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Choosing the right bow – To Each His Own

6 June 2020

18th century French bow maker Francois Xavier Tourte was the designer of the standard modern bow. The modern bow is characterized by a concave stick that tapers to the tip, comes with a screw mechanism to adjust the horsehair tension, and a metal ferrule to achieve a wide ribbon of hair.

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Material – Brazilwood is used for inexpensive bows that are suitable for beginners. Pernambuco, a dense, heavy wood which has the right combination of strength, elasticity and responsiveness; has been the choice wood for fine bows since the 18th century.

Hair – Violin bow hair should be made from unbleached natural white horsehair. Unbleached horsehair is long lasting and have a good resistance to breakage. Bleaching weakens the hair and reduce friction from the cuticle of the hair to generate sound.

Frog – A bow frog, usually made of ebony, holds the other end of the bow ribbon. It encloses a screw mechanism which allow the frog to tighten or loosen the bow hair. In most modern bows, pearl eye is being inlayed on each side of the frog as ornamentation. A pearl slider is also being used to cover the mechanical parts of the bow.  

The most important criteria in choosing a bow is how the bow feels in your hand and the sound it produces when you use it. 

Weight and balance – Does it feel natural to you as you play the various bowing styles? A good bow should flow with you as you play with little effort.

A stiff bow produces a clearer sound, which may be easier for a beginner to handle. But a stiff bow also produces a stiffer and rougher sound.

A bow that’s too soft cannot produce the clarity that showcases articulation and technique. A bow with the correct stiffness, while feeling natural on the hand can produce a rich and smooth sound.

Assess the difference in sound that the bows make. Play a combination of bowing styles. Play passages, in normal and slow speed, and focus on the sound of each note.

See how Alexander Souptel, a former concert master of Singapore Symphony Orchestra, tested one of the handmade Pernambuco bows from my shop, using the delicately controlled Oistrakh Bow Test. The test observes the good natural bounce and excellent balance of the bow. 

Are you still looking for a suitable bow? Check out the various selection of bows for violins, violas and cellos available here.

There is also a selection of antique bows available. If you’re considering one, bring your violin and bow down to the shop and test them out to hear the difference. 

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