What is more important for achieving a good sound? The violin or the bow?

Edited: May 3, 2019, 5:12 AM · Hi. I've been thinking about this for some time. Since you know better than me, I share the question with you:

I'm an amateur who is still learning basic techniques on a basic €400 Yamaha violin. I played for a while with its original bow. Then, I got a bow that cost as much as the entire violin set, and since then, the sound and playability have definitely improved. The violin still sounds slightly hollow or 'cheap' at times, but my poor technique doesn't help.

A few months ago, I had the chance of trying an €8,000 silver mounted wooden bow for a few minutes on my violin. The bow was really light, and the sound was definitely sweeter.

The fact that a bow makes such a difference on a mediocre violin makes me wonder: what is more important for reaching a good sound? The violin or the bow? Is it better to have a good violin and a good bow... or to have an average violin and an better bow?

Replies (21)

May 3, 2019, 7:54 AM · A simple, proven fact is that the player makes a bigger difference than either of those two. A bow in particular is chosen not just for the tone, but for the handling, which then affects, at times, the quality of the playing and resultant tone more than just how the bow responds to simple resonances, which is how a bow's tone might be judged.
May 3, 2019, 7:59 AM · Every bow has its own distinctive tone and playing behavior, some wonderful and to die for, others average, and others that frankly would be better off as sticks in a garden for supporting plants.

So, if you can afford it - good violin + good bow. Otherwise, with a not so good violin, get the best bow you can afford. The good bow will be transferable to a better violin as you upgrade. The fundamental point is that a good bow and the bowing arm should work together as a unit which can be used on any violin without fuss.

Violinists might may change their violin over the years, but not their good bow, unless they are fortunate enough to find one that is extraordinarily better.

I have acquired 5 bows over the years, but two, a 100 year old German, and a modern snakewood replica baroque, which I don't think I'll ever part with, bring out tone that the other three don't quite manage. Those three are otherwise useful for practice, playing concerts out-of-doors, or just as reserves.

May 3, 2019, 8:21 AM · One thing worth thinking about, though-- many students have a bow that isn't really good enough to show them when they can do better. Especially if bow technique is your main weakness, try to lift the ceiling placed on it by the stick. (To scramble a metaphor.)
May 3, 2019, 8:27 AM · Jay, perhaps true, but a very consuming excercise. Why do we not see a single top player using a dead bow and a factory made fiddle?
OP: bow, instrument and player.
May 3, 2019, 8:31 AM · Not every bow is a good match to every violin. I quite liked the bow I had for my previous violin, but it was tonally meh on my current violin. I ended up buying a different bow. (This new bow also represents an upgrade, but that was not my original intent.)
Edited: May 3, 2019, 8:46 AM · As Lydia noted, the bow has to match the violin - not the other way around. You can have the greatest Tourte but it won’t make a difference really if you’re playing on a mediocre violin. Also a big part of it obviously is the player. Many people won’t be able to draw a good sound from a Stradivari which requires a different touch compared to drawing a sound from a Guarneri. So the instrument has to match the player’s style, first and foremost.
May 3, 2019, 4:25 PM · J Ray Of course the player makes the biggest difference! That’s why I usually ask my teacher to use my instrument to show me the pieces that I must play or to explain me a passage. His violin sounds sweeter and more refined than mine, but my violin sounds way better whenever he plays it. His professional bowing technique really makes a difference compared to mine. Letting my teacher play my instrument and even asking him to play on it some Bach is also a great way to give up any temptation of upgrading my equipment. I won’t make it sound right... (still!)

Trevor Jennings and Stephen Symchych I just own two bows, which are probably an awful bow and an average bow. But I’ve definitely noticed that with the new bow, some ‘tricky’ passages which were making me struggle with bowing technique suddenly became easier, from a day to another. I didn’t really know how limiting my old now was until I went to the shop and tried a few ones. If I ever get the chance of finding a good bow I’ll definitely keep it as a treasure. But for now, the one that I have is enough to learn basic martele and spicatto.

Rocky Milankov Thanks for providing a simple answer. I’ll take the order into account whenever I reach a medium level of technique.

Lydia and Nate the idea of matching violin and bow is something my teacher told me about when I tried new bows. He helped me filter bows that ‘didn’t match’ explaining me why he thought that and asking me if I heard the same, or which were my own impressions (most of them sounded just... harsh). I finally decided to get the sweetest sounding among the three or four ‘finalists’. He was a great help.

Nate, out of pure amateur curiosity... what are the technical differences of playing a Stradivari or a Guarneri?

