There are four instruments in the string family: the violin, the viola, the cello, and the double bass.
At first glance, one can find some similarities between the violin and the viola, and also between the cello and the bass, but – of this, there is no doubt – there are many differences!
In this article, we’ll go through the main differences between the cello and the bass, discussing size, price, sound, playing position, difficulty in learning, repertoire, and work opportunities for each.
Cello vs Bass: What Are The Differences?
To begin with, the first difference -and the most noticeable at first glance- is in size: the bass is a significantly larger instrument than the cello.
A standard double bass is approximately 77 inches long, or 197cm, while a cello is about 48 inches or 122cm.
It is important to note that smaller sizes of both instruments are available, often used by children beginning to study both cello and bass.
In that case, generally, measures that represent 3/4, 1/2, and 1/4 with respect to the original measures are used.
It is necessary to be clear with this idea: the size of the instrument should not be an impediment if you want to start playing it! You will always find one that suits your body and your needs.
Therefore, it is clear that the cello is going to be, in many ways, a bit more practical: thinking, for example, about moving around in the city (double basses don’t fit in every car!), or traveling by plane.
Regarding this question, while with a cello you can manage to send it to the hold for a little more money, or directly buy a ticket for it to travel with you, with the double bass it is much more difficult!
That said, could we say that “a bass is simply a bigger cello”? Well, no!
There are many differences between them, in relation to price, sound, playing position, difficulty in learning, repertoire and work opportunities.
Let’s continue reviewing these differences!
It is no surprise that considering the difference in size, the double bass is significantly more expensive than the cello.
In addition to the price of the instrument, its accessories will also be more expensive (strings, case, bow, etc.).
Although there is a wide range of prices, we are going to divide the prices into three groups, thinking of beginner, intermediate and professional instruments.
The differences in prices respond mainly to two factors: wood and workmanship.
While the most accessible instruments are made in factories and built with low-quality woods, the most expensive instruments (both bass and cello), which are used by professional musicians and great concert players, are made by luthiers.
These are experts in the construction of this type of instrument, using only top-quality woods.
A cello, thinking of a person who is just beginning to study the instrument and does not want to risk making a very large investment, would cost approximately $500 to $1500.
This instrument, as we said before, is made in a factory, with low-quality woods, and with many details that do not allow to achieve a great sound.
For an intermediate, an investment of up to US$3000 is necessary: it is possible that this type of instrument is made by a luthier, maybe not the best, but with certain expertise to achieve a quality instrument.
From that price onwards, you’d expect a professional instrument made with excellent quality woods.
On average, a cello used by a professional is around $10,000.
Of course, there are much more expensive instruments, taking into account the year in which it was built, among other things.
The renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma, for example, plays a cello from 1733, with an estimated value of 2.5 million dollars (yes, you read that right: 2.5 million dollars).
On the other hand, and as we said before, the prices of basses are higher.
Considering the two main variables (wood and workmanship), an amateur double-bass is between $1500 and $3000.
In this price range, most instruments are constructed using a combination of ply, laminate, and solid tonewoods like maple.
An intermediate bass player will have to invest between $3000 and $5000. The woods used to make these instruments are already of better quality, which, of course, results in a more complex and richer sound.
Finally, a professional musician can find an excellent double bass for around $5000.
As in the case of the cello, there is practically no limit to the price of these instruments, so a bass built perhaps centuries ago, with excellent wood, can cost millions of dollars.
Among the accessories, we can highlight that a hard case for a cello costs approximately $1000, and a set of strings (intermediate to professional level) can cost around $200.
Regarding the bass, cases are not so common, since it is very impractical (taking into account the size and weight).
Covers are relatively cheap (around $200) and a set of strings (also, intermediate or professional level) is around $250.
Both bass bow and cello bow also respond to the same price variations.
Again, these values are approximate, and the range of prices -both for the instruments and their accessories- is enormous.
It is also important to keep in mind that this type of instrument, especially if it is a quality one, can be considered an excellent investment.
This is as long as it is kept in good condition and not damaged.
If the instrument does not depreciate, it is very possible that you can sell it at the same price at which you bought it.
First of all, the tuning of the instruments is different. The strings of the bass are tuned by 5ths: G (the highest string), D, A, and E.
The cello strings, on the other hand, are tuned in 4th notes: A, D, G and C. Another substantial difference is that the bass is, unsurprisingly, lower than the cello.
