I Sing the Cello Electric

For the past year or so, my electric cello has been languishing, in its case in the closet, surrounded by its amp and other accessories. Yesterday I had an impulse to get it out and start using it again.

In spite of the obvious major similarities, it’s a very different instrument from the acoustic! And not just visually, but as an instrument. Visually, it’s a plank. There’s no body. And the headstock is a flying-V design, with all of the tuning gears on one side. They’re black — very classy — but yet it’s clear at a glance that we’ve left the Italian Renaissance far behind.

It’s a five-string cello, with a high E string. I once phoned Ifshin Violins in El Cerrito and said, “I need to buy a cello E string,” and the person said, “There’s no such thing as a cello E string.” Ah, but they were wrong. You can also buy a low F string, if you want to play in the bass register. My cello came with a second nut, grooved for the lower string set (F-C-G-D-A), but after trying it out for an hour I decided never to mess with it again. It would be useful in a band with no bass, but psychologically the F string caused the whole instrument to feel thick, heavy, and balky. Whereas with a high E, it feels light. It’s a melody instrument.

If you’re a cellist, you’ll appreciate the fact that an electric cello has no wolf. The wolf is the resonant tone of the instrument’s body, usually an F or F# with a full-sized instrument. The wolf note tends to be unstable and hard to manage.

An electric cello lacks some of the dynamic range of the acoustic. There’s no point in digging in with the bow, because the instrument is not going to respond. So a lighter type of bowing works well. If you need to be louder, turn up the amp.

In an acoustic cello, the body absorbs some of the physical energy in the vibrating strings. That’s what it’s for! As a result, open strings that are allowed to ring die out more quickly on an acoustic cello than on an electric. The electric tends to produce, unless you’re careful, a sort of haze of ringing from the strings you’re not playing. The E string, in particular. And because it’s tuned in equal temperament, the E string doesn’t produce a sweet-sounding major third above the C string — it’s a somewhat jangly tempered major third.

Because there’s no body to get in the way, you can play clear up the neck without switching over to thumb position. So you have more fingering options. I had it built with inlaid position dots between the A and E strings. Why not? If you’re going to improvise in the high register, the dots will help you play in tune. I don’t actually understand why ordinary cellos don’t have this kind of inlay; just silly macho tradition, I suppose. It would be cheating.

With a five-string setup, the bow angles are entirely different. The C string is at a lower angle than you’re used to on a four-string cello, and the E string is at a higher angle. It took me a couple of months after I started using this instrument to be able to bow one string reliably. Some of the string-skipping exercises in the Schroeder Etudes books were very helpful.

The cello, which was built by Eric Jensen, has a separate pickup for each string. The signal routing setup is a little weird, but it’s very functional. I bring each string into a separate channel on a little Mackie mixer, and then I EQ them differently. The two low strings get a little bass boost, for fullness and depth. The two high strings, conversely, get a little bass cut. This is because the attack of the bow, when you change bow direction, causes a low-frequency thump. You don’t notice this on an acoustic cello, maybe because the body absorbs it, but with an E string the thump is well below the register of the notes you’re playing, so it stands out. A little EQ and the problem is solved.

The other thing I’m noticing, and I don’t remember noticing it so much before, is that in the high register the scrape of the bow across the string is rather loud. This is part of the tone of any stringed instrument. If you listen to a violinist playing high notes, the scrape is quite prominent. But we don’t normally notice it. It fades into the background psycho-acoustically, because it conveys no musical information. With an electric cello, this scraping sound doesn’t seem to blend with the tone quite as well. But right now, I’m listening to the instrument unaccompanied. Put it in a band with drums and you’ll never hear the scraping!

I bought this instrument about six years ago, because I knew I never again wanted to play acoustic cello in a band with drums. It just doesn’t work. You can’t compete in volume, no matter what you do. Miking the cello doesn’t actually help, because every note on the kick drum causes the cello’s body to vibrate. As a result, the mic is amplifying the drums right along with the cello! Unless you’ve got a professional sound reinforcement technician who can deploy top-flight gear, don’t even think about it.

At the moment I have no special prospects for a band to sit in with. But I’m liking the idea that I’ll be ready.

A couple of weeks ago I heard the Hot Club of San Francisco, with Evan Price on violin. He’s an inspiring soloist. I think maybe I need to buy some Stephane Grappelli CDs.

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