In this paper, we present a three-dimensional nanorod solar cell design. As the backbone of the nanorod device, density-controlled zinc oxide (ZnO) nanorods were synthesized by a simple aqueous solution growth technique at 80 °C on ZnO thin film pre-coated glass substrate. The as-prepared ZnO nanorods were coated by an amorphous hydrogenated silicon (a-Si:H) light absorber layer to form a nanorod solar cell. The light management, current–voltage characteristics and corresponding external quantum efficiency of the solar cells were investigated. An energy conversion efficiency of 3.9% was achieved for the nanorod solar cells with an a-Si:H absorber layer thickness of 75 nm, which is significantly higher than the 2.6% and the 3.0% obtained for cells with the same a-Si:H absorber layer thickness on planar ZnO and on textured SnO2:F counterparts, respectively. A short-circuit current density of 11.6 mA/cm2 and correspondingly, a broad external quantum efficiency profile were achieved for the nanorod device. An absorbed light fraction higher than 80% in the wavelength range of 375–675 nm was also demonstrated for the nanorod solar cells, including a peak value of ~ 90% at 520–530 nm.