In my days of freelancing in Chicago, one of my more entertaining gigs was playing in a concert with a band called The Live Debate. I loaded myself onto the L to get to rehearsal, and rode the Green Line to its very last stop. It was a dark, cold winter evening.
I braced myself against the Chicago wind as I trudged to a giant dilapidated warehouse, its repositories no longer needed to store goods, instead divided into small rooms for rent.
I made my way to the front doors and struggled in, immediately deafened by the cacophony of no less than twenty death metal bands practicing simultaneously. Lights flickered along the dimly lit cement halls of the warehouse. Electric guitars, bassi, drums, and screaming singers reverberated throughout the building, creating one of the most scary environments I’d ever experienced.
I originally planned on having a microphone primitively amplify my cello for the show, but it was clear that would not be enough for the rehearsal, let alone the concert. Their bass player Jody told me he had an electric cello kicking around at home and encouraged me to give it a try.
The morning of the concert Jody swung by my apartment and dropped off the electric cello. It was quite small and looked like an assembled bass clarinet stuffed into a black soft case. I pulled the dense and heavy instrument out of the covers, paired one of my bows with it, and got down to business.
As a cellist, I did not anticipate the electric cello being so difficult to commandeer. Not having the usual shape of the acoustic cello in front of me was disorienting. My entire tactile sense of where I am on the fingerboard is based on where the thumb and fingers of the left hand hang out in fourth position.
This particular model of electric cello was devoid of rib projections and knee supports. I was playing on what basically amounted to a stick and more lost than a toddler on the trading floor of the New York Stock Exchange.
Since the electric cello had no resonant body to hide behind, I felt very awkward and exposed. I tried to compensate by instinctively altering my playing posture, shifting my body to be at an angle with the cello. With my feet smashed together like this, I looked like a mermaid splashing in the sea.
Even more disturbing was the sound that was coming out of the instrument — a faint buzzing noise like I was trapped in the middle of a bee hive. You can’t hear much more than a bit of raspy whisper from the electric cello unless it’s connected to an amplification system or headphones.
It was uncomfortable and difficult compared to my beloved acoustic cello. I was hours away from my debut on electric cello with The Live Debate.
An expert’s opinion on the electric cello
I asked my colleague and fellow cellist Jack Craft about his feelings towards electric celli. Jack is equally at home playing in the symphony hall as well as massive festival stages. A member of the New Orleans-based band Sweet Crude and the Electric Yat String Quartet, he has extensive experience and knowledge about electric celli as well as the world of electrically amplifying acoustic cello.
“They use a piezo pickup system without a resonant body, so all you get is the toothiest sound,” Jack said. “Piezo works really well on violin because they don’t rely as much on the acoustic power ringing from the back of the instrument.”
Identified by French physicists Jacques and Pierre Curie in 1880, piezoelectricity is electric charges that accumulate in certain solid materials when subjected to mechanical stress like bowing or plucking a string. By applying different pressures to the metal strings, a pickup that’s typically mounted in the bridge of the electric cello communicates those signals to an onboard preamp. From there, the player can add effects to the sound like distortion or wah, and monitor their sound with headphones or connect to an amplifier.
It is with piezoelectricity that Marie and Pierre Curie went on to discover the elements polonium and radium in 1898 and today we start our gas stoves with it to make dinner and light cigarettes at break and intermission.
There are quite a few companies these days that make electric celli. The prices for them range from as little as $400 for a low quality instrument to about $5000 for ones fabricated from solid European maple. Some varieties can come fretted and have five or six strings for added ease in playing on stage.
The electric cello can also easily be played standing up so the cellist is able to completely express themselves and the music.
Still, Jack said, electric cello doesn’t sound the greatest in comparison to electric violin or electric guitar and consequently has not gained the ubiquity or popularity of its sisters.
But do you need an electric cello?
Before you rush out and plunk down a few thousand dollars on an electric cello, first figure out how you will use it when you are practicing or performing.
If you needed to lay down some bass notes and occasional sprinkles of harmony to an amplified band’s sound, an electric cello could be a good choice. The electric cello is rugged and can stand up to the vigors and excitement of concertizing with an amplified band.
“The main advantage I see in electric celli is the relatively small size of it,” Jack says. “Because it is just a slab of wood and doesn't rely on a large resonating body to produce sound, an electric cello is simply the business part of the instrument and no party.”
The downside? You also lose the very essence of the cello. Hundreds of years of fine tuning by expert luthiers has resulted in a beautiful and complex sound that an electric cello can’t come close to replicating.
“Their lack of resonance [makes it] hard for me to feel all the things that make the cello fun,” Jack added.
I’ve played in so many situations where mist, blinding sunlight, or drunk guests pose significant threats to my instruments — having a sturdier cello would be welcome, especially in my home base of New Orleans. But if you want to be heard at your gigs, you’re going to be lugging around some type of amplification system in addition to the electric cello.
If you really needed to practice for a competition or audition, an electric cello paired with headphones on the road probably would not be an acceptable substitute for that caliber of playing. You’d be better off borrowing or renting a student instrument in those unfavorable situations.
However, if you have the cash to spare and a need for frequently amplifying your “cellistic” stylings, an electric cello could be fun for the cellist that has everything.
“I don’t have an electric cello at the moment but I would consider getting one at some point. I love new toys!” Jack said. “They don’t usually sound good to my ear, but technology is always improving and I bet I’ll really like one someday.”
As for now, Jack said, “I put gaff tape over the f-holes.” He uses a David Gage Realist pickup with a carbon fiber Luis and Clark cello. By covering the cutouts with tape, he can better control what gets picked up for the mix and cut down on feedback which is an ever present issue with amplification.
“At an event with some time and extra channels I’ll add a DPA 4099 for the front of house sound,” he added, “and keep the pickup just for the monitors.”
I’ve been experimenting with amplifying my acoustic cello and I'm pleased with the results. I use a David Gage SoundClip, Roland Cube, and Boss RC-1 Station Looper to transform myself into a one-woman show.
My advice? I’d skip getting an electric cello and save for one of those rugged carbon fiber celli. Nothing can beat their reliability in different weather situations and ability to make a decent sound, plugged in or not. As a lifelong cellist, the burden of dragging around the acoustic instrument doesn’t faze me anymore — even when I have to pay double for my plane tickets.
My first — and only — performance on the electric cello
Back in Chicago, I would have spent my time before the show warming up and frantically practicing the trickier passages for the concert. But the electric cello in the noisy club was like a small child screaming in a wind tunnel.
My warmup and frantic practicing efforts were fruitless. Unable to hear anything, I switched tactics. I prepared for the show by eating french fries and walking around the block.
In the end, the concert went well. The audience was supportive and appreciative. Usher himself saw our cover of “Climax” and loved it, even mentioning the performance on Twitter.
My first and only time ever playing on an electric cello was over. In my professional experience since then, it seems to be easiest for all to attach a simple pickup to an acoustic instrument.
However, the electric cello does have a place in the performance world, delighting audiences with its unusual appearance and potentially loud amplified sound. Hopefully my next encounter will be just as exciting!
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