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What About the Bow?

August 11, 2022, 6:33 PM · I'm new to the forum, so a brief introduction. I'm a three year self taught violin player with decades on accordian and guitar. I have three violins, all under $1500 and set up by a professional luthier/builder. Each has it's own voice. My question is about bows. I have four, two cheap carbon fiber, one yellow sandalwood, and one pernambuco. Why do I get the cleanest tone from the cheapest bows? The sandalwood and pernambuco seem to have more bite and have more coarse hair than the smoother hair on the cheap bows that give me a nicer sound. When people take a bow in for a re-hair, doesn't the luthier use the same hair on each bow whether it's a $100 bow or a $1,000 bow?
I believe my bowing technique is good with a bent wrist at the top and bottom of the bow stroke, bend at the elbow and not the shoulder and I tend to use the right side of the bow hair rather than the full width of the hair. I've experimented with different bow pressure with my right hand index finger, but I still find the cleanest sound comes from the cheaper smooth haired bows.
I'm thinking of upgrading to an $800 Coda bow hoping that I can get the clean sound I'm looking for.
I'm more of a violin player than a fiddler playing mostly church hymns and country music.
Sorry for the long post, but I'm hoping for some direction from the experts here.

Replies (17)

August 11, 2022, 7:23 PM · I would guess that cheaper bows tend to be stiffer and more top-heavy, which makes it easier to keep them going straight across the string, at the cost of agility.
August 11, 2022, 9:11 PM · An excellent professional violinist told me ten years ago that I'd have to spend $2000 to find a pernambuco bow that plays as well as the $350 carbon fiber bow that I was using (and am still using). So I'm definitely in the camp that believes that CF bows are probably the best choice on the low end of the price range. However, all CF bows are not identical so my suggestion to you is to actually try before you buy rather than just shopping by price and brand reputation. My bow is the Cadenza silver-mounted three-star or "master" bow (also known as Eastman BL305). I love it. I have two of them for violin and one for my viola.
August 11, 2022, 10:54 PM · Jim, You have said nothing about the kind(s) of rosin(s) you use or how you use it/(them) and clean up afterwards. Also, how do you care for your strings after each playing session?

Some luthiers use different hair for top-quality bows - or for any bows for owners willing to pay the extra charge

Edited: August 12, 2022, 12:13 AM ·
I just upgraded my bow, and in the process, I learned a lot about how bows sound on my violin. I found that I could evaluate bows in three categories:

Quality of Sound
Fullness of Sound

So bows are multi-dimensional, and I finally decided on a bow that does well for me in all three categories. Fullness of sound was important, because my violin doesn't have a particularly loud voice. But with my new bow, it projects quite well.

What was so interesting, was seeing how this or that bow could sound so completely different! For example, the most expensive bow that I tried gave my violin a deeper quality of sound on the G, D, and A strings that was quite interesting to me. But while deeper, it was a kind of unidimensional quality of sound that didn't have nearly the pleasing, more "complex" quality of sound produced by the bow that I decided to purchase. Etc.

So in your situation, it appears that you like the quality of sound of the less expensive bow to which you're attracted? But, how do you like it's handling? Does it facilitate your playing, or does it get in the way? If the former, perhaps that's the bow for you? But be wary; as you gain technique and experience in playing, your tastes in bows may change.

Another caution, don't be too quick to make a decision. I went back and forth from one bow to another so many times, even to the point of making multiple visits to my luthier. (He was very patient.) For example, I first took one particular bow home, having decided against the bow I ended up purchasing. But after getting it home, it just wouldn't do. So, back I went to again try bows against each other. Finally, attributes stood out in a way that enabled me to make the best choice.

August 11, 2022, 11:45 PM · If you are a new player and self taught, you probably aren't capable of getting a good sound out of your violin, no matter the violin or bow. A good core sound can be aversive to player who aren't used to it.

One way to understand how you sound is to record yourself, but you also need to understand what kind of acoustic the recording is presenting, but you can at least compare. Another way is to play with ear plugs.

The best option is to get a teacher.

Edited: August 12, 2022, 1:22 AM · Jim, I know the feeling! You're asking for direction from the experts; to be frank I don't think anyone here, no matter how proficient a player or teacher, should claim to be expert on the vexed question of bows and the sound they make, or rather the sound they help you to make. We all have an opinion based on our personal experience and those opinions are often contradictory. Some will tell you how much money you need to spend, others that you may be lucky and find a bow that suits you at any "price point".
Edited: August 12, 2022, 4:11 AM · Mostly I'd guess AndrewH is right.
Cheap depends on your budget.
I've got a Chinese carbon bow that cost me £20 on Amazon. It has 95% of the playability and sound of a Col Legno Standard.
If you're upgrading from pernambuco to Coda, then your pernambuco may be a grey area where bad bows are called pernambuco so their price tag can be hiked. I've read that they can be flabby. This makes sense - real old pernambuco is rare (I read that antique pernambuco bows were made from a wood which has been almost unavailable for 100 years), so you may have got an imitation - likewise, modern koa is softer wood than antique koa, used for the original ukuleles of Hawaii.
The carbon is probably stiffer, as Andrew says. But we can only guess. Or your pernambuco may have been an accidental bargain and frog-weighted and you can't handle it yet. There's not enough information to go on.

