BOWS- Why do they make such a diference in performance?

December 24, 2007 at 08:30 PM · What makes a bow make or break a violin? They look alot alike, they are made with basically the same materials. What gives?

Replies (42)

December 24, 2007 at 08:28 PM · Well, here's where your expertise comes in again'mers! Just what makes one bow stand supreme over another bow made with the same mateials?

December 24, 2007 at 08:47 PM · If we knew the answer we would be enormously wealthy.

December 24, 2007 at 09:29 PM · Firstly, the 'same materials' are in fact not the same, so start with the wood being different.

But more importantly it's the way the stick vibrates that makes the difference, how much it damps the vibrations, what frequencies it favors in terms of sound, what low-frequency 'bouncing' characteristics it has, and how all these things interact with each other, and how that character changes according to which part of the hair is in contact with the string or how much pressure is being applied.

Bows have to do a lot of things in order to be successful, there's a lot that can go wrong in choosing, graduating and cambering a stick and attempting to make it do all that's required.

December 24, 2007 at 09:39 PM · Now for some reality. Though bows are very different, they have become terribly over-priced generally speaking, keeping up with a ratio driven price with finer violins, rather than their earlier modest price for the average player.

On at least some levels, it's not the price of your bow given a generous trial and testing, but what is done with it.

December 24, 2007 at 10:56 PM · There are some expensive bows out there. And what Andres posted makes since.

December 25, 2007 at 05:06 AM · My bow sounds terrible because I cannot afford to get it rehaired. This is just a guess, but I think good bows have hair... :)

December 25, 2007 at 05:31 AM · don@t tell Kojak...

December 25, 2007 at 11:17 AM · I shampooed mine yesterday--sounds like a new one.

December 25, 2007 at 12:45 PM · Jasmine: Contact my friend Mike Seery in Bristol, CT. He does excellent work and a bargain price!!!! Look him up in the Connecticut luthiers section on He might be willing to help you out if you mail it to him and pay the shipping costs too.

December 25, 2007 at 03:07 PM · Thank you, Mr. Song. I'll get right on it.

December 25, 2007 at 03:28 PM · You All Are Great! LOL :)

December 25, 2007 at 09:15 PM · We've all been culturally assimilated by others telling us their thoughts re the bow and how much should be spent on obtaining same.

In the end,it's the ability of the player that counts.

Plan on being continually assaulted with this issue for the rest of your career.

Play the bow which works the best for you,if it costs 27euros or 27,000euros.

Try them all out and pick the best,regardless of the price.

I prefer the P & H Bow---self-rehaired for little expenditure.

To throw thousands into a bow means not that much as compared to what u invest into the violin.

Make sure the hair is fresh and holds rosin and does not slide as u play.

Try expensive and inexpensive--decide for yourself which is the best.Just try and u may be suprised to learn the outcomes in the differences of tonality.

In short,try all before u buy.

December 25, 2007 at 09:48 PM · Joe,

If you are only talking about tone, then yes, some very cheap bows can draw an excellent sound, in fact softer,weaker pernambuco will typically yield a fuller sound, which is especially beneficial on cheaper, thinner instruments.

However, most (all?) of those bows are going to make it impossible to play well. Finding a bow that pulls a full tone, and is also stiff, and is ALSO flexible in "all the right spots" so that various advanced playing techniques can be executed properly, is some trick. That's where the high prices enter into it. There can be a staggering amount of work involved, getting all the graduations and changes is camber (as you go down the stick) just right. -Not to mention the current cost of really good Pernambuco.

Such bows do NOT come from China.

I have several bows that I just love, that cost less than $200 each on Ebay. However, I only use them for simple lines. My needs are not very demanding. Tone is the only consideraton (as long as it's not a wet noodle.) If I were trying to play Paganini caprices, I'd be looking to spend $3K or up on a bow. Or several bows, for that matter.

December 25, 2007 at 11:37 PM ·

December 25, 2007 at 10:12 PM · There are $50 factory bows from China that sound better than some Hill bows.

December 25, 2007 at 11:06 PM · C'mon, Jim.

To get something decent from China, you have to spend at least $63.50. (g)

December 25, 2007 at 11:28 PM · We should get down on our knees and thank the lord for China. I did all my Christmas shopping at Walmat this year. I bought presents for five people, and spent a total of $10.00. The gifts included a car battery, a lawn mower, a pool table, and a camper top for a pickup truck. Less than $10.00 total.

December 26, 2007 at 02:06 AM · Did you see those manicure sets? Only $2.88. I got one of those every year when I was a kid. Either that or batteries. For nail biters, the batteries are a better option.

