March 31, 2021
It has been a decade since I wrote the first post about the creation of my electric cello. Since then a lot has changed, but my love for the instrument is the same as it was back in undergrad. I have loved sharing the creation of this beautiful object, and it has been a joy to see so many people interact with that post.
I also appreciate this documentation because the electric cello has vanished, and now this is my only record of its existence! And yes, I truly do mean vanished. Here’s the story: I lent the cello to a friend studying at the Berklee College of Music. Some time after that I received a panicked call – the head of the cello had broken off for a second time. The retaining piece I had built was just not strong enough to fight the pull of the strings and the faultline in the wood itself. I reassured my friend, this had happened before after all, and asked that they bring it back home so that I could eventually do some repairs. After this the trail goes cold – have any Berklee music students out there seen a broken cello laying around?
It sounds crazy, but I actually see this as a blessing. I’m not sure I could have fixed the head for a second time and now I have the opportunity to rethink the design for my next effort.
So, that’s enough exposition. After all this isn’t an online recipe, am I right? For years I have been asked for a template to use for those of you out there wanting to build your own electric cello, and today I am happy to share my revised design!
If you want to skip the explanation just scroll to the bottom of the article for the downloadable templates and additional resources.
Measuring the Cello – From Above
Hours of google searching did not sift out an adequate AutoCAD drawing of a cello so I am starting with my acoustic, same as last time. The metric system is simply better in every way so I will be using millimeters for my dimensions. Sorry fellow Americans you’ll have to use a converter, just divide by 25.4 for inches.
This part is pretty straightforward. Viewed from above these are the dimensions:
In addition to measuring against my own instrument I have leaned heavily on the excellent resources from Woodsound studio.
The most important measurements to focus on from this angle are: fingerboard length, space between fingerboard and bridge, space between bridge and tailpiece, and overall width at knees. In my conceptual sketch you can see, in yellow, where I am starting to define the shape of the body for an electric version.
This time around I want to extend the thicker portion of the stick up so that it starts in the same place as the hollow body on a traditionally acoustic cello. It’s important for me to have that place to land in fourth position. In my last electric I included this as part of the detachable chest piece but this time I want it to be more streamlined over all with less finicky parts in the attachments.
Finger board aside:
The typical length of a finger board is 580mm (22.8″), however some luthiers increase it to 584.2mm (23″). The highest note in cello literature is the E6, heard in the opening movement of Elgar’s Cello Concerto in E Minor, Op. 86. Here you can see a screen grab of this note being played from Johnathan Humphries’ YouTube channel:
As you can see that note is extremely close to the end of the fingerboard, you do not want this component to be too short. Generally speaking, it’s better to go a little long on the fingerboard than to go a little short. Even if you are regularly playing that E6 the extra 4 mm of length won’t make any discernable difference. Because of that I am making space for a 284 mm (~23″) fingerboard in this electric cello design.
Template for Electric Cello Plan (face and back):
There are so many fun things you can do with the headstock of an electric cello. My eventual dream would be to craft something as beautiful as the Sundlof Guitars harpoon model.
In my templates I have kept the design of the headstock purposefully neutral, with the idea that you will design your own version. The only dimension to keep in mind is the spacing needed between strings to ensure that they line up with the groves on the nut at the top of the fingerboard. This spacing will inform where the tuning pegs can come through as the strings should be pretty much in line with the nut as they come off of the tuners.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the design of this component. As you know from my last post this was the Achilles heel of the previous design. In my next iteration I think I will try to create a slotted headstock like you see on acoustic guitars in order to help with overall stability.
Measuring the Cello – In Profile
The next set of measurements to tackle are from the side. This is the trickier part of the design. If your strings lie too close to the finger board you will have a rattling sound as you play. In an acoustic cello, as you can see in the excellent diagram below, the angles of bridge to fingerboard are exact and are based off of the angle of the whole system to the hollow body of the cello.
In an electric cello the angle of the bridge is changed. It’s no longer perpendicular to the hollow body of the cello but instead is perpendicular to the stick. Because of this the bridge height is reduced in an electric model, but I never noticed a difference in how it feels to play.
When I created my last cello I easily recognized where I was out of my depth. The measurement and shaping of finger board, nut, and bridge are so precise, and so essential, that I decided to not try to make those on my own. I ordered a fingerboard online (see resources at the bottom of this article), installed it on the stick, then brought the almost complete instrument to a local luthier for them to shape and notch the nut, and cut down an old warped bridge I had on hand. I would highly recommend doing the same.
Template for Electric Cello Profile:
The next step is creating the parts of the cello that are held by the knees and rested against the chest. Because of the shape of the acoustic instrument these additional parts need to come off of the electric cello at specific angles.
If you want to bypass this design challenge you can buy a stand online that you can attach to your homemade body. I can’t vouch for its effectiveness but here is one example: Sweetwater NS Design Cello Stand
Based on these dimensions I have created a working concept for these two additional components. At the chest I need a total of 5-5/8″ of depth from the face of the cello, and a simple curve to match the curved top of the acoustic.
The knee piece requires geometry, which, despite the forewarnings of my high school teachers, I haven’t used in 15 years. In my last build I was able to figure out the angle just by playing around the with piece in person and marking what felt right. This time I’m trying to plan it all out before hand to create these templates – which is to say these designs are not tested. Create a prototype and make sure they work for you before cutting up your favorite piece of wood.
My design for this component requires a notch be cut out of the back of the cello, then the knee piece slides in and is held in place by screwing into a wood insert nut. The angles of this notch correspond with the angles outlined in the image above.
Template for Electric Cello Attachments:
(I am not affiliated with or sponsored by any of these companies. These are just the parts that I either used in the past, or would consider using in the future, based on personal research.)
This website server doesn’t allow .dwg or .zip files to be uploaded, so I have uploaded the template set to a Google Drive folder instead that you can access by clicking the button below. If that doesn’t work copy and paste the site address into your browser.
- 48×36 Full scale PDF: Clean – no dimensions (Arch E)
- (1) PDF has all four templates on one sheet
- (1) PDF has each template on a separate page.
- 11×17 PDF: With dimensions.
- DWG with plans and elevations (No 3D)
- Clean JPEGs of each template
3 thoughts on “Creation of an Electric Cello – Measurements and Templates”
Thank you, very comprehensive information. Just what I’ve been looking for!
Carolyn, thank you so much for sharing this valuable information you have amassed in designing and building your cello.
It is a beautiful instrument, and a credit to your persistence in having created it. Yes, such a pity it is no longer with you.
I hope you may one day make another such beautiful instrument.
Thank you so much for sharing.