Black Horsehair, What's the Difference?

August 16, 2009 at 08:12 PM ·

 What is the difference in black horsehair and white hair?  I did a search of topics here in v.com and didn't find it.  I heard black hair is coarser and easier to grip the strings, but is there a drawback if that is true?

I am wondering since I saw a video of my teacher Shmuel Ashkenasi playing the Brahms Sextet on Youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cWAtsUL1RK4 and I was wondering whether I might try it, but I want to know what the difference is.

 

Brian

Replies (27)

August 16, 2009 at 08:56 PM ·

Yes Brian!

Black Horse hair absorbs white light hense it will be black since no white light (or very little) is reflected.

White Horse hair reflects white light so it is white in color.

Sorry dude I just had too! ;^D

Good question!

Have a great school year! ;)

August 16, 2009 at 08:59 PM ·

 I believe that black hair has simply not been bleached/treated like white hair (Mongolian horses all have black tails, and is thus the best for bows because it is the most coarse) and gets more bite when you play.

August 16, 2009 at 09:15 PM ·

Ive seen many hanks of hair listed as unbleached that are white in color

August 16, 2009 at 10:21 PM ·

Barry:  If they are white and unbleached, they aren't Mongolian horse hair, and you probably don't want to use it.

August 16, 2009 at 11:20 PM ·

I'm guessing that using black horsehair on a violin/viola bow would produce a much coarser and rather undesirable sound due to the increased grip (roughness) it has.  Which is why the black hair is preferred by double bass players who need that.

However, having said that, I was intrigued the other day to see a d. bass player using a bass bow with white hair in an orchestra.  Maybe his bass was more responsive than most and white hair produced a better sound for him? 

August 16, 2009 at 11:43 PM ·

Black hair, being coarser, is normally used on bass bows.  Most of the bassists I know, however, choose to use white hair, and claim that the black hair is too rough or too coarse for them.  One other time, I saw a 'cello bow with black hair, but this video is the first time I've ever seen a violin bow with black hair.

I've always wanted to try using black hair on the violin myself, but one of my luthiers (a bassist who uses only white hair on his bows) told me that I would regret it.

August 17, 2009 at 12:04 AM ·

Well, I guess this is as good time as any to make my first post to this forum. I have just taken my first violin lesson am both excited and challenged at the prospect of learning this instrument.

On point here, I am a double bassist and have bows with black hair and white hair. Please note that some play a comination of white and black termed "salt and pepper". As one might expect, bassists debate the pros and cons of each type with great vigor. From my experience, black hair will give you more "grab" and that's imprtant given the thickness of bass strings. Some players claim they make bow articulation harder in fast passages (i.e., Bach 'cello suite transcriptions).

During my first lesson, my teacher and I spent some time getting me to lighten up both on the bow hold and on the amount of string pressure. It's the difference between playing with a toothpick and an iron pipe for a bow.

I don't suppose you are all into viola jokes here . . . .

Cheers

 

 

 

August 17, 2009 at 01:38 AM ·

The black hair that I use on rehairs comes from Mongolia and is processed in Anping, China. Incidentally, I understand that over 95% of the world's bow hair is processed there. The hair comes from black horses and no dye is added. It's probably the coarsest hair of suitable length available, with a thick hair shaft. It can be used well in bass bows where an extra strong grip is necessary for the heavy strings.

I would not recommend black hair for violin because is just too grippy. It makes it very difficult to make a soft pianissimo and on louder passages it overdrives the string into the scratch zone.

There are coarser hairs that I use on cello and sometimes viola which give more grab, and to positive effect. It depends on a combination the bow itself, the instrument, the strings being used, and the rosin. These include Siberian Mare Hair, Argentinian hair ,"Silver Grey," and "Salt-and-Pepper."

In practice, you might be hard pressed to tell one of these coarser varieties of hair from the other on your bow. Interestingly, on account of their unusually light weight, carbon fiber bows sometimes profit from a coarser type of hair.

If your rehair technician offers a range of hair possibilities, on a violin bow you could consider using Siberian Mare (white) or "Silver Grey" for all the grip that a violinist would ever need.

