How To Choose A Violin BowIt is generally accepted that a string player settles on an instrument before getting a bow. Many people feel the instrument is more important. Others feel these items are of equal importance and a few feel that the bow is more important. I say this: do you go to a violin recital or do you go to a bow recital? Is the musician a violinist or a bowist? I believe that answers the question. However, after the instrument is settled on, the bow is the next project.
When seeking a bow, first keep in mind that just because a bow is expensive doesn’t automatically make it a better playing bow. Just as with violins there is an order of characteristics that for the most part determine the price (most of which are completely irrelevant to the actual playing quality of the bow).
In terms of materials Pernambuco is the wood of choice for the better bow sticks. Brazilwood is used for many student bows. Within the last 10 years or so carbon fiber has been rapidly gaining ground on wood bows. Many people feel the carbon fiber works just as well as Pernambuco. On the bottom end are fiberglass bows, primarily used by beginners.
The hair on the bow is traditionally white horse hair. Many substitutes have been tried over the years but horse hair is still considered to be the best material. In evaluating a bow make sure it has been rehaired recently. Over time the hair stretches and loses its ability to hold rosin. A fine playing bow with poor hair is like a fine violin with cheap steel strings.
Stick shape is the subject of ongoing and basically unprovable opinion — some believe the stick should be round, others favor an octagon shape. The quality and characteristics of the wood being used will be the deciding factor, not the shape it is made into.
When trying bows make sure the play the same instrument with them all — a common denominator is absolutely necessary here. Critical qualities to look for:
For a bow to do its job it must cling to the strings, and to cling to the strings it must vibrate along with the string. A good way to tell if the bow is lively and can vibrate along with the string is to tap the tightened bow with the hair facing your wrist on your wrist, and feel the vibrations in the hold of the bow. Without this quality the bow will slip and skate on the surface of the string rather than settling in, pulling a full tone, and varying the tonal colors. This liveliness also contributes to making off-the-string strokes such as spiccato and richochet better and clearer, yet also makes on-the-string strokes such as legato and detache better.
The correct balance of a bow is very important. The bow should not feel too heavy at the frog nor be too light at the tip. If it is too light at the tip it will take extra energy to get a strong sound in the upper part of the bow. If it is too heavy at the frog it will be difficult to control; there will be trembling when doing an up-bow approaching the frog, and a tendency to stiffen up when going toward the tip.
Strength and Flexibility
Strength and flexibility are basically opposites, yet they are both necessary for a bow to be controllable and capable of producing a good tone. The strength is absolutely essential in getting and making a strong and powerful tone. The bow should have quickness of response, relative absence of surface noise, and clarity of tone.
To evaluate strength, I check how difficult it is to turn the screw when tightening the bow. If the frog fits correctly (that is if there is minimal friction between the frog and the stick) it should be reasonably difficult to turn the screw — if it turns extremely easily, the bow is too weak. If you put the bow down in its middle on the D string for instance, and you have tightened it, see how much resistance there is as you bear down on it before the stick touches the hair without playing or moving the bow. There should be reasonable resistance here also.
Camber and Straightness
The bow is naturally curved in the middle as it dips down in the direction of the hair. This is called the camber. The camber is extremely important as it, in part, gives the the bow the necessary strength needed for playing. If the bow is cambered too much it becomes stiff and clumsy and if it is not cambered enough it feels weak. A bow will tend to lose its camber over time if it is not loosened when put away or is subjected to a lot of pounding. Another type of curve is not desirable and comes after much playing: the bow tends to bend to the right (looking down the shaft from the frog end) on the violin and viola and to the left on the cello and bass. If the bow is crooked, off-the-string bowings are noisy and hard to control. Accidental squeaks and noises will also occur in unwanted places and in technically demanding music. A bow can be straightened and/or the camber restored by an experienced bow repairman. However, each time it is done the stick loses a little bit of its strength.
