Methods to Test A Good Bow

March 1, 2018, 9:44 AM · There have been numerous discussions on bows here. Usually beginning with something like, " What are the best bows?"

Sometimes this is a beginner and sometimes this is a more seasoned player looking to move up to a better bow.

I'm coming at this subject from the perspective of someone who simply doesn't want the bow to stand in the way of my improvement.

Aside from antique value which I have no interest in, how do you determine if any given bow is a good bow to learn on, one that won't hold technique back when the player improves?

If we get into the idea that a good bow for you might not be a good bow for me doesn't this tend to muddy the waters a bit? I understand there might be preferences that we feel help us in some way.

My objectives are to play very well. I won't ever be in the symphony or at least this isn't an intention of mine.
I don't want materials for good bows or prices or values or price points. I simply want to know I'm going forward with a good bow.A good enough bow to get me to heights I might not be capable of. At least then I'll know it wasn't the bow holding me back. I don't care what it's made of and initially I don't want to know what it costs.
I want to get from point A to point B with a good bow.I don't want a bow to restrict me in any way.

How do you test that? How do you know when a bow won't hold you back?

Replies (21)

March 1, 2018, 11:22 AM · Like violins, what you want in a bow will change over time as you get better.

Beginners are best off with equipment that is forgiving. Later on, students are best off with equipment that offers good feedback and isn't especially quirky. Advanced players will buy fit-for-purpose bows.

Your teacher is generally the best person to verify whether or not a bow is a decent one, and whether or not your current bow is limiting you. In general, I would say that a student can spend in the range of $500 to $1000 and get a bow that is good enough to learn on. Plenty of pros use CF bows in this price range as a primary bow for orchestra, too.

Bow quality can go up infinitely, just like violin quality. Every player is to some degree limited by their equipment. :-)

Edited: March 1, 2018, 11:24 AM · Golfing

It the bow is one piece after 18 holes, buy it!

March 1, 2018, 11:30 AM · You want a bow that produces good sound on YOUR violin.
You want a bow that allows you to use proper technique on YOUR violin to learn and use advanced bow strokes.
If you are not yet advanced enough to test bows for these outcomes get help from your teacher or other advanced violinist - ON YOUR VIOLIN. Judge the results for yourself as well as getting the other player's opinions. Use multiple other players - if you know them.

Right Lydia?

March 1, 2018, 11:39 AM · Timothy don't fret over it. You need to go to a violin shop and test a number of decent student bows around 300, perhaps 500, USD. Play fragments of etudes that you already know, e.g., do some detache, do some legato, do some spiccato, do some staccato. Just take the bow that you intuitively prefer. That should do it. The proof of the pudding is in the eating! Yes it is a grey area, but that also means the probability that you end up with a bow "holding you back" is negligible.
March 1, 2018, 11:39 AM · That depends on whether or not your violin is a keeper. :-)