John Greenwood, Bowmaker

 

 

August 17, 2009 at 03:05 AM ·

Hi Brian (and others). The question about the differences in horsehair is something that comes up often for me. John Greenwood had a great response above (Good to see you again on here John!).

I've linked HERE to a research paper that was published in 2007 that measures, describes, and has electron photographs of the different types of hair that is commonly used in bows.

I've copied below a response that I wrote awhile back to a similar question that was posed on another forum.

___________________________________________________________

First off, bowhair should never, never, never be bleached. Bleaching does
weaken the hair, and changes the feel (and probably the sound as well) as
the bow is drawn across the strings. Usually, only cheap, unsorted hair gets
bleached to make it whiter to resemble better, more expensive hair. I don't
know of any reputable shop or bowmaker that uses bleached hair. Do not
confuse (non-bleach) color-dyed hair with bleached hair. Color dying does
raise the texture slightly, but usually does not weaken it.

 

Better grades of horsehair are not more expensive because the hair is whiter
with less variation in color change from end-to-end (known as color drift).
Better hair (more expensive to purchase) will always be quality sorted,
regardless of the source. The reason better hair is more expensive relates
to the processing of the hair itself, a process known as double-drawing the
hair. This process involves pulling single strands of bowhair through human
hands to feel the thickness, quality, strength, etc. of each hair to
eliminate bad hairs that are kinky, zippy, have knots, splits, deposits of
crud, etc. Because it is all human labor, this is a very effective process
to produce consistent, high-quality hair, but adds considerable expense.
Lesser grades of hair are only sorted "en masse" to eliminate only the most
obviously bad hairs.

Horsehair for bows comes from several places in the world-most notably
Mongolia, Siberia, Argentina, and Australia. Opinions from players and
bowmakers differ as to which source is the best, but hair from Mongolia is
probably the most popular. My personal preference (and that of many of my
clients) is Mongolian Stallion hair.
Generally:
* Mongolian hair tends to be slightly finer than hair from other
sources.
* Siberian hair tends to be slightly more elastic (slightly more
stretchy). This additional elasticity can be good for climates that have
extremely dry humidity which causes hair to contract more.
* Canadian hair tends to be slightly more gray in color, slightly
thicker, and more elastic than Siberian hair.
* Argentinian hair tends to be courser (slightly thicker) and is good
for cellists, bassists, fiddlers.
* Stallion hair is often preferred because it is whiter than mare
hair.
* Mare hair is not quite as strong as stallion and has more color
drift (from white to tan) due to staining from urine. This does not mean
that it is inferior. The urine stains very slightly raise the texture of the
hair making it more aggressive than stallion hair.
* Black hair is the thickest and strongest of all bow hair, but tends
to get a "grittier" sound to it.
* The sound bow hair makes is only very subtly a result of the source,
but much more influenced by the choice and quantity of rosin.

Josh Henry, Bow Maker & Restorer
www.FineViolinBows.com

August 17, 2009 at 02:48 PM ·

So how concerned should a violinist be regarding the selections of hair available?

August 17, 2009 at 04:30 PM ·

Alexander Fiedotjew

Welcome to V.com!

Interesting question on the viola jokes; but it does beg a question....

If violinists and double basists both have jokes about violists, who do the violists make jokes about?

August 17, 2009 at 05:11 PM ·

The person playing the triangle?????

August 17, 2009 at 05:37 PM ·

Pretty on target there. I've had a number of friends who were piano performance majors that were nonetheless required to participate in the college orchestra, normally as auxiliary percussionists.

"Count 763 measures . . . then 1,2,3 Bing!"

Better that than playing the gong.

 

 

August 18, 2009 at 12:53 AM ·

While we're on the subject, some period bow makers say that black hair is a good choice for clip-in frogs because it is less affected by changes in humidity.

John or Josh I'd be curious to know what your experiences on the issue have been.  Also whether you find some hair types work better with pure gut strings?

August 18, 2009 at 01:33 AM ·

Andres Sender asked:  "While we're on the subject, some period bow makers say that black hair is a good choice for clip-in frogs because it is less affected by changes in humidity.

John or Josh I'd be curious to know what your experiences on the issue have been.  Also whether you find some hair types work better with pure gut strings?"

