A Layman’s Guide to Purchasing a Bow for Violin, Viola, Cello or Double Bass
The first of this series of articles focused on the basics of purchasing an instrument in the violin family. The focus of this column is on the selection of a violin, viola, cello, or double bass bow. Generally, the instrument is purchased first, followed by the purchase of at least one bow. An exception is the bassist who purchases a good bow first, transporting it in a hard-shell bow case for use with a school-owned instrument until a bass can be purchased. Bassists also may choose between a French bow and a Butler or German bow. Since the bassist must use a different bow hold for each type bow he should seek the advice of his teacher or orchestra director before making the final decision about which bow to purchase.
Bows have been made from many different materials, most commonly fiberglass and wood. In the 1930’s bow makers even experimented with aluminum. The demands for aluminum in World War II curtailed further experimentation. (There is at least one example of an aluminum violin and bow in the collection at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C. Having played on that instrument with that bow I can say with some authority that the sound is metallic at best.) In the last decade graphite and carbon fiber have been used successfully to create bows of surprising strength and agility, capable of producing the subtleties of the great wood bows at substantially less cost.
A typical student fiberglass bow, strung with horsehair rather than synthetic hair, costs between $45.00 for violin and $85.00 for double bass. A good quality entry-level student pernambuco wood bow may be purchased for between $275.00 for violin and $350.00 for double bass. Viola and cello bows cost within these ranges. Pernambuco (pronounced per-num-boó-co) is the wood of choice for both student and professional bows due to its density and flexibility. While applewood and cherrywood bows may be purchased for significantly less money, such bows are not recommended. Bows made from these inferior woods are usually of poor quality, tend to warp or break easily, and do not respond well in the hand. Brazilwood is also used for less expensive, student bows. Though it is better than the cheaper woods it is not as durable as pernambuco.
Many students begin with fractional size string instruments and matching fractional size fiberglass bows strung with horsehair. This is quite satisfactory despite some teachers’ insistence upon using a wooden bow. As a student progresses to a bigger and better quality instrument the need for a pernambuco wood bow increases. A fiberglass bow can only mimic to a certain extent the weight, balance, and performance capabilities of a wood bow.
Choosing a bow takes time, patience, and the assistance of a reputable and knowledgeable instrument dealer or teacher. Old bows by the great master bow makers can cost thousands of dollars. New bows by recognized makers also have high price tags. The most expensive bow might not work well on a particular instrument, so it is important to set a budget and stay within your financial comfort zone. Avoid the assumption that the higher the price the better the bow will work with your instrument.
When choosing a bow:
• Decide whether you prefer the French style (round) stick or the German style (octagonal) stick. This is largely a personal preference though some performers prefer one style over the other. The octagonal bow is only slightly more expensive. That expense is so minimal that it should not factor into the final decision.
• Sight down the stick from frog to tip and be sure the stick is straight.
• Check for a good cambre or downward curve from the stick to the hair when the hair is tightened. A stick with little or no cambre is useless.
• Find the balance point of the bow by balancing it on two fingers. A well-built bow will balance within a few inches of the bow grip.
• Better bows will have their weights indicated in grams. A heavier bow will generally do more of the work without forcing the player to add unnecessary weight from the arm and hand.
• Check the bow’s fittings: the winding, the frog, the tip, and the turn screw. Pernambuco wood is graded according to quality. A bow-maker usually reserves better frogs and mounts for higher quality wood. Mounts start at the low end with nickel (German) silver, and range to the high end with sterling silver and a quality ebony, tortoise shell, or ivory frog. A Parisian eye frog indicates that the pearl dot on the frog is encircled with a single or double ring of silver.
• Draw the bow slowly across the strings with the contact point near the bridge playing a forte dynamic. Check for spots in the bow that “grab” or “squawk.” If such spots occur consistently they may indicate weaknesses in the bow that can hinder tone production.
• Play spiccato, slurred, martelé bowings and check the bow’s response.
• Whether buying an old bow or a new one check for hidden repairs, especially at the tip and on the lower end of the stick beneath the frog. Check the frog to see if it is original or if it has been replaced. A reputable dealer should inform a buyer of any defects or repairs that would affect the playability and value of a bow.
Take your time and try out as many bows as you can. Get good advice. The right bow in your budget is out there, and with patience you will find it. Happy bow hunting!
This article first appeared in Lines & Spaces, a newsletter published by David E. Smith Publications, and is used here by permission.
Jay-Martin Pinner directs Pinner Studios, a private string studio that teaches over 240 students in Greenville, SC. He served as head of the String Department at Bob Jones University for 25 years and was the founding director of the Bob Jones Academy and Junior High Orchestras. While at BJU he was responsible for the University’s String Instrument Repair Shop, and for the procurement and maintenance of precollege and University-owned instruments.