Everything You Need to Know About Violin Bows
Choosing a violin bow, much like choosing the violin itself, can be a daunting process. To the uninitiated it’s ‘just a violin bow’ but to an experienced violin or fiddle player, the search for the perfect violin bow is a serious undertaking.
A good violin is nothing without a good bow to accompany it.
If you’re a beginner with limited technical skills, chances are you currently don’t make too many demands of your bow. The best fiddle bow in this case is one that will help you get to the next level of your playing. As your skills increase, however, so do your demands on the bow.
So what qualities should you look for in a violin bow? Keep reading and I’ll tell you everything you need to know to choose the right bow for you.
You’ll learn the characteristics of a high quality bow and what factors should influence your decision. I’ll also show you the warning signs to watch out for to avoid making a purchase you’ll regret.
Whether you’re a classical violinist or play traditional Irish music, I promise you’ll be 100% fiddle bow literate by the time you’ve read this!
The Search For The Perfect Violin Bow
For anyone beyond the beginner stage, choosing a bow is a separate task to choosing a violin or fiddle.
Before you begin it’s important to know about the structure of the bow and its different parts. You can learn all about it in my handy guide: The Anatomy of the Violin: A Guide to the Structure of the Violin.
A good bow should be like an extension of your right hand. The perfect bow will depend on your playing style, technique and overall personal preference.
There are several factors that can affect the sound of the bow on the strings including strength, shape, weight and flexibility. Many of these are determined by the materials from which the bow is made.
What Are Violin Bows Made From?
Violin bows are traditionally made from wood, but these days they are increasingly made from synthetic materials. The four main materials typically used are Brazilwood, Pernambuco, Carbon Fibre and Fibreglass.
Brazilwood is actually the generic name given to the less dense sapwood from the Paubrasilia tree (though it can sometimes refer to any generic cheaper wood sourced from Brazil). Somewhat confusingly, Pernambuco is also sourced from this same tree. Pernambuco however is the slow growing denser heartwood of the tree.
While Brazilwood is usually inexpensive and more frequently used for student bows, Pernambuco is considered the holy grail of wood for violin bows. It is strong yet lightweight, allowing for the wide range of motions necessary to play the violin. Brazilwood does not offer the same stiffness and responsiveness. Supplies are limited however, as the Paubrasilia tree is in danger due to deforestation.
Carbon fibre is a material that has gained popularity in recent years for use in bow making. Many violin and fiddle players swear by these bows. I won’t get into the heated debate that is wood vs carbon fibre, but I will tell you that carbon fibre bows offer great value for money, without compromising on sound quality.
Don’t believe me? Why not have a listen for yourself?
Carbon fibre bows are typically more robust and durable than wooden bows. Carbon fibre also has the added benefit of not warping like organic materials. It is also largely unaffected by changes in temperature or humidity.
Another synthetic material commonly used in the making of cheap bows is fibreglass. These bows are frequently of much lower quality than carbon fibre and pernambuco bows, but they are durable. This type of bow is really only suited for students and beginners.
Violin bows are traditionally made with horsehair, but these days they can also be made with synthetic hair. Each has its own advantages and disadvantages:
It’s the material of choice for quality bow makers and has been for centuries as it produces a great sound.
It’s easier to achieve a superior sound. Only really high quality synthetic hair will offer the same dynamic range or depth of tone.
Horsehair is generally more responsive and offers a greater dynamic range than synthetic.
It reacts to environmental changes, specifically to humidity, causing the hair to shorten and lengthen. This means that the bow hair must be continually loosened or tightened to play.
Horsehair can break easily under certain conditions, particularly with age. It’s an organic material after all.
Synthetic Hair Pros
Synthetic bow hair does not react to humidity and maintains its length regardless of weather conditions.
It’s extremely durable and practically eliminates breakage or premature wear and tear.
Synthetic Hair Cons
Synthetic bow hair requires far more rosin than natural horsehair.
Most varieties do not offer the same resonance, response or feel as natural horsehair bows. This is changing as new materials are always being developed, however.
In order for the fiddle strings to produce a sound when bowed, the player must coat the bow hair with rosin. Yes, the stuff that comes from trees! Why?