I do think that black hair is less affected by humidity than white hair. I say this because in my experience, black hair is much more difficult to get a nice, flat ribbon of hair on the bow than white hair. In rehairing, the hair is made wet (or damp) so it stretches a bit, and then as it drys, it shrinks down evenly into the flat ribbon that players expect. Black hair does not always do this well (especially on bows that are more flexible or have lost camber). I think that this is due to the fact that black bow hair is always coarser than white hair, and does not stretch or shrink as much as white hair.

As far as rehairing period bows with black hair--I put in whatever the player asks for. However, I don't remember ever rehairing a period bow with black hair. All of the period players in my area request the regular white Mongolian hair. I don't rehair enough period bows to know if different types of hair would work better, but that is a good question to think about. The thing to make note though is that I usually hear a bit of 'grit' or 'hair surface noise' with the coarser hair when used on modern violin bows, so the coarser hair might not give you the sound that you are used to. My general observation on playing plain gut strings (again--not much experience here) is that they are not quite as rapid (in response) to more modern strings. This might be due to lower tensions and thicker diameters used for gut strings. It thinking about it, it makes sense that coarser hair might work well with the thicker strings.

Things to ponder tonight as I am trying to fall asleep...

Josh Henry, Bow Maker & Restorer
www.FineViolinBows.com

August 18, 2009 at 12:56 PM ·

Black hair is from the other tail of the horse.. bwohoho

August 18, 2009 at 01:44 PM ·

Krizstian lol!!!!!!!!!!!! (I couldn't resist!)

I know that my teacher told that a long time ago in Russia is was quite common to have unbleached bows (maybe it was less expansive). They had brown, grey and black hair...  Ought to see a red haired bow!   The one from a palomino horse (golden tails and mains) would be magnificient... (but it is not the good breed)

Anyway, if bleaching is not good (and unbleached is much better) and that mongolian horses or siberian horses have mostly black tails (I think Tasha is right on this), it's a shame that for the sake of esthetic only we only can buy bleached hair in 99% of the market!!!

We would have to use Lippizan hair : )  (naturally white with no bleach. It's the beautiful white horses they use in obedience and dance shows like in Vienna)    But then, since the huge number of violinists,  all the show horses of the world would have short tails...  (Children, don't worry, not the ones that Krisztian talked about!!!) lol  

Anne-Marie

August 18, 2009 at 02:37 PM ·

Anne-Marie said: "Anyway, if bleaching is not good (and unbleached is much better) and that mongolian horses or siberian horses have mostly black tails (I think Tasha is right on this), it's a shame that for the sake of esthetic only we only can buy bleached hair in 99% of the market!!!"

Anne-Marie, Like I said above, the white hair that we use in bows is never bleached. The hair that is sold for violin bows is naturally white and not bleached. Other shades of hair (grey, black, chestnut) are of course also available. There is more than just an aesthetic difference in the color of bow hair--the textrure, feel, elasticity are all different on the different types of hair that are available.

Josh Henry, Bow Maker & Restorer
www.FineViolinBows.com

August 18, 2009 at 02:57 PM ·

Thanks Henry for the precision. I have always been told that all the white hair we had was bleached! 

Anne-Marie

August 19, 2009 at 05:53 AM ·

Excellent and insightful comments, Josh!

My understanding is that trade with Mongolia and similar remote northern climes were rather restricted during the baroque and classial periods. "Authentic" (ie. contemporary) players and bow rehairers therefore had to rely on uneven local supply. If well processed and meticulously picked over again (and again) by the rehair technician, you can get a most respectable hair ribbon out of most any sort of horse hair of suitable length.

As a side note, during the baroque and early classical periods, bows were treated more as accessories than as cherished tools of the violin player's art. Probably a good number of bows were simply disposed of when the hair became worn out! For what it's worth, that certainly simplified the problem of deciding what sort of hair to rehair the bow with. Yikes!!

I think that a simple path for the Period player would be to use "Silver-Grey" hair, which gives the hair ribbon a bit more rustic off-color look, or, Siberian Mare for a more familiar white ribbon. Most rehair technicians supply this sort of hair.

I think that this is a problem that the Period player doesn't have.

John Greenwood, Bowmaker

 

August 18, 2009 at 09:24 PM ·

For the Bow Makers:

How concerned should a violinist be about the different hair available?  Does it really matter?

