Recommendations for Selecting a Viola 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, 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 bow.
For Players of Folk Music
For fiddling and folk music, 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 bows and the CodaBow Luma.
Characteristics of Bows
- Straightness - Warp, Twist: These types of problems are quite common in cheaper bows, and can cause significant problems for the player.
- Stiffness - Strength, both toward the strings and side to side - A stronger, stiffer stick allows the player to increase pressure on the string without breaking the sound; it increases the upper end of the available dynamic range. However, all things being equal, a more flexible shaft will yield a warmer, rounder timbre. An overly-flexible bow (common with cheap bows) will 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. The highest quality Pernambuco wood is prized for its ability to produce both a full round tone and, simultaneously, allow the player to dig powerfully into the string, without the sound breaking. Note that larger violas, with higher string tension, and a darker/warmer tone tend to match well with stiffer bows, while smaller violas often match well with more flexible bows.
- 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 tip, 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 tip-heavy or tip-light balance, rather than a preference for actual weight. It's also worth noting that lighter bows can be helpful for players with tendinitis or arthritis. Extremely light bows may allow the professional greater agility, but will require greater skill to control and keep steady.
- 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, but particularly for beginners. To a great extent, the highest quality bows are sought after for the ease with which they cleanly and beautifully articulate each bow stroke. A fine bow articulates so effortlessly that it feels as though it plays itself. 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? Note that the quality of the sound that carries to the listener is often quite different from what the player hears under the ear.
- Tone Color - 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 articulation, but can also accentuate the harsher more sibilant qualities of the sound. A darker/warmer sounding bow will accentuate lower frequencies, but can run the risk of sounding dull or muddy when articulating.
- 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.
Fine Pernambuco Bows vs. Carbon Fiber
Most of the finest bows in the world are made of pernambuco wood. The sustained tone produced by such bows tends to be (with some exceptions) warmer, and more complex than that produced by carbon fiber bows. With that said, the finest carbon fiber bows, today, do produce a beautiful timbre, requiring a very discerning ear indeed to find any fault. Nevertheless, most professional players of classical music do select a pernambuco bow as their primary bow, citing the complexity and subtle nuance of the tone quality. We recommend considering and comparing a variety of bows to see what suits your particular tastes and playing styles. Fine wooden bows tend to be quite expensive, and are apt to be slightly imperfect in camber, straightness, and stiffness. Carbon fiber can offer exceptional handling, balance, and agility; if these are your priorities, then a fine carbon fiber bow might be for you. Pernambuco bows generally offer the most complex and richest sustained tone; if this is what you seek in a bow more than any other consideration, then a pernambuco bow might be your best choice.
Brazilwood Bows, i.e. Cheap Wooden Bows
The term "Brazilwood bow" (technically a bow made from Brazilian tone wood) more commonly refers to any inexpensive wooden bow. These can be suitable for students, but often have mechanical problems such as warp, twist, or 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.