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I'm looking at getting a 1/2 cello for my son. My options are either rent a mid-end one for 50$ a month, or buy a very cheap one (there seem to be some online for 150$~200$).

My experience with very cheap instruments is mixed:

The cheap ~100$ guitars are usually so bad as to be completely unplayable.

Cheap Keyboards and Electric Pianos, though annoying, are good enough for a child learner waiting to see whether they will stick to the instrument.

If 3~4 months rent will buy me a new cello, I would just go with the cheap cello and wait later for when he grows tall enough for a full size to buy a quality instrument.

But am I worried that the super cheap one will be like the cheap guitars, so bad that they can't be played correctly. Is that the case? Should I just rent instead?

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    Is second-hand cello an option? Used instruments tend to have better value than new (i.e. the same money buys you better one) and, most importantly, they can be sold at about the same price, so you're not at loss if your kid looses interest. – el.pescado Sep 29 '17 at 6:15
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    My guitar cost less then $100. I adore it. But I know I have a less developed ear than most. That said, unless you know you can care for it immaculately, I think it's crazy to spend a fortune on an instrument that your son will soon outgrow. – Strawberry Sep 29 '17 at 11:17
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    @Strawberry quality of cheap instruments has enormous variance, so getting decent one, however not impossible, involves either lots of luch or spending lots of time browsing. – el.pescado Sep 29 '17 at 13:01
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    @BlueRaja-DannyPflughoeft: You didn't buy a $20 guitar. You paid $20 for a decent used classical guitar. – dotancohen Oct 1 '17 at 13:23
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    If you do not have the experience or expertise to determine the quality of a particular type of instrument, have your child's teacher or some other experienced person advise you on a potential purchase. Sometimes an inexpensive instrument (used or new) turns out to be a gem. Or at least much better than you'd expect at the price. – mickeyf Oct 2 '17 at 12:53

13 Answers 13

25

I'm going to suggest an alternative route. Get him an electric cello.

The weak point in cheap instruments is the acoustics, and to meet the price point they have to be constructed in a more rough-and-ready manner. As soon as you go electric, you don't need those acoustics. Production is much more straightforward, and there are simply fewer variables with an electric instrument.

$100 electric guitars are usually absolutely fine for a beginner. A while ago now, I bought an electric violin for £50, new. That included violin, case, bow and rosin. The bow was a POS, but the violin was and is perfectly OK - it even sounds acceptable acoustically for quiet practise. (Another bonus for you: it's quieter when he's still making noises like a creaky door!) Cheap instruments generally need a setup, so you should probably expect to have to file the bridge shape on the cello to make the action better, but that's about it.

Where you must invest is in the bow. Whatever the instrument is, buy the bow separately, and expect to spend around $50 for something halfway acceptable. Much more of the playability of a bowed instrument is in the bow than the instrument. Even if you decide to go down the rental route in the end, the bow should be his.

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    Didn't think about electric. Also thanks for the heads up on the bow. – Alex Kinman Sep 29 '17 at 16:34
  • @AlexKinman is your son interested in playing in an orchestra? because most orchestras, especially the higher level ones (in my experience) don't allow electric instruments. – Quintec Oct 2 '17 at 0:15
  • @thecoder16 didn't think of that either. He will be playing in his school orchestra. – Alex Kinman Oct 2 '17 at 3:53
  • @thecoder16 Good point. But he won't be playing in the orchestra until he's a bit better, will he? And for a school orchestra, I'd honestly be amazed if they wouldn't allow an electric instrument - generally they're happy to include anyone keen enough to learn. It's not like he's going to be auditioning for the RSO next week. ;) – Graham Oct 2 '17 at 9:49
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    I would never never never start a beginner on an electric instrument. It's impossible to learn good bowing technique on an electric - it will not be applicable to an acoustic instrument later on. At least not in terms of subtleties and fine control. It would be like learning a completely new skill almost from scratch. On the other hand, bowing technique learned on an acoustic is very helpful to playing an electric instrument. Easiest way to explain: the electric has less variation in sound and is therefore more forgiving and requires less control/expertise, so there's not reason to learn it. – MAA Nov 3 '17 at 14:07
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Your mixed feelings about cheap instruments are correct. For electronic instruments such as keyboards, cheap ones are somewhat acceptable, because they are mass-produced from stable materials and structures, and most importantly, they work because their software works. Once they are correctly designed, they can be correctly made, and they will be playable - think about a cheap calculator, which can still add up numbers for you as long as it has batteries installed.

