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.
- 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 craft of making of bows from synthetic materials has seen extraordinary advances in recent years! Good news, when you consider the ongoing deforestation of the Brazilian rainforest, where Pernambuco wood is grown. (Please consider supporting the International Pernambuco Conservation Initiative.) Although there are numerous poorly-made, clunky, or scratchy sounding synthetic bows on the market, there are several makers now producing carbon fiber bows that not only compete with traditional Pernambuco bows in quality of tone, but that also allow for a speed and agility simply not possible with traditional materials.
Indeed, our customers are frequently surprised at the lightness and agility that high-end carbon fiber bows can offer. By working with material that is both lighter and more resilient than wood, bows can be made stronger, lighter, and faster, and with greater consistency. The assumption always seems to be that this greater agility comes with a necessary trade-off in quality of tone - that wood inherently produces a more pleasing sound. In truth, every bow has its own unique characteristics of timbre, complexity, brilliance or darkness, and the bow must be matched to the player and his or her instrument.
Speaking in broad generalizations, carbon fiber tends to produce more brilliance and greater clarity, while wood tends to sound darker and offer greater complexity. So, a player with a brilliant instrument may find carbon fiber brings out too much brilliance. While, someone with a dark sounding instrument, or someone who seeks greater clarity of tone, may find that a fine carbon fiber bow matches better with their instrument and produces a more pleasing tonality than wood. And, getting away from broad generalities, professionals will find that Arcus manufacturers a range of different lines, each with unique playing characteristics and tonalities, to match the needs of different professional players and their instruments. While advancing students will find that CodaBow produces bows of an excellent value, with superior performance and tonality to comparably priced wooden bows. Both CodaBow and JonPaul also produce excellent bows for professionals. The characteristics that we associate with fine bows - richness & purity of tone, ease of play, balance, clarity of articulation, etc. can be found in both wooden and carbon fiber bows. The trick is finding the right bow for you and your instrument. We specialize in matching bows with players. Call us now for a consultation and trial.
CodaBow/JonPaul vs. Arcus
Both CodaBow and JonPaul make exceptional quality carbon fiber bows, with traditional weight and balance. Arcus bows are
much lighter and are designed primarily for professionals who are seeking greater agility and faster response. Both CodaBow and JonPaul feel and play like traditional pernambuco bows, while Arcus bows offer the player all the advantages of a very lightweight and strong bow - agility, speed, power, and significantly reduced hand and arm fatigue.
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.
A wide range of horse hair is available for bows. For classical violinists, fine hair form Mongolian or Siberian horses is most common. Fiddlers often prefer somewhat coarser hair and sometimes enjoy a ribbon of mixed white and black hair (salt & pepper). Professionals seeking supreme hair with the richest, most complex tonality and articulation, sometimes seek out very fresh, Siberian stallion hair. The age/freshness of the hair can be gauged by how far it will stretch without breaking. (A strand of supreme, very fresh hair can be stretched full inches without breaking.) But, such hair is more strongly affected by changes in humidity (making the bow unable to tighten in humid weather, or unable to loosen in dry weather). It also stretches considerably over time, while on the bow. As such, it can be problematic for players and must be replaced rather more frequently than the usual hair available in shops.
Hair should be replaced or cleaned regularly - every 6-12 months as a general rule, though professionals often replace hair more frequently. If hair is missing or the bow cannot be tightened properly due to the hair stretching, then a rehair is necessary. If the hair is simply dirty, cleaning it will restore vitality and tone.