bow shopping how-to!

May 12, 2019, 4:00 PM · Hello all,

I don't know how many of you might remember, but I am an adult returner who is taking a year of working as thoroughly as I can to rebuild my technique in order to audition for a master in music. In December/January, I depended quite a lot on advice and feedback I got on violinist.com, and very much appreciated the vast amount of knowledge that is represented here.

I have been taking lessons since March (I think? :) with a really wonderful teacher who is helping me a lot. Every lesson so far, however, she has shaken her head at my bow and pronounced I need a new one - it is paramount especially since I am trying to better my right hand technique and my "funny" bow is holding me back, she believes.

So, in a few days I will go with her to a shop and look at bows within a certain price range. I am grateful she is going with me, since I have little idea how to test out bows or know what to do!

But, I was wondering if anyone here would be able to give me any tips on how to handle the process, how to be able to assess which bows should be in the running, and so forth. What techniques should I be sure to test, what should a good bow do that another bow might not do? I hope you get the idea of my questions! I would appreciate any advice.

Thank you! <3

Replies (9)

Edited: May 12, 2019, 5:04 PM · Ask to be given a random selection of bows with the price tags taken off. Try each one with a few different snippets of different pieces, and try playing long tones and bouncing strokes as well. Then take your favourites home to practise with for a while.

Obviously, make sure the bows you choose are in good shape as well, and let your teacher try them with you to get a second opinion.

The ones you reach for first when playing at home are probably the ones that suit you best.

Edited: May 12, 2019, 5:33 PM · First - you MUST test the bows on YOUR violin. So be sure to take your violin to the shop.

Personally I test bows with the prices still on them. In fact, I like to test more expensive bows than I can hope to afford, although I do test them without first looking at the prices. When I find the best bow for my instrument then I try to find one in my price range that is close enough. Your teacher will be very helpful in this search because she knows what challenges the future will bring, what bows are good enough for you now and in the near future - and you will both have some idea what sacrifices you are making due to your price point at this time, and avoid excess bow envy too soon.

In my last bow search I tried 66 bows and found only 2 that met my criteria for that particular instrument at that time. One was priced 2-1/2 times higher than the other; I bought the cheaper one. Both were made by the same maker and were the only two among the 66 (priced up to about $10,000) that met my critera well enough.

My bow searches (barring bows that are priced because of their collector value) led me to believe that the cost curve for bows is roughly logarithmic. According to this, with log 2 = 100 and log 4 = 10,000 I would expect a $10,000 bow to show roughly twice the qualities of a $100 bow (very roughly, but certainly not 100 times more). I know that's kind of simple minded, but twice the amount of audible sound from a bow is quite a lot and twice the playability (whatever that might mean to an individual) might be enough. Certainly, a $10,000 bow is not 100 times "better" than a $100 bow. Many of us might not even appreciate what a $10,000 bow can do, but for those who can appreciate it and afford it it is worth the difference.

May 12, 2019, 5:46 PM · I thought I had seen a nice systematic bow-shopping checklist somewhere recently. There are some threads here but I don't find a checklist. Lydia's threads about her hunt for a bow have many gems in them along with an epic digression or so.

https://www.violinist.com/discussion/archive/28252/

https://www.violinist.com/discussion/archive/28297/

Edited: May 13, 2019, 3:24 AM · Anita your teacher will be with you so she will probably ask you to perform certain strokes, or play certain passages. In general it should be quite obvious what to do: you try the different strokes, at the tip, middle and frog, and also evaluate the general playability, and sound. It is personal. Chances are that you will immediately recognize the bow you will eventually buy the moment you pick it up and play the first few notes. That's what happened to me. The "match", if there is one, will light up. Also: bring your current "lousy" bow, but don't play with it while comparing bows. Only when you have made up your mind about which of the bows you tried is the best for you, then play with your old bow to compare directly. If it turns out there is no dramatic difference, draw the logical conclusion. Finally, obviously, don't buy a bow that very day. Instead ask if you can take the bow with you for a few weeks, so you can compare with other bows you may find.
May 13, 2019, 6:47 AM · Andres -- those were a couple of fine threads. I remember them with great fondness.

