What Fiddlers Should Know about Bow Qualities
My recommendation on bows used to always be the same. “The best bow for the money is a carbon fiber composite bow just under $200.” Then I would say, “You would have to spend $500 to get an equivalent wood bow, unless you were just lucky.”
I don’t say that anymore because I don’t believe it’s true. And I ended up paying a stiff price for my assumption. My belief was that those bows were like tennis rackets. The factory churns them out, one just like another.
My cold-water-in-the-face wake up call happened last year. One of my students got one of these bows last year. (It was from an online outfit that does more with brass and woodwinds. Maybe that should have been a clue, but it was her effort that led to this vendor.)
After a few months, she said how she was really disappointed with its performance. I borrowed it and gave it serious attention. To my utter chagrin, the bow was unstable. It was no better than a $19 fiberglass fishing pole of a bow.
To make matters worse, the vendor dodged any attempt to have the stick replaced with a good bow.
I eventually took responsibility for this misfortune and gave the student an excellent wood bow, which she was very happy with.
My lesson was, don’t recommend anything you haven’t actually used. Reputable dealers like Shar will let you try a bow before committing money to it. But, how about buying a used bow? There are a lot of them out there, more bows than violins.
Used Bow Evaluation
Here are a few clues as to what to look for in a used bow.
1. When you first pick up the bow, sight down the stick to see if it is straight. It’s not too much to ask for a straight stick. If the bow is warped or kinked even a little bit, move on to another one.
2. Place the bow with the hair completely loose against a flat surface, like a table top. Let the frog and the tip rest against the table. Notice if the middle part of the bow also touches the surface.
It should rest against a flat surface just as the bottom of the frog and the bottom of the tip do. If it doesn’t, that means the bow has lost some of its camber.
The camber is the curvature of the wooden stick. It is put in by heat and pressure. If a bow is not completely loosened when it is not used, when it is put away, then it will lose the camber. This is not good. It weakens the action of the bow.
When your candidate bow passes these two tests, and when you also like the appearance of it, try it out with a favorite tune. Does it help produce the sound you expect to hear? Is it about the same as the bow you already have? Does it seem to fight you a little bit? Be sure to play a jig, too. The varying amounts of bow used in the typical jig give a good chance to observe the reponsiveness of the stick. Does it move back and forth easily with a steady tone?
By the way, while you are making this evaluation, be sure the bow has enough rosin for a fair trial.
Beware the Wubble
There is a particular test that I discovered with the notorious Brass and Wind bow. For this one you should position the bow in the upper third, the one nearer the tip. You just bow back and forth with small strokes, maybe 4 to 7 inches, and use a strong accent at the beginning of each stroke. You do this at an easy walking pace, not fast. An unstable bow will “wubble.”
(Yes, I made up this word.) It will start to rebound repeatedly from the accent. That’s more than annoying. It’s ruinous to your playing. A good bow is stable. When you apply a strong accent anywhere in your stroke, it instantly recovers and allows you to keep playing as you like. If you have to fight to regain control, it is not a stable bow.
Here are a few closing thoughts about taking care of your bow. How often you rosin depends on how much playing you do in a day. If I’m playing just a little each day, I’ll rosin about every other day. On the other hand, if you feel like you are not getting enough bite from the hair, add some rosin. That’s what it’s there for.
When you are finished playing, you may use a cloth to wipe the rosin dust from the bow, not the hair. Some players have asked me about washing the bow hair. I’ve never done that and I’m not about to start.
I’ve already mentioned loosening the hair when you put the bow away. This is a habit to cultivate. Don’t be casual about this. Develope a good habit now while you have your beginner bow. Then you will deserve a much better bow as soon as possible.