there is a difference in tonal quality between a fretted and a traditional cello, the simpler songs that you’ll learn first don’t necessitate the highest quality instrument to play them well (or well enough).
All that being said, there is a noticeable difference in tonal quality between the two types of cellos as you move into more advanced pieces of music.
This difference in tonal quality is not a matter of poor construction of any individual fretted cello brand. It simply has to do with the physics of the cello, the strings, and the bow. A quick breakdown of string physics can be found here*
*The video is specifically about guitar strings, but many of the basic physics concepts, especially as they pertain to pitch, apply to cello strings as well.
When a string is vibrated, either through a pluck (guitar pick, finger, etc.) or a bow, it doesn’t vibrate perfectly up and down or left to right. The shape tends to be elliptical. The distance the string travels in one cycle of that vibration is known as the string’s “transit.” Assuming equal amplitude (volume), higher pitches have a smaller transit than lower pitches.
You can think of this as running sprints on an (American) football field.
One set of sprints will be from the goal line to the 10-yard line and back: 10 yards one-way, 20 yards per cycle. The second set will be from goal line to goal line and back: 100 yards one way, 200 yards per cycle. 20 yards is less than 200 yards, so the first set has a smaller “transit” than the second set.
Negating the exhaustion factor, if you were to run both of these sprints at the same speed, you would cover the same distance in the same amount of time. For example, running each of these sprints for 10 seconds at 10 yards/sec would net you 100 yards total distance.
To achieve 100 yards in the first set necessitates changing direction every second. This results in the completion of a cycle every two seconds: to the 10 yard line (1 second) and back (2 seconds).
We can think of this as a “frequency” of .5 (1 cycle/2 seconds).
Likewise, to achieve 100 yards in the second set necessitates not changing direction (or once at the very end). This results in the completion of a cycle every 20 seconds: to the other goal line (10 seconds) and back (20 seconds). We can think of this as a “frequency” of .05 (1 cycle/20 seconds).
Higher pitches are similar to the first set of sprints, and lower pitches are similar to the second. Higher pitches have a higher frequency as they complete more cycles in the same amount of time than lower frequencies. In order to complete more cycles, the string travels less distance back and forth.
That’s Fine and All, But What Does this Have to Do with Fretted Vs Traditional Cellos?
Playing with a bow sustains the maximum transit of the string, unlike a plucked instrument whose sound begins to decay immediately following the initial attack.
To achieve this sustain, the fingerboards of bowed stringed instruments are not flat. They gradually dip into themselves, away from the string near its center. This is called a “scoop.” Adding frets to a neck that is not flat from head to body puts the instrument at risk of fret buzz and changes the tone slightly by accidentally filtering some of the overtones.
In addition to the cello’s “scoop,” its neck is also curved perpendicular to its length. As you descend the strings (pitch-wise), they are raised higher and higher off of the fingerboard to accommodate those strings’ increasing transits.
This presents a problem with frets on the cello. The frets need to be high enough so that the string makes proper contact with the fret when pressed but low enough that they don’t interfere with the string at any fret not being played. Frets work fine on plucked instruments because all the strings are roughly the same height off the fretboard at every fret.
So, Where Can I Buy a Fretted Cello?
Unsurprisingly, there are only two actual fretted cellos on the market.
The NXTA Electric Cello from NS Designs is one of the only decent fretted Cellos on the market. The instrument itself is made from quality materials like maple and ebony, which are found in all of their instruments. While the unfretted version of the cello has high reviews, the fretted version is less sought after; many complain of buzzing on the strings. A common issue found in trying to fret orchestral string instruments.
- Actual Fretted Cello
- Made with quality materials
- String buzzing complaints
- Extremely expensive
The Cobra Cello from Wood Violins is another option. Lesser-known than NS Designs but still a quality Cello. The body is made of poplar wood, uncommon but not concerning given that this is an electric cello. The fingerboard is made from select ebony; everything else is custom-made for the cello. I like this cello because you can get it completely fretted or phantom fretted. Phantom fretting is a great way to get the guidelines of frets without actually putting frets on the fingerboard. It’s also permanent, whereas fingerboard tape or pencil markings can wear off.
- Made with quality material
- Can get the cello with phantom fretting
- Really expensive
If you don’t want to spend thousands on a fretted cello, there are plenty of fingerboard tape options that can give you the illusion of having frets and help you guide your fingers. Fingerboard tapes are common while students are learning the basics.
Fantastic Finger Guide for Cellos is a finger guide sticker set that shows you where all of the notes are. Additionally, the set contains stickers on the side of the cello to help guide you while you change positions to play different notes.
- Contains a lot of stickers for the price
- Position guides
- Stickers always leave a sticky residue on the fingerboard
- Lots of individual stickers that have to be spaced properly
Don’t Fret Finger Position Marker for Cello is another popular option. Instead of individual stickers, it comes as one complete set that you place on the fingerboard under the strings. Instead of using a tuner to find the right position, you simply have to line the guide up and stick it down. However, this set does not tell you which note is which.
- One sticker
- Don’t need to measure or use a tuner
- Sticker residue gets left behind
- Sticker often comes bent up
- No note names
Answer: As is the case with many instruments, you get what you pay for. The most affordable cellos are designed for students and these prices range from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars. The cellos that the best cellists in the world play easily cost over $10,000
Answer: While there are differences between an acoustic and electric cello, the ease of playing an electric cello is about the same. Not all cellists have the appropriate space and set-up to play their acoustic cello at home and, thus, prefer to practice with an electric cello.
To that end, the manufacturers of electric cellos have put a great deal of effort into mimicking the feel of an acoustic cello.
Answer: You’ll need a tuner and tape. With your tuner set-up, find a non-open string note to play. Your tuner will be able to tell you if you’re sharp (you need to move your fingers away from the body of the instrument) or flat (towards the body of the instrument).
Once you find the correct spot, slip the fingerboard tape under the strings and press it flat against the instrument. Helpful guide here. Happy playing!
In terms of pitch, an advantage of fretless instruments, like the cello, is the ability to adjust pitch at will. As frets lock in the pitches to keep them one semitone apart, no movement of the finger between frets will change the pitch.
Ultimately, if the instrument is not in tune or the intonation is off (in short, intonation is the ability of each fret/pitch to stay in tune with each other), a fret will remain out of tune until an adjustment is made to the instrument’s hardware (tuning pegs, bridge, etc.)
Depending on the magnitude of adjustment needed to the instrument, this may not be possible during a concert (adjust a tuning peg? Simple. Move the location of the bridge? Near impossible) and certainly less so in the middle of a composition!
With a traditional cello, adjustments to pitch can be made in the moment! Too flat? Move your finger slightly down the fretboard towards the bridge! Too sharp? Back in the other direction! Easy peasy!
This freedom to adjust pitch extends beyond adjustment to established pitches in a composition. The lack of frets means that cellos can play any note, including microtones. Microtones are not as common in Western music, but that neither diminishes their significance nor takes away from the cello’s ability to play them!
To summarize, if you’re considering a fretted cello, you’re better off with a regular cello. If you lack the confidence to learn a cello without the visual aid of a fret to tell you where the note is, consider buying fingerboard tape.
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