What bow tension is just right?

December 21, 2021, 9:24 PM · Playing violin, I know convention states that the gap between the hair and stick should be about the width of a pencil. Do you use this “rule” or do you prefer it tighter or looser? Do you adjust to the requirements of a given piece?

Replies (20)

Edited: December 21, 2021, 10:02 PM · A lot depends on the particular bow-- and your violin, and strings, etc. Begin with the default setting, and see if it improves when you crank it just another turn. You may find that it speaks better or sings more at one tension than another.

One way to get an idea of where a bow is happy is to hold it vertically (pointing up) and tap the frog with your ring finger. The stick will vibrate, and every bow will respond differently. Anyway try it first with one tension, and then another. You might find it especially responsive with more or less tension.

Don't tighten too much, though. There is a point when you're just asking for an accident to happen. Straight sticks are under more tension than they usually like. And as with trimming sails on a racing boat, sometimes getting rid of a little tension causes everything to breathe and respond better.

December 21, 2021, 9:49 PM · The hair doesn't need to be any tighter than to keep the stick off the string when you play forte. In other words, not actually that tight. You don't need much force.
Edited: December 21, 2021, 10:00 PM · I adjust it based on how it feels in the hand. I've noticed I tend to prefer less tension for pre-Romantic repertoire, more tension for Romantic and modern music that calls for digging into the string more.
December 21, 2021, 10:36 PM · One of these days someone is going to develop a tiny force gauge that inserts between the end of the stick and the screw.
Edited: December 21, 2021, 10:50 PM · Hair stretches and some 20 years ago I did a lot of "experiments" on bows and bow hair to try to determine
1. the stiffness of my various bows,
2.how much hair seemed (to me) to optimize the sound of each bow and
3. whether I could find any confirmation of my results in published literature

It all worked out and my measured result for the Youngs modulus of a single hair agreed with Askenfelt's published value of 0.2 GPA (GN/M^2) within 3%.
In useful terms this (and a lot of playing and listening led me to conclude that a bow hair does the best job pulling sound from the strings (for me, anyway) when stretched 0.5mm (a bit less for a shorter cello bow hair).
Working this out (skipping all the calculations in between, which I likely can no longer reproduce) for a typical violin bow with 150 hairs this would be equivalent to 0.83 lb force (0.37 kg) tightening the hair.

I find that I can judge the hair tightness of my bows pretty well by the torque I apply for the last bit of tightening the screw. I use that rather than the stand-off distance (which can be different for different bows - and for different rehairing jobs, although it shouldn't). But I was told to loosen my bow when I was 4 years old so I've been tightening bows for 83 years - and you get a feel for it after that much practice even as your playing skills atrophy.

December 22, 2021, 9:17 AM · Like people already wrote: you just want to prevent the stick touching the string when playing forte. So it depends on how loud, or how forceful, you need to play. You often even see soloists on stage adjusting their bow tightening in between a piece they are performing!
December 22, 2021, 12:22 PM · As Jean says - I adjust my bow tension depending on the music - a little less for something like the opening viola passage in Beethoven's 5th movement 2, and a little more for something that requires off the string playing like the scherzo from A Midsummer Night's Dream. And, it varies by bow - I've got a somewhat soft bow I use for daily practice, and for maybe 80% of the time, it is set as described - the ribbon of hair is a "pencil thickness" from the stick. But, sometimes that's not enough. I have a wonderful fine bow that is quite a bit stiffer, and I I tend to keep the distance between hair and stick a little less on average. In other words "It all depends..."
January 2, 2022, 9:39 AM · Actually, it started for me sometime before the year 2000 when i took my Coda bow to be rehaired by the luthier just installed at the local music store. When I got it back I immediately remarked how much less hair it had than when I bought it, and even when I had brought it to be rehaired. The luthier told me (assured me) that it was the right amount of hair for this bow (and further explained to me) and as soon as I played with it I knew he was right. It was this experience that led me to all the bow experiments I did during the year 2001 that helped me learn things about bows that 66 years of prior bow use had not.

Bow sticks flex perpendicularly to the stick (the same direction in which they are resilient), bow hair stretches along the hair. These motions of the bow & hair happen when we play and there are optimum conditions of the bow and hair depending on the demands of the music and the physical characteristics of the bow:
There will be a best location on the bow for a specific player for certain off-string strokes. There will be a best tension (bending) of the stick for this condition and thus a best tension of the hair. But there is also a best tension of the individual hairs for best sound. Unless the bow has the right number of hairs to match these conditions the bow may have to be tightened a greater or less than optimum amount.

It is easy to assume that the more hair you have on your bow the longer you can go before a rehair, but this may mean that in order to tighten the hair sufficiently you have to over-tighten the stick, going past its optimum for the strokes you will be playing (etc.).

I remember reading an autobiographical article by a luthier about his first apprenticeship - when he was set to work for the summer counting out bow hairs into "hanks" for violin, viola, and cello bows, and I shuddered to think how many times I had probably been "treated" the kinds of rehairing jobs in which that would result.

