Do bow prices actually affect how great a bow plays?

February 6, 2018, 3:33 PM · Help help, I really don't understand why the prices of bows really make a difference on the tonal qualities when played!

The thing is I was listening to a YOuTube video on a $500 bow vs 160,000 $ bow, in which I couldn't tell a damn difference.

I do know, the sound difference between a $20 and a $200 because anything below $70 is just bad and you might as well use a tree branch instead.

I've always thought the only thing affecting a violin bow apart from the stick not being deformed or too short or long was the bow hair. Either I must be tone deaf or something, I feel like the $400 Coda Bow I have sounds just like the $120 wooden bow I have. I really think it's a matter of the bow hair and not the bow itself.

Appreciate it if anyone explains this to me.

(This is the video link:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7Mdx7OqrEpU)

Replies (47)

February 6, 2018, 3:46 PM · My luthier says it's the wood. Anyway, go to a shop/auction and try a £400 one against a £2000 or so one. You should hear the difference.
Edited: February 6, 2018, 3:56 PM · A more expensive bow may or may not always produce better sound. That depends on the match between the bow and the instrument and player’s skills. On the other hand, more expensive bows (not factoring collectable value) will generally facilitate the technique, and therefore lead to better tone production with less effort. Simply listening to the sound of a simple demonstration won’t make that obvious. When you try a more expensive bow, the first reaction isn’t generally wow, it sounds so much better, but rather wow... it feels so much better, it is so easy to play.
Edited: February 6, 2018, 4:29 PM · Bows really do differ. Once I tried half a dozen carbon fibre of the same brand at around £400. They varied markedly. I bought the one I liked. I am sure most super-expensive bows are nice to use. Though the very high prices of course reflect collectability. Sound mainly comes from the player.

"I feel like the $400 Coda Bow I have sounds just like the $120 wooden bow I have." Could be. Surely the right question is not how the bow sounds, but whether a more expensive bow helps you get closer to the sound you working for. If it does not, it is a waste of money.

February 6, 2018, 4:41 PM · The price doesn't affect how the bow plays, but the reverse is often true.....
February 6, 2018, 4:43 PM · It's not something the audience hears. It's the qualities a bow has that lets the player do things they can't with a lesser bow. You have to be playing at a very high level to appreciate the marginal gains of a very fine bow.
February 6, 2018, 4:47 PM · With a good bow, you can get away with a lot more pressure - it doesn't slide up and down the string, and the stick stays away from the string.
February 6, 2018, 6:28 PM · "It's the qualities a bow has that lets the player do things they can't with a lesser bow. You have to be playing at a very high level to appreciate the marginal gains of a very fine bow."

I want to hear more about that. What would you say are the (marginal) advantages of a 160k bow compared to a 1k bow?

February 6, 2018, 7:08 PM · Any player who can hear the differences between violins under their ear, should almost certainly be able to hear the differences between different bows on the same violin. It will be "different", not necessarily "better". Tonal match between bow and violin is unpredictable and not directly related to price.

In terms of playing qualities, many higher-end bows are distinctive; they may be optimized in different ways. For instance, a bow that draws a very smooth sound that makes it trivial to silently change bows at the extreme ends, may be harder to get a precise 'click' of a sound at the beginning of a note -- i.e., it does not automatically articulate as well. A lightweight "Mozart" bow might not be great for big Romantic repertoire that requires a lot of weight on the string.

Personally, I don't think that really fine bows have mere marginal advantages over a decent $1k bow -- I think the advantages are pretty large, and can be felt by a skilled player. Better bows respond very sensitively and precisely, and the bow that's right for you tends to feel "intuitive", like it plays itself.

February 6, 2018, 8:39 PM · When I brought a Joseph Voirin bow home on approval, I mentioned the price and that I wanted to buy it to my non-musician husband, whose immediate response was "no." (We were newlyweds at the time, living in what was essentially a two-room apartment, still paying off his school loan and my car loan.) So I played for him, first with my existing bow (a decent German stick) and then with the Voirin. The next words out of his mouth were, "You have to get this bow." The difference was that big.
February 7, 2018, 2:15 AM · From what I understand after heaving read 10 years worth of bow discussions in this forum and a few scientific studies: the quality of a bow has two aspects: handling and tone.

