Price Range vs. Specifications
To the untutored eye, most cellos may look alike. However, not all cellos are constructed alike. The materials used in a cello, the techniques (and especially fine handwork) employed in its construction, the exactness of the tolerances followed during the process; all come into play when determining the answer to the question: How much does a cello cost?
Cellos Come in All Price Ranges
While it's true that cellos come in a wide range of price points, it is important to remember that when you're buying a cello, you are buying a quality instrument, and as such, you're going to be paying for that quality.
Thus, cellos run from student models at the low end ($2,000 to $5,000)*, all the way up to the collectible models, which sell for millions of dollars.
"With instruments — like art — you're competing with a collectible, or an antique market," says Carol Johnson, co-founder of Johnson String Instruments. "You're competing with people who are willing to pay 3 or 4 or 5 million dollars for that Strad [Stradivarius]."
What Determines the Cost of a Cello?
Aside from the rare and unusual collectible cellos, the price is determined by "the age and quality of the wood, the amount of hand-workmanship, the attention to detail," Carol explains. "When you're working in the low end — which in cellos would be somewhere around $2,000 and up — what you can expect is an instrument that is going to be partially Chinese [made].
However, given the recent strides made in that country, that is not necessarily a bad thing.
"Once the cultural revolution ended, the Chinese makers were free to leave the country, and to really see how to make instruments," Ms. Johnson adds. "At the last Violin Society of America International Competitions in America, the Gold Medalists were Chinese makers."
She goes on to detail what you'll find on the lower end cellos.
"You can't expect to pay $3,000 for a cello, and say 'this is a handmade instrument.' It would just be a lie. You can say it's a shop-made instrument, and there's a lot of hand work done, but there's going to be some machine/assembly work. "Maybe for some of these instruments, they'll machine all the things that don't contribute to sound, like the scrolls, or the necks. But maybe they'll hand graduate the tops and backs. There will be some handwork in it. But it'll be, on some level, mass-produced."
Benefits of a Lower Priced Cello
If you are new to the instrument, you will probably choose a less expensive instrument for some very good reasons, besides just the cost.
"What happens with a new player — somebody who is maybe a little less experienced — is that they often prefer an instrument that practically 'plays itself,' Carol says. "That, when you put your bow across the strings, that sound 'pops out' right away. And you can often find that on a less expensive instrument."
What A Higher End Cello Offers
"When you start getting up into the $10,000 to $25,000 range, then you're going to get instruments in which the wood is specifically selected for certain patterns and body shapes," Carol points out. "For instance, they might use a Stradivarius, or 'Strad' pattern. They might use a pattern that gives them a higher arch and a fuller tone — based on that piece of wood. So they're paying attention to all this detail: how that wood sounds."
At that price point, in addition to the quality of the material, you're also seeing the benefit of the attention to detail in the workmanship. And the years of experience provided by master crafts people.
"All that carving is done by hand," Ms. Johnson confirms. "The neck is carved by hand; all the detail work is done. That's what you get when you pay that kind of money. And that should express itself, not only in the quality of the instrument, but in the quality of sound."
The Sound of a Fine Cello
Ironically, more expensive, finely crafted cellos are actually harder to play than the lower end models. Thus, it takes an accomplished cellist to appreciate the benefit of a high-end cello.
"The more expensive the instrument, the more you have to play," Carol says. "You have total control: you can play it soft as silk, or you can push it . . . If you've got a beautiful handmade instrument, and you put that bow to it, you can pull all the sounds you need from it. And then you can pull more! And that's what people pay more and more money for. That's why people go out and look for these old Italian instruments, and they'll pay $300,000 to $500,000 for them. And more — way more! And it's all to get that perfect tone."
In the end, the most important thing, when shopping for a cello to buy, is to find the right instrument for you. Price should be a factor, but not the only consideration in your decision.