Acoustic instruments, especially wooden ones, are a totally different story. For starters, good quality tonewood, essential to get an instrument to sound right, is expensive. It takes patience, experience, and talent for a luthier to work with it, create an instrument and release its potential. To build cheap acoustic instruments relies on automated manufacturing. They use cheap woods such as laminates, which sound terrible but are easy to machine process. Cheap instruments won't be correctly set up, either, because it takes a lot of experienced manual work. Also, because of the drive to reduce cost, the instruments may be produced without decent precision (which is very common in cheap instruments), resulting serious intonation issues. A badly set up, bad sounding instrument will be a pain to play, and diminish your enthusiasm really quickly. So my advice to all people who want to buy an acoustic instrument is: always set your budget as high as possible.

So my answer to your question is: buy a good one (I don't know but a mortgage might be an option, if you can't afford it for now). To rent is also a good idea, as kids can get bored and stop learning instruments very fast. In any case, stay away from cheap ones.

11

They are absolutely acceptable. I recommend you look around on forums and generally on the internet to hear what real people are saying about the cello you're thinking about.

I'm an adult beginner and I bought a cecilio CCO-500. It doesn't sound or look amazing, but it is serviceable. I spent money on Helicore strings and a new bow and it really gets the job done.

I recommend the same for you. Get the most expensive one you can afford (my cello costed sub $500 at the time and I am satisfied with it for now). Be prepared to spend a little on modifications the teacher recommends if necessary and you should be able to get through the beginner hump without worries.

Finally my teacher, who is a Julliard graduate said plainly to me, at this point she would only recommend I get a new cello if my current one was mechanically unsound. That is, if it made it impossible for me play somehow. And it is fine in that regard.

EDIT
The model that I got is functionally identical to the cheaper models and costed more due to the ebony fittings. I see cheaper models from the same manufacturer on ebay and amazon for a lot less than I paid. I'm not endorsing that brand in particular, however they do have a reputation of making servicable beginner instruments at low cost. Nothing impressive, but nothing bent out of shape and unplayable either.

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    You talk about $500 cello whereas OP asks for $150-$200 ones. – el.pescado Sep 29 '17 at 6:17
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    @el.pescado Half the size equals half the cost, right ;-) – Strawberry Sep 29 '17 at 11:19
  • @el.pescado To be fair, I could have broken down the cost better in my post. The C500 is identical to the C300, except for the ebony fittings. It costs about $100 more. Also Helicore string full size cost ~$120. Those prices are before shipping. So a C300 without strings would be $200-$300 and would be functionally identical – xerotolerant Sep 29 '17 at 12:11
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    the difference between a $150-200 instrument and a $200-300 instrument is often the difference between an instrument that requires constant maintenance and repair, and one that will actually make it through a set without something falling out of adjustment. Sadly this difference may be smaller than one would hope in this price bracket these days. I'm torn between this answer and the one that recommends taking out a mortgage. – Darren Ringer Sep 29 '17 at 13:00
  • Are you also taking into account that you'll need an amplifier with this? Do you already own one? Can your child easily and safely bring this amp along to play at lessons? Will he play with peers in some sort of ensemble? An electric instrument doesn't have the same tone either. – Tama Sep 30 '17 at 6:33
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Cheap instruments are almost always going to be a pain to play and upkeep, but you are right in that some are more playable than others. Cheap woodwinds and brass are especially bad in that the cheap, weaker metal that's used to make them along with awful designs make it really easy to damage them beyond repair. Luckily cheaps strings aren't nearly as bad in this regard. The neck is less prone to warping than a cheap guitar, and since there aren't any frets intonation is purely up to the player. If the set up is bad you may need to take it to a luthier to get it actually set up. If you want to instantly make it sound better I suggest picking up new strings; even Red Labels will be better than the stock strings.

