While at first glance, the cello and the bass may look similar, there are plenty of differences between the two that range from size and tuning to the playing position and the sound that they produce. You can find out more about this below, and we also have a buyer’s guide for you that you can check it out here if you want some help in purchasing the perfect instrument.
Compared to the bass, the cello is an instrument that is lower in pitch and capable of producing deeper, warmer tones, which is why many consider it to be the instrument that resembles the human voice most closely. The melodic force that the cello produces can rival the violin.
The richer tones of the cello allow it to provide counterpoint melodies to the violin, and this versatility also lets it perform as an accompaniment to the violin. A full orchestra can have anywhere between 8 to 12 cellos.
The bass is the largest instrument in the orchestra’s string section, and it is lined up behind the cellos. For a very long time and in many well-known works, the bass played the role of doubling the cello part. As a transposing instrument, the bass is used to play the cello line an octave lower to add depth to the overall sound of a performance.
Still, the bass is not dependent on the cello, and it can also be used independently, as is the case with Rossini’s Duet for Cello and Bass in D-major, where the two instruments have their own independent parts. Other composers, such as Verdi, Beethoven, and Wagner, also used the bass independent of the cello in some of their works.
Both the cello and the bass have their role in an orchestra since the way that they’re used by each composer can help create unique works. They may look almost the same, but there are many important differences between these instruments.
You can’t go wrong picking any of the two, but if you want to learn more about the differences and similarities between the cello and the bass, then you might want to take a quick look below at our in-depth comparison.
Size and playing position
The first thing you’ll notice before you get a chance of playing any of these instruments will be their size. The bass and the cello are the largest instruments in the string family, but the difference in size between the two is quite substantial. The bass measures in at around 6 feet long, and it is the largest string instrument, while the cello is a bit smaller.
The body of a cello is much more standardized, and the string length varies only by about 5mm, and less than half an inch in every other dimension. For the bass, the size varies a great deal both in the length of the strings but also in bulk.
Both string instruments rest on the floor and are suspended by a metal endpin. The cello is played sitting down while the bass is generally played standing up or sitting on a tall stool.
How the two instruments are played is also quite different, in part due to their size differences. To play the cello, one needs to sit in a sturdy chain and have the neck of the instrument to the left of one’s head, with the C-string tuning peg next to the ear.
The musician needs to keep a straight pose and avoid slouching. Some cellists like to sit back for more back support, while others prefer to sit at the edge of the chair. The way you sit on the chair is up to you, what’s important is to keep your back straight.
The endpin allows you to rest the cello against your chest so that you can balance its lower half between your knees. You can use your knees to keep the cello steady while playing. Because you need to be able to reach all the strings, it is advised to keep the cello angled to your right so that the bow can have a wider range.
For the bass, the most common way of playing is by standing up. You need to stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and adjust the endpin so that the nut of the fingerboard is positioned at the same level as your eyebrows. Some musicians may have different opinions and preferences about where the nut should rest, so feel free to experiment with your teacher.
Lastly, you need to turn the bass a bit to the right and tilt it back so that the instrument rests against the left side of your hip.
Each instrument has a unique playing position that can influence your decision. As always, it is best to try playing both of them since this is the best way to tell what instrument will feel most comfortable to you.
Tuning and sound
Another important difference between the bass and the cello is in the tuning of each instrument. A bass is tuned in fourths (E, A, D, and G, from lowest to highest) while a cello is typically tuned in fifths (C, F, D, and A, from low to high). The low E of a bass is lower than the cello C.
It is possible to tune a bass in fifths and a cello in fourths, but this is rarely if ever done. A standard tuning provides much better results since it gives a wider range for the cello. The tuning system is also different since cellos come equipped with a wooden friction peg.
The friction peg is found at the top of the instrument, and it is used to wind the string. You’ll also find a fine-tuning lever attached to the tailpiece.
Things are a bit different on a bass since here the strings threads directly through the tailpiece and are then caught by the ball end. This instrument also has a larger and usually metal drum that is held in place by a worm gear tuning machine.
The sound that a cello creates is of a deeper and richer tone than the ones produced by both the viola and the violin. The bass, on the other hand, is capable of producing a much deeper sound than the cello. The former is very popular in orchestras, but the bass is more versatile since it is used in almost every form of Western music.
Bows and strings
The differences don’t lie just in the instruments, but also in the bows that accompany them. A bass bow is different from the one that’s used for the cello. For starters, bass bows are around 4 inches shorter, much stronger, and as much as three times the weight.
While cello bows are usually made of wood, bass bows are often made of carbon fiber, which is a more durable material that will last for longer. Wood bows wear out faster, and they can lose their curvature and spring with time.
Of course, you can find carbon bows for the cello on the market, but most musicians tend to stick with wood for this instrument since carbon can make it sound different, whereas, for bass, carbon doesn’t have this effect.
Since the bass has heavier strings and a stronger bow, this allows the musician to put more circulating energy into the strings without producing intonation problems. Thus, though the bass is not as efficient as the cello in circulating energy into sound, it ends up being much louder.
Which one to choose?
