While at first glance, the cello and the bass may look similar, there are plenty of differences between the two that range from size and tuning to the playing position and the sound that they produce. You can find out more about this below, and we also have a buyer’s guide for you that you can check it out here if you want some help in purchasing the perfect instrument.
Compared to the bass, the cello is an instrument that is lower in pitch and capable of producing deeper, warmer tones, which is why many consider it to be the instrument that resembles the human voice most closely. The melodic force that the cello produces can rival the violin.
The richer tones of the cello allow it to provide counterpoint melodies to the violin, and this versatility also lets it perform as an accompaniment to the violin. A full orchestra can have anywhere between 8 to 12 cellos.
The bass is the largest instrument in the orchestra’s string section, and it is lined up behind the cellos. For a very long time and in many well-known works, the bass played the role of doubling the cello part. As a transposing instrument, the bass is used to play the cello line an octave lower to add depth to the overall sound of a performance.
Still, the bass is not dependent on the cello, and it can also be used independently, as is the case with Rossini’s Duet for Cello and Bass in D-major, where the two instruments have their own independent parts. Other composers, such as Verdi, Beethoven, and Wagner, also used the bass independent of the cello in some of their works.
Both the cello and the bass have their role in an orchestra since the way that they’re used by each composer can help create unique works. They may look almost the same, but there are many important differences between these instruments.
You can’t go wrong picking any of the two, but if you want to learn more about the differences and similarities between the cello and the bass, then you might want to take a quick look below at our in-depth comparison.
Size and playing position
The first thing you’ll notice before you get a chance of playing any of these instruments will be their size. The bass and the cello are the largest instruments in the string family, but the difference in size between the two is quite substantial. The bass measures in at around 6 feet long, and it is the largest string instrument, while the cello is a bit smaller.
The body of a cello is much more standardized, and the string length varies only by about 5mm, and less than half an inch in every other dimension. For the bass, the size varies a great deal both in the length of the strings but also in bulk.
Both string instruments rest on the floor and are suspended by a metal endpin. The cello is played sitting down while the bass is generally played standing up or sitting on a tall stool.
How the two instruments are played is also quite different, in part due to their size differences. To play the cello, one needs to sit in a sturdy chain and have the neck of the instrument to the left of one’s head, with the C-string tuning peg next to the ear.
The musician needs to keep a straight pose and avoid slouching. Some cellists like to sit back for more back support, while others prefer to sit at the edge of the chair. The way you sit on the chair is up to you, what’s important is to keep your back straight.
The endpin allows you to rest the cello against your chest so that you can balance its lower half between your knees. You can use your knees to keep the cello steady while playing. Because you need to be able to reach all the strings, it is advised to keep the cello angled to your right so that the bow can have a wider range.
For the bass, the most common way of playing is by standing up. You need to stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and adjust the endpin so that the nut of the fingerboard is positioned at the same level as your eyebrows. Some musicians may have different opinions and preferences about where the nut should rest, so feel free to experiment with your teacher.
Lastly, you need to turn the bass a bit to the right and tilt it back so that the instrument rests against the left side of your hip.
Each instrument has a unique playing position that can influence your decision. As always, it is best to try playing both of them since this is the best way to tell what instrument will feel most comfortable to you.
Tuning and sound
Another important difference between the bass and the cello is in the tuning of each instrument. A bass is tuned in fourths (E, A, D, and G, from lowest to highest) while a cello is typically tuned in fifths (C, F, D, and A, from low to high). The low E of a bass is lower than the cello C.
It is possible to tune a bass in fifths and a cello in fourths, but this is rarely if ever done. A standard tuning provides much better results since it gives a wider range for the cello. The tuning system is also different since cellos come equipped with a wooden friction peg.
The friction peg is found at the top of the instrument, and it is used to wind the string. You’ll also find a fine-tuning lever attached to the tailpiece.
Things are a bit different on a bass since here the strings threads directly through the tailpiece and are then caught by the ball end. This instrument also has a larger and usually metal drum that is held in place by a worm gear tuning machine.
The sound that a cello creates is of a deeper and richer tone than the ones produced by both the viola and the violin. The bass, on the other hand, is capable of producing a much deeper sound than the cello. The former is very popular in orchestras, but the bass is more versatile since it is used in almost every form of Western music.
Bows and strings
The differences don’t lie just in the instruments, but also in the bows that accompany them. A bass bow is different from the one that’s used for the cello. For starters, bass bows are around 4 inches shorter, much stronger, and as much as three times the weight.
While cello bows are usually made of wood, bass bows are often made of carbon fiber, which is a more durable material that will last for longer. Wood bows wear out faster, and they can lose their curvature and spring with time.
Of course, you can find carbon bows for the cello on the market, but most musicians tend to stick with wood for this instrument since carbon can make it sound different, whereas, for bass, carbon doesn’t have this effect.
Since the bass has heavier strings and a stronger bow, this allows the musician to put more circulating energy into the strings without producing intonation problems. Thus, though the bass is not as efficient as the cello in circulating energy into sound, it ends up being much louder.
Which one to choose?
Even with all the information at your fingertips, choosing an instrument is still not easy since it is impossible to account for taste. Usually, it is recommended to get a firsthand experience with an instrument before you can decide if you like it over another.
The music style that you like to play or hear matters a lot as well since for people who enjoy jazz, the bass is a very good choice. Conversely, if you are the type of person that enjoys old classical music, the cello will give you more flexibility.
In modern genres such as electronic music, the bass is used more often than the cello, but both instruments can be used for fusion experiments and projects. Furthermore, the cello is often played in solitude or as an integral part of a large orchestra, while the bass is more fun to play in a band.
Thus, even though through the eyes of an amateur, the bass and the cello may look alike, there are big differences between the two that can influence your decision. In the end, choosing between the two has less to do with their differences but rather with what you and the instrument have in common.