More useful than the price on each bows is its overall mass in grams.

May 13, 2019, 9:39 AM · In general, I think that choosing a bow requires a lot more sampling than choosing a violin, because a bow is a lot more personal. My bow hunts have generally involved dozens upon dozens of bows; the most recent was well over a hundred bows.

A bow can have objectively good and bad traits that everyone can take note of, but a bow will also have subjective traits that make it feel good or not good to you. I think that has something to do with your personal physique -- what your arm is like, where the balance point is comfortable, etc. Note that this can be affected by your technique, though.

That means that I think that students whose right-arm technique is changing substantially shouldn't expect to pick a "forever" bow. And if you think you'll eventually change the violin as well, you may end up needing a different bow for a good tonal match. So I'd advise picking a bow that is good for now.

If your budget is under $1k, I would strongly consider choosing a carbon-fiber bow to maximize playability for the money. (I like my JonPaul Avanti, at around $750, which handles well, and which is a neutral "good bow".) You can luck into good wooden bows in the sub-$1k range, but if you don't have access to a very large number to try, your chances of getting lucky are lower. Even in the $2k range, CF may be a better bargain. Also, there's a goodly chance you'd keep a CF bow for a long-term spare if you upgrade again later.

In the $3k - $6k range or so, you will get a combination of the best contemporary bows, and miscellaneous antiques which can be no-name or repaired. Note that you may have to go through significant effort to get ahold of a good selection of contemporary bows. A lot of bows from the best makers go straight into the hands of a commissioning player and will not be seen on the market again for that player's lifetime. Just because in theory you could find a desirable contemporary bow doesn't mean that "the one" will readily be available to try and buy.

When you get past $6k, you start to get better-known antique makers. I think of a price band that is roughly $7k-$20k, and then another at $20k-40k. In a given price band, the playing and tonal qualities of the bows are more similar, but bow prices are also affected by condition and so you'll see some less-expensive bows from higher-quality makers as a result of repairs.

Expect that you're embarking on a journey. Buying a professional bow is almost certainly a matter of months, not weeks, and certainly not days.

Edited: May 13, 2019, 9:55 AM · I was extremely lucky when I bought my present bow: I lived in an apartment above my luthier's shop. He could hear me practice upstairs while he was doing his work. So he knew my way of playing, he also knew my violin, he had done maintenance on it after all.

When I told him I'd like to buy a better bow he selected three or four he thought might work for me. He allowed my to borrow them for a few weeks and I had plenty of time to select. For me it was hard to decide between the last two bows. One seemed to play easier, the other--the one I ended up choosing--sounded better. No such thing as immediately knowing the bow I'd like happened to me. Don't count on that. I have never had reason to think I made the wrong choice since.

You have the advantage of your teacher helping you with the selection (I did no longer take lessons at the time). Take advantage of that resource! I recommend you try to get at least a few days at home with 2 or 3 "finalists" so you can be certain of your choice.

EDIT after reading Lydia's response: I should say that I had accompanied a friend on part of his hunt for a bow about a year earlier and had tried quite a few bows on my violin. I knew already some traits I'd like my bow to have, e.g. it should be light (which rules out almost all contemporary bows). That also went into the initial selection. But the luthier knowing my style certainly helped focus on suitable selections.

May 13, 2019, 10:19 AM · Lucky you that your teacher is accompanying you! I recently bought a bow and my teacher was unfortunately too busy to accompany me, so I ended up purchasing the bow that I returned to over and over and over again. It was interesting because the first bow that felt like "the one" was actually the bow that I ended up liking the least in the end, and the bow I was most unsure of, yet kept reaching for!, was the one I ultimately purchased. (This is also a "for the next few years, until I can afford a $6k bow" bow.)

I guess my advice is not to make selections based on first-impressions and to keep an open mind. Oh, and don't try too many at once - you'll go into sensory overwhelm and get confused.

Edited: May 13, 2019, 10:49 AM · Albrecht your situation sounds ideal. Since you were testing bows from the same luthier, chances are they were rehaired from the same stock of hair, in the same manner, and perhaps even around the same time. I don't know how you'd control for those "hair factors" otherwise.


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