By David Knowles & Richard Ward
Put in metaphoric terms, a bow is the key that each player uses to unlock his or her stringed instrument’s sonic potential. In practical terms, however, finding the perfect stick can prove to be a tad more difficult than opening a door.
With choices that range from materials, age, stiffness, weight, and overall balance, bow shopping presents more challenges than you might imagine at first. That said, most experts agree that all string players—from beginners to virtuosos—end up confronting similar issues when purchasing a bow. “Advanced players are often looking for qualities in a bow that a beginner won’t recognize,” James Mason, bow maker and restorer at Portland, Oregon’s David Kerr Violin Shop, said. “That said, there are still some basic common denominators.”
The three basic materials used in bow sticks are brazilwood, pernambuco, and carbon fiber. Brazilwood is a generic name given to several kinds of tropical hardwoods used for inexpensive bows. It comes from Brazil as well as other tropical countries. Brazilwood violin bows are normally priced between about $50 and $200 and are suitable for beginning or possibly early intermediate players.
Since the late 18th century, pernambuco has been the wood of choice for the best bows. It’s a dense, heavy wood that comes from several areas in Brazil and seems to possess just the right combination of strength, elasticity, and responsiveness. There are many subspecies and enormous variation in quality. Top master bow makers will spend a great deal of time looking for and choosing only the very best pernambuco sticks, rejecting most everything else. Due to environmental degradation, pernambuco is now scarce, and as a result, the government of Brazil has put severe restrictions on the export of this wood, making it rare and expensive.
The lack of available pernambuco may be responsible for the quality of products on the bow market. Many players consider the work of the great 19th-century French makers as the ultimate bows. Why have the later makers not been able to equal their work? Some say that the species of pernambuco used by their predecessors no longer exists and that it became extinct at the beginning of the 20th century. Others feel that makers like Tourte, Peccatte, Simon, Pajot, and their contemporaries were simply the best makers. Certainly their bows are unique. Many have a smooth, supple quality that makes the bow almost part of your hand; the sound these bows produce can be full and rich. More than once, I’ve heard the phrase “smooth as butter” in describing a fine old French bow. However, other players prefer modern bows that are stiffer, stronger, and quicker in response.
Within the last 20 years, carbon-fiber bows have become popular, in part because of the shortage of pernambuco—some of the world’s best players favor newer, more durable carbon-fiber bows over traditional pernambuco wood models that have grown scarce in the wake of dwindling resources. Carbon-fiber bows—manufactured from various grades of carbon fiber bonded with a resin—possess many of the qualities of pernambuco. Also, carbon fiber is durable, and at its price range represents a good value. “I recommend an inexpensive carbon-fiber bow that plays similarly to a standard wood bow and is of a similar weight and balance,” Mason says. “This will also make a great spare bow when they are ready to upgrade.”
Not everyone is sold on the newfangled synthetic sticks, however.
“What I hear most often is that carbon-fiber bows don’t have the same tone as wood,” says Ken Altman, a Silverton, Oregon, bow maker.
Still, carbon fiber and less expensive fiberglass bows don’t warp like wood, making them attractive for string players who do a lot of traveling or who play outdoors or in extreme heat or cold.
How the bow feels when you try it out in the shop has much to do with its balance point. While that spot, located closer to the frog than the tip, will vary from bow to bow, it will help dictate the bow’s overall feel (the typical weight for a bow is 58 to 63 grams for violins; 70 grams for a viola bow; and 80 grams for a cello bow).
Determining whether a given balance point is a good fit for your needs requires testing—and is not necessarily related to the spot where the bow balances on an extended finger. “Draw long even strokes on each string,” says Altman, “You’ve got to get to know the bow.”
Mason agrees. In addition to paying attention to the balance point, he urges buyers to also pay special attention to whether a bow is straight and possesses a suitable camber (or curve). “When trying bows, draw a long slow bow on a single note to check for any shimmies or unwanted vibration,” Mason adds.
Like balance, a bow’s proper stiffness, and its responsiveness, especially for bouncing bow strokes, will be judged by each individual player. Again, what’s crucial when testing a new bow is to play the same way you normally do. “If you have a weak bow, and you apply enough pressure as you play, you’ll end up hitting the strings with the stick, and you definitely don’t want that,” Altman says. “If it’s too stiff, however, the bow won’t perform the bouncing stroke properly.”
While many players readily fork over big bucks for a violin, viola, cello, or bass, some bristle at paying high sums for a bow. That may be penny-wise but pound foolish. “Many people are surprised to discover that good bows are not inexpensive. But it’s all about perspective and priorities,” Mason says. “People will sink an extra $1,500 into a new car to upgrade the wheels and sound system, but think it’s an outrage to spend $600 on a bow.”
Altman recommends buying from a shop that will let you take the bow home for “at least a week,” so that you can test it in the same conditions where it will be most often played. When you do try out a bow, Mason recommends limiting your attention to the sound it produces.
“Don’t read music; play from memory, even if it’s just a scale,” Mason said. “When you are comparing tone between various instruments or bows, it is an exercise of listening, not replicating.”
Lest the pressure of choosing the perfect bow stop you in your tracks before you start, it is worth remembering that what you want in a bow now may be different a few years from now.
“Your playing will constantly change, and so will your needs,” Mason said. “Convincing yourself that you need to find the instrument or bow that will last ‘through college’ or for the rest of your life is not always a great plan.”
In the Shop
So how should you go about finding the best bow? The first step is to establish a budget, but expect to look at bows that are a little more expensive. If you don’t know much about bows, try lots of bows to educate yourself about what is available.
When you go to a violin shop, be sure to bring your own instrument and current bow as a benchmark. Each bow will perform differently on different instruments, so remember that you’re looking for a bow that complementsyourinstrument. A good starting point is to look at six bows at a time. Once you’ve chosen one or two from that batch, ask to see some more. Play the same brief passage with each bow, one right after another. There’s a good chance that one or two will stand out.
First impressions are important. The bow shouldn’t seem too light or heavy in the hand. It shouldn’t be too weak or soft: It shouldn’t collapse easily on the hair when playing, or flex too much laterally. And it should be straight when viewed down the stick.
Play a combination of bowing styles, including legato, spiccato, sautillé, and so on. You might use Wieniawski’s Ètudes-Caprices, Op. 18, No. 4, for example, to give you an idea of how the bow performs in difficult, rapid string-crossing passages. If that’s too difficult, use some of the Sevcik bowing exercises. Play a passage near the frog, in the middle, and near the tip. You should be able to play comfortably with all parts of the bow. Playing slowly, listen to the sound each bow produces and feel how the bow handles. You’ll notice subtle differences in clarity, fullness of sound, surface noise, and so on.
Does the bow enhance or detract from your instrument? While you’re in the shop, use your time efficiently. You’re there to find a bow, not to perform or practice. Once you’ve picked out the two or three bows you prefer, ask to test them out for a week. Try them more extensively at home, in your ensemble or orchestra, and show them to your teacher for comments. If your teacher’s suggestions are important to you, be sure that they are available within the week.
However, showing the bows to too many other players will only confuse you. Everyone will probably have a different opinion, and those opinions may not be helpful.
Remember, the bow will be yours, not theirs—you should make the final decision.
This article was originally published in Strings’ June/July 2004 issue. Products mentioned in this article may no longer be available and/or new products may have since come on to the market.