Cello Instrument Design vs The Acoustic Bass
This last Sunday I got to hear the excellent Phoenix Youth Symphony play at Denver University thanks to the invitation of our friends. As we watched and listened I was very well amazed by the design of the stringed instruments comparing them to what I’ve been studying for the bass build. Below are some observations comparing the designs of the two instrument types. I recognize that they’re different and designed to be used in different contexts (maybe) but there are some qualities that I want to point out.
The first design difference is the playing position. Clearly the cello body size requires a lot of posture considerations to make sure that the instrument is playable with both bow and fingertip. The bass guitar, however, is almost always played with the neck extended away from the midsection of the musician. This creates a totally different level of intimacy with the instrument and a different angle by which the musician hears their instrument. The playing position definitely impacts what sorts of other things can be done with the size of the body and some of the ornate curvature.
The cello is also fretless without markers. Students learn with various markings in place (often tape if I understand correctly) and develop muscle memory practicing scales and gaining familiarity with every millimeter of their fingerboard. The bass often has fret markers (but not always) and many fretless basses have some sorts of indicators to help their players. This is a generalization, so it shouldn’t be considered too heavily in design difference.
The major piece that stood out about the cello to me was that it is engineered for acoustic amplification (read about the design on wikipedia). Since the top (often spruce) part of the body needs to resonate and vibrate with the vibration of the strings and compete with other instruments in the orchestra the cello allows all of the string’s energy to focus through the bridge and into the wooden structure. I spoke to one of the cellists after the concert and he pointed out that the f-hole cutouts in the cello are positioned where they are to allow for maximum vibration of the top piece at the bridge. The bridge makes solid, but low-footprint, contact with the top piece and the neck and tailpiece hang out over the body reducing any chance of the rest of the instrument to reduce vibrations or change tone. The bass guitar design almost always (though there are exceptions) includes the fretboard (a very dense, low vibration piece of wood) reaching out across the top of the guitar reducing vibration and therefore reducing resonance and impacting tone and volume. Additionally most bass guitars have a bridge with holes in the middle of it for strings to be attached to. This further reduces (acting as a top and bottom brace) vibrations. The acoustic guitar’s design is less than optimal in comparison. Of course guitars like the archtop guitar may improve upon these vibration issues.
I really enjoyed analyzing the bass guitar and the cello as I watched the symphony. I’m no less passionate about creating the bass despite its differences, but the fun of the analysis is to think about what one might do to help improve the design or offset deficiencies. Maybe in a future post I can point to some other guitars I’ve found in the last two months that have some fun design differences that compensate.