Buying your first cello – whether for your child or yourself – is a tricky business. Twenty years ago the problem was the distinct lack of choice in the budget price range. Nowadays there are more budget cello brands than you can shake a stick at, each claiming to sound like an instrument worth a great deal more than its retail price. Add to this the fact that the average buyer’s concept of budget prices varies a great deal and the price of a single brand and model can vary by as much as £150 and you’ve entered a minefield. After years of assisting my beginner students with the purchase of their first instrument, I have some valuable advice to share with players, parents and teachers.

If you have a set budget for buying a cello you might be surprised (and annoyed) to find out that the cost rarely ends with the purchase of the instrument. I’m not talking about long-term costs such as string replacements, instrument maintenance and bow re-hairs either. The reason basic student instruments cost so little is generally because they cost very little to make. This means that corners are cut and production values leave much to be desired. I have never seen a brand new instrument in the lowest price range (up to £400) that didn’t need several crucial adjustments to get it into a playable state, often costing more than the instrument itself. To illustrate this point, here’s a case study of one of my students, who bought herself a cello before looking for a teacher.

She had wanted to take cello lessons for years, and had sensibly waited until her job allowed her the financial and time flexibility before buying an instrument and committing to lessons. Given how long she had waited for this opportunity and how much she wanted it, she knew it was more than a passing fancy and decided that she might as well buy a cello rather than rent one. She was pleasantly surprised when she went online to find out how little she could have her very own cello for. What was more, delivery was guaranteed the day after she paid for it, and only cost an additional £5. That was settled then: she had found a cello advertised as “perfect for beginner to advanced players” which came with a “reliable brazilwood bow” and a lightweight hard case apparently worth considerably more when sold as a separate unit – all for an amazing £175.

Her cello arrived the following day as promised, but she was a little taken aback when she opened the case for the first time: it didn’t look much like any cello she had ever seen because the instrument was shipped with the bridge flat and the retailers had failed to inform her at any time during her transaction that they were going to do this. Well, it was a very reasonable price after all, so she didn’t rush to the phone to complain about it. Instead she rummaged through the packaging to see whether any instructions had been included for getting the cello into a playable state. Sure enough, she found a single sheet explaining that the cello was shipped this way to prevent damage and assuring her that setting up the bridge was a very simple matter of aligning the feet with the nicks in the F holes and tightening the strings using the tuning pegs until there was sufficient pressure to keep it in place.

Things only went downhill from there. She stood the bridge up and began attempting to tighten the strings as directed. This was far from easy: the pegs kept slipping and the bridge wouldn’t stay put. Eventually she managed to tighten two out of the four strings enough to keep the bridge in place, but it was now far from aligned with the nicks in the F holes. When she tried tuning the third string, it snapped and one of the tightened strings unravelled as the peg jumped out again. The bridge collapsed leaving a fairly large scratch on the cello. At this point she decided that this was clearly not a job for a novice regardless of how easy the instructions insisted it was.

When she rang me up to discuss lessons she told me all about her flat-pack cello and my heart sank: I was familiar with the brand and she was not the first of my students to make this nightmarish purchase. I advised her to bring the cello to me as soon as possible so that I could have a look and see whether it could be set up or sent back to the retailer. By the time she brought it to me the soundpost had fallen and the instrument was so far from playable I suggested that she send it back and get a refund or replacement. We called the shop then and there, but were told that since she had already set it up and damaged it in the process the money-back guarantee was now void. Despite a heated conversation between me and various employees there was no persuading them to offer even a reduced refund.

So it was off to my trusty luthier to see what he could do to make this problematic piece of plywood resemble a cello. After working his magic and keeping costs as low as he could, my student had a cello she could use for taking lessons and practise on. These were the essential adjustments and repairs:

Bridge: refit feet; adjust bridge height and thickness – £25

Topnut: re-shape to correct string height, intonation and avoid premature string breakages – £15

A string: replace – £10

Soundpost: refit – £15

Saddle (ebony bottom nut): refit – £20

Tuning pegs: improve fitting – £20

Additional improvements were made, which might not have been essential but made the instrument considerably less unpleasant to play and listen to. If they hadn’t been done at this time, they would certainly have become necessary at a later date. They were as follows:

