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December 04, 2020 4 min read

How to Select a Cello for a Beginner

Selecting a musical instrument for a beginning student can be more difficult than one would imagine. There are many factors to take into consideration and I'll try to go through each of them so that it will make your buying decision easier.

Student's Age and Size
- the first thing to consider is your student's age and size. If you are shopping for someone who is still growing, it is important to know that cellos, and other stringed instruments, come in different sizes to accommodate our different bodies, especially growing children. Playing the cello (or violin, viola, or bass) is a physically demanding exercise, and therefore, the instrument must fit the person playing it. If purchasing a cello for a youngster keep in mind that they are going to grow out of their first, and maybe even second and third, instruments. At Linda West Cellos I offer a trade-in program for just this reason. Here are some rules of thumb for selecting the right sized cello for your growing student.

By Fit:the very best way, if possible, to choose the right sized instrument is to try it on, just like clothing. A good music shop with a number of instrument to choose from can help you with the proper fit. Here are the basic guidelines:

Sit up straight on a chair, with knees bent at 90-degrees and your feet flat on the floor. The cello is laid against the left shoulder, with the endpin extended so that the cello body rests against the sternum, the lower bout contacts the left knee, and the C-peg (the lowest-pitch string) is near the left ear. The left hand should be able to easily reach all parts of the fingerboard.

Not everyone will have the benefit of being able to try out several cellos, so there are several other rules of thumb to go by if you are purchasing an instrument sight unseen:

By Age:

4 to 6 years old - 1/8 size cello
5 to 7 years old - 1/4 size cello
7 to 11 years old - 1/2 size cello
11 to 15 years old - 3/4 size cello
15 and above - 4/4 size cello

By Height:

Less than 4' tall -1/8 to 1/4 size cello
4' to 4 1/2' tall - 1/2 size cello
4 1/2' to 5' tall - 3/4 size cello
5' tall and above - 4/4 size cello

By Body Length: 

If you are shopping for yourself, or another adult, the size of the musician's body will determine whether they will be comfortable playing a full sized cello (also referred to as 4/4) or a fractional size, such as a 7/8 or even 3/4 sized cello, both of which are slightly smaller than a full sized, 4/4 cello. You can also use this measurement method to confirm the sizes suggested by height and age above.

To measure for size, have the student sit with knees slightly lower than the hips. Measure  from the left knee to the left ear in a straight line.

If that number is:

26 to 27.50 inches - 3/4 size cello 
28 to 28.5 " - 7/8 size cello
29-30 inches and above - 4/4 size cello

17.75" - 20” - 1/8 size cello
20" - 23” -  1/4 size cello
23”- 26” - 1/2 size cello
26” - 27.5” - 3/4 size cello
27.5" - 28.5 - 7/8 size cello 
29” and above - 4/4 size cello

Cellos come in different 'patterns' too, which are often based upon famous cello makers from the past. Some of these patterns are bigger, wider, taller, or thinner than others, and this should also be taken into consideration if the adult student is small of stature. If your adult or young adult is small of size, has short arms or any sort of physical limitation that might make playing a full size cello challenging, the best thing is to try a couple out over time.

Student's past musical experience - Every beginner deserves to have a quality instrument to learn on. If quality is sacrificed to save money, the musical experience is affected. Poor quality instruments are difficult to keep in tune, often have intonation or sound problems, are made of poor quality materials, such as plywood, which will not hold up over time, etc. For someone new to music, it is a balance to choose an instrument that will play well, but not cost a fortune. On the other hand, if your student is an experienced musician, but is new to the cello, you will want to get them the best instrument that you can afford. They will be sensitive to the sound and playability, even if they have never played a stringed instrument. There is nothing more frustrating than an instrument that will not keep up with the player.

Student's level of interest - Some people are more passionate and more committed to their musical experience than others. Some really young children are some of the most passionate musicians around. Keep your student's passion and commitment in mind while shopping. If you have a really serious student, someone who really loves music, or is completely fascinated by the sound that the cello makes, be sure to take special care to get them a quality instrument that they can grow with. Fully carved, solid wood, serious musical instruments can be found in even the smallest sizes for those little ones who are proteges. Your passionate student will advance more quickly because practice will be fun if they have a quality instrument.

Your budget - Cellos can be purchased anywhere from a few hundred dollars up to hundreds of thousands. But for the most part, beginning cellos of a good quality: solid carved, aged woods start at around $1000, depending on the size, maker, etc. I usually carry beginner outfits (cello, bow and case) in different sizes under my Best for Beginner's category for between $1,000 - $2,000. It may seen like a lot of money, but keep in mind that music is more than just a hobby for people. It helps develop the brain, improves coordination, team work, and math skills, and is something that anyone can do at any age.

A few brands to look at if you are starting out and don't want to break the bank would be Eastman cellos, and the new Vivo cellos, which are both great for beginners, but will not hold an advancing student back either. Check out my 'Linda's Picks' for Best for Beginners and For the Budget-Minded to start your cello shopping experience.