For thousands of years, musicians, creatives and even mathematicians (shout out to Pythagoras) have been trying new things to see what works.
One of these unlikely things outside of the mainstream classical world is a fretted cello, which is exactly what it sounds like: a cello with frets!
Yes, like a guitar! They are not widely used for several reasons — one might call them a novelty— nevertheless, they exist. Within this article, we’re going to explore:
- What a fretted cello is
- The reason behind why there aren’t any frets in traditional cellos
- When and why you might consider buying one.
Let’s get started!
What is a Fretted Cello?
A fretted cello is just like a regular cello, but with thin raised strips (frets) placed across the fingerboard at specific intervals.
You’ve probably seen these on guitars! When you press the string down behind a fret, it gives you a specific note.
Why Do Traditional Cellos Not Have Frets?
The appeal of a normal cello is that they can be chillingly close to the human voice, possessing the freedom of sound and expressive pitch control that comes with the string family while having that deep and familiar timbre.
However, the expression that you get with a normal cello comes with a price — the cellist’s lifelong battle with intonation!
The addition of frets can remedy this issue, but keep in mind that you will lose the authenticity of sound that comes with a fretless fingerboard.
The cello creates sound by the vibration of the strings, so when frets are added the sound changes as the vibration changes too.
Expressive Pitch Control
But where does this expression come from? Think about the piano; a uniform instrument, where you put your finger down and the right note comes out. There are 82 keys, 52 white and 26 black.
While there are a million different chords you can create and tones you can strive for, you are married to the strict intonation of the 12 notes with the smallest note being a half-step or a semitone.
Depending on the context of the music, cellists can choose a note to be a bit higher or lower to achieve different ‘colors’ within the music.
This is known as expressive pitch control. It’s a huge idea to compact in a sentence but it’s a core part of the humanity of the cello timbre!
Vibrato and Slides
A controlled slide up the fingerboard to the top note on a cello can bring such brilliant depth of emotion, and is what’s known as a glissando.
A glissando in cello is used sparingly but always has a great deal of impact when it is.
Additionally the free movement of strings allows for vibrato, which is an essential part of a cello’s skill repertoire. Vibrato in all of its different forms, using the freedom of movement of the string, is a core part of modern cello playing.
While we have been dependent on Pythagoras’ 12 tones and semitones in a scale, it does actually squash the true resonance of some chords and notes.
Once you’re an accomplished cellist, the cello allows us to find this resonance again.
Within more modern music or non-western music (such as Indian music), there is extensive use of micro and quarter tones that the fretless fingerboard makes possible.
Classical Playing Style
Musical style has significantly evolved in the last 500 years — and will continue to change!
Each era of music, Baroque, Romantic, Classical have their own specific characteristics and ways of playing each individual instrument.
One key example is vibrato use. For example, in Bach’s time (Baroque), it was used as an ornament. It was very carefully placed in places it would add expression.
Meanwhile, it is used far more liberally in the present day. It helps to approach music in the context it was created in, and while some people stick to that religiously, others view it as a mere leaping point.
The cello music that is out in the world today is specifically written for normal cellos and the technique that they require.
Heritage and Tradition
The cello rose to popularity during the 17th and 18th centuries, developing from the violin family.
Interestingly, the viol family was also popular at the rise of the violin family. These instruments from afar look very similar to the violin family, but they have frets which make it easier to play chords.
However, the violin family gained popularity over the viol family due to the superior sound projection.
But, How Do You Play In Tune With No Frets?
If you’ve ever had a go at the cello and been horrified/frustrated with your intonation, then the fretted cello might be looking pretty good right now!
Intonation is developed across many years of practice. It’s the development of intonation in your ear and in your fingers.
It’s about flexibility, strength and perseverance. It just doesn’t happen overnight, but it does eventually happen with practice and is a vital part of any musical journey.
Brief History of Frets and Fretted Cellos
It wasn’t until the 1970s that frets were introduced into the violin family for the first time so that violinist Mark Woods could play in rock bands.
He was struggling to hear his intonation over the sound of the amplified instruments, so putting frets on the fingerboard was his successful solution. He then developed this into fretted violas and cellos.
While this hasn’t caught on in mainstream classical music, there is a time and place for fretted instruments from the violin family — rock bands being one of them!
When Should You Buy A Fretted Cello?
When you’re interested in experimenting with different musical genres
If you’re a cellist looking to hold your own in a rock band like Mark Woods, then a fretted cello might be a great option for you.
The sound of the fretted cello could be a perfect addition to an ensemble sound!
When you’re looking for a unique and specific sound in your music
Using a fretted cello to playin a classical piece of music would be considered far from original — but music and instruments evolve!
You couldn’t parade it as authentic, but the core of music is that it’s experimental, and just maybe the sound of the fretted cello could bring a completely different perspective to a piece.
It’d certainly be interesting to hear Bach Prelude in G from a fretted cello — again, with that being said, it will be far from the original.
Let’s get to the crux of this!
Should You Buy A Fretted Cello As A Beginner? Pros and Cons
- Intonation assistance
The thing with frets is that you are going to sound a lot better, a lot more quickly!
Maybe developing your intonation skills isn’t something you’re interested in — it depends on your reasoning for picking up the cello. The frets make intonation more accessible for people who have less time to invest in cello.
- Easier chord playing
Chord playing is infamously hard on the cello and requires a lot of strength and time. If you’re looking to accompany successfully, a fretted cello is going to be a really efficient option for you.
- Genre Exploration
The sound of a fretted cello could be a nice addition to an ensemble that you’re playing in. It could be an unexpected resource and add some variety to your soundboard.
- Easier transition if you’re a guitarist
A fretted fingerboard might simply be a leaping board for your journey into cello playing. It’s a great way to transfer skills from one instrument to another.
- Limited expressiveness
Playing cello with frets is simply never going to be as good as the real thing. You’ve traded expressiveness for intonation — and if you’re ready to do that, then that’s okay!
But don’t expect to feel the full power of the cello by opting for frets.
- Altered technique
If you’re beginning on the fretted cello then a transition to a real cello is not going to be easy.
Your muscle memory will have developed in a way that’s not compatible with a normal cello. A transition will require a lot of unlearning and might feel like you’re starting afresh.
- It might not suit all genres
Fretted cellos are never going to be authentic cello playing. It has its limitations with expressiveness and sound quality.
If you are starting cello, you have to be aware that there will be music and that isn’t going to be accessible to you.
- Fret dependency
Intonation is an essential skill for any cellist.
Frets could be viewed as sort of an ‘intonation for dummies’, which could impact your growth as a musician aurally. It most definitely will impact your growth as a cellist physically!
If You’re Curious About Fretted Cellos, Get Temporary Frets
If frets are something that are on the cards for you, think about ordering some temporary frets online.
Committing to buying an instrument before you know it works for what you need could be a bad investment.
Buy them, see if they suit your purposes — and if not, no biggie! You can take them off and go back to what works for you.
However, it’s best to do this with the advice of a luthier so as not to damage your instrument.
The Bottom Line
The fretted cello is a trade-off. It could be a great option for you if you’re interested in cello, but not in a place where you can invest time into mastering it.
The purpose of this article is to familiarize you with the limitations of the fretted cello so you aren’t disappointed with the end results.
If you’re wanting to master the classical cello or experience the full power of the cello, then a fretted cello is not the right option for you.
There’s no quick way to learn an instrument, unfortunately; it simply takes a lot of dedication and passion for the cause.