Stiff or Flexible Bow?

March 9, 2009 at 07:55 PM ·

I am a rookie looking for a new bow and wondering what is best, stiff or flexible? What are most of the pro's using for best speed, power and control? I am looking for something to grow into.
I know this topic has a lot of variables, like string choice, but I hope to learn something towards my next investment.


Replies (24)

March 9, 2009 at 08:20 PM ·

Stiff bow/ "flexible hair" : flexible bow / "stiff hair"

The "stiffness" of a bow can be compensated for by the amount and tightness of the hair.

I have stiff and "soft" bows. My F. N. Vorin bow (ancient as it is) is a very soft bow, but a very well-though of maker. I also have a very flexible Tourte copy by the late Carl Holzapfel of Baltimore. Both of these are great playing bows. I have other bows ranging up to an ARCUS carbon fiber bow (about the stiffest you can find) that is nearly three times stiffer than those two.  Good bows over a wide range of stiffness have their advocates have their advocates.

Balance of the whole bow, the displacement of the wood over the entire length of the stick, and the amount of hair relative to the stiffness of the stick are more important than a single parameter. Even "excess" weight of a heavy bow can be compensated by proper balance.

If the bow will do what it needs to and you can get an opinion of a particular bow from someone who has already "grown into" bows, you can get an assessment. There is a lot more to it than just stiff or not. Sometimes stiff bows are harder to grow into and you may want to get to one more gradually. I think it is easier to improve ones bowing on a less stiff bow - it might do more to help one grow into a "better" bow. (Of course, it's also easier to learn to play on a great Strad than a beginner fiddle - but watcha gonna do?)


March 9, 2009 at 10:44 PM ·


I second Anderw@s comments.  Basically it is better to shop for bows without -any- preconditions except price.

For what its worth I used to favor rather stiff bows and always bought good nurnburgers which will set you back around 5 000 dollars a pop.  I regard the transition to seemingly more flexible and soft older French bows as a watershed mark in my technique. I found I could get all the power and ntensity I wanted plus a deal of extra subtlety.



March 10, 2009 at 10:47 AM ·

My arcus bow is rather stiff, but as stiff (and stable) as it can get, it can also get nervous (of what my pro violinist friend regarded as, he said the real Tourtes are very soft, but they're also very "nervous").

Sometime a soft bow will get too nervous, and it's not stable on legato bowings. Some bows are too stiff and it's hard to make agile moves. And worst of all, too soft to be stable, and yet not agile at all.

EDIT: Removed some wrong assumptions.

March 10, 2009 at 03:27 PM ·

"Removed some wrong assumptions"  I need to insert that disclaimer in real life conversations sometimes!

I definitely favor a light weight stiff bow.  I still play too would be a better description so when I have a heavy bow in my hand I can dig to China with it. (I'm in North America btw.  ;)

I find Buri's comments about playing with a stiff bow interesting and insightful.  I am well aware I do not have the control a flexible bow.  In my untrained hand, calling it 'nervous' would be a huge understatement.  It's a disaster!

But now I have a benchmark to shoot for.  

I have found that the best way to shop for a bow, is to take your instrument with you and play many, many bows.  It's hard to match a bow with a instrument with your playing style.  When I was shopping for a new violin bow, I must have tried 100+ bows before I finally settled on one.  I'm still not completely satisfied but it works for now. 

When I got my cello, I didn't like the bow the previous owner used with it.  When I went bow shopping, I got lucky.  One bow in the first shop just made that instrument sing.  I would have paid any amount for it (well...I exaggerate) but I got lucky and that particular bow was very inexpensive.  So, lesson learned...set your maximum price and try all bows under that price. 

March 10, 2009 at 07:50 PM ·


My problem is that there are no violin shops in the area to choose a bow or even a violin from.
 I have a decent octagon brazilwood bow that came with my violin bundle and decided to purchase a new bow on line. I purchased this Ipe wood bow that the Chinese say is 5 times better than their medium grade pernumbuco bow for half the price They claim some of the players in their orchestra have purchased this one in place of their thousand dollar pernambuco bow. The bow uses their top grade Mongolian horse hair which was an improvement over the other bow I have. The bow is nice with silver parts, 62 grams, balance 258mm, length 742mm w/button top.
I just got it last week and find it to be a little flexible and as Casey said, a little nervous, especially on the down bow. The bow has about half the amount of hair as my beginner brazilwood bow, and immediately noticed it to be warmer sounding and less harsh than the brazilwood bow. Not sure if it is the better hair or wood quality. I am in a learning process and do not have the ability to test other bows but think after reading this forum, I may see if I can return it for a stiffer bow like it, or better quality one that is a stiffer. By returning this bow, they can make a comparison from this one to understand what I am looking for.
When you adjust the bow hair, do you tighten the hair about a pencil width, or do you adjust it for optimum playability? Is it easy to damage the bow/hair by over tightening trying to stiffen the action? If you have to tighten up to a half inch to stiffen the action to where you like, would it be better to buy a stiffer bow and tighten it a quarter inch or pencil width?