The handling part is fairly straightforward to quantify. An engineering requirements sheet would probably specify: length, mass, center of mass ("balance point"), moment of inertia ("mass distribution") and lowest eigenfrequency. The latter is the combined effect of bending stiffness and mass distribution, both of which vary over the length of the stick. A low eigenfrequency indicates that the bow is likely to feel "floppy". These properties could vary within a reasonable range and offer different tradeoffs like what Lydia is referring to. A bowmaker with access to suitable materials (pernambuco or the right type of carbon fiber composite) would probably be able to reproduce these properties.

I think that once upon a time, one of the forum members here started measuring these properties for a large collection of bows.

How the bow affects the tone is much harder to understand. Nearly all high-level violinists claim that large tonal differences exist between bows, and when asked, that it is really attributable to the stick and not to the hair or rosin. I assume that the tonal difference is there for real and not imagined. (I'd still love to see a 'Paris double blind' study on bows that are matched in terms of handling properties...)

The most likely property affecting tone seems to be damping in the material, for longitudinal compressive waves. The eigenfrequency that I mentioned above is for low-frequency (10-ish Hz) bending modes ("resonances"), which you feel when you slap your fist with a bow. This is about transmission of sound waves from one end of the stick to the other. Apparently, pernambuco is exceptional among wood types because of its very low loss coefficient: the sound wave arrives at the other end almost without any attenuation. Why this affects the tone so much is something I don't understand yet.

Back to the original topic: it still boggles my mind that a $100 pernambuco blank becomes $5000 after it is processed by a high-end bowmaker. At least, I would not expect that price to be in proportion to the amount of labor compared to the labor that goes with making a violin.

February 7, 2018, 3:09 AM · "The thing is I was listening to a YOuTube video on a $500 bow vs 160,000 $ bow, in which I couldn't tell a damn difference."

The difference is for the player, he certainly is having to work much more with the cheaper bow.

With a good bow and instrument the player is free to think more about the music, instead of thinking about how to overcome the instrument and bow problems.

February 7, 2018, 6:09 AM · Mary Ellen: Awwwwww...that's soooo sweet! :)

Thanks for starting my day with a smile! :)

February 7, 2018, 6:57 AM · Keep in mind those videos are playing on your laptop speaker (or whatever) and you'd hear the difference a lot more in real life.

Also, of course it matters, otherwise professionals wouldn't fork out over $10,000 for bows.

February 7, 2018, 7:56 AM · Handling is affected by a ton of little things. I once had a good bow recambered (it really needed it) and I was really surprised at how much tiny changes in camber affected everything about how the bow felt in my hand.

I got a chance to try a Tourte (a $200k+ bow) in the relatively recent past, and the thing was magical. It pulled a gorgeous tone with an incredible range of colors. Handling was a little bit odd, in terms of having to modify how to do some strokes, but it was readily controlled, once I figured out how to use it. It opened my eyes to how absolutely huge of a difference a bow can make.

February 7, 2018, 8:50 AM · I'm currently on a hunt for a new viola bow and there is definitely a difference between bows. Like violins bow prices aren't exactly linear, but there are some qualities of handling/sound that I am finding in the $4000-$5500 price range pretty consistently, that I have not found consistently present in bows in a lower price range. It is hard to describe, but I've found most bows in this price range have a certain amount of flexibility in handling and an ability to bring out a variety of tone colors.

I haven't tried more than a couple of bows above this range, but I expect that about above $5000 or so, there is not necessarily going to be a huge correlation between price and quality as much of the value comes from maker name/popularity and/or antique value (most modern makers prices these days seem to hover between $4000-$8000) just like many modern violins, I suspect you can often find just about the best qualities available in a more affordable modern bow. (although just like the great older instruments, there are antique bows that seem to have certain special qualities that draw top players- I have almost no experience playing instruments/bows of this caliber, so I'm not going to argue whether or not the differences exist (I think they do)).

As for sound, I agree with Lydia that, at least in person, almost anyone can hear the differences in sound between different bows, but it will not necessarily be better or worse, just different. I've played several of the bows I'm trying for my mother, who is not a musician, and she can definitely hear a difference, and often agrees with my assessment of what sounds the best. I've found most bows to be a slight trade-off in sound vs. playability, in which the bow that sounds the best is not necessarily the one that feels the best in my hand and is easiest to play spiccato, etc. with.

February 7, 2018, 9:28 AM · "I want to hear more about that. What would you say are the (marginal) advantages of a 160k bow compared to a 1k bow?"

