Playing second fiddle
The violin itself is what most people talk about when anyone speaks of actually playing the instrument. This is with good reason. However, the bow is almost of equal importance! While the violin is the main consideration in the sound and quality of the sound produced, the bow you are using can have a very profound effect on the quality of your tone and playing.
This article is going to help you understand what to look for when considering which bow to use or buy for your violin. It’s important to know the variables one can encounter when using a violin bow. To this end, I’m going to outline the components and characteristics of a bow.
The bow is composed of specific parts: the bow stick, the horsehair, the tip, the frog, the screw, and the grip. The main components that you want to consider are the bow stick, the horsehair and the qualities of these components.
The bow stick is generally made of four materials: Pernambuco, Carbon Fiber, Brazil wood, and fiberglass. Generally speaking, the and price of the bow is attributed to the type of material used in the construction of the bow and the quality of the construction. Most manufacturer’s perspective is that Pernambuco is the best material for quality bow construction.
However, it is becoming rare and there are questions about it’s sustainability. Manufacturers have started looking to other materials and that’s where Carbon Fiber came in. Carbon Fiber seems to be the next best material for bow making. This material is light and responsive and often less expensive than Pernambuco which allows the manufacturer to spend more on other components.
Next on the list is Brazil wood. This comes from Brazil but is of generally used in lower quality violin bows and limited in it’s responsiveness. For this reason, Brazil wood is used generally for student bows. Likewise, Fiberglass is a lower quality material used in bow stick making and isn’t very responsive. This material is relegated to use only in beginner bows.
Bow Hair is an important factor in the sound of the bow. If the wrong bow hair is chosen, it can make less friction on the strings and therefore produce less sound. Generally speaking, makers and manufacturers like to use bow hair from horses that reside in colder climates as they feel it leads to horse hair that produces more friction. White horse hair is most often used but there have been and are examples of bows with different color hair. Mongolian horse hair is believed to be one of the finest horse hairs to use in bow making.
In addition to the materials used, there are factors specific to the bow that affect it’s playability.
This is literally how the bow and bow hair bounce on the string. If it responds and reacts swiftly to your added or removed pressure, the bow is likely to be of good quality. If it is sluggish and loose, then it’s likely to be of lower quality. To be certain, everyone has their preferences.
However, you don’t want a bow that is one step away from a spaghetti noodle or you wont be able to execute some of the more advanced techniques of bowing. Make sure you can bounce the bow so that you are later able to perform techniques such as spiccato.
Weight and Balance
Additionally, one wants to make sure that the weight of the bow is not cumbersome. If the bow is too heavy, a performer won’t be able to play lightly or bounce the bow correctly. Considering violinists are often tasked with techniques that require this, a heavy bow can be a real drag…pun intended.
Make sure the bow is not too heavy. However, also make sure the weight of the bow is evenly distributed between the tip and the frog. If the bow is too off balance, it can negatively affect our sound production as well.
The Physical Characteristics of the Bow
There are two, dimensional aspects that are important characteristics of a good bow. The first is Camber, or the curvature of the bow. If holding the bow sideways so as to make the bow hair face the ground, and the bow is fully loosened, you can see that there is a substantial curve to the bow.
The bow will be curving down towards the bow hair. This is exactly what the bow should be doing. If there is any variation in this you could be looking at playability issues. Additionally, one should also consider the straightness of the bow.
Hold the bow so that you’re looking directly from the tip down the bow in a straight line. Not a side or vertical view, but a head on view. You will be able to see whether or not the bow is straight or slightly warped. You want to make sure you are acquiring a nice, straight bow.
Finally, there are two more considerations: your budget, and your size of violin.
All of these things are well and good, but if they don’t fit into your budget, none of it matters right? If you’re an absolute beginner, the best bang for your buck is USUALLY found with carbon fiber or carbon graphite bows. Brazilwood and fiberglass bows are what MOST student packages are shipped with.
These brazilwood violin bows can be of decent quality, but fiberglass bows are generally very inexpensive and of low quality. There are several options for bows that won’t break your bank but will give you a quality bow to grow into from day one. However, don’t over extend your budget. When you’re a beginner, the benefits need to heavily outweigh the financial expenditures.
This one seems pretty straight forward and it is. Make sure your violin bow matches your violin size. For example, use a 4/4 violin bow with a 4/4 violin, or a 1/2 size bow with a 1/2 size violin.
Taking all these factors into consideration will hopefully help you find a quality bow that fits your budget, your skills and helps you grow as a musician. Finding a great bow that not only works for you but works for you wallet can be difficult. However, at Musilesson, we make the search for a great violin bow a little less complicated. Have a great day!