This is not a cello I have built from raw wood. It was an inexpensive, small Romanian Cello I salvaged years ago (I had forgotten that it was Romanian… I thought it was Chinese) and for which I had never found a buyer. Currently, there is someone interested in a handmade five-string cello, and leaning toward the piccolo model, as that is the traditional size from the time of J.S. Bach. But there is no standard size of which I am aware, so I removed the neck of the little old cheap cello and made a 5-string neck and scroll with which to replace the old neck.
Here is the result:
It plays fairly well, for what it is. I have a difficult time becoming accustomed to the sound of the High E string in a cello, but I can see the value for certain applications, as it would effectively eliminate “thumb-position” in a lot of pieces.
If a person wanted a full-size five-string cello, or a 3/4- size, a 7/8-size, or what have you, I can make those, too.
I see that Helicore is now providing a five-string set for a full-size cello, so I may have to try one, just to see how the new strings sound. 🙂
It turns out that the “Hybrid” cello I chose for the donor corpus, was actually solid wood on back and sides, as well as the top. So, that’s a good thing! It is still a rather cheap instrument, and so, this is still just a “mock-up” for R&D, so to speak. I will begin the “real thing,” (all handmade by me,) when the customer is satisfied that this is what he wants. (One thing he wanted is all Oregon woods, as far as possible. So this doesn’t qualify.)
Five-string neck is on the way:
The scroll is nearly complete, and I decided to go with the carved back on the scroll, as some of the early instruments had, just for fun.
I had never tried this type of scroll back, before; Turns out it is a lot of meticulous work! I’m still not done, but I am moving along on it.
There will still be a lot of scraping and polishing to do before it is done. Also, I have to make a fingerboard to fit the neck; but then I can install the neck.
We had a few break-downs this summer. The lawn tractor, a faithful beast of thirty years, suddenly quit working. Turned out to be a bad PTO clutch. I was eventually able to order new parts online, and do the work myself, but it was a discouraging project, as I am really not a mechanic, by inclination. But it works again.
Meanwhile, it also turned out that one of our toilets had been leaking under the floor, and had ruined the floor, so the whole underlayment had to come out. I replaced it with something called “wonderboard”…a concrete product, reinforced with fiberglass… nasty stuff to work with, but relatively impervious, so I was glad to go ahead with it. mudded all the screws so they were flush, and all the seams, etc., then sanded the whole mess flat. Then linoleum, and sealer, and wallpaper. Finally got everything back in place, working, no leaking pipes, etc., just Wednesday of this week. Glad to be done with that.
5-String Violoncello Piccolo
A fellow called me a while back, having seen my 5-string fiddles, and asking for a custom-made five-string cello, using all Oregon woods, if possible. (No problem…but most of the historic 5-string cellos I am aware of were piccolos…considerably smaller instruments, and quite rare. Only a few surviving models.) Nope, he wanted a full-size. Okeedoke, no problem. They even sell Cello-string sets for full-size 5-string cellos.
But he thought it over, and now is leaning toward a piccolo, just because. (They really are a special instrument!) But, now I do have a problem: I don’t have one to show him.
So, since I am short on time, I am making an experimental mock-up of the correct size, using a fractional-size hybrid cello (laminated sides and back; carved top), and replacing the normal neck with a neck and scroll specifically designed for a five-string instrument. It will not be the quality instrument he will expect in a custom-made cello, but it will give him the opportunity to experiment with the smaller size and the five strings.
I had plenty of maple on hand, but not thick enough for the neck, so I laminated two 1-1/2″ slabs, side by side, to make a thick billet, and then sawed out the blank.
I laid out the details of the scroll and neck; then used a saw to begin removing excess material. It is hot and humid, today, and I tired pretty rapidly, so I only got partway done:
Piccolo Scroll with more cuts.
I hope to have the scroll and neck complete in a day or two. I then intend to make a fingerboard and nut of Ipe, a non-threatened hardwood, and install the assembly on the hybrid corpus, immediately thereafter.
At that point, it should be down to the final finish of the neck and fingerboard, and set-up of the instrument in its new life as a five-string cello piccolo. The corpus is already in good shape, so it should not require additional attention.
I get a fair amount of demand for five-string fiddles; in my case, that means a five-string instrument with the same footprint and scale-length as a violin, but with the added C-string, so that it carries the full range of both a violin and a viola. I have mastered this genre to the point that the low end of my five-string fiddles sound like a good, small viola, and the high end sounds like a good violin…and the neck width is just barely wider than that of a violin (25 mm) so that it plays like a violin.
Teachers like them, because they can teach the viola part or the violin part, without having to change instruments.
One of the beauties of a five-string fiddle is that, because it is non-traditional, I am not under the burden of using traditional woods, so I am free to experiment, and, as it turns out, there are other woods that work quite well: I have made them of domestic woods; Big Leaf Maple/Sitka Spruce (or Englemann Spruce), but I have also used Koa/Sitka Spruce, Myrtle/Port Orford Cedar, and all these combinations worked quite well. I will soon try a five-string fiddle of Bubinga and Sitka Spruce and am open to other experiments.
I will continue to build and sell five-string fiddles either on speculation or on commission, as the demand increases.
I am beginning to hear a call for Five-String Violas as well. This would have the same range of pitch as a five-string fiddle, but the physical instrument will be whatever size of viola is preferred by the customer. Until I get an increased demand, these will likely remain as custom commissions, not just built on speculation, such as how I currently produce the five-string fiddles.
The practical difference, then, between a five-string fiddle and a five-string viola, would be that the (larger) five-string viola will usually have deeper, richer, louder tone, just because it has a larger resonating body, both of air and wood. But not everyone can comfortably play a larger instrument, so this is a matter of personal choice.
Five-string cellos are not a new thing. The cello-piccolo and the cello da spalla have been extant for centuries, and music has been specially written for both. I hope to see a rising demand for these instruments, but, for the moment, they are a rarity. I can build both, and hope to soon have some to display here, but, for the moment, I do not. I have had customers ask about them, but usually, it was just an idea they had, and they were not prepared to place an order.
Five-String Double Basses
Five-string double basses are increasingly common, as people want the freedom to reach for lower bass notes, and not have to have a “B-Extension” added to their bass (which can also be done, of course, but it does add length to the bass scroll, and an additional source of fragility.)
I build an occasional double bass, but they are a lot of work, and they completely monopolize my small workspace when they are a work in progress; so I am more likely to default to smaller instruments. There is a special thrill, however, in building a huge instrument, seeing the beauty of the beast, and feeling the floor shake when I draw out long bass notes with the bow. I can certainly understand why players fall in love with the double bass, and especially the five-string double bass, with the lowest-of-the-low B-string at their beck and call.