I think really great bows make it easier to play various shades of spicatto, including up-bow. They also seem to track better and have better overall balance. A great bow almost seems to play itself.

Remember, the original post asked about "how great a bow plays," not specifically about sound. And my experience tells me that you usually can't have both--you have to pick either sound or great handling.

When we discuss "expensive" bows, we have to recognize distinctions: there are "fairly expensive" ones over maybe $6000. There are the "kind of" expensive expensive ones, say $10,000 to $30,000, and then the ridiculous jaw-dropping Tourtes et al.

I've played and owned many in the "kind of" expensive category, including a Tubbs, a Thomasin, Bazin, some better English bows, and others. The reality is that even in this category, you still can't find something that plays AND sounds great. These types of bows are kind of a trap--they are expensive because of their age and provenance, but not necessarily because they're worth it. Many expensive bows are for sale for a good reason: too heavy, too light, weird wiggles, diffuse sound, etc. It's like convincing yourself you must have a 30-year-old Porsche 911--you'll be paying an obscene price for something that's not actually that great.

The very upper echelons of bows may tend to be great playing and sounding. I've tried a couple here and there. It's very much like violins in that you have to be careful in the middle values of the "pretty expensive."
Many of them just aren't that great. They're just expensive.

Edited: February 7, 2018, 9:33 AM · Of course there's some correlation between price and quality, but one should keep in mind that all of this is completely subjective, and that human perception is highly affected by by preconceptions.

Scientific studies have demonstrated that when you tell someone they're drinking a $100 bottle of wine, the WINE ACTUALLY TASTES BETTER. But if you remove labels before tasting, almost no one can tell the difference between a $20 bottle and a $100 bottle.

The same is true of violins. The Indianapolis and Paris blind tests of violins found listeners couldn't tell the difference between Strads and much less expensive (but still high quality) modern instruments, and in Paris (when the trials were double blind), the fiddle players couldn't tell the difference either.

So I love Mary Ellen's story about the Voirin, and of course most Voirins are wonderful bows, but would her husband have heard such a big difference in sound if he didn't know how much the bow cost, and how excited Mary Ellen was about it?

Anyway, to the original question, I've seen that Youtube video and really that's not a fair trial because the violin player in the video is simply not good enough for an expensive bow to make a difference. And even if the more expensive bows did sound better, the recording quality and sound transmision through Youtube can't possibly convey that.

The biggest reason Strads sound great is because they tend to be owned and played by fabulous violinists.

And so it would be with bows. A Voirin is going to do amazing things in the right hand of a fine violinist.

But let that same violinist pick out a $1500 Brazilian factory bow that works for him/her, and give them time to get acclimated, and I'd bet that violinist would be able to make music that would be indistinguishable from the Voirin for 99 percent of listeners in a blind audition.

It's the PLAYER that matters most, people should never lose sight of that.

February 7, 2018, 9:47 AM · another poster that takes us all for idiots for hearing differences
February 7, 2018, 9:58 AM · Esther Abrami, the woman in that video, is more than good enough to take full advantage of an expensive bow -- indeed, arguably, she is so good that she's going to control a $500 bow with precision, too. I don't know that YouTube is the best medium for sound tests, though. You can hear a lot of grit in the $500 bow, certainly.

My current primary bow is in the "kind of" expensive category, to use Scott's words, but it is actually a great-sounding and great-handling bow. But it took five cities and months of searching to find. (My previous primary bow, also "kind of" expensive, was a consignment from a retiring pro, and a lucky find.)

A good bow can up-level a violinist in lots of subtle ways that the typical audience member won't recognize. You can certainly feel it in your hand, though. My JonPaul Avanti, which I use for some orchestra stuff, handles nicely and is perfectly adequate, but it takes subtly more effort to do a lot of things which I can do with no effort on my primary bow.

For audition purposes, playing, say, a Schumann Scherzo, with a really excellent bow, is going to be just slightly crisper and more precise and even, with less effort, and thus less stress. (It's a great test for bows.)

February 7, 2018, 10:05 AM · "So I love Mary Ellen's story about the Voirin, and of course most Voirins are wonderful bows, but would her husband have heard such a big difference in sound if he didn't know how much the bow cost, and how excited Mary Ellen was about it?"

