The cello is the 3rd largest instrument in the modern violin family, after the violin and the viola. Its range is the most similar to the human voice, and for that reason is considered by many to be one of the most beautiful and expressive instruments. It has a place in modern music today, but is still largely viewed as a classical instrument.
Cello’s can be found in virtually every genre of modern day music. They have found their way into rock and pop arrangements, jazz, blues folk, indie, and even hip hop. Despite the presence of the cello in these genres, the instrument is still relatively obscure, and there are very few cellists that are prominently at the forefront of any modern musical genre.
Why is this?
The technique that most cellists learn is rooted in a long history of classical tradition. Because the instrument is very old, there is a long established tradition of ‘proper’ technique. Technique is very important because of the complexity, and relative difficulty of playing the instrument. The cello is bowed, and it is relatively difficult to produce notes with a bow, as opposed to picking a guitar, or hitting a note on the piano. Furthermore, the technique that is taught to cellists to play classical music is not necessarily conducive to the style that is used in modern music.
Rock and roll and hip hop, and most other styles of popular modern music have their roots in Jazz and blues of the late 19th and early 20th century. Rock and roll adapted blues structures to create something very different from the classical western tradition of composition and style. Rock was borne out of a spirit of rebellion and youthful anti-establishment sentiments. The electric guitar is a key element to this, because of the sheer volume of sound that it can create, but also the style of music that it allows. The guitar was originally a classical instrument, but the electric guitar gave guitarists an entirely new realm to explore. The style of playing that rock guitarists use is much different from the ‘proper technique’ that classical guitarists use.
Similarly, modern cello music employs different styles of playing that aren’t taught in the classical tradition. The techniques used are adapted from similar roots, employing slaps and bends that are found in blues and jazz music. Pizzicato bass lines and percussive slaps allow the cello to sound very similar to a stand-up bass found in jazz. Brief arco-glissando’s can be employed to sound very similar to the guitar bend technique, which is used to slide into the correct note from a lower note.
One of the last major hurdles to overcome for the adoption of the cello in present day music is singing and playing. The guitar is very widely used as an accompaniment to a singer. Singers that play guitar can play chord progressions to accompany the melody they sing. This is largely possible due to the frets on a guitar. Frets are the horizontal pieces of metal on a guitar neck that ensure that notes are played in tune. The guitarist must simply press his or her finger against the string behind the desired fret and the instrument will produce the right note, as long as it’s in tune. The cello however leaves a lot more room for error. Without frets, the cellist must place his or her finger in the exact right place to produce the right note. There is very little room for error, and it’s very easy to be out of tune. Add on top of this the difficulty of producing a note with a bow, which is more complicated than picking, and playing two or three simultaneous notes with other fingers, also without frets, and singing at the same time, and it’s a much more complicated process.
Despite this added level of difficulty there are still cellists that are venturing into this realm. The incorporation of technology, in the form of loop pedals also opens up a lot of possibilities for cellists. With the use of loops, cellists can record a phrase, which is then played back over an amplifier, and then overdub new parts or harmonies on top of the original loop.