Recommendations for Selecting a Violin Bow
The beginner will benefit from a bow that feels stable in the hand and has a warm
tone and forgiving attack. Beginners should avoid cheap bows that are warped,
twisted, and/or overly-flexible, bright sounding bows that emphasize squeaks and squawks,
and ultra-light bows that require a professional's hand to keep stable.
For Advancing Students
The skilled student will require a bow agile enough for advanced bowing techniques
and versatile enough to allow for a wide range of dynamics.
For Professional Players of Classical Music
For the professional seeking a primary bow for orchestral or studio work, a fine pernambuco bow is
often the best choice. For those seeking a sturdier backup bow for outdoor work, for international
travel, or as a backup bow, a high-end carbon fiber bow can be an excellent choice (the CodaBow GX has
been the almost invariable pick of professional classical players in our bow trials). For professionals
seeking a bow for soloist playing, where brilliance and projection are desired, we highly recommend considering an Arcus S series bow.
For Fiddlers - Amateur & Professional
For fiddler, agility and projection tend to be higher priorities than the quality of the sustained tone. And,
the desired quality of tone tends to be different than what is sought by classical players. It makes perfect sense
then that fiddlers would be drawn to different bows. Pernambuco bows are still a good choice, but high-end
carbon fiber bows are extremely popular for their agility and quickness. The CodaBow Joule is highly recommended
as one to try, along with Arcus S Series bows and the CodaBow Luma.
Characteristics of Bows
- Straightness - Warp, Twist: These types of problems are quite common wooden bows under $1,000.00, and can cause significant problems for the player.
- Stiffness - Strength, both toward the strings and side to side - High quality bows can be very stiff or more flexible. But, an overly-flexible bow will lack power and can be difficult to play properly, particularly if the bow is too flexible in a side-to-side direction, preventing the player from tilting it to a proper angle. High quality pernambuco wood is prized for its stiffness.
- Camber - A bow's camber refers to its curve toward the strings. A quality bow will curve gently and evenly toward the mid-point of the playing length of the bow. Poor quality bows may have kinks or flat spots where the curve is uneven, or may curve to a point other than the middle of the bow. A quality bow will also have the proper amount of camber, with the curve (when not under tension) arcing just enough to touch the hairline. A bow with uneven camber will have dead spots and an uneven sound. A bow with too little camber will be weak and difficult to play.
- Weight & Balance - Weight and balance are separate, but related characteristics. The balance of a bow greatly effects the player's perception of its weight. A bow weighted toward the frog, for example, will feel heavier to the player. In terms of actual weight, a bow that is lighter will generally be faster and easier to handle, because there is less mass to move around and to vibrate. Heavier sticks tend to have a fuller sound, but can be more cumbersome to handle. Players have their own preferences for both weight and balance, and there is no correct measurement for either. Note that many players who think that they like a heavier or lighter bow, are actually referring to their preference for a frog-heavy or tip-heavy balance, rather than a preference for actual weight. It's also worth noting that lighter bows can be helpful for players with tendonitis or arthritis.
- Quality of Attack - By attack we refer to the way the bow interacts with the string at the start of the bow stroke. Both the sound quality and the speed of the attack are important playing characteristics. A bow the speaks more quickly can be very desirable when fiddling or playing demanding classical passages. A bow with a very clean, smooth, attack is advantageous for all players, particularly students. Note that aside from the characteristics of the bow itself, the way a bow articulates is greatly effected by the choice of rosin and the quality and age of the bow hair.
- Tone Quality - Quality of the Sustain - This is often the first thing that players listen for when purchasing a new bow. It is the most obvious (though, perhaps, not the most important) aspect of a bow's overall quality. How does the bow sound when playing long, sustained, tones? Is the overall quality of the sound pure and open, or more nasal and pinched?
- Range of Tone Colors - Does the bow produce a dark, warm tone or does it have a more brilliant quality? Brighter sounding bows are preferred by soloists for their power and clean articulations, but can also accentuate the harsher more sibilant qualities of the sound. Darker sounding bows are generally warmer in tone, but can be relatively muddy in articulation.