Yes, he would have. I have on many other occasions done blind playing tests for him, involving both bows and instruments, carefully playing exactly the same material in exactly the same way while he had his eyes closed. He can hear the differences in sound. So can my students *and* their parents when I do the same for them on instruments or bows that they are considering buying. These are not trivial differences and they can be heard by many people, not just trained violinists.

And not that it is anyone's business, but I assure you that the price of the bow was a LOT of money for us at the time and required a loan outside our comfort level. If anything, my husband had a strong incentive NOT to hear a difference.

Yes, the player matters--I can make a cheap instrument sound much better than my student can, but it's still a cheap instrument and not to be compared with the sound from a good instrument. A student may not be able to make my violin sound as good as I do, but they're still going to sound better on it than on their own.

Those infamous "great soloists couldn't pick out the Strad" tests involved comparing the best old instruments with the best new instruments. They weren't comparing the best instruments with mid-level versions.

February 7, 2018, 10:16 AM · There's some debate about whether they actually used the best old instruments, but no doubt that they used the best modern instruments.
Edited: February 7, 2018, 10:58 AM · While the player will always scientifically be the ultimate factor in tone production and bowing techniques, one would have to be kidding himself/herself in saying that differences are that minimal. A difficult bowing passage that just comes out of the instrument naturally can be replicated with more effort and sound similar with another bow, but at what "effort cost"- is it worth the "savings" for the "hope it turns out OK" effect it can have in the player? A confident player will generally sound better than one who is "fighting" their instrument to get desired musical effects.

I would be the last person to say that price determines ultimate quality and fit, modern or old, but the difference between bows do factor in more than the performer (sometimes they do choose the difficult handling bow for musical reasons, but even among that type of "challenging" bows, there are differences.)

(Do agree youtube can't possibly be a real-life assesment of cheap vs expensive, as said tests do favor the skill of the performer more than bow differences even more than a personal, in-the-room/hall audition.)

February 7, 2018, 11:18 AM · I listened to the youtube video mentioned in OP. I did hear differences. But the differences were more pronounced on G string - I can start to detect subtle difference when the price hit $90,000. For the E string, I cannot detect any difference until the price hit $160,000.

I was listening on my laptop with a pair of pretty good ear phones.

February 7, 2018, 11:20 AM · So, to answer the OP, yes quality makes a difference, ableit far less difference than you do as a player, and price has some relationsip with quality, albeit not a precise relationship. All replies are agreed.

The long history of more or less famous blind trials to which Mary Ellen refers, for those of us who are not invested in the value of antique violins, put to bed the myth that anyone *needs* an antique to play well, even as a soloist in a large hall (though of course players and audiences are influenced by brand recognition and price tag: we all are and it is no affront to say so). The same trials, as she implies, tend to support the violinist who seeks an instrument of the best available materials and workmanship. Whilst the trials did not test bows, it would not be surprising if the same is true for bows, which puts you into the thousands, even if a price tag of $160,000 seems unlikely to be necessary for the needs even of a Kreisler.

Edited: February 8, 2018, 10:23 PM · My experience with bows has been limited to the 24 bows I own and almost 200 bows I purchase-tested in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Mostly cello and violin bows were involved - and one viola bow. My own collection has included about 12 violin bows. 8 cello, and 4 viola bows. Represented makers of the better bows include F.N. Voirin, Richard Weichold, Paul Martin Siefried (1 vln, 1 vc), Albert Nürnberger and one violin bow by Carl Holzapfel that is very much like the Voirin. I don't think I tested any bows selling more than about $10,000.

I agree that tone and handling seem to be two separate issues with most bows. Among the cello bows I have tested (those for sale and others that were owned by other players) only about 5% had the remarkable property of teaching one's hand how to do a sautille and would also handle fast spiccato. I suspect the reason I had trouble finding one like that for sale that also had the tone I wanted was because they would only show up at estate sales (or at dealerships after the owner had died). Quality of tone seemed to depend strongly on the instrument being played as well as the bow being used. For me this has been a reason to have that many bows for my 4 violins, 3 cellos, and 2 violas.

Another reason for issues with "bow tone" as well as instrument tone has to do with the state of one's hearing. I have had increasing hearing issues for decades and I finally got digital hearing aids 3 years ago. I have had them adjusted three times since the purchase - most recently just one week ago. This most recent adjustment has made no difference to what I hear from cello or viola, but it has totally transformed what I hear from my violins and for speech recognition. It has also changed my assessments of my different bows on my different violins. (Violin overtones reach further into the realm of my high- frequency hearing disability.)

