History, Makers, Construction, and the Bow

image of stringed instruments of violin family on top of a harpsichord

"Where gripinge grefes the hart wounde,,,And doleful dumps the mynde oppresse, There music with her silver sound...With spede is wont to send redresse." From A Song to the Lute in Musicke by Thomas Percy


Many people think that the cello, correctly called the violoncello, descended from the viols, but this simply isn't true. It actually originated in the 16th century as a member of the violin family. While the construction of the various violins used features of other instruments available at that time, such as viols and rebecs, violins are a separate family of instruments.

The cello has changed in size over the past several centuries, but otherwise it is basically the same. Stradivari was the violin maker who standardized the size of the modern cello. Until the time of his creations, celli often reached 80 cm in length, which made it very clumsy to play. In 1707 he shortened the size to 75 cm.


Some of the earliest makers, luthiers, were Amati, de Salo, and Maggini. These men lived long before Stradivari's time, so their instruments are somewhat different than his. Some of the instruments were elaborately carved and decorated, one such being "The King." Created by Amati for Charles IX of France, it features paintings of the arms, devices, and mottoes of the king. On the back is the crown and the outline of the coat of arms.

Many people believe that the early makers of string instruments, celli included, were single people, but they were actually families. Skills were passed from generation to generation. Nicolo is perceived as the best luthier of the Amati family, and Antonio Stradivari was one of his best students. He later became the greatest maker of violins and celli.

There have been many luthiers throughout the years, too numerous too mention, but there are also several excellent modern makers. Experiments have been conducted to compare the sounds of an old instrument with a modern one. Although this is very subjective, listeners couldn't tell the difference between them.

open body of a cello

Inside A Cello


I am sure that the reader is aware that a cello is made primarily of wood, usually maple, spruce, or pine. European woods are preferred, as they are less "dense" than American woods.

The visible parts of the cello include the top, back, sides, neck, scroll, pegs, fingerboard, tailpiece, end pin, strings, bridge, mute, and fine tuners. There are also internal parts, some of which can be seen in the photo above.

The front and back of most celli are constructed of 2 pieces of wood for each, as it is rare to find a suitable piece of wood large enough to con- struct a cello in one piece. The top, or the belly, is graded in thickness from 3/16" to 9/64". The sides, or ribs, are very thin, and are made of six strips of wood glued to the front and the back. Around the front edge is a very narrow strip of wood called the purfling, which serves two pur- poses: first, to protect the edges from cracking, and second, for decoration. The purfling fits into a narrow groove carved into the top of the cello. Not easily visible is the button, which is a circular piece of wood that serves to give strength to the joint between the neck and the back. The reader has probably noticed the two long holes on the belly. These are called F holes as they are in the shape of an F. These holes allow the sound to get out of the inside of the cello.

Inside the cello are strips of pine, 12 in all, that are glued to the edges of the ribs to hold the top and bottom together. When the cello is complete, a small cylindrical piece of wood, simi- lar to a dowel, is put in place. This is called the sound post, and its purpose is to transfer sound from the top to the back of the cello. It must be placed in just the right place for optimum sound to be produced.

Lastly, we see the fittings. One of the most obvious is the bridge, a curved piece of maple which is notched to keep the strings separated, and also keeps the strings above the fingerboard. The tailpiece is usually made of ebony, as are the pegs and fingerboard, and the lower ends of the strings attach to it. At the very bottom of the cello is the plug, where the end pin is inserted, as well as gut to hold the tailpiece on. The end pin rests on the floor to hold the instrument up for the player. Some are removable, but most are stored inside the cello when not in use. On the top of the cello we find the scroll, peg box, pegs, and neck. Except for the pegs, the previous items are carved from one piece of wood. Strings are wrapped around pegs, which tighten or loosen the strings. At the top of the fingerboard is the nut. A small piece of ebony, it separates the strings at the top of the instrument.

an assortment of bows


So far we have discussed the cello itself, but how, the reader might ask, is the sound produced? Unless pizzicato is being used, the cello, or any other instrument of the violin family, is mute. Another device must be used so that sound can be heard. This device is called the bow.

The bow was well-known throughout much of the world among primitive cultures, but was not introduced to Europe until approximately the 11th century. At this time, bows were very basic, with lots of variations. The stick curvature was convex, the opposite of todayís bows, and resembled an archery bow. There was also no way to tighten the hair.

There were no major changes made to the bow until sometime in the mid to late 17th century, well after the violin was invented. At this time frogs were added to adjust hair tension, and button and screw devices were also developed.

During the 1700ís, woods commonly used to make bows were iron wood and snakewood. Today most bows are made from pernambuco, imported from Brazil.

As I mentioned earlier, the curvature of the bow was convex, and remained that way until the late 18th century. At that time, an Italian violinist and composer named Viotti arrived in Paris, and befriended the Tourte family. Between them, they arrived at a new design, which has become the standard for modern bows. Because musical performances were moving away from the courts and salons to larger music halls, more sonority, power, and projection were needed. The Tourte bow was able to do this. Instruments of the violin family were now able to project and sustain a wider variety of dynamics, and articulation became easier.

It was Francois Xavier Tourte, the greatest member of the Tourte family, who chose pernambuco as the wood of choice for bows. This wood was known to combine the best of strength and elasicity to make bows. He also devised the proper measurements of the bow.

One of the most commonly asked questions about a stringed instrument is, "Is the hair really made from horse hair?" The answer is very simple; yes, it is. Does the type of horse matter? The color? Yes it does. The hair is taken from tails of Siberian, Mongolian, Manchurian, Polish, and Argentinian horses, but Siberian is the most favored. Horse hair from animals in northern climates is generally stronger than those of most other climates. Male hair is preferred over females' as female hair isnít as clean. It has been sprayed with urine. White hair is usually finer in texture, and is preferred for violins and violas. Some cellists and bassists prefer a darker hair, as they believe it "grabs" better. Straight hair is valued over any other hair, as it is free of irregularities that can cause scratchy sounds.

Most horse hair is collected from slaughterhouses; seldom is it cut from a live animal. The hair is first cleaned with a mild soap, and then it is dressed; that is, the ends are evened up, so that all hairs are the same length. The dressers are very picky about the hair they select, and this is a very important process. Hanks are checked for straightness, strength, and consistency. Hairs with split ends will snap easily, and as I mentioned above, irregularities will affect the sound. Quite often the process is repeated when the hair is in the bow makers shops.

The choice of hair is very subjective. Some players like a lot of "bite," while others prefer it to be a little more slick. If there is too much oil, the hair wonít take rosin well. If there is not enough, the hair will dry up and snap very quickly.

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