If you’ve never heard “April” by Deep Purple, you should listen to it. This 12-minute epic is a perfect presentation of bass guitar and cello coexisting in one song.
Truly, it’s a jam and an unsung hero next to other timeless classics like “Smoke on the Water.” It combines the best elements of rock-n-roll with a refined taste for classical.
While the bass guitar and the cello are completely different instruments, they come from the same instrumental family: the strings.
Here, we’ll tell you about the bass guitar vs cello. The main differences are their sound and method of play. The cello uses fingers and a bow while the bass guitar requires a pick or fingers.
There are plenty more differences than these but there are also some distinct similarities. Which one a musician uses depends on preference and inclination toward music in general.
The visual differences between a bass guitar and a cello are obvious. When you look at a bass guitar, it’s narrower, longer and heavier. The cello is wideer but shorter yet lighter.
Its design is what projects a deep resonating sound. Another apparent disparity is how a bass guitar is a standard instrument for many music genres like jazz, blues, metal and rock.
Cellos, on the other hand, are common to classical music by way of orchestras or string quartets. The cello is also strong in modern genres of Western music, as discussed above with Deep Purple. It’s just not as widely used.
Cellos are an older instrument, dating back to the 1500s. These comprise carefully crafted wood, which is hollow inside. Cellos stand to a max length of around 47½ inches and is 18 inches on average at its widest point. It stands upright, weighs five to eight pounds and requires the musician to sit down.
That is of course, they’re using an upright bass (which is much bigger than a standard cello). Either way, a bow and/or fingers combined with precise posture and techniques are what produce music.
About Bass Guitars
Bass guitars first came onto the scene in the 1930s but their popularity grew in the 1950s to what we know them to be today. These look much like a regular guitar but longer.
They measure anywhere from 34 inches to 46 inches long and have a weight of around eight to 11 pounds. While wood definitely comprises a bass guitar, it is not hollow like a cello and why it’s so heavy.
Bassists often stand when they play their instrument but they will sit. The guitar lays horizontally across the body with either position. The use of a pick and/or fingers is what produces the notes. There is no specific way to hold or a particular posture to conform to, it’s whatever is most comfortable.
Comparing Cellos vs Bass Guitars
The best way to understand how these two instruments are different and alike is to compare them directly. Both come from the string family of instruments, which descend from the violin. But, the world of difference in their designs mean they produce alternative sounds, yet both provide a deep quality to music.
Some refer to this deep quality as emotion while others see it as harmony or soul. Either way, they give a solid backbone to a song and provide support to vocals and smaller instruments that overlay music.
For instance, cellos are excellent with opera singers while bass guitars give the best accompaniment to blues, rock, jazz, etc. However, please note there are no hard and fast rules for the possible use of either in any genre. It’s just that they are best suitable to their respective musical types.
Where bass guitars can have four or six strings, cellos will only have four strings. The most common type of bass guitar is a 20-fretted four-string. The cello does not have frets and this can make learning the instrument complicated. Both instruments have a four-octave range.
The bass guitar and the cello have a deep sound but the cello has more vibrato and resonance to it due to its hollowness. This means it can project sound without the use of audio accompaniments. Oftentimes, the bass guitar requires an amplifier in order to hear the low harmonics it produces.
Pitch & Tuning
Also, a typical cello will have a pitch precisely one octave above a bass guitar. Interestingly, the pitch of the bass guitar is entirely within the same pitch range as an upright bass, a classic bass or the double bass. This means that a cello tunes to perfect fifths while the bass guitar tunes to perfect fourths.
The tuning for each uses completely different notes and this is how most people can tell the difference between them. Bass guitars employ E-A-D-G while a cello tunes to C-G-D-A. Of course, these can change depending on the intended genre of music, but they are the “gold standard” for tuning.
To illustrate, if you’re in a bluesy hard metal band, you may choose to tune your bass guitar to “Drop D.” This means the strings are D-A-D-G rather than E-A-D-G. The cool thing about this kind of tuning is that it makes it more like a cello, in that the two deepest strings become perfect fifth intervals.
Function in Music
Both a cello and bass guitar serve the important function of providing a low harmonic element to any given song. But, the application of either is slightly different depending on the music and other musicians playing a song. Still, whether as part of a group or solo, either is excellent.
For a traditional rock band, a bass will provide that groovy harmonic back rhythm usually working in tandem with both drums and guitar. In terms of a cello with an orchestra or string quartet, it will give an ethereal quality to the song, providing a deeper melody to the smaller strings and/or complementing percussion.
Bass Guitar vs Cello Overview
All of the points above are indicated in the following chart to make it easier to see the differences and similarities between bass guitars vs cellos.
|History of Existence||1500s||1930s|
|Size||up to 47½ inches tall; 18 inches at its widest point||34 inches to 46 inches long|
|Weight||5 to 8 lbs||8 to 11 lbs|
|Method of Play||Fingers and/or bow||Fingers and/or pick|
|Equipment to Play||Bow||Amplifier|
|Musical Function||Orchestras and string quartets||Any type of modern genre|
|General Sound||Low and deep resonation||Low and deep|
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Can you tune a bass guitar to the same notes as a cello and vice versa?
Technically and theoretically, yes you can tune a bass guitar to the notes of a cello and the cello to the notes of a bass guitar. But, this is not something you usually see because of the problems that arise with the quality of sound and tonality.
Which is easier to play, the cello or the bass guitar?
Both the cello and the bass guitar have an equal number of pros and cons along with steep learning curves for playing them. Therefore, it comes down to personal preferences and musical tastes.
There does seem to be a consensus on the difficulty in learning cello because there are specific techniques and postures a musician must execute to play it properly. Also, it’s very technically demanding, requiring precision and a great attention to detail.
The bass guitar is much easier to hold and set up. Plus, the frets make note mastery much easier and its use is flexible. It’s also a little more forgiving in terms of technical skill and tuning. Yet others say the cello is easier because it’s smaller than a bass guitar, which means there isn’t as far of a distance to reach notes.
Are there any bands that have cello players?
Several modern rock and metal bands have cello players as part of the lineup. The most notable one is Apocalyptica but there’s also Break of Reality, Cello Fury, 2Cellos and Primitivity, to name a few.
However, other bands incorporate cellos on occasion like Deep Purple from the beginning of this article as well as Led Zeppelin, Nirvana and System of a Down.
Even though the bass guitar and the cello are close cousins from the string family and provide a low and deep sound to music, they are very different instruments.
The cello is smaller and lighter while the bass guitar is heavier and longer. But, the cello demands a certain amount of precision whereas the bass guitar operates on a more forgiving paradigm.
Whichever one a musician chooses is really about their personal preference and general attitude about music. Indeed, both are beautiful instruments that add a meaningful, soulful and emotional quality to music that you don’t quite get from things like flutes, clarinets, baritones, harmonica or a drum kit.