December 26, 2007 at 03:04 AM · royce, that is an interesting question...

to some extent similar to violin, beginners may not be able to truly appreciate what a bow can do. our ability to test the bow is limited by our bowing techniques. i wonder how the profs test bows...

one time, i was comparing two bows,,,both drew very nice sound on long deep bowing, but on stuccato, one was easy to "control" for the lack of a better word, the other simply felt like lead. i can imagine for someone who can really test drive bows for all the necessary attributes, a totally different conclusion may be drawn. not just good vs bad, but how good, how bad. i guess only experience will allow that perspective.

the other question i have is that we talked about breaking in new violins recently, i wonder if new wood bows follow the similar process? further, we maintain that good violins get better with time, does that also apply to good wood bows?

December 26, 2007 at 04:16 AM · I bought a bow a few months ago and I consider it a success. This is how I did it:

I had a budget in mind when I went to see my luthier, but I tried some of the most expensive ones he had to get a feel for how much better those guys can sound played on my violin. (A same bow can sound different on different violins). I then picked two bows within my price range and took them home to try for a week, during which I learned the pros and cons of each and had some idea which one I preferred more. I then asked a professional violinist to play the same pieces of music (he tried some chords and detache in Bach solo, and some spiccato and sautille in Mendelssohn) with both bows. With my eyes closed, I could hear that both sounded good in different ways but one clearly opened up my violin more than the other. I then asked my tester which one he preferred and why. Fortunately our preference coincided. I then asked my teacher to try and she confirmed the same thing.

This sounds like an elaborate process, but I’ve learned so much about bows this way and ended up with one that I’ve never been so pleased with.

December 26, 2007 at 04:31 AM · Al Ku wrote:

"we maintain that good violins get better with time, does that also apply to good wood bows?"

Al, that's a very good question. Perhaps they don't automatically get "better" the way most violins will, but surely they must change.

As their resonant apectrum (formant structure) changes with age, so will the comb-filtering and absorption effects that they have, hence how the "condition" the sound of your violin.

Additionally, as wood ages & humidity-cycles, it gets stiffer. That theoretically means that the expertly-crafted graduations, done by the original maker, will probably no longr be ideal for that particular blank.

This may be a good reason to buy from a maker who only uses well-aged Pernambuco.

December 26, 2007 at 05:08 AM · It's funny to me that a number of people in this thread (especially those who make more negative remarks) are not violin players, and if they are, they haven't ever owned a range of bows that would give them even the slightest qualification to comment so definitively on whether or not a good bow is a necessity.

There are cheap bows which can handle well but I've almost never heard a good sounding one. Cheap bows which operate as well as a Peccatte are an incredible exception, and far from the rule. You can get a bow that plays like one that's worth $100,000 for $3000 (and less I'm sure), of course, but don't be fooled by the opinions here. None of them are informed, and they do not come from experience.

December 26, 2007 at 06:23 AM · Pieter, I agree on a very very very high level of playing.

December 26, 2007 at 09:06 AM · Pieter,

My opinion happens to be extremely well-informed. Probably moreso than most players alive, since I have spent several hundred hours recording the results of various bows, rosins, setup changes, etc. & then doing double-blind listening. (this process will coninue for some time.) I have borrowed / rented several extremely high-end bows, and have also recorded the best bows owned by several studio players.

I can tell you absolutely that the best-sounding bow, from a purely sonic standpoint, on ten out of 12 violins currently studied, is a no-name Pernambuco that is perhaps 100 years old. Nickel mounted. A close second is a new Chinese that cost $130. I kid you not. Both of those bows would make a good player puke, because they feel terrible & give poor control, but they SOUND good. Don't blame me.

BTW- that was with synthetic strings. With plain gut, all the results change and two lighter, much more expensive bows won out. (Those being my Rudi Neudorfer, and a borrowed one by Ole Kanestrom.) Gut seems to sound better with lighter, stiffer bows. And less hair. And softer rosin.


One can then argue, what are the determining factors for calling one sound "better" than another? That would be a fair question. I do have that covered as well, esp considering I've been professionally recording acoustic instruments for almost 30 years. I try to get the opinion of other players and engineers whenever possible, and weigh those opinions heavily. Granted, my emphasis is on Pop & Country styles, but we also do a lot of music here that could be called "light classical." I also have been studying the great classical players intently, trying to analize what I like & dislike about their various sounds.

You can take that any way you want.

December 26, 2007 at 10:41 AM · I was just quoting an authority.

December 26, 2007 at 11:54 PM · Better playing and sounding bows are made of stiffer, denser wood, which effectively propagates sound more quickly. It's like the difference between a marimba made with dense tropical wood keys vs. one with pine keys. The concept that more scientifically minded bowmakers use to evaluate potential playing qualities of a bow blank is to measure the relative “elasticity” of the wood.