15 - 20 years ago when I was doing a lot bow testing I came to the conclusion that the price/"quality" relationship for bows (and instruments, too - within limits) seemed to be logarithmic. On this scale a $100 bow would rank 2 a $1000 bow would be a 3 and a $10,000 bow would rank 4. Complicating this is just how much "quality" is in the hands and ears (and perhaps the eyes) of the beholder.

Of course there are wild exceptions to this characterization - just as some people will pay $100,000 for a specific baseball, some will pay $25,000,000 for a particular violin or cello - but in these cases one or two digits of the log(price) is not related to any intrinsic property of the item.

And then too, there are the "one-offs" (to use a UK term) those amazing rare bows and instruments that are presently undervalued because the makers worked as (or mostly as) amateurs or are unrecognized for some other reason - or because a very few of their works stand out above all the rest.

Edited: February 7, 2018, 12:57 PM · Bow price, has only a very indirect impact on playing. But a better way to phrase the question might be, what unique playing characteristics does a bow have that can affect playing? At least three (and I think this is a paraphrase of something I originally read here, but it also definitely speaks to my experience):

1) Handling. Ease of certain types of string crossings can be greatly helped by a bow with a balance point closer to the frog, and a generally light, or short, bow. A more tip-heavy bow can be easier to play long, sustained notes loudly. Personally I love the former type of bow, though I understand a lot of folks prefer the latter.

Off-the-string (bounce) techniques are hugely dependant on the balance and personality of the specific bow, too. Some bows have a wide spicatto band (area where you can control bounce), some very narrow. Some don't want to bounce at all. It's odd, but I've also found harmonics, especially nasty ones like double-stopped artificla harmonics, easier to produce on some bows than others.

Good handling bows can be had at almost any price, but the key is to know what you are looking for. I've had unreasonably good luck in antique shops and used nonspecialist instrument shops, getting a number of bows for <$100 that handled perfect for my needs (despite being priced fairly for various reasons, total lack of provenance, obvious factory origin, or nasty repairs).

2) Tone production, especially of overtones. Some bows just add more ring, or shine to the sound. There is a thing called the "Salchow tap test" where you can supposedly estimate this resonance by tapping the stick in a certain way, but I will leave describing that to the experts. However I can tell you that some bows ring a lot more, or add a kind of sheen on the sound - but this is very specific to how the bow interacts with the instrument. I have two nice instruments, and they have very strong opinions on my bows - some bows work only with one instrument and sound terrible with the other.

There may be a very rough correlation between market value and this type of sheen - I played a ~20k french now that had more of this than any of mine, and I have a maybe-authentic Bausch that has a lot of the same quality.

3) This is the one I didn't know about until I stumbled onto a good bow - response speed. The best way I can explain is that when you play fast sixteenths seperately on a good bow, at over about metronome 144 to the quarter note, the borders between the notes will just be much, much sharper and clearer, without you doing anything, on a fast-responding bow.

I spent years on my own trying to get the finale to the Tchaik over about mm138, never quite managing it. After I stumbled onto a heavily-repaired Bausch bow at an antique shop and bought it on a whim because I liked how it felt in my hand, I was staggered to discover that the speed limit I thought was inherent in my abilities just melted away almost immediately.

Once I knew what I was looking for, I found even some real junk bows (not just heavily repaired and valueless near-masterpieces) that have the fast response speed...though I have yet to find a young bow that does, lots of total "garbage" old ones do. I have a 3/4 size old German factory bow that looks like it went through a war, and cost me $25 - not much subtlety to it, but the fastest-handling and fastest-responding bow I've ever played.

As with anything, the more dimensions you want a bow to excel on, the harder you will have to look - but notice I didn't say the more you have to spend. Spending a lot may (may) be one way to get a bow that is great at all 3, but really you're paying for provenance of a maker who had a history of bows that, on average, were good at this, or is even from a country that had a lot of makers who did.

If you have had the experience of playing enough bows to know what the thing you like feels like (for me, a frog-biased balance, very light, with fast response), you can just keep your eye out for relatively lower-value bows that happen to have those characteristics.

Also note that a lot depends on your playing. A beginner probably doesn't need to care much about their bow. Bow hold is also a big variable. Trying new bows made a big difference to me because the bows "taught" me to hold them differently, which also improved my technique. For very advanced repertoire, I'm pretty sure the bow is a larger variable than the instrument. I'd rather perform solo Bach or Paganini with a junk instrument and one of my favorite bows, than one of my favorite instruments and a junk bow.

