While the cello has been around for hundreds of years, the electric cello is a relatively recent development. However, given the technological strides in sound and playability, an electric cello is often chosen by a variety of cellists, for various reasons.
Electric Cellos Are Affordable
While the cost of a good quality acoustic cello can range in price from $2,000 to hundreds of thousands of dollars (or even millions), most electric cellos are priced in the $1,500 to $4,000 range.* Even when you include an amplifier and accessories, electric cellos are generally lower priced than acoustic models.
"Normally, even a high-end electric cello is still going to be much less expensive [than an acoustic]," agrees Brian Kenny, electric cello expert at Johnson String Instruments. "So it's attractive from a very practical standpoint."
Electrics Travel Well
"Any decently-made acoustic cello is going to be delicate regarding any sort of shocks or impacts. And because of the wood, it's affected quite a bit by temperature changes," Brian explains. "An electric cello doesn't really have any of those problems. Even if it's made out of wood, it's a solid block of wood that is much less delicate, much less likely to be broken, less likely to be subject to any seasonable problems regarding tuning, or cracks or seams."
There are additional practical considerations as well. "Often, people who are looking for electric instruments are playing in clubs, basements, they're playing outside; they're playing in a lot of situations where they might be hesitant to bring an expensive acoustic instrument," Brian continues.
Taking an electric cello on the road also has a plus side. "While they're not usually any lighter than a [standard] cello, they have advantages," says Brian. "They can be built in such a way that they're much thinner, or so that they're collapsible. They're often easier to transport, and take up much less space."
Electric Cellos Offer Unique Sound Qualities
What about the most important factor of all — the sound? Actually, there are several ways in which an electric cello has a leg up on it's acoustic cousin. The first has to do with playing at any sort of volume.
As many musicians have experienced, micing an acoustic instrument is fraught with challenges, one of the most annoying of which is the dreaded feedback: those high squealing or low rumbling notes that explode out of the speakers. Electric cellos pretty much cure that problem.
"When you're planning on performing at high volume, a solid body electric cello definitely has the advantage," Brian affirms, "because there's really no significant volume [from the instrument itself], or hollow chamber, producing a lot of tones. You minimize — if not just completely eliminate — a problem with feedback."
Delivering a Strong Signal
"You get such a punchy, strong signal from a solid body electric instrument, that it's much more effective when trying to process your sound," Brian points out. "If you're using a lot of effects, or you're putting it into a computer where people are going to be doing a lot of different things," an electric cello performs better. "You get a signal that's much more malleable, and something that you can really do more with. So it's popular for live performances, but also for recording situations."
So whether you're simply trying to produce a consistently punchy track on a recording, or you plan to add effects such as echo, wah wah, or distortion, an electric cello will be your best bet.
Getting a "Classic" Cello Tone
You probably won't see a philharmonic with an electric cellist. In fact, "You'd be hard-pressed to find an orchestra that would allow you to play one on stage," says Brian. "A lot of classical players are buying them, but they're buying them either because they're also playing jazz or rock, or they're buying them as practice instruments."
However, the difference may not be as great as you think, especially for certain models. "The base sound of Yamaha electric cellos is supposed to be a warm, acoustic tone, in particular with the 110 and the 210 [models]. And in fact the 210 and the 110 do have a small, hollow chamber built in. It's relatively inert, so it doesn't contribute to any problems with feedback, but it does produce a little extra 'acoustic-like' warmth.
"The idea is really to take a nice, acoustic-sounding tone as the base. Then you can work with that however you want. But they want to be able to please people who are looking for that kind of tone."
Who Uses an Electric Cello?
People buy electric cellos "mostly to play other types of music besides classical: jazz, rock, improv," Brian explains. "And also as a practice instrument, or a travel instrument. When you're not necessarily performing, but you need to keep your chops up."
The physical appearance can play a role, too. "Just from a purely aesthetic point of view, some people like the appearance of unconventional instruments," says Brian. "So you have these things which are 'sticks,' or that have unusual colors to them, are cut out in interesting shapes, that lack the body, so they're kind of eye-catching."
He's referring to the NS Electric Cello models, which lack a standard cello body at all, and are literally a 'stick' with strings. You can play them sitting down, or walk around stage with the cello on a strap.
Does an Electric Cello Feel Different?
"They're very similar [to acoustic cellos]," states Brian. "In fact the Yamaha cellos, in particular, have been designed to be both a performance instrument and a practice instrument. They're trying to make it so that for the people playing them, there's not a huge adjustment, going back and forth.
"The resistance that you should feel from the strings, the feel and arching and angle of the fingerboard, the thickness of the strings, all should feel the same. Yamaha has even gone so far as to build attachments which allow the electric cello to mimic the depth and thickness of an electric cello. Like a brace that rests against your chest, an angled bout that attaches up at the top so that if your used to using that as a guide for upper positions, knee braces, etc. So the playability is very similar. It would really only vary in the same degree that any one cello varies from another."
How to Choose an Amplifier
In many situations, an electric cello player will run through the main sound system during a performance. However, for practicing at home, and for live situations where a sound system is not provided, an amplifiers is needed.
Amplifiers for electric cellos basically fall into two camps. The first is "full feature" models, which might include a number of features ("onboard effects, like a flanger, a phaser, and chorus, plus some basic amplifier modeling and distortion). For this purpose, Johnson carries Roland Cube amps.
The second type is "a high-end, acoustic amplifier. It doesn't have a lot of those kind of effects, just a basic reverb," Brian says, "but it's going to give you a cleaner tone. So if you're looking to get as acoustic a tone as you can, the Fishman is a good bet.
With any amplifier, the most important thing is to try it out various environments, and find out which works best for you.
* A note of caution: it is possible to go online, or to a department store, and purchase an electric cello for as low as five hundred dollars. If you do so, you will simply be throwing away that money for no reason. The intonation problems will be severe, not to mention the shoddy construction and poor sound quality.