Jim Clinton Violins Greenville, SC

What makes a good bow?

5.12.2011

Blog

Buying your next bow and upgrading your sound

What makes a good bow? What are the factors to consider before upgrading that all-important part of your sound? As we grow as musicians we realize the role the bow plays. It is considered by some to be half of the instrument. We all know, or will come to know, that not all instruments and bows like each other. That is to say, there is a symbiosis between some bows and instruments that results in sound and feel that is far better and greater than one might expect.

How often have you seen a bow that was just beautiful? It may have a fancy frog made from some bone or exotic wood, but it felt like a log in your hand. Or even worse, made your instrument sound like it had a head cold! As much as beauty can turn your head, it is far more important to go for sound and functionality. Weight and balance are two primary characteristics to consider. A bow may be slightly heavier than the one you are currently using but if the balance makes it manageable this will work in your favor. Even if the balance is good but you still feel as though you are lifting weights when you use it, it may just be a bit too heavy. Knowing the weight and balance point of your current bow will help you zero in on other bows that are similar, or help you figure out what you don’t like about your current bow. Take time to compare your bow to the bows you are thinking of purchasing. A good shop will have the bows marked with weights and balance points so you can make an informed decision on what direction you want to go. Here are some ranges of bow weights and balance points:

Instrument Weight Balance Point Optimum Weight
Violin 57-64g 9.25-10″ 60
Viola 66-72g 9.25-10″ 70
Cello 78-87g 9-10″ 82
Bass 115-150g 8.5-9.5″ 136

 

Some folks will not need this information if they go by “feel.” The intuitive approach can be less methodical and more exploratory depending on feel and trusting your ability to know by these factors. If this works for you, then use it. Some folks have picked up a bow and known it was exactly what they were looking for. Others have found their bow through serendipity. For still others, it has been the fruit of a long and thoroughly researched effort. Be aware, if you play long enough, you manage to accumulate several bows. There is no one perfect bow. But there will be one that works very well for you.

As you think about going bow shopping, ask yourself a couple of questions. What are you looking for in a bow? How do you want your playing to change? What are you hoping to find in a new bow that will open you up to new performing experiences? What is it about your current bow that is holding you back? Does it bounce? Do you have to tighten it up too much? Does it fight you on fast passages? These are the telltale signs that you are outgrowing your bow.

If you have questions, ask other players, your mentor or teacher, even someone at the store. You can’t ask too many questions.

Here is a list of questions to ask as you go bow shopping;

  • Sound – How does it sound? Does it have a strong core, high overtones, a strong midrange? Does it like your instrument?
  • Volume – Is it loud, low, focused, not so focused? How is the carrying power?
  • Weight – Do you prefer heavy or light? Try several bows to find out what feels good.
  • Balance – Does it feel good? Do you prefer it to be heavy at the tip, heavy at the frog?
  • String contact – Is it even overall? Is it good at the tip? Where does it really shine? How about in the middle or at the frog?
  • Bounce – Where is the bounce? Is it good over the whole bow, irregular, or good only in one point?
  • Stability – Is it stable along the whole stick, or does it break out to the side, in the middle, or at the frog?
  • Stiffness – Is it stiff or soft at the frog, the middle, or the tip?
  • Feel – Is it comfortable in your hands?
  • Aesthetics – How does it look? Does it have a nice tip, frog, and beautiful wood? Is it gold, silver or nickel mounted? These are all nice to have but do not make a great playing bow.

All of these characteristics are important in finding the best bow for you.

There is one last thing to think about. What material makes the best stick? In the past, all bows were made of pernambuco, brazilwood, snakewood or fiberglass. The best bows are often pernambuco. These other woods and fiberglass were used to make bows of lesser quality. In the last fifteen years or so the technology for using carbon fiber, either molded or braided, has become an option often touted as the “environmental” option since it does not threaten the rainforests to make a bow from a man-made material. There are a couple of makers in Brazil that grow their own trees just for bow making so there are still sustainable ways to get a wood bow besides buying a high quality older bow, which can be a very good option. Some folks think that these carbon fiber bows do not sound as good as a wood bow while others find them just fine and love the sound they get from them. Not all carbon fiber bows are made the same. Some makers cut corners, while others pride themselves in their bows of superior quality, usually with a price that reflects that pride. There is even a bow maker who is making bows out of bamboo. Regardless of what material you decide is best, make sure the next bow you buy moves your playing forward. Ask your teacher or mentor to help guide you. They will be glad to do that for you.

This article and other informative articles like it can be found at www.jcviolins.com.

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