Choosing the bow can be a daunting task, given the multitude of products on the market. Here are several simple points to consider when, checkbook in hand, you venture off to visit your local dealer in search of the perfect stick to suit your needs.
If you're a beginner with limited technical skills, you make few demands of your bow. It isn't likely that you'll yet need the qualities of a fine and expensive bow. For now, you simply need a bow with a reasonably strong stick and a good camber (curve); a bow that's not too heavy or light and with a proper balance. As your skills increase, however, so do your demands on the bow and hopefully your ability to recognize the differences.
The best way to describe the best bow for any player is simply this: When you are performing, you don't have to think about it. A good bow should become an extension of your right hand. It should flow with you as you play - with little effort or thought. When you pick up a fine French bow - perhaps a Peccatte or a Voirin - or a well-made modern bow, you can instantly feel that the bow has the power to perform better, giving you more confidence and allowing you to play with less effort. So, if you fail in your bowing technique, it's due to your own lack of skill or preparation - and not the bow's fault.
Before you start your quest for a bow, there are a few things you should know about the selection process.
TYPE OF MATERIAL
The three basic materials used in bow sticks are brazilwood, pernambuco, and carbon fiber.
Brazilwood is a generic name given to several kinds of tropical hardwoods used for inexpensive bows. It comes from Brazil as well as other tropical countries. Brazilwood violin bows are normally priced between about $50 and $200 and are suitable for beginning or possibly early intermediate players.
Since the late 18th century, pernambuco has been the wood of choice for the best bows. It's a dense, heavy wood that comes from several areas in Brazil and seems to possess just the right combination of strength, elasticity, and responsiveness. There are many subspecies and enormous variation in quality. Top master bow makers will spend a great deal of time looking for and choosing only the very best pernambuco sticks, rejecting most everything else. Due to environmental degradation, pernambuco is now scarce, and as a result, the government of Brazil has put severe restrictions on the export of this wood, making it rare and expensive.
The lack of available pernambuco may be responsible for the quality of products on the bow market. Many players consider the work of the great 19th-century French makers as the ultimate bows. Why have the later makers not been able to equal their work? Some say that the species of pernambuco used by their predecessors no longer exists and that it became extinct at the beginning of the 20th century. Others feel that makers like Tourte, Peccatte, Simon, Pajot, and their contemporaries were simply the best makers. Certainly their bows are unique. Many have a smooth, supple quality that makes the bow almost part of your hand; the sound these bows produce can be full and rich. More than once, I've heard the phrase "smooth as butter" in describing a fine old French bow. However, other players prefer modern bows that are stiffer, stronger, and quicker in response.
Within the last 20 years, carbon-fiber bows have become popular, in part because of the shortage of pernambuco. Carbon-fiber bows - manufactured from various grades of carbon fiber bonded with a resin - possess many of the qualities of pernambuco. Carbon fiber is also durable, and at its price range represents a good value.
Fiberglass has also been used for inexpensive bows sometimes found with the lowest-priced student instruments. Their only advantage is durability and affordability.
Regardless of the material you select, all bows share certain considerations when it comes to their playability.
Inexperienced players are often surprised at how different bows can create different sounds on their instruments. These differences are subtle and can be clearly heard by the player under the ear, but can sometimes be heard by the audience as well. The esteemed American bow maker Morgan Andersen tells us that a suppler bow will have a smoother, fuller sound. However, if the stick is too soft, the sound can lack clarity and definition. A stiffer, stronger bow will give a brighter, more focused sound. Sometimes, an overly stiff bow can produce a rough, edgy sound. It's difficult to find a bow that will give both a smooth broad sound and at the same time have great clarity of focus and the quickness of response that comes from a stronger, stiffer bow.
WEIGHT AND BALANCE
The average weight of a violin bow is about 60 grams (a viola bow is 70 grams; a cello bow, 80 grams). But remember, this is only an average. Many bows by the great makers of the past weigh as little as 54 grams and yet play beautifully. On the other hand, a 66- or 68- gram violin bow would be too heavy for almost anyone. Proper balance is far more important than weight. I know players who won't even look at a bow if it doesn't weigh 60 grams. By holding to this standard, they are missing out on some great bows. If a bow feels right in your hand, it probably is right. I will often pick up a bow and hold it at a 45-degree angle. A bow should feel natural in the hand - well balanced from tip to frog with equal weight throughout.
ROUND OR OCTAGONAL
The great French master makers rarely made octagonal bows. Even today, most top makers produce predominantly round bows. Yet, as an instrument dealer, I sometimes have players who only want to look at octagonal bows. With two bows made from the same wood, the octagonal shaft will be stiffer. Some octagonal bows are quite stiff, creating a hard, one-dimensional ton, lacking nuance. Some of the German commercial-bow producers make a round and octagonal version of the same bow, the octagonal being a bit more expensive. I think this has added to the myth that octagonal bows are better.
IN THE SHOP
So how should you go about finding the best bow? The first step is to establish a budget, but do expect to look at bows that are a little more expensive. If you don't know much about bows, I suggest you try lots of bows to educate yourself about what is available.
When you go to a shop, be sure to bring your own violin and current bow with you as a benchmark. Each bow will perform differently on different instruments, so remember that you're looking for a bow that complements your violin. I normally show six bows at a time. Once you've chosen one or two from that batch, ask to see some more. Play the same very brief passage with each bow, one right after another. There's a good chance that one or two will stand out.
First impressions are very important. The bow shouldn't seem too light or heavy in the hand. It shouldn't be too weak or soft: It shouldn't collapse easily on the hair when playing, or flex too much laterally. And it should be straight when viewed down the stick.
Play a combination of bowing styles, including legato, spiccato, sautillé, and so on. When I try bows, I often use Wieniawski's Etudes-Caprices Op. 18, No. 4 to give me an idea of how the bow performs in difficult, rapid string-crossing passages. If that's too difficult, use some of the Sevcík bowing exercises. Play a passage near the frog, in the middle, and near the tip. You should be able to play comfortably with all parts of the bow. Playing slowly, listen to the sound each bow produces and feel how the bow handles. You'll notice subtle differences in clarity, fullness of sound, surface noise, and so on. Does the bow enhance or detract from your instrument?
While you're in the shop, use your time efficiently. You're there to find a bow, not to perform or practice. Once you've picked out the two or three bows you prefer, ask to test them out for a week. Try them more extensively at home, in your ensemble or orchestra, and show them to your teacher for comments. If your teacher's suggestions are important to you, be sure that he or she is available within the week. However, showing the bows to too many other players will only confuse you. Everyone will probably have a different opinion and those opinions may not be helpful.
Remember, the bow will be yours, not theirs. You should make the final decision.
A version of this article originally appeared in the March 2004 issue of String magazine.