By Cristina Schreil
[Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in the July 2018 issue of Strings magazine. This online version was updated in July 2023.]
“Let’s face it—it’s really true that everything happens between the bow, the string, and your fingers on the string,” says David Bonsey, a violin maker, appraiser, and dealer. “Everything to do with the music is really generated from the bow.”
If you find you’re reaching limits with your current bow, however, perhaps it’s time to seek a new stick. You want to find a bow that better accommodates certain aspects of your playing, influences the overall sound of your instrument, or helps you tackle specific repertoire. But navigating today’s bow market can be overwhelming. Bonsey and bow makers George Rubino and Lynn Armour Hannings have plenty of advice on the keys to a successful search for a new bow.
Where to Begin
“My recommendation is always to go to a bow maker or a shop where there is someone who is very knowledgeable about bows,” Bonsey says. Your teacher or colleagues can also be handy resources. If you’re going directly to a maker, Bonsey usually recommends turning to the American Federation of Violin and Bow Makers, an organization for which he serves as a governor.
Diagnosing your issues and determining your needs early on is crucial. This informs a dealer or maker before you dive in and start testing bows. Rubino speaks with clients to understand their playing level, technique, and other playing circumstances. For example, orchestral section players might prefer a bow with a wide dynamic range, while principals or soloists may care more about projection. “What are the pros and cons of the bow that you have right now? Try to think about that—maybe there’s an issue with spiccatto or the bow doesn’t draw sound evenly out through the whole length of the stick,” says Rubino.
Hannings also asks a lot of questions. If she can watch the player in action, she notes where he or she may be tensing, or if she notices any balance or control issues. She also considers repertoire—pop concerts would require specific qualities in a bow, for example—and special situations, such as if a player performs at many outdoor weddings.
“Be careful that you’re not duplicating what you’re trying to change from. Change or difference may be good and exactly what you need.”
How to Narrow Down Your List
Obviously, taking bows on a trial run is necessary. Keeping things simple aids your evaluation. Rubino recalls one professional player who ended up testing 27 bows. Unsurprisingly, he soon became utterly overwhelmed.
“You don’t want to give anybody a dozen bows to look at,” Hannings says, adding that it often becomes a blur. Hannings advises playing “very, very simple music, or even just open strings, rather than complicated music that takes your thinking away from the bow and gets you concentrating on notes.” Three-octave scales can be enough to grasp a bow’s range. To help shoppers whittle down their lists, Hannings offers an organized chart on her website where one can make notes about several playability factors, such as perception of the weight, stick strength, and tone quality. It’s also wise to test bows alongside your current, more familiar bow—“even if it’s one that you hate”—to compare. Above all, question if the sound quality represents your aesthetic values.
Rubino also recommends simple music to better discern how the bow responds. “See how the bow feels crossing strings. Don’t worry about playing your most favorite excerpt that you’ve had trouble with,” he says. “Those are the traps that lead to insecurity and confusion.” Rubino adds that this sways your focus from evaluation—“really listening to what the bow is saying”—to playing notes correctly. Ground yourself via specific questions: “How does it feel? Does it draw sound all the way through the length of the bow? Do I have to change my input into the bow in the middle of the stroke?” If you insist on playing a particular piece (for instance, if you’re bow shopping for specific repertoire), keep passages short, Rubino says. “Don’t play 25 measures. Play five or six.”
Where you test is also critical. Opt for familiar spaces or concert halls. Enlist your trusted network to listen in. Besides testing the bow under the ear, Hannings suggests having someone else test. “Stand back in the hall and listen to the quality of the sound from a distance. [Ask], ‘Does it project the quality of sound that I’m really looking for?’”
Be aware that, especially if you’re trying a few bows from several makers, shipping costs can add up.
What’s in a Price?
There’s an assumption, Bonsey says, that more expensive bows equal better quality bows—something that can be true to an extent. But it isn’t always the case, and shoppers can get hung up on price tags. “Maybe the most confusing thing is: Why are some bows expensive and other bows not?” he says.
Bonsey offers that shoppers should trust their gut first. That said, for a price range of $2,500 and under, Bonsey usually recommends looking at carbon-fiber bows. For a good wood bow, he suggests German bows from the 1920s and ’30s, such as those by known makers, like Knopf, Wunderlich, Nürnberger, or Herrmann, which are mostly all fine silver-mounted bows. “There were so many of them made. The materials were really good, the workmanship was great,” he says. He adds that bows by W.E. Hill & Sons—ones marked with shorter stamps reading “Hill” or “WEH”—are seeing popularity.
For budgets over $5,000, Bonsey recommends going to a maker, noting how the work of a recognized maker increases in value. “I think you’re much more likely to have a piece of wood that is going to need less attention down the road,” he adds. Speaking of investments: Take the time to ensure a bow is in good shape. “Have a bow maker check it for conditions like cracks or warping or any other issues, like issues of authenticity,” says Bonsey, who adds this is helpful especially for bows being represented as antiques in the $10,000-plus range. “Be absolutely sure if you’re buying an antique bow that all of the principal parts on it are certified authentic.”
Listen to Your Gut—But Be Open
Especially when you’re close to deciding, trust your intuition, Bonsey says. “I like to show instruments and bows to kids a lot because they’re very definite about what they like and what they don’t like—right away. They don’t overthink it.” Adults, however, are prone to waffling.
In addition, Hannings cautions against hunting for a “perfect” bow. Be realistic in your assessments and focus on concrete aspects of playability to best match a bow to your instrument, your technique, and the music. “I don’t think that there’s one bow that will work for every single piece of music,” she says. “I think there are Mozart bows, there are Mahler bows… ” She adds it’s also helpful to check your preconceived notions. “Oftentimes we go into buying bows with a maker’s name in mind or a pedigree in mind,” she says. Doing so can close you off to potential matches.
Flexibility also helps. For instance, if you’re normally fastidious about bow weight, know that this can fluctuate depending on weather; don’t eliminate a bow if it happens to be a gram over your preference. And, notice if a bow feels too familiar. “Be careful that you’re not duplicating what you’re trying to change from,” Rubino says. “Change or difference may be good and exactly what you need.”
This article originally appeared in the July 2018 issue of Strings magazine.