Just like vocals, the cello can seamlessly move from sweet-and-elegant to dark-and-raw, and while it’s a staple of classical music, this popular bowed string instrument can just as easily work its magic in styles like pop, rock and even metal. Read on and get to know it a little better!

De cello - Wat voor instrument is dit?

There’s no correlation between Jurriaan Westerveld playing the cello and suffering an inguinal hernia, his doctor assured him the other day. As a professional pop cellist, Westerveld is relieved to hear it. He’s just recovered from surgery and can’t wait to get back to his busy practice regime. Over a morning cup of coffee, one of the first things Westerveld says is that he thinks the cello has human traits, since the sound closely matches the timbre of vocals in spite of the cello’s bigger range.

The cello is part of the string instrument family which means it’s closely related to the violin, viola and double bass. The strings are ordered by pitch and run from low to high (C-G-D-A), with the intervals being the same as those of a viola albeit an octave lower. With a cello, each string is tuned a fifth up from the next string, and just like a double bass, the cello has an end pin so it can rest on the floor while it’s played. Up until roughly the middle of the 19th century, cellists would clamp the instrument between their legs. Lauded Belgian cellist, François Gervais initially played his cello this way, until he became a little too stout to maintain this now outdated playing posture and screwed a pin into the bottom of his cello for support. By doing so, he not only changed the way cellos were played forever, but offered female cellists a less awkward way to play the cello in the process.

Exploding Cellos

The cello has been serving as a symphony orchestra and solo instrument since the very start, so virtually all big-time composers have written pieces for it. Thanks to virtuoso-grade renditions of compositions written by Russian master-cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, the cello was unbelievably popular throughout the 20th century. During his glory days, Rostropovich also inspired a young Andrew Lloyd Webber, which marks our transition to popular music. Taking cues from their classically trained producer, George Martin, The Beatles actually used the cello on ‘Yesterday’ and other famous tunes, and it was the Electric Light Orchestra who popularised the instrument within the realms of pop music at the start of 1970s and onwards. ELO’s cellist at the time, Mike Edwards, was not only known for playing his cello with oranges and grapefruits, but his memorable antics also included blowing up his cello at the end of gigs. Across the pond, ELO were fittingly referred to as ‘the English guys with the big fiddles’.

In 1993, the Finnish band Apocalyptica formed a unique line-up consisting of four classically-trained, head-banging hard rock cellists and a drummer, More recently, it’s the Slovenian/Croatian duo 2Cellos who’ve been helping to promote the cello with their distinctive covers of rock songs like AC/DC’s Thunderstruck. Their official music videos are nothing short of gut-busting, with strands of horsehair flying all over the place. What’s more, for their cover of Highway to Hell, 2Cellos even asked none other than master-guitarist Steve Vai to step in and join them.


Currently involved with various projects, Westerveld presents himself as a pop cellist. Pop cellists are different from ‘regular’ classical cellists, which he says has to do with mindset. Pop cellists are about improvising, arranging, interpreting, staying away from sheet music, and knowing chords – that’s ‘knowing’ instead of ‘playing’ since cellos only lend themselves to arpeggios, so broken chords. In Westerveld’s words: “You’ve got to know how to improvise when you’re handed a page filled with chords.”

Since the frequency range of a cello closely resembles the range of vocals, it doesn’t take much to evoke heartfelt emotions. Westerveld: “There aren’t many people who don’t like the sound of the cello. If you’re one of them, you’re basically saying you hate the sound of human vocals.” Westerveld acknowledges that melancholy takes over as soon as the cello raises its voice: “The cello is extremely adept when it comes to gloom.”

As well as an extra voice, the cello can be used to play solos and rhythm parts and even to pluck bass lines. Westerveld has been playing a Tasman cello, which “doesn’t have extreme amounts of character but is easy to blend in with other instruments”. It also has a built-in pickup in case he needs to boost his sound, although he admits he prefers to use a DPA 4099c microphone to amplify the sound of his cello.


Just as with other musical instruments, it never hurts to start learning to play the cello early on, especially since the instrument has a long learning curve. Westerveld started learning etudes and concertinos at the age of seven and used to be in a baroque ensemble with his dad, who played the harpsichord. When he discovered Apocalyptica years later, he said goodbye to sheet music and started figuring out music by ear. Westerveld later went to a pop academy to study the cello and bass, where he impressed his fellow students with self-written arrangements, which demonstrated just how versatile the cello can be. He believes that being able to arrange is a prerequisite for success when you play cello in a pop band. Westerveld also prefers to seek inspiration in musicians other than cellists: “It would be quite short-sighted to only look at other cellists for inspiration. It’s essential to base cello arrangements on other instruments and vocals, too. If your lines of thought are too focussed on the cello, you end up with long lines crammed with notes, which isn’t very interesting at all. As such, I often ask myself: how would a flautist play this? They’d need breathing pauses, so if I factor those in then I should get a solo that literally lives and breathes.”

Depending on the project, Westerveld tends to stick to cello roots and embellishes his acoustic sound with bow-induced effects and left-hand moves only. Theatre performances, however, require a theatrical sound, and fortunately that’s exactly what the cello offers by default. On the other hand, that’s not all you can do with a cello. Westerveld was once hired to write and record a piece of music for the horror genre and, much to his own satisfaction, managed to sound “distorted, creepy and coarse”. Also, while he doesn’t use pedals often, he does know cellists who do. Effects like delays and overdrives can sound really cool in combination with cellos.

Cello Rock

Pop music has always featured strings. While the strings have been coming more and more from keyboards ever since the eighties, cellist Jurriaan Westerveld has been seeing an increasing demand for ‘flesh and bone’ strings. Even though the pop industry isn’t riddled with cellos, cello rock is definitely a genre in its own right, as evidenced by lists of the best international cello groups found on www.ranker.com. As well as symphonic rock and folk rock, most of these groups are in the cello rock ranking, where Apocalyptica, 2Cellos and Break of Reality currently claim a place on the podium, followed by bands like ELO and Rasputina.

See Also

» Acoustic & Electric Cellos
» Cello Stands
» Cello Cases
» Cello Strings
» Cello Books
» Bowed String Instrument Maintenance Gear
» Bowed String Instrument Microphones
» Cello Parts

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