March 10, 2009 at 08:18 PM ·

I have a 160 year old french bow that falls into what Buri is talking about and I concurre with most of what he says!  Mine has had many a repair including  the tip being bound with silver wire some time in it's life.  From advanced college student too Ph.D., they voiced realy loving my bow.

Hope this helps.

March 10, 2009 at 10:28 PM ·


Tess, look onthe bright side-  Oistrakh used Nurnburgers. (and possibly too many hamburgers)



March 11, 2009 at 02:53 AM ·

One thing I find that, when I try to tap my arcus bow on my finger within the tip area (while my right hand is holding the bow as usual), I can feel the whole bow is vibrating, which is the same feeling that I can command it to bounce whenever I needed. This is not the case with my wooden bows.

I think it's probably the same as every fine bows too, they should have this vibrating quality when being tapped and it's what make a bow has this agile quality?

Jerry - Regarding how much to tighten the bow, a pencil width is the general rule but you can always adjust to taste (normally a turn or 2, you can feel if it's too tight). Anyway do watch this video, the bow gave me an impression that it's quite soft and need to be tighten more than regular bows, and it's probably the most flashy bowing to play this piece!

March 11, 2009 at 03:10 AM ·



if that's what gave his playing soul then we all should head for the red meat counter

March 11, 2009 at 04:10 AM ·

presumably Ukranian hamburgers were a tad dodgy in OistraKh`s day? 

October 28, 2009 at 03:36 PM ·

Instead of starting a new thread asking about similar subject, I choosen to revive this thread so in the future people can refer to one single thread on the same informations...

So I've bought a new bow with seemingly stiff stick but was actually flexible, I would describe it as strong than stiff, very nice bow that does most things well and effortlessly. However, I still can't play some bouncing strokes well like paganini caprice no.1 and ronde des lutins (single ricochets are ok, but not those continous ricochets). I can play those strokes pretty OK but I must be very careful with my right hand to execute the correct bowing movement pretty precise all the time. I tried one of my teacher's bow (most likely not master grade made bow), slimmer, lighter and pretty soft bow that needed to be tighten a lot, still the same result. 

At this point I admit I'm lacking in the skill. But I'm just curious, are soft bows essential for learning this kind of bowing techniques? I've seen players like itzhak perlman did not seems to play on a soft bow (I judge from how much tightening on his bow) and yet he can play ronde des lutins so effortlessly.

Any inputs are welcomed. I couldn't find anyone to teach me at the moment...

October 28, 2009 at 06:49 PM ·

Oistrakh is my favorite player ever... but I want to become vegetarian when I'll get out of home : (   If it was an hamburger thing, be sure Mc Donalds would be the no 1 place the paparazzis would go to spy Joshua Bell, Hilary Hahn, Vadim Repin etc...


My bow is flexible. I love the sound of stiffer bows but I play like a butcher with my stiffer one (but it's cheaper than my flexible one so I must be biaised no?)



October 29, 2009 at 02:16 AM ·

I think the choice of flex and how much to tighten a bow is very much personal preference.  But, just as important as stiffness is the sound that the bow pulls out of your violin.  You will find pretty big differences in timber as well as power with different bows.  Also, weight is another consideration; some like lighter bows, some like heavier.  And to confuse matters even more, you will find that some bows are better suited for certain repertoire while others might be better for other repertoire; e.g., the best bow for ricochet bowing is not likely to be the best choice for slow legato passages.

The bottom line is, don't be too influenced by others.  The choice of a bow is a very personal thing.  Find something that feels good to you and sounds good with your violin.  If you plan to upgrade your violin, do that first, then buy a bow to match. 


October 29, 2009 at 02:57 AM ·

Anne-Marie - Well I'm a pretty gentle player that I don't slam my bow much. Despite my bow being strong, controlling dynamics is very easy from ppp to fff, the stick is still flexible and respond well to different bow speed/pressure. Maybe I favour hamburgers! ;-)

Smiley - I think you made a very strong point - don't influenced by others too much! Since the bow is still new to me, I will spend more time on it and see what it can do on those bow strokes. The new bow is so comfortable on anything from legato to spiccato to sautille that will make regular gig'ing effortless - in the end I think I might still need another bow for bouncing strokes but I will have to find a bow that sound as good...Bow hunting journey continue!

November 2, 2009 at 06:58 PM ·

Casey said

"However, I still can't play some bouncing strokes well like paganini caprice no.1 and ronde des lutins"

Neither can I - but it's nothing to do with the bow!