A 1/2 size cello at the $150-$200 price point should be enough to get him started, and after 3-4 months you can always reevaluate your decision and start renting.

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I've had the opportunity of playing one of those $50-$100 case and bow included violins. Now make no mistake: a cheap guitar with a soon-warped neck becomes completely unplayable because the frets will stop working (you press second fret and get fifth with a snare instead). A violin or cello does not have frets and fretboards are separate parts. Nevertheless, the playability was awful. This starts at the strength to need for fingering and ends with the sound quality because there is a difference on working with high-density wood manually following its grain or CNC-milling something out of a block of cheap wood.

Getting a nice tone out of the instrument is the major challenge on bowed string instruments for a long time. Starting on an instrument that would challenge a professional is cheaper but you'll reach a point of diminuishing returns over the expected length of career.

The advantage over a rented instrument is that if your child throws in the towel after all, the instrument stays around in case of a change of mind for trying things.

Obviously you don't need a Stradivarius, but the least you should aim for is an instrument that would be fun enough for a fiddler.

Note that even where no tone wood or other largely manual part construction is involved, like with accordions or many woodwinds, Chinese brands and/or makes without Western companies involved in the manufacture and quality control tend to be comparatively bad for whatever reason.

A few hundred years ago, cheap string instruments were mass-manufactured in the area in the Saxonian/Bohemian border region, with a similar low evaluation of manual labor over machines than might be the case now in China.

Those instruments, when kept in reasonable playing shape, tend to be tolerably good these days: probably there was more of an accumulation of knowledge and competition among workers for manual skills and more long-term perspective than there is these days in China. And when push comes to shove, they had to work for adult semi-professionals with modest means even then. This is not the case for today's cheap instruments. I don't really know the intended target for the kind of instrument I was able to test a decade ago or so.

Basically, it's like training for running on a mud slide: part of your skill set and work is invested in stuff that is only marginally related to future progress. Can be fine for testing determination, but you need to find the right point of time to move on. And of course, you need an active player to figure out when the instrument has already moved beyond playability which can happen in few years (possibly even of just storage) with instruments milled from cheap wood.

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This depends on the person of course but I would say most beginners and especially children, would not notice the difference between a cheap and quality instrument. The purpose of a cheap beginner instrument to me would to test if the kid wants to pursue playing. I'd suggest that you could look for a used one. Might be a little more than a cheap, new one but cheaper than an expensive new one. If you're gonna force the kid to play at least for a year or so, I'd invest in something they might not hate, if you think they'll be able to tell a difference. I'm not keen on instrument buying but there might be a great place for coupons, deals, or a good time of year to buy (like if there's a Black Friday equivalent for musical instruments).

These instruments exist though so someone must use them. Buying one is a gift for the kid so if there's the possibility they won't appreciate it, especially if money is an issue, don't break the bank.

3

1/2 cellos tend to be pass-on trophies since children grow out of them comparatively fast. So the initial investment is recovered at sale to a good degree if you buy a solid instrument. Of course, this depends on the instrument actually surviving this time, so instrument insurance makes sense (and should be quite affordable) depending on how much of a risk you are willing to bear unmitigated.

Cheap instruments have little resale value. Of course, once you are willing to pay more, you should buy from a reputed source or with someone able to judge the instrument, or you might still get small value from a larger investment. Your prospective teacher might know pupils having outgrown their original instrument, so it definitely makes sense to ask there first.

3

Quick answer, not sure if anyone else mentioned it: rent your son's instrument.

This is a win win for all parties - most hire schemes are hire-to-buy or hire purchase, so you're actually paying towards finally owning the instrument. Some schemes even allow you to carry this over to the next instrument, if he wants a full-size one later.

It works out in case he decides he doesn't like it too, as you're paying a nominal monthly fee only - no big payout. You get a very decent instrument of course, with no obligation or high cost.

Shar Music (online store) do rentals, as do most luthier/instrument outlets.

  • I must have skipped over your answer, as I ended up posting the same! But, yes, I agree. – psosuna Oct 3 '17 at 23:44
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You might look into rent-to-own from a reputable shop.