And Christian is right. I've only had 12 lessons in 4 years, but I couldn't have managed without them. Budget for half a dozen even if you want to remain self-taught - you can discuss equipment with your teacher. Get a proper teacher, not one who is self-taught (I'm still mentally scarred from what I've read on guitar forums. The horror!)

Edited: August 12, 2022, 4:19 AM · We're all guessing! I'd guess it's unwise to trust anyone's advice EXCEPT your teacher's (and be pretty circumspect about that too).
August 12, 2022, 5:11 AM · @Christian, I remember when I first recorded myself, I went into a state of shock.

Its strange how you think you sound, until you actually hear it, very sobering indeed.

August 12, 2022, 7:38 AM · I do know how I sound, and therefore I continually correct as I go along, and in the recording it's the combination of sounds and corrections that is excruciating.
August 12, 2022, 7:44 AM · Andrew Victor - I was hoping you would reply. I've read your comments from other posts and have respect for your many years of experience.
I'm using Holstein Premium rosin and I've never tried any other brands. I only use enough to get some bite and only re-apply when the bow starts slipping on the strings. I've tried cleaning the bow hairs with a very soft brush, and I clean my strings after each use with a microfiber cloth.
I realize that after only three years I have a lot of learning ahead of me, but I feel I'm making great progress. My biggest question is about the differing coarseness of the bow hair - I get the best tone from the smoother hair. I guess I should maybe try an in home trial of the Coda bow along with any others people may suggest. I hope I'm explaining this right.
Edited: August 12, 2022, 7:49 AM · "I get the best tone from the smoother hair."
But remember that's what's best for you is not necessarily best for an audience 20' away. What sounds smooth to you may sound bland to them and what sounds rough to you may sound exciting to them.
August 12, 2022, 9:51 AM · Jim, I think you are doing the right things with your bow hair and your strings. When I think my strings or bow hair are misbehaving I get more serious about cleaning them. I use a clean, dry toothbrush to celan and separate bow hair as well as gentle rubbing with microfiber.

In spite of the many arguments I have heard against it, I use alcohol to clean my strings and my bow hair. I use the alcohol cleaning in the form of "Alcohol Prep Pads" sold in drug stores to prepare skin for sterile injections. I rub each string in the bowing area just once followed immediately with a clean cotton cloth to dry it before the dissolved rosin can dry and sink into the crevices between the windings. When using the pads to clean bow hair I fold the pad over the slightly tightened hair ribbon and gently, but quickly, clean the entire length of the hair ribbon followed immediately by doing the same thing with a dry cotton cloth. The I reverse the alcohol pad and repeat the process with it and the cotton cloth. I keep doing this with additional pads until the yellow rosin stain no longer appears on pad or cloth. I have sometimes had to use as many as 4 pads (8 total swipes). If this doesn't solve my problem I figure it is time for rehairing.

I don't trust what I hear when play a violin or viola to tell me what it sounds like to other listeners. (But I don't care so much about that any more. What I do care about is whether I can hear myself amid the cacophony of whatever ensemble I am playing with.) To get some idea of what I sould like I play the violin (or viola) in cello position to get a better idea of what it sounds like more than inches from my own ears.

Earlier this year I had a local luthier, who is also a professional cellist play all my violins so I could hear them from across the room. That gave me some idea of what they sound like. He played them in cello position because he is a cellist. They sounded good to me.

The roughness of bow hair should not really be a factor in activating the strings other than in how well it retains rosin. Different rosins do make a difference in what we hear as players, but possibly not as much as to audiences. However, I did experiment with some different rosins at a string quartet session a few years ago and differences were heard both by the players and the other 3 as listeners.

August 12, 2022, 10:04 AM · If violinmaking is a dark art then archetiers are Sauron. Bows are a mystery.
August 12, 2022, 10:16 AM · Generally speaking, the highest quality bow hair is pure stallion. Lesser quality is mare hair. The difference is the smoothness. Stallion hair is smoother than mare. I made the mistake of getting mixed mare on my old bow and it bit so much on the string and was so scratchy I couldn't stand it.
August 12, 2022, 10:16 AM · @Ron

I've been learning seriously for a decade besides whatever I did as a child, and the recordings still vex me, but they also often point out that despite me thinking that I'm fully expressing myself, it often needs much more for the audience to get.

August 12, 2022, 12:00 PM · Following up on what Ann wrote:

In the year 2000, one year before he died, I visited retired luthier Frank Passa at his beautiful home in Santa Rosa, CA to have one of my cello bows rehaired and to check out some instruments. Hanging over the kitchen counter was a full hank (actually, a full tail) of horse hair. Passa referred to it as "urinated" hair, mare's hair, that he preferred to use for hairing bows because of its roughness. He described why the hair was rougher in the yellow regions of the tail. I left my Albert Nürnberger cello bow for rehairing (I think it is still wearing that hair) and returned to pick it up the next week.

It was quite a visit, for me. I played at least one 200 year old cello he had there, but thought it was no better than my own 1960 cello, which I had brought with me. He had safes full of instruments from his former San Francisco shop and stacks of pernambuco bow blanks (precut for the different bowed string instruments) in the 5-car garage below part of the house - and just one compact car.

I visited Passa after reading a biographical article about him in The STRAD magazine. One of the articles therein told of his North African adventure during his service during WW-II when he found a tortoise in the desert whose shell he thought would we make many beautiful bow frogs; so he put a rock on it hoping it would keep it in place until he could retrieve it. When he returned there after the fighting, the rock was still in place, but the tortoise (and its shell) had escaped.

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