Bows actually resonate while being played. Bows of higher elasticity will generally generate a brighter, louder tone, and elicit a more complex sound on the instrument. Well constructed bows fashioned from this type of wood will also facilitate playing more detailed bow strokes involving quick string crossings, sautille, and spiccatto. This agility results from the fact that more elastic wood recovers to its initial, at rest, position more quickly than that of inferior “slower” wood.

Historically, the bowmaker selected wood relying on experience, by flexing the sticks against his knee to test for relative stiffness, and by hefting the stick to try to guess at its relative density. This method is obviously hard to apply when the wood is still in board or log form. These bows were necessarily less consistent in playing quality than what is possible for the astute modern maker. Unfortunately, the color of the wood and the straightness for the grain are not consistent predictors of elasticity.

Contemporary bowmakers have the option of using an electronic device called a “Lucchi Meter,” which objectively measures an important component of “elasticity.” It ultrasonically “pings” the wood between two sensors and then gives a reading. By floating sticks in salt water solutions of varying densities one can also come up with an accurate measure of density. Together, with the Lucchi reading and density you come up with a number called “Young’s Modulus.” This reading gives the bowmaker an objective measure of the relative elasticity on a given stick. I’m happy to own and use a Lucchi Meter and find it very helpful identifying the best possible wood for fashioning my bows. Alas, at $3,000, this device doesn’t come cheap.

John Greenwood

December 26, 2007 at 05:36 PM · Hi John:

Thank you for joining this discussion. I have one simple question: If the bow resonates more, then doesn't that take energy away from the strings, effectively filtering the sound?

December 26, 2007 at 05:42 PM · Bilbo:

The good bow resonates "sympathetically" with the strings. A more "elastic" bow would only enhance the volume of tone.

December 26, 2007 at 06:01 PM · Nevermind... what's the point.

December 26, 2007 at 06:35 PM · i have seen videos of violin making, but forgot to ask santa for a video of someone making a bow from the start to the end. i will try to behave this year.

December 26, 2007 at 08:22 PM · Here's a link to a video of our bow maker in Moscow. It's not very exhaustive, but it'll give you an idea of the process.

December 26, 2007 at 09:28 PM · I found the bow my parents bought me 25 years ago. It needs a serious rehair. I was playing a copy of an Amatti that had a label saying it was made in 1805. I could get just about anything out of my violin with that bow that the professors and Maestro asked. I'm eager to get it up and running. It has ingraved silver on the frog's bottom, but lost the silver on the back of the frog. Man, polished it shown so beautifully even the moon would weep! It's 140 years old and Mom & Dad paid $120.00. And the eye on the frog is a mother of pearl "Sun".

I bet such factors as % of tree resins in the wood, porousness, compactness of the grains, even nutrients in the soil that fed the wood, even climate and rate of decay have something to do with it also?

December 27, 2007 at 01:08 AM · John Greenwood,

thanks for your excellent post. A few questions / clarifications:

1: A Luchi meter measures the speed of transmission of an impulse through the stick, yes? So, isn't that a function of density more than elasticity? I realize the two are closely connected, but aren't there other factors that one would combine with the Luchi numbers, to accurately determine elasticity? (such as grain density, age, lignin content & how dry the lignin is, etc)

2: You say that a good bow sympathetically vibrates with the strings.

Granted, having more in-phase vibrations than out-of-phase ones will yeild a louder & more complex tone, so no arguments from me. However, surely the best bows also dampen certain frequencies, esp in the high end. A bow that doesn't do this would yield a tone that might be described as overly-strident. Most luthiers I've talked to say that 200 + year old instruments exhibit almost nothing above 6K, and most people find this subjectively pleasing. So, for most newer instrument, a bow that help dampen above 6K sould be what we want.

(Otherwise, everyone would be using carbon-fiber bows.)

That is certainly my experience with the heavier, more elastic bows.

I would also LOVE to hear your thoughts on what happens when a bow ages, and how this affects the relationship with the violin vis-a-vis both tone & control.

Anyway, thanks again. If you have the time, I'm sure everyone would love to read more of your thoughts on this.

December 27, 2007 at 01:03 AM · Pieter,

Relax, no one is telling the OP to buy a cheap bow. Far from it!

If you have any specific info to share, I'd love to read it. Sweeping, blanket statements without any specifics don't further the discussion.

I imagine that certain bow-violin relationships change when one is dealing with a very old violin (as mentioned above) or perhaps with a truly equisite newer one. While the OP does not have such an instrument, perhaps you do, so please share you bow experiences if you have the time. Again, specifics would be greatly appreciated.

December 27, 2007 at 01:31 AM · The experience of myself and pretty much every violinist I've ever talked to is that cheap bows can handle just fine but the sound is not good.