March 1, 2018, 11:54 AM · Actually, Pierre Guillaume, a bowmaker of good reputation, told me that the adage "you must test a bow on the violin it is going to be played on", while obviously not wrong (how could it be wrong), can take quite a bit of stretch. In other words, if you try bows on a decent violin, and pick the one you prefer, obviously on another violin that bow will act differently, and perhaps another one that you tried would have been better, but the chosen bow will not suddenly turn into a bad bow "that will hold you back". At least he told me he had not experienced that.
Edited: March 1, 2018, 12:06 PM · I find this a really interesting question, thank you for asking it and I hope you don't mind if I hiatus a bit though it falls in the same line.
I am ready to upgrade from the very basic bow that came with my violin. My comfort zone with bowing is to the point that there is a more natural fluidness and yet the bow itself feels awkward. I just found out fiddlerman's central location is about 30 minutes from where I am currently staying. I'm excited to go there and try out bows. Their first recommendation was the $68 carbon fiber bow, which has 516 positive reviews on Amazon with 82% 5 stars but I don't want to fall into settling over price point.
As a legitimate question and a serious drive to advance my learning and do something (from a small group or possibly local orchestra in the future), should I be saving and aiming for a higher price range? I had never thought of a bow actually being a hinderance to learning.
Naturally I plan to upgrade my violin when the opportunity presents itself but for the moment, I am satisfied with what I have though I've been keeping an eye on pawn shops for a possible gem.
March 1, 2018, 12:15 PM · What you could do is try out a few of these $68 bows, pick the one you prefer, but bring your current bow with you and immediately compare it. If it feels really lousy compared to what you just picked, you are doing fine I guess at this stage of your development. At the same time, you can then stick with your choice and ask them if you can also try a few bows in the next price range, or the price range you would still be willing to spend in the near future. Again pick the one you prefer and immediately compare it with your new $68 bow. If this again proves to be a world of difference, then you may decide to save up! Obviously, if the $68 bow turns out NOT to be much better than your current bow, you'll need to look at the higher price range anyway. Hopefully that will give a noticeable difference... Happy bow shopping!
Edited: March 1, 2018, 12:21 PM · Small shopping tip: don't spend too much time on each bow, it's better to get back to them repeatedly so you can compare them. Just do some quick detache, legato, spiccato and staccato enough to get a feel for it. You should also test volume, playing softly and playing loudly. When I got my Bernard bow (a decent Pernambuco student bow, nothing fancy, but it suits me very well) out of trying five candidates, I knew I wanted it after 5 seconds of playing with it.
March 1, 2018, 12:23 PM · That's very sensible advice, thank you Jean. I will be less likely to walk in there with tunnel vision and take more time to really sort things out with better judgement and method. Appreciated.
March 1, 2018, 2:58 PM · For Gabriel:

Especially in lower price ranges, the bow gets you more bang for the buck. For instance:

You are better off with a $1000 violin and a $500 bow, than you are with a $1500 violin.
You are better off with a $2500 violin and a $1000 bow, than you are with a $3500 violin.

Unless the bow that came with your violin is unusable, don't upgrade yet. Save until you can spend about $250, which gets you into the range of decent student bows. And if you can, spending in the $500 to $1k range will get you a bow that you can use for the rest of your life.

Edited: March 2, 2018, 3:31 AM · +1.

Obviously, if $68 is not a huge deal and it gets you a huge improvement, then go ahead. But the odds are that, with some intelligent shopping, you'll do a lot better for not that much more money down the road. Not that price is ever perfectly correlated to quality.

The right bow will not only handle all the tricky techniques you'll want to learn, but will actually make better sound (soft as well as loud) on your instrument.
The wrong one will definitely keep you from playing better, or at least getting proper feedback on how well you are playing-- so it's worth getting right.

I'd add another rung to Lydia's ladder and say that if you are lucky enough to have an honest $1,000 violin, you might actually benefit from a $2,500 bow as an upgrade.

Edited: March 2, 2018, 7:30 AM · Demian. I think we might have similar humor. Leave it to Fiddlerman to do something like that.:>)
Thanks everyone for your help here!

I actually have a Fiddlerman bow. I think it's a pretty good bow in comparison to my other bows. I think it's important to remember that many of these web sites with endless positive comments can be set up like that.At the risk of coming off sounding negative about Fiddlerman I won't accuse him of that. I am simply saying it's a possibility, especially when all of the comments are positive. I was once contacted by a web site and asked if I would consider changing my review of their product for a discount on the product. This wasn't a music product and my review wasn't scathing or rude. Simply a fair review.They were very persistent to get me to change the review. Just sayin'
So far as inexpensive bows go Fiddlerman is one of the better ones. I have 4 or 5 cheaper bows and they all seem basically the same to me. They are ok, but when it comes to faster technique they seem to flounder.I get minor bouncing and a kind of sluggish feeling of the bow when coming off strings in faster moves.I bought an incredibow awhile back and it has faster response characteristics at a trad off for the need to acclimate to a new hold/position and some loss of good tone. The synthetic fibers have more of a tendency to skate across the strings using light pressure than horse hair.

