Despite popular opinion, the cello isn’t just a classical instrument. Of course it was invented and traditionally used as one, but that doesn’t mean it’s still limited to classical music alone.
The cello in modern times has evolved into something much more versatile than it’s orchestral and chamber music days. People are playing it in a wide range of genres; jazz, rock, blues, pop, country, punk, indie, metal, folk, hip hop, you name it. You can find the cello in just about any genre these days, and it isn’t just a backup instrument either. In almost any genre of music you can think of, there are cellists who are starting to break out into the spotlight and take a lead role in the music.
Even though there are cellists out there who are breaking into just about every genre, they are still somewhat obscure and there are only a handful of people doing it.
So why isn’t the cello more prevalent in popular modern music? One of the main difficulties is in adapting the classical technique that many cellists are taught to the type of sound that fits with modern musical genres.
Classical training often enforces a certain ‘proper’ technique, with a great deal of emphasis on form and correctness. This musical philosophy is somewhat at odds with popular rock-based music, as rock music was really borne out of a spirit of liberation and freedom from stuffy rigid social norms. In other words, the transition from classical to modern cello music requires something of a revolutionary and rebellious spirit to occur. Cellists that make the transition often times need to break the rules they’ve been taught about proper technique.
The blues is more or less the foundation of all modern popular music. The blues also broke one of the cardinal rules of classical western musical tradition; The usage of the “blue-note” or “devil’s note.” The minor third, or blue-note, was viewed in classical western music as too dark, too evil sounding, and was thought to conjure the devil. While it wasn’t formally outlawed, there was a tacit agreement amongst classical composers not to use the minor third, to avoid some sort of perceived collusion with the devil.
The blues relies very heavily on this once forbidden sound, and rock music, and everything that’s come after it has been directly or indirectly influenced by the blues.
Cellists today are starting to venture into the same realm that blues guitarists have been exploring for the last century. Using 1, 4, 5 structures in cello music produce a much more bluesy/rock feeling to the music. Despite the changes to form, the texture and timbre of the cello still remain, and thus a new modern cello music style is born.
Pizzicato facilitates this sort of blues bass line, and the use of the bow for melody lines on top make for an interesting level of complexity. Some modern cellists employ a sliding technique, similar to the ‘bend’ technique on the guitar.
On the guitar, a player can ‘bend’ a note, by playing a note on a lower fret and pushing on the string horizontally across the fret board. This stretches the string, making it higher, and producing a ‘bend’ effect, that sounds like the note is sliding upwards.
Cello’s don’t have fretboards, and thus this type of horizontal bend isn’t possible. Instead, sliding into the note vertically, from a lower note can produce this effect, in what is called a glissando in classical music. The glissando in traditional classical music tends to be a more drawn out and dramatic effect, whereas in modern cello music, it’s more of a garnish or ornament that occurs momentarily within a more rapid phrase.
Frets are also the reason why singing and guitar playing go so well together, but singing and playing the cello is not as prevalent. Frets are horizontal pieces of metal on the fingerboard of a guitar that let the guitarist play in tune, as long as the string is in tune. All the guitar player has to do is place his or her finger behind the fret of choice, but in front of the next lower fret, and the note will be in tune. This leaves a lot of room for error, but it also makes playing chords possible. On the cello, there are no frets, and the cellist must place his or her finger in the exact right place. If the cellist’s finger is slightly out of place, the note will be out of tune. Playing chords on the cello is even more difficult, because the same holds true for every finger used. If you add on top of this the difficulty of singing in key, while already placing fingers in the exact right place, the entire operation gets even more difficult. Finally add in the use of a bow, which requires consistent pressure and steady lateral movement with the other hand to produce a note, and the final sum on the cello is a much more difficult operation than strumming a chord on the guitar while singing.
Despite this range of complications, there are still cellists who sing. There are also cellists who employ additional tools to expand their sound. The loop pedal is a particularly useful tool for the modern cellist. Loop pedals allow a cellist to record a phrase, which then plays in a continuous loop. The cellist can then play on top of the loop or in harmony with the loop, to create a doubled cello effect. Many loop pedals have an overdub function, allowing several loops to run simultaneously, for a much larger sound.