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5-string cellos

Magnus Nedregard

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I would like to make a 5-string cello, (the instrument the 6'th Bach suite was originally written for) I was thinking it might be fun, and I've always found that it is a positive thing to have some unusual instruments in the shop, to draw attention. I don't mind if someone buys it one day either

However, in the process of deciding upon how to make it I would greatly appreciate any tips all you people might have. I would like to know if anyone knows of historical instruments that might be a good base for a new one, (preferably in Europe ) or if someone knows of plans and drawings of such an instrument. Even just successful measurements for neck, fingerboard, f-hole spacings and such is of interest.

All the best, Magnus N.

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I studied with Amaryllis at the RCM in the middle 70's and I heard her play the Suite on that 5-stringer at St. John's Smith Square. When she touched the E-string for the first time in the piece, there was an audible gasp of appreciation in the audience. The sound of that cello is simply put: Glorious.

If there is any way you can get ahold of those dimensions, it would serve you well, IMHO. I do recall it as being smallish; she had it returned to its 5-string originality just before she began teaching at College. I remember being quite impressed that she could afford to take an Amati out of 4-string circulation. But then again she already had a Strad for concertizing. Her collection of bows was beyond comprehension for a poor student.

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Thanks to you so far! I actually saw The Amaryllis Fleming Brothers Amati 5-stringer this autumn and it is a fantastic instrument. It is now property of the RAM. I think she could afford it because it was sold as an "English cello" in 1969, so I don't think it was that expensive at all then!

The only thing that worries me is that it is quite small, (just about 70 cm back length) and I don't think it would look good anymore if all it's dimensions were "blown up". So I think it's dimensions must be kept smallish, I was worried it might be lots of cellists think it is too small... Anyway it could very well be I end up doing something based on that one, but I am curious to see what else has been done with 5-stringers too.

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And about 1750 it was refered to as "Violoncello Piccolo" so I guess it was supposed to be a brighter instrument overall. There are several cantatas and other works with a smaller ensemble where it appears as a part of the "continuo" or it has an obligato part as well.

I wonder if I should be afraid to make it too "piccolo" so that cellists would have to adapt, or if that is no concern at all. I have seen a picture of a Tyrolean 5-stringer wich must have been closer to normal cello dimensions. It could also be it looses some of it's brightness if it is too big, of course.

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Just checked: I was a bit too fast in my memory, since the

recording text says "Tirol, ca. 1700", no explicit mention of


Anner Bylsma plays it also on a recording of Schubert's "Arpeggione


I have seen this instrument twice and can confirm that it is really

small, probably nearer to a 1/2 cello, as I mentioned above. But

don't take it  too literally, this is just a rough impression

out of my memory.

Otherwise: Wolfgang Schnabl made a 5-stringer for Natalia Gutman

that looks like a 4/4. See here :

http://www.schnabl.de/docs-e/index-Frame-e.html (click References

on the left and scroll down)

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Marc, it was interesting too hear that Bylsmas' cello is that small, because I've heard that recording and nothing in it's sound made me think it was so minute! The Schnabl instrument indeed looks like a full size cello. The question is if a full sized cello will support the E-string so well, and have the right brightness to it. I was thinking initially, that it would be easier to gain interest in a full sized cello as players wouldn't have to adapt to it, but I think I have abandoned that idea. I will probably end up on a body length between 65-70 cm. The players who are interested in this sort of thing are usually able to adapt, as it seems.

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You might be interested in reading "The Baroque Cello Revival, An

Oral History" by Paul Laird (The Scarecrow Press, 2004).  It

is filled with many references to the violoncello piccolo, and

contains interviews with makers and cellists, including Anner

Bylsma and Pieter Wispelwey.  

A lot of good insight in this book for anyone who is especially

interested in baroque set up.  The book references a survey of

violoncelli piccoli by Ernest S. Collins, who found 20 instruments

with body lengths between 45.4 and 72.5 cm, the majority being

between 45 and 60 cm.

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I did a neck graft on a small Bohemian cello from about 1760 a few years ago. The body length was just over 730mm, the body wasn't wide, and the ribs not high either. The top thickness was incredible - just over 7mm in the center. The bar (original) was very wide (18mm) and low.

I didn't change any of that, I only installed a top block to take the new neck (it had a "through" neck).

It had the most amazing sound - very powerful, with a deep, dark C, very even across all four strings, and a sweet but powerful A. The instrument was very responsive too - it was weird to have that much power and depth of tone, as well as a hair-trigger response.

It would seem that in cellos bigger isn't always better.

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Originally posted by:

did you see the pictures of my 5 stringer in this earlier thread?

I originally posted this question to the Stainer thread above, but because that thread is so old, I was afraid you might not see it, so here goes:

In your 5-string Stainer model, is the neck wider than a standard 4-string model to accommodate the 5th string? Are the strings spaced the same distance (string to string) as the individual strings of a 4-string model (i.e., taking 20% more room across than just packing 5 strings in the space of 4)? Is the peg box wider to accommodate 5 strings coming out so they do not bind against the side of the peg box for the C2 and E4 strings, and also so that the C2 and E4 strings do not have to make a sharp horizonal bend at the nut, but enter the nut fairly straight-on and continue straight-on to the bridge? I ask this because many of the 5-string violins and violas being offered on eBay in a recent whirlwind of production are just 4-stringers with a fifth hole drilled in the peg box. The strings are all so close together, it is very hard to finger a single string without mashing down its neighbor as well.

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Pat, thanks for the tip about the book, it was a good one.

As for the width of the neck, peg box and so on; it may vary, but the idea of just adding a 5th string sounds bizzare. Most 5-stringers are set up with a string spacing more or less like the one you'd see on a normal cello, perhaps a little bit less, but not much. The whole instrument is made differently. I haven't seen these e-bay instruments but it sounds really fishy.

Thanks for the link Kessi, I'll have a look at that thread!

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  • 9 years later...

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