August 20, 2009 at 04:14 AM ·

Royce Faina asked "How concerned should a violinist be about the different hair available?  Does it really matter?"

Royce, the answer to this question is going to vary according to the availability of hair that your rehairer has available to you. Most players really don't know the difference or have a preference for a type of hair--they just know that their bow works well (or unfortunately, sometimes it doesn't) after a rehair. Most shops have one or two kinds of hair available that work well for their clientele, however, a bow specialist may have a wider selection of hair available. The main thing that I would stress to you and to all players about bowhair is that if you like the hair that your rehairer has used in your bow--then go back to the same place and use the same thing again. Most rehairers are knowledgeable enough to know what works and what doesn't for the players that they service.

Different thicknesses (thinner white hair vs. thicker white or black hair) would be obvious to distinguish for players, but I think your question is deeper than that. Bowhair that is similar (Stallian hair vs. Mare hair; Mongolian, Siberian, Canadian) may vary from shop to shop depending on climate, season, local preference, availability and so on, but really, most players would probably have difficulty determining between types of similiar hair.

The most important factor in sound production is not the hair, but the rosin. Different rosins will have a much larger impact on the sound than whatever kind of hair is in the bow. Some rosins produce sound that is bold, or rich, or metallic, or warm, or grippy, or smooth, or...whatever. The hair is really just the means to hold the rosin in order to excite the string into vibrating to produce sound. The bow hair does affect the feel of the bow more than the sound that it produces.

Josh Henry, Bow Maker & Restorer
www.FineViolinBows.com

August 20, 2009 at 10:12 AM ·

Josh-  That's insightful! Thanks!

August 20, 2009 at 11:01 AM ·

 Thanks for everything, guys.  I just wanted to know...I desperately needed a rehair because the one I got in LA was horrific, but I just talked to Glenn Beardon from Delaware and sent it to him, and he assured me that he has the best Argentinian horsehair that he has had in over a decade.  Praise heavens :D

August 22, 2009 at 02:45 AM ·

My father was between 1955 and 1975 the main trader in bow hair in the world. I remember that he bought horsehair in the fifties mainly in the Sovjet Union. I am not sure whether this hair originated from Siberia, Mongolia or China. later, in the sixties the main suppliers were China and Argentina, as far as I remember. Here is how the system worked: he bought large quantities of horse tail hair in different lengths. In his warehouse in Amsterdam he had it sorted on length, and everything over I believe 80cm was taken apart for bow hair. Then it was washed. It was NEVER bleached, as has been pointed out, because then it looses its elasticity. Regarding the question black or white: my father was an animal hair expert and one of the few in the world who traded in bow hair in those days. He said that the color was maiinly a matter of taste and fashion. He was able to supply white or black hair of the same quality. I have read here that black hair is coarser: as far as I remember it was possible to get  less coarser black hair, but there was simply no demand for that. I do not know what happened to this market after 1975, other than that I see sometimes ads of companies in the US and England that were already in business in those days. Sometimes even the experts were a victim of their imagination: I remember that the famous violin shop of Max Moeller in Amsterdam used to buy bow hair from my father, until he switched to supply from Czecholslovakia, which-he claimed- was better, not knowing that he bought the same hair, since my father sold the bow hair to Czechoslovakia.

August 22, 2009 at 03:46 AM ·

Thanks Jaap for your intriguing story about your father and his bow hair trade! Since the liberalization of trade with Mainland China, we're seeing much more directly imported hair coming to the US and Europe, without so many hands in between. I currently purchase most of my bow hair right from a factory in Anping, China.

John Greenwood, Bowmaker

 

August 25, 2009 at 11:26 AM ·

For everything you ever wanted to know about bow hair, please visit http://twotreellc.com

Black horse tail hair is coarser and dirtier than white tail hair which is sometimes bleached.

TwoTree Manchurian bow hair is always washed (black and white), never bleached.

Some bass players like black hair as it tends to hold rosin better than some white hair, but that is not always true.  TwoTree imports a white hair called "Fiddler's Hair" which is quite coarse and holds rosin very well.

Black hair certainly looks cool on a bass bow.

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