Updated: Nov 9, 2020
The sound of the violin, even leaving aside the instrument itself, is the result of an equation with so many factors that finding the perfect result seems to mean infinite task: choose the strings, the bridge, the soul, the resin ... and the bow.
The bow, we often do not give it the importance it deserves, and yet it is "almost" as important as the violin and is essential to get a good sound and a good performance. In the same way that happens with the violin, the better the bow, the easier it will be for us to play and learn. So let's study it a bit.
PARTS OF THE BOW
- The Stick. The wooden part of the bow. A good bow is traditionally made of Pernambuco wood, although it can also be made of carbon fibre or glass fibre. It can be octagonal or round, which is not indicative of better or worse. However, octagonal may seem more rigid, they are often slightly more expensive than their round counterparts (because it gives more work to do them) and some violinists prefer them because they feel more stable. However, it is a matter of personal appreciation.
- The Frog. The mobile piece at the base of the bow. When moving tense and untangle the bristles. They usually have a metal part at the bottom, plus a metal ring at the front where the bristles are inserted. The frog moves by turning the screw.
- The Screw. The piece at the end of the arch whose rotating movement allows the bow to be tensioned.
- The Thumb Leather or Pad. It helps to properly support the fingers on the bow while protecting the wood.
- The Grip. It is a metallic wire wound next to the leather with the purpose also to protect the wood from wear by the friction of the fingers.
- The Hair. A bow has about one hundred fifty bristles of horsetail (or synthetic material in the cheapest), which are attached on one side to the tip of the bow and on the other to the frog. Once tense, the bristles of the bow need to be rubbed with special violin resin, which deposits on them a layer of powder that is what allows the grip with the strings and makes them vibrate.
The bow has to be stretched before touching. To do this, turn the screw in the clockwise direction to the optimum point, between the bristles and the center of the rod there is a space of at least 6 mm, although it also depends on the preferences of the violinist, the bow, of the character of the music that is going to be played... When finishing playing it is convenient to loosen the bristles a little so that they do not suffer tension for a long time and last longer.
THE EVOLUTION OF THE BOW
The current form and its design were defined and established by the great French archaeologist François Xavier Tourte, at the end of the 18th century. We suggest you to check the evolution of the shape of the bows since 1620 until now.
HOW A GOOD BOW SHOULD BE?
- Weight: A normal bow weighs between 55 and 65 grams. Heavy bows can give a fuller sound by sticking better to the string while the light ones can win in the passages of virtuosity and speed, but they can lose sound and fullness in notes they have. The fundamental thing is the sensation when handling it. The ideal weight would oscillate between 60 and 62 grams although there are also good lighter bows. A higher weight reinforces the volume but can be more difficult for quick bow shots. A too light bow can make it difficult to vibrate the strings. - Balance: A good bow has to be balanced, which does not necessarily mean that it has to be lighter. Holding the bow at 45 degrees can be a good way to feel your balance. The more a bow weighs on the tip, the heavier it will appear. Loosen the bristles and hold the bow between the index finger and thumb, about 25 cm. from the end of the stick (without counting the screw). If the tip falls, the balance point of the bow is too far forward. A bow with the weight towards the tip can be easier to handle. The more backward balance point may seem lighter, but the bow must be directed more.
In addition, a good bow should have the same response speed at the tip, centre or heel. - State: Especially if you are going to buy a second-hand bow, you have to check several factors:
* It is necessary to pay attention to the quality and condition of the frog, a fundamental piece for the good functioning of the bow.
* If the bristles are in bad condition, the bow will not do its job well, although that has an easy solution to change the hair of the bow. Also, bristles in bad condition forced to retract much the frog backwards, unbalancing the bow.
* Very old bows can lose curvature over the years. A luthier can correct this, but it's only worth it if the bow is really good.
* Of course, the bow must be perfectly straight in the lateral dimension. To verify this, we place the bow with the screw in front of our eye and the bristles down looking at it in foreshortening. Any deviation will be easily seen.
* In terms of materials, a good traditional bow has the stick made of pernambuco wood, the ebony walnut, protection of real leather, twisted silver wire or alpaca, and horsehair bristles. There are bows with gold trimmings of tens of thousands of euros.
* A cheaper bow can be made of brazilwood, while walnut, protection and bristles are usually made of synthetic materials.
If you are going to change the bow and you start to try it, when you take several you will not remember how the first behaved. You must be aware of how your playing is, how are your violin and the music you play and what type of bow suits you.
From there it is easier to discard until you find the desired one. The behaviour of the bow is noticeable, especially in long notes. If you are a beginner you will not notice any of this, especially if you try a bad violin. With the experience and based on trying a lot you will be noticing more and more details and subtleties.
The curve of the bow may be a little different in each bow. If it is very pronounced the bow will have a more jumping character (good for spicatto) whereas if it is more straight, it can perform better the long notes. A balanced bow would be good for everything.
WHICH LABELS ARE GOOD?
As I said at the beginning, more than the brand, a better reference is the manufacturing materials, as well as being able to test it. Another reference: expensive brands tend to be better. Apart from that obviousness, it is also true that there are cheap bows better than more expensive ones. The cheapest bows do not usually have a brand. In addition, bows of archery artisans can cost more than a thousand euros. But in the end, there are a few well-known brands: Dörfler, Höfner, Pesold and Werner, all Germans. French Bows: Ary-France, Roger, Spiccato and Student Arpège. Bows of not very noble materials: Schaller, Glasser, and infinity of Chinese products.
TOURTE: The Stradivarius of the Bows
Tourte was a prestigious French manufacturer of bows that died in 1835 and was the one that defined the definitive shape of the bows, which has remained until today. Formerly the curvature of the wood was concave, with greater tension in the bristles. Tourte pieces were so good that can exceed 60,000 euros. For this reason, bows are sometimes found with their name stamped. But most likely, like the Stradivarius labels, it's fake.