For the new cellist, acquiring a cello is an important task. As the new cellist has no experience to judge what a decent instrument is, it is important to have a knowledgable person guide this process. I have seen so many people ask about this great deal they saw on eBay/Amazon/the local band/guitar store and think that it must be OK. 99% of the time this is very wrong.
The best thing you can do is to go to shops that are well regarded by string players and develop a relationship with the people there. A good shop of this sort may be run by a luthier (not the kind that works on guitars) or violin maker. This kind of expertise is much more likely to yield a good outcome. Take a colleague or teacher with you to try instruments, so that you can hear what they sound like from the listener’s perspective. If you are a more experienced player, try instruments that are out of your price range to get a better idea of what qualities you might want to look for, and to give you a better perspective of the market and pricing. By getting to know the staff, they can get an idea of what you are looking for and keep an eye out on your behalf. On the other hand, don’t allow anyone to convince you to buy a cello that you have reservations about. Those reservations will turn into resentments over time.
For the new cellist, I would advise the following: successful progress is dependent on the cello being well set up to play. This requires a professional luthier’s attention, no matter if the cello is a factory made one, or by one of the great masters. This is particularly important for the new player. Considerations in getting a first cello begin with the fact that it is better to rent in the beginning for a number of reasons. If there is any uncertainty about how serious the new player’s interest is, renting minimizes the investment if the player becomes discouraged or loses interest. If the new player takes to it well, then renting makes it easier to move on to a better instrument over time. Again, you should only rent from a shop that deals exclusively with violin family instruments and has a professional luthier on staff. Not a ‘music store,’ ‘guitar center’ or online source, etc. Many shops offer a rent to own arrangement, but I would not advise buying your first cello under any circumstance. Upgrade the rental as the new player progresses in their capacity and interest in playing. At that point, the rent to own option becomes more of a consideration. Further considerations:
1. “trade” instruments are not hand made by a luthier who markets the instrument themselves. Such instruments are most frequently made in factories in China or eastern Europe. They are often sold in bulk and given names of makers who don’t exist or some kind of ‘brand’ name. These names are meaningless. They will never be an investment, the way an instrument by a fine and well-regarded maker can be, they will at best maintain their value as a tool of trade, if they are well set up to play.
2. There are fine shops that will import a bunch of these and fix the problems that they often have, bad fingerboards, problematic necks, bad bridges, posts, tailpieces, pegs, strings and endpins, and they will sometimes do some regraduation of the wood, particularly the ribs and tops. As the material used in the better ones can be quite good, as are the basic execution of the models, the factories survive by basically selling them under-finished, and the local shop adds value by finishing them properly. There are shops that are known for selling really well setup instruments of this type that are very decent cellos, but most of the online sellers are selling problem instruments. Buying such a bulk instrument yourself pretty much guarantees that you will end up spending at least as much as the purchase price again in order to make the instrument reliably playable. Let someone else take that risk for you.
There are a number of things that can make a cheap cello’s intonation unreliable that you must be aware of, all involving the neck/fingerboard. If the fingerboard is not real ebony (common on many cheap instruments), the neck can warp or flex, which literally makes the place where the note should be move around as you play. An improperly set neck, or a neck whose wood is too “green” can also do this. The neck could also be warped because of improper maintenance. This is addressed be replacing the fake ebony fingerboard with a proper one, and sometimes insterting a carbon fiber rod into the neck.
As to shopping for a fine cello, you need to get to know makers and instrument dealers in your area, or even go on a ‘road trip’ to visit major dealers’ shops. This can be fun and very informative. Developing a relationship with such folk makes it much more likely to find a fine cello, as they will learn your needs and preferences as you develop that relationship, so that when you decide it is time to seek a fine instrument, they will understand what you are looking for and can exploit their network of contacts to find something for you. As cellos can be an expensive purchase, there are occasions where one might need help financing a purchase. I play a modern instrument that was made for me, and I strongly urge all serious cellists to consider this, as we live in a time of great cello makers. Below is a link to an organization I have heard can be of help in purchasing an instrument.
Financing an instrument
One other consideration that all cellists must be aware of is that accidents happen which can be cause for significant costs to repair. Many rental programs provide insurance as part of the rental, and this is something that must be clearly established before renting. Once you purchase an instrument, you need for it to be insured. If you are getting a loan for the purchase, this is likely required, and it would be foolish not to do so. For the young student living with their parents or in college/grad school, the parents can have the instrument included on a homeowner’s policy or renter’s insurance, usually subject to some deductible. I understand that a number of professionals are now using this form of insurance due to the fact that many instrument insurance policies no longer are ‘all risk,’ whereas homeowners/renters policies are ‘all risk.’ This kind of policy on a professional instrument would likely require a ‘rider’ on your homeowners/renters policy for an additional premium. I have heard that this is often cheaper than a specific instrument policy.