Fingerboard: shoot and re-ebonise – £50

Strings: replace D, G and C with D’Addario Prelude – £35

Fill and touch-in scratch on top – £10

So, another £200 later she had spent a total of £375 on a laminated wood (i.e. plywood) cello with a resale value of no more than 60% of the original purchase price. Given the cello’s serious limitations she would most likely be considering an upgrade within three years. She also found herself needing a better bow after only six months of lessons. The bow included in the outfit was best described as disposable: it shed its hair at a staggering rate and looked more like a weapon when tightened. Add another £150 to the bill. At least the new bow would be suitable for a lot longer than the cello. Had she known this could happen, she would have rented a cello after all, or bought a much better quality cello to begin with.

The above list of repairs and adjustments is very typical for cellos at the lowest end of the price scale. What about more expensive student instruments – do they offer better value for money? I’m afraid the answer to that question is a bit fuzzy. It depends on where you buy the instrument from (i.e. Ebay, other online outlets, musical instrument superstores or specialist musical instrument shops or workshops) and also on what level of instrument it claims to be. Prices will vary according to where you buy the instrument from as will its playability. The lowest prices are often found on Ebay, where there are literally hundreds of musical instrument retailers. The majority of these will not sell you a professionally set up cello and are likely to ship with the bridge flat. This is not necessarily a problem, so long as you find a luthier to perform a basic setup at least which will cost in the region of £50. It is also imperative that you know what you are buying before making an online purchase. The following tips should help you to make a more informed decision:

§  Do your research and ask for professional opinions from cello teachers on whichever brand you’re thinking of buying. The same applies to any other online seller or music superstore.

§  Do not let yourself be persuaded to set up a cello yourself no matter how easy the salesperson or website tells you it is. It really is a job for a professional and is most likely to lead to a damaged instrument when attempted by an amateur.

§  Smaller specialist stringed instrument retailers tend to be more expensive, but also offer the benefit of a workshop and trained in-house luthier who will set the instrument up to the buyer’s specifications. A beginner will not have any idea of how they wish their instrument to be set up, but a teacher, professional player or advanced amateur will be able to make informed recommendations.

§  If the instrument is in the lowest price bracket, check to see who else stocks it. Beware of bargain basement outlets whose emphasis is on their incredibly low prices rather than their expertise in the field of musical instruments (which is normally non-existent). These sellers simply import the very cheapest instruments China has to offer which reputable resellers won’t touch.

§  Beware of the following sales pitches when the price is below £250:

o    “Worth considerably more” (often a much higher RRP is quoted: a quick Google search will show the same make of instrument with varying price tags but nothing approaching the alleged RRP)

o    “Ideal for beginners and advanced players” (ask any advanced or professional player if they’d touch one of these cellos with a barge pole…)

o    “Beautifully finished” (unless you consider a chunk of wood for a bridge, a poorly cut topnut, a cheap plastic tailpiece with fine-tuners that don’t turn properly and a wonky fingerboard to be beautiful)

o    “Ebonised fingerboard and tuning pegs” (this means the wood used for these parts is something inferior to and much softer than ebony stained black to look like ebony)

From my experience, it is cellos in the mid price range that are the most dependable. They all require a few minor tweaks, but nothing like the catalogue of errors that come with the cheapest cellos. Then we have the “deluxe” models: always considerably more expensive than the mid range, generally more impressive to look at, but all too often no better in genuine quality than the mid range. Makers have tricks to make average instruments appear superior: the most common one being artificially created flame. In case you’re wondering, flame is the pattern found in maple, the wood used for the back and sides of stringed instruments. The better quality the maple, the more densely flames the back and sides will be. However, flame can be created with varnish, making plain wood look spectacular to the untrained eye. Other tricks include adding shiny bells and whistles to the pegs, end button and spike to make the cello look posh. These additions make no difference whatsoever to the quality or value of the instrument and often drive the price up exponentially. This is not true of all student instruments in the upper price range, so if you’re considering splashing out on a good cello be sure to have an advisor other than the salesperson on hand.

So there it is: the veritable minefield that is cello buying. These are the main points to remember: do your research, get advice from a professional, and beware of being a fool for a bargain. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is!

Did you find this post useful? Please consider making a donation.