I don't have a compliant with the sound of my wood bows compared to anything I own that is not wood including a lower end Jon Paul I bought.That bow has a more nimble feel as compared to less expensive wooden bows.

The reverse of my title above might be, " Characteristics of bad violin bows". Sure that puts a more negative slant on this, but we could ask that question. I guess I would say for lack of a better term, if the bow feels squashy and doesn't recover fast from the last action then it isn't ready for the next action. This is what I feel might be holding me back. I need fast recovery aside from the sound of the bow.

Maybe fast recovery is an ideal weight distribution coupled with a design that absorbs playing shock FAST given the player isn't over reacting to the music or using the wrong amount of pressure. Maybe this could be the quality and the way the hairs were put on, the stick design. I don't really know. I'm no bow maker. I do now what feels sluggish and unresponsive. My violin has a one piece back and is made to put out a lot of sound.I don't think it's the violin holding me back. I believe it might be the bow.

March 2, 2018, 5:58 PM · While you don't want a sluggish bow, you also don't want one that bounces too much. The bow needs to have enough weight to be able to dig into the string a little without forcing it from above. Bow pressure should come mostly from gravity, not from your arm pushing it into the string. Ideally, you want a bow that can play a steady spiccato and make smooth legato bow changes with minimal effort.

Gabriel: Carbon fiber bows have been a game-changer for price range. The last time I went to a shop looking to buy a viola bow, I gave myself a $2,000 budget and tried out bows listed at up to $2,500. The one I ended up buying was a $550 hybrid bow (springy carbon fiber core, heavier pernambuco sheath). I later met a professional violist who uses the exact same model as a primary bow. That's a low enough price that you can consider upgrading straight to that price range from your first student bow.

March 4, 2018, 11:18 AM · The last time I tested a bow I used the Sevcik 40 variations book.
The price tag and the name are less important than; quality of sound on your violin, weight, balance, taper, stiffness..... At the lower price levels an octagonal wood bow might be stronger, more stable, for its weight than an equivalent round stick. Another advantage of the synthetic bows is that if you borrow one from a colleague and like it, you can be pretty sure that another one from the same shop will behave the same.
March 4, 2018, 12:29 PM · I've found CF bows within a given brand-model to be relatively consistent but far from identical. They have tonal variations that can be very significant, and somewhat different handling, although the similarities will also be clear.
March 5, 2018, 12:31 PM · Thank you Andrew, Joel and Lydia.Much appreciated.

I keep hearing that you shouldn't need to put pressure on the bow to get sound, yet I find if I play closer to the frog on G and D strings I can get more consistent volume. This usually means I'm using a bit more pressure on those strings. This seems to be a necessity with my current setup to get comparable volume out of the lower strings unless I'm playing pianissimo.
Collectively all of my low end bows are a fairly consistent meh.
Some of this might be the strings.

March 5, 2018, 1:09 PM · "Pressure" is the wrong word. "Weight" is a better one.

Playing with consistent volume from frog to tip (and back again) is a function of even application of the weight of the arm, throughout.

March 5, 2018, 2:02 PM · Lydia, do you mean even application of weight at the point of contact of the hair rather than of the arm? I.e. shouldn’t different arm weight be applied as the contact point between string and hair move from frog to tip in order to maintain the same level of friction at the contact point?
March 5, 2018, 3:00 PM · On thought, yes. I just think of it as keeping the arm weight steady. ;-)
March 5, 2018, 3:23 PM · Pressure/weight is something I've been exploring lately. As my hand becomes more flexible and I come to understand the function of the fingers and their relation to the contact point when drawing the bow, it becomes more natural but, admittedly, when my mind starts moving away from the bow, I'll still experience a bounce or scratch mid bow. Usually I find that I've worked the bow out of my grasp a little, my ring finger coming off the frog, middle finger almost at the top of the bow. It's fine when I'm concious of it, but especially when I'm reading music, the multi tasking gets a little stretched. I've gotten the urge to tape my fingers onto the bow, lol, even though I know that would be an utter hinderance as opposed to help but it's still tempting.

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