In the same way an artist’s faithful brush works to animate and express the different colors of her imagination, the bow, through its influence on sound production, articulation, and projection, serves to enliven the voice of the stringed instrument. In fact, the bow is so essential to sound production that professional players will choose a quality bow and a second-rate instrument over a high-end instrument with a substandard bow!
Simply put, a good bow should become an extension of the right hand. Generally, the best one for any player is that which can be played with little thought or effort. When deciding on the right bow, there are three main components to evaluate:
The quality of the bow’s material will influence its strength, durability, flexibility, and cost. Four main types exist, although advances in technology continue to provide new variations.
-Comprises majority of student-level bows
-Combines long fibers with chemical binder that hardens into glass-like substance
-Strong, flexible, inexpensive to make
-Suitable for student-level and early intermediate players
-Consists of outer layers of tropical hardwood
-Strong, dense, and supple; an economical value
-Designated for advanced to professional players; top choice for wood bows
-Consists of inner dense, stronger layers of tropical hardwood
-Noted for best combination of strength, elasticity, and responsiveness
-Scarce in supply, expensive
-Used by both advanced and professional players
-Produced by suspending carbon fibers in a binding material
-Popularized in last 20 years by shortage of Pernambuco
-Possesses many qualities of Pernambuco but more durable and generally less costly
Regardless of playing ability or level, it is essential to find a bow that has a tone color production that is generally pleasing to you and is also compatible with your particular instrument. Besides bow material, other factors like the weight, balance, and strength of the bow, all of which boil down to the quality of craftsmanship, influence sound performance. Technical demands on the bow will, of course, vary based on playing ability and style, but key features to keep in mind when judging sound integrity include:
-Purity of tone and clarity of tone production
-Uniformity of tone from frog to tip
-Ability to play both loud and soft with minimum scratching
-Relative absence of surface noise
-Quickness of response
-Effectiveness of down-bow crescendos (all the way to tip)
-Ease of increasing speed of stroke
Because each bow is crafted individually, it is important to test out several models.
Lastly, the decorative presentation of the bow may influence player preference based on style, affordability, and in some cases, more subtle aspects of player comfort.
-Bow mountings (referring to the metal parts of the frog and button) vary from nickel to silver to gold
-Bow grip lapping may be metal wire (more common), wire and silk combined, or imitation whalebone (more rare)
-Variations in frog eyes: plain (simple round inlaid dots), Parisian (surrounded by metal circles), Full (larger in size, more ornate), or blind (absent)
-Round or octagonal stick: bows are made in accordance with that particular piece of wood; stability, weight, strength and flexibility all play a role in whether the stick becomes octagonal or round (i.e., there is no inherent difference in the quality or value of either stick, just form)
While the task of choosing the right bow may seem daunting, having a general set of guidelines to follow makes the process less intimidating. Like strings, the best approach to finding what fits your needs best is experimentation. At Music and Arts, we are proud to offer customers a variety of bows to choose from, including the professional model Pernambuco bow with nickel-mounted ebony frog that comes standard in the 600 line of our Otto Benjamin series. If you are interested in learning more and testing bows out for yourself, stop by Music and Arts Itasca any time! We hope you find this quick guide helpful in your search.
Don’t forget to check back in with us for March’s post, where we will next dissect the anatomy of a stringed instrument and its relation to sound. Until then, Happy Playing!
Angeline De Leon
Music and Arts Itasca