January 2, 2022, 1:19 PM · I recently was shopping around some 19c bows, and found one that was incredibly sexy-sounding but quite neurotic about when it would behave well. I chatted with a different dealer who was conversant with this bowmaker and he had some very firm views on how modern luthiers often put too much hair on an old bow. I had it rehaired with his suggestions for maximum count-- I forget what that was-- and it did help a lot even before the recambering. Which is a different story.
Edited: January 4, 2022, 10:05 AM · I probably tighten my bow to a little beyond the 'pencil' ideal. But I take care to make sure it isn't too tight.

This is because I had a violin teacher who played with a baroque bow and he kept urging me to tighten my bow very much to emulate the shape of the bow - as I'm supposing.

Anyway, one day, a few weeks later, I tightened my bow and was playing something when - bang - it broke as I touched the strings. It was a cheap thin bow which came with my starter-pack violin, but all the same, it was a dreadful shock, I was lucky that I wasn't injured, and I felt terrible.

I went screaming round to our local music shop and bought a new bow. But I'll never forget the reproachful look the luthier gave me. 'It's a terrible thing to break a bow, you know,' he said.

'I do know,' I said, and explained that my new violin teacher kept urging me to tighten up.

'And you did what he said?' said the luthier. 'Pardon me, but you don't have to. Isn't he young enough to be your son?'

Point taken - with a very red face!

Edited: January 4, 2022, 10:48 AM · When I lived in the California high (Mojave) desert, the range of humidity between "swamp-cooler" air-conditioned homes and refrigerative-cooled air-conditioned rehearsal and performance spaces was extreme (50% RH at home, as low as 5-20% outdoors and only God knows how dry when air-conditioned. I have seen a bow stick snap just from the increasing tension of hair in those dry spaces - fortunately not any of min e. A bow put away with straight but with normally loosened hair would have hair hanging like the catenary-shaped cables of suspension bridges within an hour.
January 13, 2022, 3:07 PM · In conversations on purchasing the next violin and bow (a huge upgrade compared to what I had) I was advised to never over tighten the bow. As above about a pencil width is enough. And to apply rosin in gentle single sweep movements (I used to be a lot more enthusiastic almost grinding it in ??). This from a man who has played professionally and from age 7.
January 13, 2022, 3:07 PM · In conversations on purchasing the next violin and bow (a huge upgrade compared to what I had) I was advised to never over tighten the bow. As above about a pencil width is enough. And to apply rosin in gentle single sweep movements (I used to be a lot more enthusiastic almost grinding it in ??). This from a man who has played professionally and from age 7.
January 13, 2022, 6:29 PM · Greetings,
these days, as far as I can see, the majority of soloists and orchestral players on youtube use rather tight hair. I don’t think this has any connection with very soft bow needing to be cranked up. Zhakar Bron uses very tight bow hair and so do his students on the teaching videos. Is it possible this a is in part connected to the increasingly prevalent use of strings such as Evan Pirazzi? Or put another way, string technology is driving some kind of change?
Cheers,
Buri
January 13, 2022, 7:01 PM · The more hair on your bow the greater the stress on the stick required to tighten (i.e., strain or stretch) the hairs a given amount and the greater the torque need be applied to the screw to achieve that.

If your technician uses a fixed mass of hair (of a given quality) each time, you should be able to know exactly how much to tighten your bow each time. Since horse hairs vary in thickness and a factor of 2 range is not uncommon in bow hair diameters, total hair mass is probably the relevant variable rather than number of hairs.

If you are breaking a lot of hairs in performance you will get the same hair behavior (stress) with less strain of the stick after reducing the number of hairs. Perhaps some of these performers are having excess hair on their bows to be able to to avoid the next rehair. ??
At least, that's thought on this.

January 13, 2022, 7:44 PM · Gil Shaham's bow always looks very tightened to me.
January 13, 2022, 8:38 PM · "One of these days someone is going to develop a tiny force gauge that inserts between the end of the stick and the screw."

Starrett has you covered.

January 14, 2022, 1:36 AM · Almost none of the young violinists at the major competitions follow the rules for bow tension advocated here. There must be a reason so many budding young soloists use a bow tensioned in a way which is massively over tightened from my point of view.

However, personally, I'm with all of you and follow the pencil rule more or less. But I'm old and trained many years ago.

And of course the bow grip no matter which version one calls it, Russian, FB, etc. has changed also. A modern FB is not what it was 50 years ago. I would never have been allowed to use any version of modern grips BITD.

January 14, 2022, 7:02 AM · It has to be personal preference ultimately. For me it depends what I'm playing. Aggressive bouncy stuff needs more tension.
The rule of a pencil's width depends very much on the bow. So often a student bow is completely flaccid at that width. It seems this works for very good bows but not cheaper ones quite often. Even so, for my own personal preference a pencil's width is too loose.
January 14, 2022, 7:02 AM · It has to be personal preference ultimately. For me it depends what I'm playing. Aggressive bouncy stuff needs more tension.
The rule of a pencil's width depends very much on the bow. So often a student bow is completely flaccid at that width. It seems this works for very good bows but not cheaper ones quite often. Even so, for my own personal preference a pencil's width is too loose.


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