© D C Cello Studio 2011

Order or download my latest electronica-cello feast, Cellotronics

Advertisements

14 thoughts on “The Real Cost of Budget Cellos

  1. Hear, hear! A dire warning indeed! If anything the post understates the cost of”improvements”.

    They can also include:
    1. A complete new set of strings £50 to £100 (not to mention possible spares). As the post implies D’Adario Prelude or equivalent is about the mimimum worthwhile standard.
    2. A new bridge (I had to) £50.
    3. A new tailpiece 4-6 months on say £30.

    Necessary accessories include:
    1. A chair or stool approx £20 upwards – look for one with ample easy adjustment. It matters. One that looks like furnature costs generally £100 up and won’t have height adjustment at that price.
    2. A music stand say £7 upwards. £15 buys a partly sturdier stand an (excuse the capitals)TWENTY POUNDS WILL BUY A STURDY ORCHESTRA STAND. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
    3. A cello stand. Againn a sturdy stand with for example a one inch tubular frame is much better and safer than a flimsy one. A bow holder is a good bonus. Cost – flimsy stand say £7 up, sturdy stand say £30 up.
    4. An endstop for the spike. Good news one of the cheapest the Surestop (not the dearer Black Hole which is OK) at less than £10 including postage ( as do the other prices) or the six hole wooden anchor at about £15 (if you have chair legs or similar to attach it to).
    4. Oh and music – whatever takes your fancy and you can afford and your teacher requires or allows.

    Don’t be put off. It’s all worthwhile even for duffers like me, but do have a realistic budget.

    Finally I have to declare an interest as a student of the author of the post, who has, in my view. earned all our admiration and gratitude for her fine efforts.

    1. Addendum

      Before buying by mail order or over the internet it is essential both to read and to understand clearly the seller’s returns policy.

      I had deliberately bought the cello referred to above with an option to return for a full refund within 14 days and have found that the supplier has made a prompt and willing refund on other items.

      However many suppliers allow only the 7 days required by the Distance Selling Regulations. Others purport to require goods to be returned unused or even unopened. That requirement is according to the Office of fair Trading (OFT) unlawful but it is nvertheless a severe warning of potential trouble. The Regulations are complex but easily found on the OFT’s website. There are also commentaries for traders and others including lay people written in straightforward language. They are well worth reading and include amongst other things a clear indication that buyers should be able to open and test goods before they are finally committed (See particularly OFT Leaflet 698).

      1. I am also a cellist with a hiotrsy of surgical repair of large rotator cuff tear on my right shoulder. I now have the same situation on the left side. I can’t practice because I can not lift my elbow away from my body on left side. It is depressing, and I know that I have a long road to recovery. On the positive side, the right shoulder is better than it has been in years. Hope for the same on the left!

    2. What special paint and fiisnh should I use to paint a cello?As an artist and a musician, I am thinking of buying another cheap cello in addition to my main cello that I use for classical music. I hope to buy a relatively cheap cello to use for rock and insert a pickup into it. To add flair to it, I am thinking of possibly painting the cello with vibrant colors to make it stand out.Here’s the problem: What kind of paint do I use? I don’t want the pain to damage the underlying varnish originally on the cello, and I don’t want the paint to be scratchy of flaky. I want the paint to be completely permanent, and somehow be covered with some fiisnh/varnish to smooth everything out.So what I basically asking for is what type of paint should I use that won’t damage the cello, and what fiisnhed or gloss can I use too? If anyone has experience in painting such a thing, if they could let me know how they primed’ the cello for the paint, and any special techniques for doing something like this. Thanks!This is your standard acoustic cello made from good wood. This is not electric or anything of the sort.

  2. Great post! I’ve seen a lot of my teacher’s students end up with some horrible cellos which are bad enough that even fixed up by the luthier they aren’t adequate. I was lucky when I decided to rent mine that they had none of their “student model” cellos in and there was in fact a wait list. I went with the one “step-up” model they had and am very grateful to have done so. I also got the rental shop’s maintenance plan — it’s $5 a month and if I need anything (including bow rehairs) I only have to pay 10% or $5 for the service, whichever is greater (ie. if a repair is $40 I pay the $5 min.) I’ve saved hundreds of dollars in necessary repairs this way since the instrument was not set up well (no new rental ever is really, unless the shop makes their own instruments.)

