Selecting a Violin Bow

Selecting Bows for Trial

"What puts you in the market for a new bow?"  This is the question I ask at the start of every bow consultation, because the answer can take us in so many different directions.  Every player, like every instrument, is unique.  But, having helped customers to select bows for trial and purchase for more than 15 years, I've found that certain questions and ways of thinking are often useful.  If you're in the market for a new bow, I hope the following will be helpful to you.

Frequently, customers have difficulty answering that initial question, beyond that they are looking for a "better" bow.  But, the conversation typically then centers around one of two things – either improving handling or improving tone.  

Dollar for dollar, carbon fiber bows tend to handle better than wooden bows.  This is a generalization, and not true in every case.  Conversely, dollar for dollar, wooden bows tend to draw a more desirable sustained tone.  That's not to say that some wooden bows don't handle extremely well, or that some carbon fiber bows don’t sound gorgeous.  But, when comparing comparably-priced bows, the carbon fiber will often win out in handling and agility, while the wood wins out in tone.  The artistry in selecting a bow is in finding the tonality that best matches your particular violin, while also matching your demands for agility and performance, within the budget you have to work with.  At the end of the day, the goal is to find a bow that is going to allow you to make the music that you want to make.  Let’s first dig in to some of the nuances of bow tonality . . .


This is a complex subject, and I’m not going to do it justice in a paragraph or two.  But, let’s start by acknowledging that this is a complex topic, and one that lacks a common vocabulary.  One person’s “warm” is another’s “dull.”  One player’s “brilliant” is another’s “brash.”  So, don’t rely too much on descriptions you read or even your own particular vocabulary for describing the sound of your instrument.  Differences in meaning can lead you down the wrong path.  But, very generally . . .

Bows and instruments that accentuate the upper frequencies tend to be perceived as brilliant or bright.  Think of turning up the treble on your stereo.  Those that accentuate the lower frequencies tend to be perceived as warm or dark.  Think of turning up the bass.  If an instrument lacks power in the upper frequencies, it is often perceived as dull, muddy, or lacking clarity.  If an instrument lacks power in the lower frequencies, it is often perceived as too bright, edgy, or lacking warmth. 

Dark sounding instruments usually pair well with brighter sounding bows.  The brilliance of the bow restores some of the clarity and purity that is otherwise missing.  Brilliant sounding instruments usually pair well with dark sounding bows, which add warmth.  But, of course, in reality things are much more complicated.  Our perceptions of brilliant and dark are colored not just by the actual sustained tone, but also the quickness and character of the articulation, as well as the amount of surface/string noise and complexity inherent in the tone, and even the overall volume of sound produced, with louder violins and bows often perceived as brighter than softer violins and bows.  So, by all means, narrow down the field of bows to try as logically as you can.  But, also recognize that to some extent it will be a matter of trial and error.  And, you may be surprised by how a bow actually sounds to you, once you have it in your hands. 

Physics and tonality . . .  An often overlooked consideration is the matching of the stiffness/strength of the bow with the string tension of the instrument.  This is a greater consideration for violists and even cellists, where the size of the instrument is less standardized.  But, even with violins, there is a great deal of variation in tension, do to string selection.  All things being equal, a stiff bow will produce a better tone when matched with high tension strings.  And, a more flexible bow will produce a better tone when playing low tension strings.  In the case of a viola, this matching is imperative, since the string tension on a 17” viola is so very much greater than that of a 15.5” viola, regardless of string selection. 

Also note that the sound "under the ear" is often different from that which carriers across the room to a listener.  If possible, listen to someone else play the bow on your violin so you can listen at a distance.


There are a great many factors involved in making a bow “handle” well.  It must be well balanced.  A tip-light bow will feel lighter (for good or bad) but will require more work from the player when playing fortissimo, especially at the tip.  A tip-heavy bow will feel heavier and generally be less agile, but will be more stable.  Likewise the actual mass and weight of the bow will impact how quickly and effortlessly it makes string crossings, directional changes, how easily it bounces and articulates, and how well it responds to sautille’ and spiccato.  A light bow will be harder for beginners to control.  A heavier bow will be easier to keep steady, but harder to move around, and therefore less agile.  The precision and amount of camber (curve) of the bow will impact how the bow behaves and sounds.  The stiffness of the bow impacts how much pressure the player can apply, and therefore how much power and sound the player can get from the violin.  It also impacts how and when the player can angle the stick.  And, it impacts the tonality, with a stiffer stick generally drawing a more brilliant tone (all things being equal).  And, there are a great many other factors as well that bow makers must contend with that impact how freely vibrations can move up and down the bow, and therefore how easily it responds and resonates. 

Specific Recommendations

For the beginner on a budget, looking to upgrade from the clunky Brazilwood bow that came with your violin rental . . . The CodaBow Prodigy is a great step in the right direction, at a reasonable price.  It’s extremely stable and handles well.  But, you’ll likely need to upgrade in a few years.  The CodaBow NX would be a more permanent solution, allowing for more advanced bowing techniques when you get to them.  You may find that the Arcos Brasil Nickel bow may draw a better tone from your instrument, if it's not out of your budget, though it may not handle quite as well as the CodaBows. 

For the advancing student, the JonPaul Carrera is a popular bow.  Also the upper level CodaBows like the Diamond GX.  If you like a lighter feel, the CodaBow Luma could be a good fit – it has a very soft touch that students often like.  Or, you may prefer a wooden bow – the Arcos Brasil Nickel or Special Edition Silver bows could be a good choice.  If a lighter, more agile bow is desired, then the Arcus Musing series would be good to try.   

For fiddlers, the CodaBow Joule, Luma, and Escente bows are all popular, though for very different reasons.  Again, we do recommend including a wooden bow in the mix of your trial.  If you do a lot of fast fiddling, you may fall in love with the Arcus bows, with their extreme lightness and agility.

For professionals, a fine wooden bow is almost certainly something you want to have in your case.  In addition, you may find that the agility of Arcus bows works well for you, overall or for certain repertoire. The speed, agility, and power of these bows should be experience by every professional player.  It’s important to match the Arcus line to the tonality of your instrument.  If the Arcus bows are just too light for you, then the CodaBow Marquise or JonPaul Carrera would be excellent carbon fiber alternatives to wood, with a traditional weight and balance.

But, the best way to select a bow is to have a professional consultation and select several good quality bows to try for yourself.  Call us now for your free consultation and in-home bow trial:

Request a Bow Consultation & Trial 

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