Having made that clarification, there are more differences in sound.
The cello is able to sing with great expressiveness and dexterity in the highest register, which has resulted in an enormous amount of repertoire for solo celloists and a large number of concertos for cello and orchestra, mainly from Clacisism.
This includes the extraordinary Italian composer and cellist Luigi Boccherini, and the likes of Haydn, Goltermann, Schumann, Dvorak, among many others.
The double bass, on the other hand, has a deep and deep sound, deeply rich in harmonics, but a little less agile in the treble.
Beyond this, there is also a certain repertoire for solo double bass, not as well known as that of the cello or violin.
Beyond classical music, the double bass is also widely used in jazz and fusion music. Generally, in these genres, it is usually played with the fingers and not with the bow, which is called “pizzicato”.
Besides these differences, it is also possible that you can find several works, both in classical music and in pop, rock, and even jazz music, in which the cello and bass play together (something very common in Beethoven’s symphonies, for example).
Both the cello and the double bass share a similar difficulty. Why?
With the piano, its black and white keys are there, easily accessible. You just have to put a finger down on one of them to sound a note, perfectly in tune.
With the guitar, something similar happens. The frets divide the string and are perfectly demarcating each of the notes.
On the other hand, when you look at the fingerboard of stringed instruments, you see that there is no mark or clue possible!
The guide is the ear and muscle memory, which is educated, strengthened, and sharpened with a lot of study time.
In addition to this, the bow also requires a lot of study time.
These instruments are versatile and have the wonderful ability to generate different sounds (in the musical field we speak of timbre or color, to speak of the qualities of the sound).
To achieve this, mastery of the bow and the right hand is indispensable, which is also very challenging technically.
A common, yet mistaken idea is to think that since they are instruments of the same family and share several characteristics, a cellist can easily move on to play the double bass, and vice versa. But, beware, this is not so!
The way of sitting, the way the instrument is held, and the way the bow is taken are all different. These are differences that make it impossible for one player to easily switch to the other.
Of course, if you wanted to study the other instrument, part of the way is already paved, but the work one has to do is still very hard!
In short, although the difficulty is similar, the cello ends up being a bit more complex, since the music written for it usually takes into account its ability to play passages that are at high speed and in the high register of the fingerboard.
This is very challenging for the performer and requires a lot of study (both for the left hand and for the cello bow hand).
There are substantial differences also on this point: although within classical music (if we think of Baroque, Classicism, Romanticism, 20th century), contemporary music (the last five, six decades) and popular music (pop, rock, songs, jazz, blues, country, etc.) both instruments are very present.
The cello has greater prominence in the repertoire that has been composed (a quality it shares with the violin).
The double bass, on the other hand, has much less solo repertoire, due to some particularities that we have shared above (less agility, a more limited tessitura, etc.).
The classical repertoire for the cello is quite extensive: Schumann, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Bach, Boccherini.
Many contemporary composers have given and continue to give it prominence in orchestral, chamber or solo music.
It is also necessary to point out that during the last decades, its presence in popular music and the world of songs has also grown.
It is no longer surprising to find excellent cellists playing with pop, rock, jazz, bossa-nova, or country groups, among others.
For example, a well-known figure such as the cello player Yo-Yo Ma is constantly involved in such projects in which popular music is mixed with classical music, and often even other disciplines (such as contemporary dance).
In this topic, the balance is a little bit tilted towards the cello.
In classical orchestras, for example, there are more places available for cellos than for double basses: we can find between 8 and 12 cellos, while double basses can generally reach at least 4.
Beyond this, it is also necessary to clarify that the number of cellists is greater, so while there is greater demand, the supply is also equally large.
With regard to the double bass, just as there are fewer jobs, there are also fewer people trying to access them.
Finally, as we said before, job opportunities are not restricted to the world of classical music.
There are many popular music groups, fusion, jazz, and bossa-nova, which seek different instrumentalists, both cellists, and double bass players, and, finally, teaching is always a safe job opportunity for musicians in general.
In Short… It’s Your Decision!
As we explained in this article, there are many differences between the cello and the double bass, each one with its advantages and disadvantages.
What should guide you is your level of enjoyment in listening to them, and then, playing them!
Our suggestion is to listen to a lot of music, in which both instruments are soloists.
Compare, go see live music, go to your local conservatories and music schools, and listen live, talk to professors!
And then, choose one of them: if you make the decision guided by your intuition and your taste, you won’t go wrong!