Getting a Professional Cello on a Very Low Budget

Both Melissa’s and my cellos are of definite professional quality: dark complex sound, great volume and projection, Belgian-chocolate C-string, warm focused A, and wonderfully even from one to the next. I have to admit (reluctantly) that Melissa’s is slightly better than mine.

Neither cello is of discernable pedigree. Melissa’s is smallish, made somewhere in the northern part of Germany around 1880 and has an average number of repairs for a cello of its age. Mine is about the same age, larger in size, probably made somewhere south of where Melissa’s was made and 8 years ago was in over 100 pieces. It was repaired in our shop by our assistant then and in hundreds of rehearsals and performances since, has not had so much as an open seam. Each would sell in our shop for just a few thousand dollars.

If you are looking for cello with a big pedigree, you may or may not get great sound and response, but you will get a big price tag. Stradivari and his Italian successors have made some wonderful instruments with amazing workmanship, varnish, and sometimes sound (only a handful of Strads are concert instruments) which have captured the imagination (and certainly the market prices) of the string world. But experiments abound disproving what I feel is somewhat a myth that their sound is unmatched. In a previous Cello Chatter, I wrote about a simple experiment in a large hall where 3 violins: a Strad, a 1900’s German commercial instrument, and a new maker violin were played on stage by a very fine violinist. In the back of the hall were several musicians, including the three violinists who owned these instruments, facing away so that no one could see the violins that were being played. The votes for best sounding violin were about evenly split among the three candidates and, just as interesting, none of the three owners could identify their own violin.

Older cellos of any ilk are difficult to come by and older cellos selling for $5000 and less that are structurally solid are certainly not common. But Melissa and I are fortunate to be able to occasionally find these, and many are truly excellent players. Customers of ours across the U.S. and abroad who own these things write us telling how often other cellists have offered to purchase their cellos because of their sound.

Will a lower priced older European cello have repairs in it? Most likely. That’s why it’s lower priced. Is it more fragile than other cellos? Somewhat. But the repairs, if done well, are not what make it more fragile. As mentioned before, great sound comes from brittle wood, and brittle wood is more fragile: that’s why there are repairs in it in the first place. We’ve seen cellos survive collisions with everything from swinging doors to French Horns, but the kind of wood that gives and flexes with these kinds of accidents doesn’t produce very good sound. If you are patient (an enormously important virtue in finding an affordably priced, professional quality cello) look for a 70+ year-old instrument with its repairs guaranteed. They’re still findable.