Some instrument shops will allow you to rent an instrument, then put the money spent on the rental towards a new or used instrument in their inventory. Not to mention, the rentals are typically student-grade or intermediate level instruments, and if your child takes a good liking to it you might consider spending some of that money onto a good instrument. However, if your child decides that the cello is not for him, then you won't have spent the money on an expensive instrument.

You might end up spending a little more than $150-200 total, but if you have split this up over the course of several months with the rental, you have the added benefit of 1. having more time to put together some extra cash, and 2. lowering the sticker price on an instrument as you've already paid a part towards it.

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I know this question has a lot of answers already, but I have very strong feelings on the issue, so I'm adding mine:

Especially for a young child, having an instrument that sounds good is essential - if you want them to enjoy playing and want to continue doing it. If you decide to take up a new activity, are you going to buy equipment that limits your ability? Or equipment whose ability is greater than yours and can therefore be grown into?

If cost is an issue, the rent-to-own suggestion is a good one. Other things to keep in mind are that most shops will accept trade-ins, so when it's time for the next size up, you can get much of the value of the smaller instrument applied to the bigger one; also you can sometimes resell to other students (though usually not at 100% of the original purchase price); or if you have more than one child, the younger ones may play it later on.

Bottom line: make sure it's a good sounding instrument, and set up to play easily. There's no specific price attached to this, but you do need to get your hands on the instrument prior to purchase.

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In my town, we have a thriving public school string program that begins in elementary school. Of course, the new students all need to get an instrument, somehow. Students who need an instrument are directed to an instrument rental agency in the area. These are typically very helpful; the staff there can help choose an instrument (cello, in your case) that will suit your child best. This includes finding the right sized cello and bow. Rental agency staff are usually very knowledgeable about the instruments themselves. In addition, smaller instruments are quickly outgrown and with a rental you won't have them piling up.

The reason I wouldn't recommend buying a cheap cello online is mostly the sizing issue; also, if the cello sounds horrible enough, it can drive the student away from the instrument. In addition, shipping a cello is pretty dangerous (for the cello). And if the instrument really is that bad, returns can be a hassle and it's still over a hundred dollars that's been shelled out. Also, if your child continues the cello, you'll definitely need a better cello in the future; if he doesn't, then you're stuck with a crappy cello that no one really wants to buy.

When I started out playing, my own teacher had a stash of cellos that he would rent to his students; this probably isn't helpful in your case. I'll admit that I did consider buying a cheap cello online to use at school, because I was afraid to accidentally break my instrument when I brought it to school for orchestra. I have a friend who did that; it was convenient because she didn't have to lug around her giant instrument, she merely left it in the rehearsal room. If there isn't a good rental agency in the area, then I'd buy a cheap one.

But!! (sorry this is very long, and this post is old lol) If you've already found a teacher, ask them what would be best! They'd have to be from your area, and are probably familiar with beginning cello players. Therefore, they'll be able to help you more than anyone one this website (probably).

Hope this helps, if it's still relevant to your situation!

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As a cellist I’ve been through four cellos, and would recommend spending less on 1/2 and 3/4 sizes, which are outgrown relatively quickly, and investing in a full size cello of good quality if your son sticks with cello. There will always be a difference in craftsmanship when deciding between price points, but for a (I’m assuming) beginner at the cello this wouldn’t be an issue until a performing level is reached. Another option, and what I did, would be to part exchange cellos as the size is outgrown (the shop would calculate the value of the returned cello you bought from them, and subtract it from the cost of the new cello)

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I would always recommend a cheap instrument for a first-timer. Yes, have a look at it to make sure it is playable, but it is just not worth putting in the investment until you know they'll want to continue.

With guitars, you can pick up perfectly suitable electric ones from about £50 and acoustics for not much more. And for a beginner it doesn't matter that they don't have perfect intonation or tone, or perfectly straight frets and smoothed fret edges. A beginner has much bigger issues to contend with.

Similarly with cellos or almost any instrument. Get them something cheap that is playable, and like I did with my daughter, suggest that if they practice and improve, they can choose their next one. My daughter chose a bright green strat copy after proving she had the commitment to practice and playing. She also put some money towards it. That way, she really protects and looks after it, which wasn't the case with her first one.

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