    It’s not the greatest, but it sounds good enough that I can learn on it (not true of many student models, sadly.) With the luthier’s fixes the cello actually sounds quite nice. Granted, this cello is make with real maple sides and back (fyi you can tell if it’s real by looking at it from various directions — the stripes will change as you move your head when it’s real, almost like a hologram.) It also has spruce top and real ebony fingerboard and pegs. My luthier said overall it was well-built despite it being a factory made instrument. The main problems have been the set up and the glue used (it’s thin so I’ve had several seams pop so far.) Fortunately those problems are easily fixable and the cost was largely covered.

    The one thing I might also emphasize to people is the string and rosin choices they have. When I got my cello it had decent, though not ideal, strings and came with some rosin. Knowing what I know now, I would have happily bought myself a new set of strings and rosin immediately because they made such a big difference when I finally changed them. The ones they put on aren’t usually ideal even if they’re considered good strings — mine were actually “better” more expensive strings that came on the cello, but they were totally wrong for me and very difficult to play (they did have a beautiful sound when played right, but it was impossible at the time. They also were very brittle and snapped at 6 mo.) The rosin I was using was so crappy the shop doesn’t even sell it. Why the give it out with rentals is beyond me. I changed out my strings and rosin at the same time and the squealing and response issues I’d been having largely went away. Before it had been a distraction trying to get my cello to sound not-awful and I wasn’t focusing on technique so much as making the horrible sounds stop. I wish I’d changed those sooner.

  3. I agree with another post-er that it is the sound that coutns, but I also know that you don’t want your cello to look un-great. I feel the same way about mine! So . If you want the scratches to go, you can take it to a trustworthy music repair center they can do this thing where they put this special putty in any scratches/dents and then fill it in with a special marker that matches the cello’s finish. There are probably other procedures they can do, too. I’m sure your instrument is very lovely; I hope this helps you getting it back in tip-top shape

  4. Hi there. I am an adult beginner, started playing the cello about 6 months ago and really enjoy playing it as a hobby. So far I am playing on a rented cello on a rent-to-buy scheme but I am 100% certain that I won’t buy the cello because it’s one of these budget cellos and my teacher has already commented that it is hindering my progress.

    The problem I have is I am not sure how much I should spend on the cello as I am now thinking of buying one. I am not going to turn pro anyway and just want to have a good instrument that I can play with, perhaps up to Grade 5 or 6 standards. My teacher said cellos from £2500 onwards keep their values and can be resold at a good price, whereas cheap cellos will lose their price quickly once bought. I suppose a lot of factors affect how easy it is to resale a cello at a reasonable price – just wondering if any one has any experience on this (or is this idea £2500 margin perhaps a bit too general?)

    Thanks in advance for answering this.

    1. It’s very difficult not to generalise when it comes to discussing cello prices. I agree with your teacher’s assessment, but as with most things there are exceptions to the rule. I believe these are the important points to factor into your decision:

      1. While resale value is a perfectly valid consideration when spending a large sum of money, are you likely to want to sell the instrument you buy? If so, would it be to upgrade (probably unnecessary if your ambition is to reach grade 5 – 6), or because you think you’ll reach a point where you no longer want to play?

      2. What model is your hire instrument? If it’s an entry level cello worth around £250 – £500 and not properly set up, I’d say you’ll notice a huge difference in an instrument worth around £1200 – £2000 so long as you have it set up by a professional luthier with supervision from your teacher, who will know what sort of set up would best suit your technical strengths and weaknesses. Most budding cellists get to grade 8 and beyond on this category of cello – something between a student instrument and a professional level instrument.

      3. Price alone is NOT a dependable indication of an instrument’s true worth. Do not under any circumstances go for an impulse buy! Most instrument dealers will let you take an instrument on approval for 1 or 2 weeks before you hand your cash over – always ask if they have an approval scheme and let your teacher have a good look at it. I have several students whose instruments were purchased without the supervision of their former teachers, and were charged more than twice as much as their instruments were actually worth… by “reputable dealers”!

