Tune a cello down to F?

Discussion in 'Strings [DB]' started by gupjek, Feb 25, 2022.

  1. gupjek


    Oct 3, 2012
    This is not about a DB, but it still seems to fit best in here. Please move the thread if I'm mistaken.

    I recently started playing cello. The learning process is...humbling, but I love playing it. Coming from bass guitar I can't help, but wonder about going lower. Unfortunately I just cannot accommodate a contrabass. But I do know that D'Addario is making F-Strings for the 5- and 6-strings electric cellos by Ned Steinberger. So I'm really tempted to buy a low F-string and move all strings one slot (bye bye A-string) further so I end up with a tuning in fifths, just a fifth lower than standard: F, C, G, D. I wouldn't modify the nut and bridge for the first experiment, but might do so depending on how I like it.

    Has anyone here tried stringing an acoustic cello with those low F-strings? How's the string tension and action (does your cello have a Romberg bevel?)? How does it sound?
    Maybe someone tried to turn it into a miniature DB? If so, I'm really interested what strings you used to end up with an EADG-tuning. How's it playing?

    Of course, since a cello's body is significantly smaller than a contrabass' body, it is unable to deliver the same frequencies. But I've seen an artsy cello performance with the C tuned down to something between E and F and was surprised how pleasing it still sounded (but of course was way to flabby to play properly). I've also seen people on youtube stringing acoustic celli with low F-strings and it also sounded okay to me (although a recording can always be deceiving and processed), like this guy's 5 string here:
    longfinger likes this.
  2. AGCurry

    AGCurry Supporting Member

    Jun 29, 2005
    St. Louis
    Why don't you try it and tell us how it goes? That's the only way to know for sure. Personally, I have my doubts. It's easy to do on a bass guitar, because the BG doesn't depend nearly so much on size and string length. I would expect a cello to sound pretty shy on that F string.

    I think enlarging the nut slots would be necessary in order to intonate low notes properly, as well as keeping those positions playable. You may also find that the tailpiece slots need enlarging just to fit the strings through. I've had to do that with basses if I want to use Olivs.
  3. Anne Millington

    Anne Millington

    Dec 16, 2017
    How interesting! I second AGCurry in that give it a try and see what happens. The only problem I personally would have is I mostly play from sheet music on my cello, and not a lot goes below C or B-flat. But if you are composing or improvising, how cool to have those notes!
    AGCurry likes this.
  4. gupjek


    Oct 3, 2012
    Thank you, but D'Addario's fourths set is in the guitar register, not the bass register. So this set's lowest note is a major third above the low c of a regular cello set. And for me it's not so much about fourths or fifths tuning, but about the register.

    I'm gonna try the low F-route when I have a suitable instrument.
  5. I see, thanks.
    Good luck in the experiment!
  6. My gut feeling is that the low F is too low to sound good, but low A would be doable.

    I'm interested what your findings will be. :)
  7. Steven Ayres

    Steven Ayres Supporting Member

    Mar 11, 2007
    Northern Arizona
    My jazz cello is tuned with a low E, in fourths, same as a bass.
  8. Wow! What strings do you use?
  9. Steven Ayres

    Steven Ayres Supporting Member

    Mar 11, 2007
    Northern Arizona
    I use Labella electric bass strings for that. It should not be seen or approached as a cello, of course, it's a different animal. My point is that the strings are out there for pretty much any tuning one would like.
    instrumentalist likes this.
  10. BassFalcon


    Nov 18, 2020
    I don’t understand why a contrabass is out of the question. What about 1/2 size?
  11. s van order

    s van order

    Oct 4, 2012
    No, imo too flabby and weak using a low F on a standard cello. The cello’s scale is too short. Now, there are ways it can be done. My angle is I play a carbon fiber 5-string cello with a low F, Luis & Clark model. My goal was to double on one instrument, no more lugging bass and cello and I play a true cello melody and also bass lines one on axe on the same tune in my duo, and it opened up our sound palate big time.

    With the right bridge (clever luthier required) and a Realist p.u. it gets the job done quite nicely. In “cello mode” it plays quite beautifully when fully acoustically under the bow (fills a room with no amp, nicer than my wood cello), but as a bass on the F string w/o sound support it is too thin. The fundamental is just not there, the overtones rule. The Realist thru a small amp with a touch of bass eq and some notching is required. I click in and out of a Fishman Platimum eq as needed to play bass lines. Except for playing classical (i.e. just needing cgda and not needing amp support) this rig gets it done all day. It took me few years to really get it tweaked right.

    To your inquiry, my advice from this experience is as a bass the cello scale is simply too short w/o some amount amplification, it is a glorified ABG. I think a wood cello will not handle this experiment well, top plate not rigid enough, and rigidity kills resonance. I do not rec turning a 4-string into an fcgd axe. You get nothing best of the bass or cello world.
    AGCurry and marcox like this.
  12. gupjek


    Oct 3, 2012
    @s van order Thank you for your answer describing your experiences. Can you elaborate on what makes a bridge "the right bridge" for this kind of setup? And what do you mean when you say that the top plate of a wooden cello would not be rigid enough for an f-string? Do you mean that the cello's top could be damaged by the f sring's tension or movement?

    Of course I don't expect this frankenstein to outperform a cello or a bass in their native tunings. This experiment would be a concession to given circumstances.

    I just cannot accommodate a contrabass. A half size contrabass also just is too large. I don't have the space to store it nor the means to transport it adequately.
  13. Matthijs

    Matthijs Supporting Member

    Jul 3, 2006
    Check out Rufus Cappadocia. He plays a 5 string cello and often takes on the bass role. He does rely on amplification though. His cello has magnetic pickups. Don’t know about his strings.

  14. s van order

    s van order

    Oct 4, 2012
    Re the “right bridge” my L&C cello came with a typical Belgian-style bridge with 5-strings crammed onto it. This will not be your problem of course. My luthier carved a bridge with wider spacing from a French-style gamba bridge blank. Re top plate, a luthier would know best but the tension on the top plate will probably be different with fcgd setup. But you’ll know something’s afoot if the cello does not resonate nicely. Carbon fiber is resonant yet rigid so the extra tension from 5 strings is not a factor, again your situation is different. Btw, I use an NS electric cello F and it is OK, no other choices I can find for cello scale. Good luck, sounds like fun.
    gupjek likes this.