Violin Explained

The Bow in brief

A few different bows: Modern, top – Baroque at different stages of completion, below. All snakewood.

The bow for stringed instruments is probably the most critical part of your musical experience. After the instrument’s setup (including parts used), regulation and string choice. It is the part of the combination that determines how well the strings are drawn because of a host of different influences created during the making process . Each different bow used on the same instrument will inevitably have different influences which in turn draws out varied tonalities.

The bow for stringed instruments is probably the most critical part of your musical experience. It completes the tonal and phrasing expression.

The bow is harder to perfect than an instrument despite its many components. This is probably why old master made bows, having stood the test of time, are sought after with giant price tags. If you take your time in a music shop and try out every “shelf’ bow hanging, you will find that there is likely one there to rival the greatest stamps of them all.

Some of the things that are direct influences of the bow and how well it responds in your hand and/or with the instrument are:

  1. How well the shape of the camber (bend) is blended, by this we mean the consistency of the bend from frog to tip so that when relaxed and tensioned it is a smooth concave curve without any kinks or weaker areas that go slightly convex or flat through the curve’s line.
  2. That the relationship between the curve at the thicker frog end and thinner tip end is balanced so that either does not cause too much tension on the other thus causing imbalance in weight distribution or evenness described in point one.
  3. If the camber has weak spots on the overall camber/ curve then tracking will most probably happen:( This is to say that there will be areas or spots on the bow where it looses traction and jumps or quivers on the string when the bow is drawn at that particular spot.
  4. How straight the bow is also has a huge influence on it’s playability and response. Depending on whether it is smaller spots with little lateral wobbles or the whole stick that curves from base to tip it will respond differently but the general problem will be a lack of control at either spots of the bows drawing throughout.
  5. Apart from camber and possible wobbles if there are growth eyes (also know as knots) in the wood this can also cause the stick to respond with similar or the same problems as mentioned in points 1 to 5.
  6. The parallel relationship between the frog and the tip also influences playability whereby if either is skewed (or both in opposing directions) then the ribbon of hair between the two will probably cause a lateral bend similar to the one mentioned in point 4 and because this will have an effect on tension distribution the bow will likely not be consistent throughout the draw.
  7. The weight of a bow is mostly a preference felt by the person using it. That said, the weight of the bow has a direct influence on the power of the sound produced. Of course too much of anything is no good.
  8. From what we have come to understand about bows is that the cut is second to the bending. A really beautifully cut and styled bow is of course beautiful to look at and admire but the quality of wood and how well the balances in bending are coaxed is where the buck stops.

The traditional wood used for violin family bows is Pernambuco which originates from the town of Pernambuco in North Eastern Brazil. Because of the millions of bows made since the time of Tourte (the father of the modern bow) the trees have mostly become endangered and nearly made the CITES listing a few years ago. So because of this having become a problem there are other woods used for bow making, some favourable and others also known as Brazil wood not really making for a great bow.

The traditional wood used for violin family bows is Pernambuco.

Somewhat traditional to period bows or Baroque times is Plum wood, Snakewood and Brazillian Ironwood. These woods are not often seen in modern bows although there are makers who do use these woods for modern bows with success and amazing sonic properties. In the case of Snakewood being the choice it is hard to make it the same way as a Pernambuco bow because the wood is far denser and harder to bend. Brazillian Ironwood is closer to Snakewood but easier to bend; Paganini’s favourite bow was apparently made by Tartini and from Brazillian Iron wood so despite the favour sought after in Pernambuco it might not be a complete necessity to use only this. There are of course other woods used, such as Pear but we do not know enough to make any real comment here.

Carbon Fibre bows are often debated, with opposing discussion. Sounds of life and preference. From working with them we have a few observations to share.

Pros & Cons

  1. Please note! Carbon fibre bows, if you are not paying attention or know could easily be confused with fibreglass bows .
  2. Of course, it is a tubular bow so the sonic and resonant properties have changed from their solid wooden form. Better or worse; can not say. Better than an unwitting or hasty bad wooden buy, sure. Do not forget there are also many varieties with the better closer to wood in feel and sound that come at a premium.
  3. These bows are better for trees – less chopping, generally less fuss ‘n bother.
  4. The Chinese first hair is usually done in a rush by a fella feeling poor’ly. This is why all Carbon fibre bows bought from Svencino are either pre-sale rehaired or first rehair at less price, depending on what it looks like at arrival. Mostly the ties or wedges are poorly done and/ or fitted resulting in the hair coming loose prematurely.
  5. Because we are talking about a tube and suddenly an irregular shaped tip at the thin end; the way these two are connected is with a metal pin and glue. Drum roll. They can and do sometimes break there. fix ability is about 2:3 groove on.
  6. You can shower with it! Jokes. But, you can wash the hair relatively easily with dish washing liquid and water under a tap with little worry. Of course don’t drown the frog for too long. If and when the frog gets wet, dry well. If it is made with wood, less water is better.
  7. In our studio observations, we believe it to be a great alternative to have as a less fuss spare bow. Pick a pocket for a 3k carbon fibre paired to a 5 to 25k wooden wand feels a sure bet. Perhaps some spare stings for never ending fiddles.

This being the start of us documenting and talking about the bow in depth is a discovery on its own. There is still much science, biology, art and sound to understand and detail here. To be continued …

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