PS In the video, the only one I could tell from the others was the Tourte. Otherwise they sounded the same to me. See the other comments above - many of the things I was talking about are not audible directly to the listener at all - probably even the sheen on the sound, which I doubt projects much beyond 10-20 ft or through a mediocre mic.

February 7, 2018, 1:59 PM · Great bows are as difficult to come by as great violins. Further, a bow has to not only sound good, but feel like an extension of your right arm. There is also that mystical quality that makes a bow feel like a magic wand for one player, but not another.

In many ways, selecting the right bow for a player is more difficult than selecting a violin.

February 7, 2018, 2:12 PM · Francis - that's very convincing, but you seem to imply that the grossly inflated prices paid for some bows have little or nothing to do with their playing qualities. Did the "great" bow makers like Tourte know they were imbuing their bows with certain qualities, and if so how did they manage to reproduce those qualities with all the variations they would have had to cope with in the properties of the wood? Is there any reason why the same qualities can't be achieved using carbon fibre?
February 7, 2018, 2:25 PM · When I was in my early teens my teacher showed me a new expensive bow he had purchased. I can't remember the maker, but at the time I was chocked at the price. And I remember asking him what he could do with that bow that he couldn't with another bow. "Nothing", he answered, "But it is a lot easier".
February 7, 2018, 2:48 PM · Those stupid clickbait YouTube videos are so annoying.

Let me put it this way: bow preference is very personal, but the bigger point is that the player will notice the difference between a good and bad bow far more than the audience would. However, if the player is playing a very challenging passage, the audience would hear more mistakes made with the crappier bow. But they would likely attribute that to chance, whereas the player would feel/know it was because of the bow.


Long story short, more expensive bows tend to be better, but that also doesn't mean that a particular expensive bow will work for you better than a particular cheap bow.

Those videos are so dumb though. It would be like "$1,000,000 car loses race to $3000 car!!!!". Then you watch the video and the million dollar car is a collector car from the 1930s. It's just clickbait.

Edited: February 7, 2018, 2:52 PM · I tried my violin with two fine bows that would easily go into Scott's "jaw dropping" category. The fine bows were a little more playable than my current bow, a decent CF. Then the owner of the bows, an excellent pro violinist, played my violin with my bow and the two fine bows. I could not hear any difference. It could be my hearing, which is not very good (my ears ring constantly).

The bottom line is that when you have an experience like Mary Ellen's, then you go for it. When you have an experience like mine, you don't.

February 7, 2018, 2:55 PM · I don't think there's any way to make CF sound as good as Pernambuco, CF is inherently a dead material acoustically compared to Pernambuco, there's no way to get around that, now playability is another thing and I think CF can do as well in that, maybe not, I'm not sure.
February 7, 2018, 3:22 PM · A lot depends on how a carbon fiber bow is made. A bow which claims to be carbon fiber can run the gamut from something which has a cosmetic carbon-fiber-appearing coating on the surface, to various orientations of actual carbon fiber in the resin matrix.

In other words, carbon fiber bows can be all over the map, and I wouldn't want to assign a particular set of characteristics.

February 7, 2018, 4:38 PM · So far they haven't invented a synthetic substance that sounds and resonates like wood.
February 7, 2018, 8:27 PM · Man this is a lot more complex than I thought. All I know is that a modern Glasser fiberglass bow is terrible because it's hollow. It's got okay control but when I play it compared to my 'Carbon fiber' bow, I do know there is a handing difference between the two types.
February 7, 2018, 9:02 PM · The main problem I find about bows is its subjectivity. There are obviously good, mediocre, bad and outstanding bows but within each category different players may rate two bows differently. And that should not happen. If qualities of a bow (resonance, elasticity...) are scientifically measurable, they should be perceived objectively by everyone. It happens continuously that a very good bow, used by a good player, doesn't work for another player in the same level.
Also, that the bow descriptions range from mystic to poetic. Players seem to have as much difficulty to describe a bow as to describe "beauty". The only thing everyone may agree is to recognize it when they see it but each one perceives it in a different way.
Lacking any kind of measurable criteria for bow quality opens the door of bullshit. From the carbon fibers preaching "as good as the best pernambuco" (according to what test?) to the old/new branding and super-pricing, which adds not a little placebo effect in the player.
However, the fact that its subjectivity is open ground for unprovable claims, does not mean that many bows aren't what they claim. Like Beauty, you can just show it.
In the north of Spain there is a saying "No creo en las meigas, pero haberlas, haylas". "I don't believe in witches, but witches, they exist".
February 7, 2018, 9:50 PM · I think that sufficiently skilled players may be able to describe what about a bow is good, but also be able to simultaneously say that this bow is not to their taste.