- Dynamic Range - How powerful is the bow; can the player draw out rich, full, powerful sounds? How does the bow respond to a lighter touch; how softly can the player play and still produce a clean tone? How do the tone colors and the quality of the tone change with various dynamics? How well does the bow articulate at various dynamic levels?
- Agility/Liveliness - How easily can the player handle the bow? How well does the bow bounce? Do you like how it feels when playing off the string with a more brushy stroke? How does it handle when playing spiccato or sautille'?
- Directional Changes - How easily are the bow's directional changes accomplished? How do they sound when playing legato, detache'?
- Overall Palette - Does the bow offer a wide range of tone colors and articulations, altering with changes in pressure, speed, vibrato? Poor bows sound pretty much the same, no matter how they are played. Fine bows respond to the players motions with a range of colors and sounds. How expressive does the bow allow the player to be?
Carbon Fiber Bows
The making of bows from synthetic materials has made extraordinary advances in the last 30 years! Good news, when you consider the difficultly of obtaining fine pernambuco. Although pernambuco bows are still generally considered the best in the high-end market (with a few exceptions, such as the bows by Arcus), those looking to spend under $1,000.00 are finding that carbon fiber bows compete favorably in tone quality, and surpass pernambuco bows in balance, responsiveness, and playability. Companies like
CodaBow and Arcus are making carbon fiber bows that are wonderful to play, and attractively priced. We highly recommend the CodaBow line for players shopping in this price range.
Carbon fiber bows should not be confused with
fiberglass bows. Fiberglass is both less expensive and easier to work with than carbon fiber, but also lacks stiffness and is less desirable acoustically. There are some decent fiberglass bows on the market (suitable for beginners), but the most responsive and best sounding synthetic bows are carbon fiber.
Note: The term carbon fiber can refer to a variety of different composites, depending on the materials used to form the fiber. In the world of bows, the terms carbon fiber, carbon graphite, and carbon composite are used interchangeably, and sometimes have different meanings, depending on the manufacturer.
Traditional Wooden Bows - Finely Crafted from Select, Aged Pernambuco
Most of the finest bows are still being made of Pernambuco. It is stiff, light, and has desirable acoustic properties. Due to deforestation and embargoes, however, high quality pernambuco has become difficult and expensive to obtain. Professional players frequently opt for a fine pernambuco bow as their primary stick, though Arcus and CodaBow bows are becoming more and more common in professional circles. To find a responsive, well-made pernambuco bow, a starting budget of at least $1,000 is usually required. Less expensive pernambuco bows are available, but must be checked carefully for mechanical problems such as warp and twist. And, at that price, pernambuco bows are not generally as responsive or well-balanced as one would ideally hope for. A good carbon fiber bow is often a better choice.
International travel has increasingly become a concern for musicians with traditional bows. Pernambuco wood (Caesalpinia echinata) is classified as a
Protected species under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) and falls under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Elephant Ivory, Madagascar Ebony, Abalone, Tortoiseshell, and Lizard Skin are other materials, commonly found on bows, which are Protected and can cause difficulty for musicians when passing through customs. Many musicians today are choosing to leave their fine pernambuco bows at home when they travel, rather than risking delays or even confiscation.
Unlike carbon fiber bows, which can be crafted with some consistency, every pernambuco bow is unique. Each is made by hand, from a different piece of wood, and has its own physical and acoustical characteristics. To inquire about what pernambuco bows we currently have available, please call us at 800-372-4151.
Inexpensive Wooden Bows - Crafted from Brazillian Tonewoods
Brazilwood bows (specifically non-pernambuco wooden bows made in Brazil, but more commonly a general term for any inexpensive wooden bow), with a few exceptions, are made from the least expensive wood and are crafted, assembly-line fashion, in bow factories. Though they can have a warmer tone than comparably priced carbon fiber bows, they tend to have mechanical problems, i.e. warp, twist, as well as overly-flexible or overly-thick shafts, which make them difficult to play. They are commonly used in student rental programs, simply because they are so inexpensive.