Attributes that can affect both the playing quality and monetary value of a bow:
All things being equal, an old bow will play better than a new one — the aging process works the same with bows as with violins. However, the age must be weighed against its condition. An older bow that has been treated gently can play beautifully, but a new bow in good condition will play much better than an older bow that is worn out. If a stick has been used by many aggressive players over the years, or has been roughly treated or neglected, it will be virtually impossible to breathe new life into it. Which leads me to:
Condition is much more important for a bow than it is for a violin. Even if the bow has one crack (particularly at the tip) it loses about 90% of its trade-in or retail value. This is true even if the crack has been fixed and the bow plays perfectly well. 30 years ago a bow couldn’t be fixed if it cracked at the tip as traditional glues wouldn’t hold up. However, with epoxy and other space age glues bows can now be fixed and will be virtually good as new. Getting a fine playing bow that has been fixed for a low price can be the way to go for someone who can’t afford that type of bow in uncracked condition.
Factors that impact price:
The name of the maker of a bow is just as important in determining price as with a stringed instrument. But it is important to realize that a bow is actually subjected to more wear and tear than a violin or cello — there’s a lot of physical exertion involved with bowing. Unlike a violin, a bow can actually wear out without ever being broken or cracked. If a bow is left tight for long periods of time or if it is used in a very aggressive manner for many years it will eventually become soft and soggy. Therefore even if a bow has a big name and looks like it is in fine condition, the player must test it in a variety of ways before spending a good deal of money on it.
Country of Origin
The French are as well known for bows as the Italians are for violins. The French invented the bow as we know it and most bowings use French words to describe them. France over the years has produced many fine bowmakers. Even for bows made by modern French makers the price will tend to be higher than from other countries such as Germany, Switzerland and the United States. However, there are a lot of fine playing bows from these countries, that will play just as well as a French bow at a fraction of the cost.
A good French bow with papers from a reputable authenticator can be a good investment. In the past 50 years or so the prices of these bows have gone up greatly. However, if you are a player trying to make a career, a bow that plays the way you want it to should outweigh the investment potential. In fact, if you are buying a bow as an investment you probably shouldn’t use it much because if a bow gets a crack (which can happen simply by dropping it on the tip) its monetary value plummets dramatically.
Bowmakers individualize their products in a variety of ways. Some bows are highly decorative, some are very simply adorned. As these factors are as much a statement of the bowmaker’s personal taste as anything else, the musician should not assume that “more decoration” automatically means either “more valuable” or “more playable”.
Within an individual maker’s line, often their more expensive bows will be more decorated, using more expensive accent materials than their less expensive bows, so context is very important. For example, frog and button mounting materials typically include nickel (for beginner to advancing level bows), sterling silver (for advancing and advanced level bows) and gold (usually reserved for a maker’s top end bows). Gold mounting does not guarantee that the playability of the bow will be better. What it does indicate is that the maker considered it one of his best bows for whatever reason and the chances are if you have two bows by the same maker the one mounted in gold will play better that the one mounted in nickel.
Thus you can make judgements about bows by the same makers, but shouldn’t universalize among all makers. Also, whether a bowmaker’s gold-mounted bow will actually play better than someone else’s silver-mounted bow is a perfectly valid question. It may simply cost more. Always satisfy yourself about the playing quality of a bow first.
Decorative effects on bows are typically concentrated on the frog (including rings, pearl eyes, metal inlays, linings and a variety of other styles); buttons (which again receive a variety of treatments) and the metals used in their mounting (nickel alloys, sterling silver and gold). Frogs themselves are most commonly made of ebony wood, though low-end bows sometimes have frogs made of plastic. (Older expensive bows may have ivory or tortoiseshell frogs.) Finally, grip windings may be made of silver, gold or plated metal wires; imitation or real whalebone (nowadays real whalebone will be found only on older bows); or colored threads. Metal grips add more weight to a bow.
Wooden bow colors are usually within the brown family with pernambuco exhibiting warmer shades of brown when new and darker, richer browns when older. Some bowmakers color their wood to their own preferences. If the grain is clearly visible, brazilwood will appear more porous than pernambuco. Carbon fiber bows are usually wood colored, although the cheaper versions are sometimes dyed different colors such as red, green, blue, etc.
Finally, bowmakers have individual stamping schemes, often using stars, letters and/or combinations of the two. If you are considering an older bow, research into this area can be useful.
The bow is the second half of the equation for stringed instrument players. A quality bow will be noticeably easier to play and considerably more expressive than an inexpensive, warped, worn out or otherwise damaged bow. Sometimes a musician will become dissatisfied with the sound of their instrument when, in reality, it is the bow that is the culprit. Selecting or upgrading your bow can be confusing but in the end should be enormously pleasing.