We all have different bowing technique, and a different physiology of the right hand and arm, and a different preferred sound. In particular, this often leads to a different preference in the balance-point of the bow, as well as preferred weight. Some players prefer a smoother draw, others something that feels more lively. Some players like a certain "edgeless" feeling to the bow, while others prefer more articulation. Some players use a lot of arm weight, which usually leads to a preference for a stiffer stick, but other players may prefer something that feels more flexible.

There's some kind of complex interaction between the systems of violin and bow that lead to an overall tonal timbre. That is very difficult to predict, although as far as I know, Benoit Rolland is renowned for being able to sample a violin, and then produce a bow that's a tonal match, so there's clearly some scientific component at work.

February 8, 2018, 6:43 AM · After playing for 47 years to date, I still am somewhat ignorant of how the bow stick actually functions.Does it vibrate when drawn or is it the muting effect of different species of pernambuco that give the differences? Although they both weigh exactly 60grams, my Charles Peccatte pulls a completely different sound than my Jean Joseph Martin (Peccatte is rich and "chewy", Martin silvery and "sopranoish")
February 8, 2018, 8:25 AM · I'm not suggesting that bows by the truly great makers don't have exceptional playing and sound qualities (and for the record, I am just an advanced amateur and have never played anything anywhere near the quality of a Tourte). I also have never played solo with an orchestra, so there's a whole level of "have to cut through a wall of sound" problem that I have no experience with firsthand.

What I am saying is that, in the, say, "cars and lower" price range (as opposed to bows that cost like houses), most of what determines price is not the playing characteristics, and also that you can find incidents of low-value bows that still excel, especially in individual dimensions.

Tourtes may well all be wonderful - no idea if I will ever get the chance to find out. But, say, a 100-year old German factory bow will only ever have a certain value range regardless of playing quality (probably something like $25-1000), no matter how good. I doubt any have the tone color range and handling capabilities that are reported for Tourte, but some are certainly quite nice, and are up to playing some of the most advanced repetoire at least as well as I am.

When you buy an expensive violin or bow, you're paying for a mix of provenance, investment quality expectation, country of origin, cosmetic condition, structural condition, and playing characteristics. Only the last two determine its usefullness for performance, and much of the price comes from the first ones.

This is not to assert that there is any factory bow that equals a mediocre Tourte - I doubt there is. But it is possible to go from a 50 to 100 to 500 to 1000 to 5000 bow and not see any kind of linear step function in playing qualities, and it is possible, if you know what you are looking for (this was key for me), to find instances of 50-100 that excel in a couple of the dimensions.

Perhaps the hardest thing to find in lower price ranges may be controllable bounce and tonal color variations.

Hope this helps!

February 8, 2018, 8:29 AM · PS regarding carbon fibre, my only experience so far has been in-store playing with a Jean-Paul Avanti and a couple of Codas. I found the Avanti to feel like a decent wood bow, but not the type of one I personally click with. The Coda Gold GX I found to be quite decent, though not obviously better than the wooden ones I already owned. The Coda Luma, I loved the handling of, though I found that it ran out of resonance in really high positions (near the top of the a four octave arpegio), but that may also have been my limits, as I didn't know the instrument I was using and may not have been bowing close enough to the bridge.

I didn't buy any of those CF bows, but at least the GX and Luma, I would have considered buying. I've heard great things about Acrus, and they sound like my kind of animal, but I haven't had a chance to try one yet. I am certainly hopeful that true masterworks will be come possible in CF soon, as the supplies of wood seem to be dropping off longer-term.

February 8, 2018, 9:13 AM · When I went bow-shopping (a bit more than a year ago), I ended up blowing my budget because I just couldn't find anything that I really liked that was less expensive. And I looked at a lot of bows.

Preferences can change during your lifetime, by the way. A change in bowing technique for me, resulted in a preference for a stronger stick. I never used to like Sartory bows, for instance, and now I do.