November 2, 2009 at 07:36 PM ·

Hi Malcolm,

Well after a few days focusing on bouncing strokes, I begin to unlock the potential of my bow, continous ricochets are much easier to do now and much better than I expected. Paganini caprice no.1 also become much better too, each note is now crisp and articulated, though concentration on the right hand is needed throughout, each stroke needed to start correctly and the bow will then do its job.

I find the problem lies in the hair tension, I have to back off the tension to "feel" the bow first, then slowly increase until it reach optimum tension suitable for bounce strokes. Still learning about the bow, more funs coming!

November 9, 2009 at 10:27 PM ·

Hello. I prefer a stiff bow to a flexible although certain pieces would require the flexible bow. I am a rookie myself and when i am playing i play really hard and intensly so a stiff bow is better for me=)

December 22, 2009 at 10:57 AM ·

I visited my teacher today, and revisited the bow test driving after breaking in the bow hair.

Surprisingly to find out how flexible my bow can be. I normally follow the pencil width rule when tightening, but my teacher tried to tighten it so tight that it scared me off when I look at the distance between the stick and hair, similar to the tightness seen on some soloist's bow like gil shaham.

So I tested it, it seems that the stiffness/strength has maintained despite the tightness, with extra power than before. It's really scary to look at the tightness but was a dream to play on. Then, my teacher loosen it to half of the pencil width, and he said it's still as strong as it is, but with different character.

We concluded that the bow is strong and yet very flexible, maintaining the strong feeling under different hair tightness without a slight hint of being mushy. And I think to myself, maybe I've got something special? Just want some inputs from V.commies, what are the chances to find a bow plays like that? If it's something worthy I want to get it authenticated since it has no certs and stamp/numbering.

December 22, 2009 at 02:44 PM ·

Casey, very interesting!  As for tightness this is surely personal. I am suppose to put my bow very tight. Almost too much according to my maker, ok according to my teacher because still in the acceptable range.  My bow is german made but delicate and flexible. When it's not tight, the hair touches the wood in f or ff dynamics and I hate this.   I find it bounces better and offer crispier/sharper playing and depth of sound (I mean potential for this...) but my maker says it is also easier to lose control...   For my teacher as long as it is in the acceptable range, it's ok since she thinks this is personal.   Maybe it means I like stiff bows or maybe it depends on gut vs syntethic strings???  Anyway, I'll find out this when I'll go bow shoping but this is not for tomorrow...


December 22, 2009 at 02:48 PM ·


I'm not exactly sure what is meant. But two factors I know of can make a bow harder to control, and hence more "nervous" (i. e., transfer of shakes from stick to hair to strings).

1. Playing with the flat of the hair so the stick is directly in line with hair and perpendicular to string will transfer any shakes more efficiently (which is bad).

2. A really "good feeling in your hand" bow that is frog heavy will tend to be more nervous than the same bow with a few grams of mass removed from the frog (or winding) area.

Another factor to consider about bows is the "acoustic impedance" of the stick that can affect the way vibrations in the hair transfer into the stick. I think you want this to work efficiently, because vibrations in the hair thatl feed back into the strings can interfere with some notes that resonate at the same frequency(s). This is one of the factors involved in matching a bow to an instrument (I think).


December 22, 2009 at 04:25 PM ·

Anne-Marie - It's interesting indeed. While on high tension I don't find it increase so much on the stiffness, it still feel rather flexible, while still feel strong on low tension. It's interesting indeed to find out that it works on either way, maybe that will suit different player like powerful bowing versus speedy bowing with the same bow.

Basically, I like the higher tension more, I feel it's more stable and yet the saltato/ricochet are as alive as on low tension and are easy to control. Anyway, I'll have to play with the tension a little more to have a clearer idea on how different tension can affect the playing character.

December 23, 2009 at 05:38 AM ·

Can I muddy up this already churning discussion?

I am of the opinion that the violin has a preference also, as I have two that have distinct different preferences. One violin has a lot more versatility with a more flexible (but strong) wood bow, while the other gets inconsistent results without the more stiff carbon fiber bow. 

I notice a difference with different strings; when I experiment with steel strings, there is less difference, but with perlon, the stiff bow is loses any subtle characteristics.

So, the preference is not all yours; the violin and strings get a vote too!!!

December 23, 2009 at 06:03 AM ·

Having owned a number of good bows, I go for flexibility and basic tone quality first. Then go for playability. Some older French bows like my Voirin or Maline get some getting used to. You need to learn how to play on them for the best articulation. I tend to cycle through various bows, but the most important thing is the basic tone quality.This can vary with the instrument you have.

July 10, 2012 at 06:16 AM ·

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