      4. Essentially, if your budget will stretch to £2500 and your teacher helps you to find something that isn’t wearing a price tag far higher than its worth, I can’t think of any real reasons why you shouldn’t go for it. You’ll have a good cello that you can continue to grow into, and you’ll never have to think of upgrading. However, if £2500 is more than you’d like to spend I’d say you can still find a suitable cello in a lower price band (probably no less than £1200) that will take you beyond your grade 6 goal. If playing is something you want to do for the rest of your life, resale value is a moot point. And if you take proper care of it and keep the set-up in good shape, you won’t loose that much value anyway. From my experience it’s the entry level instruments – especially the very cheap and nasty ones – that are unlikely to find a new owner and are not worth spending anything on where set-up is concerned.

      Hope that helps – if you still have questions, please feel free to ask!

  5. Hello,

    I’m perhaps reviving an old thread but would like some advice regarding a Cello I’m planning to buy.

    I’m looking to buy a Cecilio CCO-500 Cello. (Here is a link: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B007OOUZA0/)

    Would anyone here recommend the brand and/or Model? I don’t trust reviews on Amazon for a number of reasons and would like the opinion of more experienced people regarding the instrument.

    Thanks

    1. Hi Hector

      Although I’ve not seen one of these cellos ‘in the flesh’, I have some concerns looking at the product description. The first alarm bell sounds here:

      “Includes: hard-shell case, padded soft case, bow, rosin, bridge, cello stand & extra set of strings”

      The hard case, padded case, bow, rosin, extra string set and cello stand are all perfectly fine and what you would expect to be included in a student instrument outfit, but mentioning the bridge as ‘included’ tells me that the instrument will have no set-up whatsoever (shipped with the bridge down with instructions on how to fit the bridge and strings). Be prepared to spend significantly more on getting the instrument properly set up: the bridge will probably need to be cut to fit, the fingerboard and topnut will need re-shaping and the pegs will probably need to be reamed to fit better and not slip when tuning or fitting strings.

      I am always sceptical of instruments this cheap claiming to be solid maple and spruce with inlaid purfling and ebony fingerboard and tuning pegs. These are normally the hallmarks of instruments several hundred dollars more expensive. While the claims may well be true, I have serious misgivings about the build quality.

      As previously mentioned, if you’re going to go ahead and order this one, be prepared to spend a good 2 – 300 dollars extra. With that in mind you might be better off looking at cellos from a bricks and mortar dealer. If you have a teacher or friend who plays the cello ask them to go along with you and try out an instrument or two. This is always a less risky way to buy than ordering sight unseen. You’ll probably pay quite a bit more, but if it’s a good instrument dealer you won’t have to spend any more than you pay at the till, since the instrument will already be properly set up.

      1. Hi Deryn,

        Thank you for your input. I’ve been looking for a local instrument dealer than deals with Cellos. I found but one and a teacher I had an interview with told me to stay clear from the instruments sold there (they sell cellos found for $125 online for $625).

        That said, you’ll see my dilemma. I can either buy an instrument I know is bad quality locally (I went to see it anyway and it didn’t even have the bridge set) or import (I live in Panama) one hoping that it is better.

        Could you perhaps suggest some good brands that I could perhaps find online? I’ll keep trying to find another shop locally, but I’m not too hopeful that I’ll find one.

        1. I do see your dilemma! Buying a cello (especially your first one) is a potentially frustrating and overwhelming undertaking. These days a lot of reputable stringed instrument dealers also do business online. There will also be someone knowledgeable at the other end of the phone who can tell you in detail what they do in terms of set-up. I’m not sure what your budget is, but I’m a big fan of Eastman. They do a range of student cellos from entry level to advanced, all of which are pretty well built. The Eastman website gives a full breakdown of each model (they go by different names in the USA), but not prices. You could ask them about distribution of the instruments in Panama.

          As for good dealers in North/ Central America, I’m not able to offer advice. The only USA based shop I’ve used is GoStrings.com, but I’ve only ordered strings and accessories from them so I can’t comment on what they’re like as an instrument dealer. Do some online research, ask around in stringed instrument or cello forums (quite a few of those around on Facebook and the internet in general) and ask your teacher where he/ she goes for instrument repairs. It’s also worth checking the second hand market – especially in your local area where you could go and see the instrument for yourself.

          Hope this helps!

          1. It does indeed help!

            Thanks a lot, I’ll be checking the market for second hand instruments, which might be safer anyway.

            I should be meeting up with a teacher today or tomorrow and perhaps will be able to sort this out properly!

            Once again, thanks for all the input, it has helped out quite a bit!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s