Violin rosin is sticky which helps the hair to grip the strings. This increases the friction. As a result, this improves the sound produced when the bow meets the strings.
So, whichever material you choose for your bow, don’t forget that you’ll need high quality fiddle rosin to help it achieve its best sound.
Weight & Balance
The average weight of a violin bow is about 60 grams. That being said, bows that are slightly under or over this weight can also play beautifully. Proper balance is far more important than weight.
If a bow feels right in your hand, then chances are it’s the right bow for you.
To test the weight, pick up the bow and hold it at a 45 degree angle. How does it feel when you hold it in your hand?
A good bow should feel natural in the hand – well balanced and equally weighted from frog to tip. It should feel magnetic to the string from start to finish.
Remember, the weight and balance of the stick are unique to each bow. A lighter bow can make certain bow strokes easier while a heavier bow can create a bigger sound.
The stick of the violin bow traditionally comes in two different shapes – round or octagonal.
The main difference is that octagonal sticks are stiffer while round bows are less stiff.
Some violinists and makers will argue that round bows allow for greater control, but it really comes down to personal preference at the end of the day.
Keep reading to find out how the stiffness of the bow affects the tone and quality of sound.
Flexibility is a measure of how the bow reacts under tension. When you tighten your bow it should still have some give. It should also offer a little bounce when played. This will make many different types of articulation and ornamentation easier to play.
A bow that’s too stiff can feel hard to control. A bow that’s too flexible will wobble and won’t allow the player to achieve a full sound on the violin.
You need to find a good balance that fits your playing style and technique.
New violin players are often surprised to learn that different bows can create different sounds on their instruments.
A more flexible bow will usually offer a smoother, fuller sound. If the stick is too flexible however, the sound can lack clarity and definition.
A stiffer bow typically produces a brighter, clearer sound. Be careful though, an overly stiff bow can sometimes produce a rough, edgy sound.
Ideally, you want a bow that offers both. Try to look for a bow that will give both a smooth, broad sound, while also offering clarity and quickness of response.
It’s also important to note that different bows will react differently to different violins. You want to find a bow that will sound best with your own violin and complement your playing style.
The sound you want the bow to produce may also vary depending on what style of music you play. For Irish music, you’ll generally want to be able to achieve a rich, expressive tone on slower pieces and a bright clear tone on faster tunes.
As with buying a violin, there are a few warning signs to watch out for when buying a fiddle or violin bow. Heed these red flags and you’ll be able to navigate any potential pitfalls you may encounter.
The bow hair should be loose and the screw should turn easily. Although, you should check that the hair isn’t too long. Over tightening and age can cause the hair to stretch. To check, simply let the bow down as far as it can go. If the hair hangs loose like a hammock, it’s too long.
Watch out for any cracks or damage in the stick especially if it’s made of wood. Overly tightened horsehair is strong enough to warp or even break a wooden bow.
The bow itself should be perfectly straight, meaning the frog and the tip should be in line. However, it should still retain its camber or curve. Hold the bow out in front of you and look down the wooden stick. If it bends to one side or the wood is warped, steer clear. This can happen with any wooden bow if it hasn’t been well maintained.
Which Bow Is Right For You?
As with any instrument purchase or long term investment, I always suggest shopping around. There are many high quality bows available from reliable, knowledgeable makers.
You can also browse our range of recommended violin and fiddle bows in our online store. Here at McNeela Instruments we offer a range of bows suitable for all levels of player and perfect for playing all styles of music, especially traditional Irish music.
Intermediate players will enjoy our Premium Carbon Fibre Bow which features a beautiful snakewood frog and mother of pearl inlay. It produces a beautiful tone to match!
For advanced players looking to make a worthy investment in their playing, I highly recommend this exquisite J.P Bernard Silver Mounted Bow. This beauty is crafted from the finest materials. The stick is made from pernambuco, with an ebony frog and silver winding.
For more information don’t hesitate to contact our expert team. They’re always happy to help with any query!
[Additional images: Pete Considine CC BY 2.0, Brent & Amanda I CC BY-SA 2.0]