May 3, 2019, 4:51 PM · Miguel, I’ve noticed from trying a few Guarneris, they can take a little bit more bow pressure than a Stradivari. That is not to say a Stradivari has any less power or projection when compared to a del Gesu. I personally prefer the sound and feel of a great Stradivari or Guadagnini over most del Gesus - I know that might sound odd coming from 1 of the biggest Heifetz fanatics out there.
May 3, 2019, 5:16 PM · Thank you for your fast answer, Nate. The preferences are just a personal taste, which gets more refined with training and time. I can’t tell the difference between a Strad, Guarneri, Guadagnini or an Amati, and will never play one of them. You know exactly what to demand from your instrument, and which one fits your playing in a better way. So I just had to ask what I will never discover by myself. After all, I started playing the violin out of curiosity: how do violin players know where to put their fingers without frets or references? (But once my initial curiosity has been satisfied I find that I’m hooked enough to consider it a lifetime hobby along with piano playing).
May 3, 2019, 6:28 PM · Miguel, I'm in the same situation as you: $500 violin with average bow.

Should I spend more than the instrument itself to get a nice bow? Or should I put that money aside for a violin upgrade ?

Edited: May 4, 2019, 9:31 AM · When I was trialing bows for purchase I took my instrument to the shop and tried the most expensive bows they would allow me to touch. That gave me a benchmark from which to assess the bows at prices I could afford.

I recommend it!

The strings on your instrument can have a monumental effect on its sound. Don't forget that.

May 3, 2019, 8:24 PM · I have tried my violin with my $500 CF against a Kittel and a Peccatte. I also asked the owner of the bows to play my violin with the three bows. The priceless antique bows may have handled a little better but I could not hear a difference in sound. As far as I know the phenomenon of "bow sound" has never been subjected to rigorous double blind testing. I'm not excluding it ... just saying I didnt experience it and it needs more scientific study.
May 3, 2019, 9:26 PM · If you're playing a $500 violin with a $20 bow, you might get more out of upgrading the bow to a $500 bow, than you would out of getting a $1000 violin and keeping the $20 bow.

But if you had a $1500 violin, you'd get more out of getting a $500 bow than you would a $2000 violin.

May 4, 2019, 7:05 AM · Lots of wisdom here. Strings and a proper set up clearly can make a difference. However, if this does not help, and you have a question about whether to upgrade a violin or a bow, Lydia is on the mark. Generally, you will get more bang for your buck by trying to upgrade the bow. At least, that is the first thing you should try. If you cannot find a more expensive bow that sounds better, you may need to consider spending considerably more money to upgrade the violin. That upgrade may prompt you to upgrade the bow as well. Good luck!
May 4, 2019, 7:06 AM · Neither. The hair is the most important.
I mean, try playing a violin with just a stick. It can be done, but it's no fun.
May 4, 2019, 7:43 AM · But then, Cotton, the strings must surely be even more important. I mean, try playing a violin with no strings. It's no fun.
May 4, 2019, 8:33 AM · When I started reading that the hair is the most important thing, I just thought that bald people would have a difficult time playing violin. Fortunately, Cotton elaborated a bit on which kind of hair is the (most) important one.
May 4, 2019, 2:23 PM · Well, sure, the strings are important as well. But imagine not having any fingers! Technically you could still play the violin, but it would be even more not fun than playing with no strings.
May 7, 2019, 11:04 AM · But how can one judge a new bow if the violin simply cannot respond to it?
Surely a better violin will encourage the search for a bow that will facilitate revealing its new qualities.
May 7, 2019, 12:11 PM · Adrian: Let me ask: how does one determine the starting point from which violins are responsive enough to judge a bow?

The violin I own (a Yamaha V5) is good enough not to be an unplayable instrument, but it is a beginner instrument, which tends to be a bit loud, shrill and hollow, although the sound has improved a bit after changing strings, and playing on it.

Even in such an instrument, I noticed a subtle difference in the sound when I tried new bows, or when my teacher played on it with them. I'm more sensitive to shrill sounds and overtones than most people are because I'm prone to get huge headaches.

I know a better violin will respond better to different bows and strings. And, in the future, I will 'gift' myself a better violin after improving my technique on my current instrument. But for now, my technique is bad enough to get a scratchy sound both on my Chinese Yamaha or on the most expensive Stradivarius.

May 7, 2019, 12:32 PM · I was trying out bows a few years back, and the one that my violin sounded best with turned out to be the most expensive one. I think my teacher found it to be good on her violin, so hopefully it's just good all around rather than particularly suited towards mine, but it feels pretty good coming from my previous bow.

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