Edited: February 8, 2018, 10:22 PM · I moved to California some 55 years ago with 3 "good name" 19th century bows - 1 cello and 2 violin (1 French and 2 German). About 10 years later I began to try and buy (and sell or give away) some more bows (violin & cello) and over the next 35 years (or so) I bought, sold, and gave away a number of bows including some Glasser fiberglas, Glasser"composite," CF Durro, ARCUS, Coda, Spiccato, Berg deluxe, Jumeau, Marco Raposo, Paul Martin Siefried, plus a number of other pernambuco bows I have since sold.

This has given me plenty of opportunity to judge (within the lints of my own hearing ability) the sound the different bows produce from my (current) 4 violins, 3 cellos, and violas. (Playability is a different issue.)

I have not been able to put together any math that would explain the differences in sound, but in my "gedanken experiment" after observing the bow stick can make a significant difference to the sound produced both under the chin and bowed like a cello, I hypothesize:

1. The sound from a given instrument comes from the interaction of the rosined hair with the strings.
2. This can only happen if the hair and the stick somehow interact so that the physical properties of the stick affect the motion of the hair.
3. This interaction must occur at the interface between the hair and the stick.
4. There is likely an acoustic coupling between the hair and stick that involves acoustic impedance.
5. It is likely the vibration in the stick is transferred to the hair in ways that depend on physical behavior/properties of the stick. (Bernd Müsing of ARCUS bows attributes sonic behavioral properties of bow sticks to the speed of sound in the bows and Lucci (Italian luthier) sells a "Lucci meter" for measuring sound speed in wood.)

On the morning of 9/11/2001 I decided to stop worrying about that and practice my instruments or go and play music with other people rather than try to work it out. Life is too short!

Edited: February 8, 2018, 2:26 PM · When comparing bows, the differences are often very very subtle. Possibly lesser than the difference one is likely to see after a simple bow re-hair. A slight difference in hair characteristics, length and number can change how a bow plays and sound. That includes balance point, as the frog may not end up at the exact same location to achieve a same hair tension as before a re-hair. So when choosing between a more and less expensive bow, one should be aware of how a simple bow re-hair could sometimes change which is #1, and it may not be worth to fork the extra money if the differences are subtle. Also, over time the wood of the stick will “relax”, hence some brand new bows are sometimes purposely made initially stiffer as the maker aims for optimum performance 2-3 years after the bow is made (and used). Hence when testing a bow, you also need to be aware of whether it is a brand new bow, or one that has been played for a while (and that is not to mention the effect of possible recambering).
February 8, 2018, 6:23 PM · I feel like this problem might never have a solid answer based on what you all have been suggesting. Very interesting to hear from so many professionals!
Edited: February 8, 2018, 7:40 PM · Generally speaking, yes.

In my experience of helping to trial and select bows for hundreds of players from beginners to professional colleagues, one can go from a $35 entry level brazilwood bow, to a $150 generic carbon fiber bow, to a $500 Arcos Brasil (ex. A. Carvalho) nickel-silver mounted pernambuco bow, to a $2500 Manuel Francesco, to John Greenwood's individual works starting at $4800, and so on, there are distinctly noticeable differences, and at each level an accomplished player can distinguish additional playing characteristics that the inexpensive bows either lack or are very difficult to execute with.

What is really wonderful though, is that there are lots of less-established bowmakers whose individual works still sell for only a couple thousand (as opposed to ten thousand) and many players can find something that works really well. There are so many out there that it's worth it to take one's time and try out lots of bows before settling on one...and the process of sticking with one bow for a long time and learning what it is capable of is one of the most rewarding processes in playing our instruments.

Edited: February 8, 2018, 8:26 PM · Thanks for that Andrew.So true.Just enjoy what you have.Life is short indeed.
On another note,a sub brought in an exquisite bow by Pierre Simon that ,upon looking through the Parisian eye on the frog,you can see an extremely miniature picture of J.B Villaume.Just fascinating!
Edited: February 8, 2018, 10:30 PM · Peter: Otto Hoyer did that too - with a picture of Paganini. I had a friend with such a bow - it was really a fine bow, even though it was German! It did everything.

Roger: I have found that changing the balance point of bows does not seem to have an effect I could detect on tone/sound, but it definitely changes playing characteristics.

However, changing the amount of hair in a bow definitely can - as can changing the camber (my Rolland Spiccato bow allows be to change camber over a wide range to do that "experiment").

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