Even with all the information at your fingertips, choosing an instrument is still not easy since it is impossible to account for taste. Usually, it is recommended to get a firsthand experience with an instrument before you can decide if you like it over another.
The music style that you like to play or hear matters a lot as well since for people who enjoy jazz, the bass is a very good choice. Conversely, if you are the type of person that enjoys old classical music, the cello will give you more flexibility.
In modern genres such as electronic music, the bass is used more often than the cello, but both instruments can be used for fusion experiments and projects. Furthermore, the cello is often played in solitude or as an integral part of a large orchestra, while the bass is more fun to play in a band.
Thus, even though through the eyes of an amateur, the bass and the cello may look alike, there are big differences between the two that can influence your decision. In the end, choosing between the two has less to do with their differences but rather with what you and the instrument have in common.
Upright bass vs. cello materials
The two instruments are closely related and share common features like the ones mentioned above. What is the difference between a cello and a bass construction as far as the materials used are regarded then? Or is there any difference?
Cellos usually feature a carved wood construction, but you can also find models built with carbon fiber. This alternative material makes the instrument more suitable for outdoor use, given its strength and resistance to humidity and temperature changes.
Traditional cellos typically have maple sides, backs, and necks, as well as spruce tops. However, woods such as willow and poplar are also used for the sides and backs of these instruments. Laminated wood is usually used for the back and sides of budget cellos. Even if such cellos are less expensive, they are more durable than their carved wood counterparts.
The range of double bass materials is not different from the one used for the construction of cellos. The largest string instrument typically features a spruce top, maple neck, back, and ribs, as well as an ebony tailpiece and fingerboard. Laminated wood and carbon fiber are also used for the construction of double basses.
Therefore, the cello vs. double bass material-related information shows little to no difference between these two instruments.
Cello vs. bass – maintenance and storage
Each of the two instruments comes with unique features, whether they regard their size or the sounds produced, but there is little difference between cello and bass cleaning and storage methods. No matter which one you choose to study and purchase, keeping the instrument of choice in mint condition is mandatory if you want to achieve sonic beauty and use the instrument for a long time.
One of the things to keep in mind regardless of which of these instruments you own and play is related to the storage conditions. Significant temperature and humidity changes should be avoided, and the instrument should not be exposed to excessive heat, cold, high humidity, and dryness.
It is best to keep the cello and bass in a room where you have control over such conditions; otherwise, damages such as cracks might occur. These instruments are both very sensitive to humidity and temperature, so it is critical to store them correctly.
The recommended humidity for cellos is between 40-50%, and most cello cases include a hygrometer to help you monitor the humidity level. Even if the case you buy doesn’t come with one, the market offers many such items you can choose from.
Excessive dryness is also detrimental to these instruments, and if the air in the storage room is too dry, a humidifier should be used to keep the humidity at the recommended level.
From how you store the instrument to how you handle it, everything counts as far as its condition is regarded, so that’s why it is highly important to learn to handle it properly before, during, and after your performance and practice sessions.
There are some general rules that apply to all the instruments in the cello instrument family, which means that whether you want to play the cello or the bass, these tips will help you keep it in good condition.
Each time you take the bow out of the case, it is recommended to avoid touching the bow hair since oils from your skin can interfere with the way the rosin you use sticks to the bow, and thus they can affect the way it performs. Also, make sure you always hold the bow by the frog whenever you take it out of the instrument case.
Applying the right amount of rosin is essential when it comes to the sounds produced, no matter if you play the cello or the bass. On the one hand, too much rosin will not only feel sticky on the instrument’s strings but will also produce uneven sounds.
Plus, the excess rosin will end up on the body of the instrument and its strings. On the other hand, if you don’t apply enough rosin, the bow will slip on the strings, and you can only imagine what this can lead to.
Whether you play the bass or the cello, try to hold it by the neck when you need to handle it. Plus, pick up the basses and cellos by the C-bout corner and not the F-holes. Touching the varnish should also be avoided, and the instrument should not be leaned against a wall or anything that could damage any of its parts. A stand is recommended instead, as it will prevent the instrument from slipping and falling.
Once you’re done playing, make sure to clean the instrument. Use a soft cloth to remove the excess rosin from the body of the cello or bass and its strings. Plus, wipe the rosin dust from the bow as well. If not removed, the rosin can damage the bass or cello finish and affect the way the strings perform.
When placing the instrument in the case, it is recommended to adjust or remove the endpin and store it with the bridge side up in order to prevent the bridge from being strained. The way you store and transport the cello or bass holds great importance regarding the way the instrument performs and how much it lasts.
Before embarking on the cello or bass journey, it is best to go through musical pieces featuring these instruments and get acquainted with the sounds of each of them. Having a direct physical experience with both of them should also help you see which one feels more comfortable.
However, if you have no experience in playing a string instrument, you might find both of them to be uncomfortable until your body gets used to the moves playing them requires. Make sure to check out the cello vs. upright bass repertoire and learn more about their compatibility with the music you want to play.
No matter which one you choose to study, perseverance is key. Being committed, practicing on a regular basis, and having a good teacher will eventually help you experience the satisfaction these instruments can lead to when your skillful moves and their beauty work together to create sonic enchantment.