Wood that was carefully selected and then crafted tends to lend itself to a better sounding bow for the same reason handmade violins sound better than factory made ones. This means more available colors and characteristics, more response, and often a greater capability to project without pressing too much.

I don't know about this idea that stiffer bows sound better. Tourte bows are not generally very stiff and they sound fantastic whereas E.A. Ouchard which tend to be much stiffer do not sound as good.

I have no problem picking up most bows and making them bounce, do stacatto, and ricochet. However playing open strings and drawing a complex sound is another.

December 27, 2007 at 02:39 AM · Mr. Greenwood

For this neophyte, could you be more specific in corelating resonance and elasticity- since higher elasticity generates a brighter tone.

I will need a new bow when my new violin arrives. I have only owned cheap bows- $200. max

Please, NO sarcasm intended here. I think I understand the value of the Lucchi Meter and Young's mosulus relative to elasticity and their

importance to the bow maker.

However I have not seen any bows advertised in terms of Young's Modulus, etc. Thus would you agree that I'm left with picking out a bunch of bows and finally selecting the one made of stiffer, denser wood.


December 27, 2007 at 12:50 PM · Young's Modulus (E) is a material property. Bow flexibility is the combined result of material property (E) and geometry (I). I is the "moment of inertia" and is quite simply put, the second moment of the cross sectional area. It varies over the length of the bow. Be careful: "E" is often referred to as stiffness but if you don't understand the context, it can be misleading, as the bending stiffness is always a function of both geometry and modulus of elasticity (Young's modulus). Tensile elongation is merely a function of cross sectional area times E and this tensile behavior is the generalized "stiffness" that is referred to as a material property.

You can achieve any given bow flexibility using any density of wood, or any modulus of elasticity E, given appropriately chosen geometry. However, the final weight of the bow will vary from one material or wood to the next, as some woods are stiffer in proportion to their density than others.

A bow will have resonant frequencies which are a function of the inertia, I, and the mass per unit length. Therefore two bows with identical flexibility can have different resonant frequencies--even if they are the same total weight!

Finally, the choice of wood will influence the damping properties of the bow. This is what Allan refers to as the "formant structure' and is nothing more than the transmission absorption spectra of the wood.

Obviously a bowmaker is more interested in performance than science and so one isn't necessarily going to get a proper scientific explanation for how a good bow is achieved in practice. It is, finally, an art at this point!

December 27, 2007 at 06:32 PM · Peter: I’m not suggesting that stiffer bows play better or produce more complex sound than softer bows. I was only discussing the relative stiffness and potential “liveliness” of the raw stick that the bowmaker starts with. In fact, many great sounding historical bows are notably soft.

The quality of the graduation (taper) of the bow and amount and evenness of distribution of camber (bend) in the bow strongly affect final playability. These elements are where the art and judgment of the bowmaker really comes in into play. Getting the graduation and camber to “balance” is meticulous intuitive work and something rarely present, or even attempted, in cheaper bows and is often equally arbitrary in carbon fiber bows.

Allan: The physical properties of the wood, such as grain direction, knots, lignin content all naturally influence the elasticity of a given stick of wood. The bowmaker is particularly concerned with the relative stiffness, density, structural integrity of the stick. It is interesting that wood does become more elastic as it ages. Most of this occurs during the seasoning process, while it’s still in the wood pile.

The intriguing thing about “elasticity” is that, after a point, higher is not necessarily better. Notably, carbon fiber has elasticity at the top of the pernambuco range, but is not the preference of most advanced players. Very high elasticity in a stick can result in shrillness on many violins and a lot of players don’t like such bows because they can seem overcharged and “nervous” in the hand. This is particularly noticeable when playing longer bowed cantabile passages. Too much camber can also contribute to a lack of stability in slower passages. Regarding damping, I don’t use any concrete measure for this. It is clearly at the root of why some bows sound great on certain instruments and not so hot on others.

Bilbo: Thanks for your astute further discussion about the physics of bowmaking. There are of course many other elements of the materials and construction that directly affect the tone and playability of a given bow, but they’re over my head. My interest as bowmaker is to develop a practical and objective means of analyzing the work of bows that I admire and want to learn from. Equally, when I make an exceptional bow, I naturally want to gather as much concrete information about it so that I can reproduce a similar bow again.


John Greenwood

December 28, 2007 at 01:05 AM · Excellent post, Bilbo.

And John, thanks again for your time & expertise.

December 28, 2007 at 05:01 AM · I'm surprised we haven't heard from Gennady.

December 28, 2007 at 06:58 AM · Good point Albert. We all know what bad workmen do to their tools.

December 28, 2007 at 04:44 PM · I dont think Gennady is here anymore Ray.....

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