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how bows work. help me understand?

Discussion in 'Bows and Rosin [DB]' started by SeayBass, Jul 28, 2012.

  1. SeayBass

    SeayBass Supporting Member


    First let me say I play french.

    Now. I want to understand the ins and outs of how bows work. In general terms, what does heaviness do? What does the placement and depth of camber do? What does the length do? What does the balance point do?

    I play a lot of different gigs, and know a lot of players and I still don't fully understand how bows work. Please help me understand. I have dried hundreds of bows, and so far, all I can say is, "every bow is different." What makes a special bow or a great bow?

    thanks in advance
  2. DC Bass

    DC Bass

    Mar 28, 2010
    Washington DC
    Respectfull, I think that the answers to some of these questions may be subjective, but certainly open to discussion. I stand by awaiting what will hopefully be some informed posts on a very compelling topic!

    I'd recommend talking with some makers, or really skilled repair techs. Where do you usually get your bows rehaired?

    Mr. Donald Cohen is just down the road from us:


    I don't remember his name, but there is a really, really good guy at Potter's. I can try to track him down if you like.


  3. There is a lot to the question...too much to cover in a single post but hopefully I could touch on a couple of things. The short answer is whatever works best for you. We are all anatomically different and require something unique and personal from the equipment we use. When I was playing bass trombone, the search for the 'perfect' mouthpiece was never ending. What may yield the best results for one player may have the opposite effect on the other. I found this out first hand with my teacher when I was in university. His bow just didn't work with my hand.

    The depth of the camber has a lot to do with the centre of gravity. Try various models with different cambers and see how they behave with articulations like spicatto. I play a french bow with a deeper camber. For me, it sits into the string a bit more and is easily coaxed into a more controlled spicatto than models with a higher camber. Others may find quite the opposite.

    Balance is a crucial aspect to how the bow will feel and behave, probably moreso than the weight of the stick. I have played bows that were heavier than mine in actuality but felt lighter and more vibrant just because the balance was so fine-tuned.

    With traditional materials like pernambuco in such short supply nowadays, we are seeing alternative materials that often provide new characteristics to how a bow feels and plays. Some woods have a nice natural spring to them whereas others are stiffer and less responsive with say, the hammer stroke for instance.

    Of course, we could get into the nitty gritty about hair color, thickness, origin, rosin choice, how much to use, when to rehair etc. but that will have to wait for someone else. Hope this helps a bit.
  4. MikeCanada


    Aug 30, 2011
    Toronto, ON
    If anyone says they have a 110gram French bow made from Pine, balanced perfectly at 13” with purple rhino hair, a fettuccine noodle winding cambered with a beautiful wave pattern, that could be exactly what they need/want/works for them. I am just trying to make some fairly knowledgeable, informed generalizations about how bows work, and personal preference is just that.

    Some thoughts on bows:
    Weight: There are acceptable ranges of how heavy a bow should be. If you are a French player, you are likely going to find something that works for you in the range of 120-150grams. German bows are usually between 115-145grams. (New Dutch School is a whole different ball game, from here out referred to as NDS)
    Weight works very closely with balance, as a bow can often feel light or heavy, when balance is really what the player is feeling. Simply put, a bow needs to be heavy enough that with the weight of the player’s arm and good technique, a good sound can be drawn out of the bass. If you have ever tried a cello bow, or a violin bow on a bass, you have to press way too hard to get not enough sound, and it’s a horrible experience. On the other end of the spectrum, the bow needs to be light enough (NDS*) that the player can play without fatigue or injury for an extended amount of time, and that fast passages are not being impeded by the weight of the bow, and the amount of effort it takes to move an extra 30grams or so in the opposite direction and back again. To give some perspective, violin bows are usually in a much smaller weight range, (about 50-65grams for modern bows) and the difference between a light German bow, and a heavy French bow can almost be the entire weight of a violin bow.

    Balance: A French bow is typically balanced between 8-9” from the balance point, to the end of the WOOD, (NOT the button) of a bow. A German bow, between 7 ½-8 1/2” You can find your balance point by balancing the bow on your finger, and measuring from that point to the end of the wood. Be careful, don’t drop it.
    A bow can feel “tip heavy” (a balance point farther out the stick) and a bow can feel “frog heavy” (closer to the hand) and this is where weight and balance can become difficult to distinguish. Some players prefer different parts of this spectrum, a slightly “tip heavy” bow plays better closer to the tip, they don’t have to “press” or use as much weight etc. where a slightly “frog heavy” bow might feel lighter and more agile to a player. These will usually be inside the above ranges. If a bow truely is tip heavy, then you often have to hold the bow tighter and fight it, resulting in faster fatigue and injury, and a frog heavy bow will fly off the string, and you have to hold it tighter, and fight to keep it in the string... more fatigue and injury.

    Camber: The curve of the stick, for those who are new to the language, is exactly that. If stand the bow up on a table resting on the hair, you are looking for how much curve, where it starts, and where it ends.
    French bows typically have a continuous curve, from the back of the head to the front of the frog. This means that the point closest to the table should be in the middle of the playing length of the bow. How far it is off the table depends a lot on the individual makers of the bows. Some bows will almost touch the table, some will be a considerable distance from it. German bows have more of a Nike swoop to them (I’m sure there is a technical term) with the majority of the curve being behind the head of the bow, and in the top third or so, with it gradually decreasing towards the frog. Again, exactly where the lowest point is, and how much bend there is can change based on the maker’s preferences.
    Camber is what allows the player to play into the string. If you tighten your bow to a regular playing tension, and you can find a flat spot, (in most bows it tends to be close to the frog or the winding, because that is the most difficult part of a bow to get enough curve into) this is usually where the bow will “jump” or “skate” across the string, instead of having a nice even sound. Those spots can be difficult to find with the eye for even experienced players, and a lot of experienced players can compensate with their technique, but again, it can lead to fatigue and injury as a result. Beginner players will have a tough time getting a good sound, or playing into the string with this problem.

    Hair: I am not trying to start a hair colour debate... With that said, the best professional quality white hair is harvested from live stallion horses, is finer, less coarse, and smoother under a microscope. Black hair, is coarser, and rougher under a microscope. That is the science speaking. There are many different grades and colours of hair that run the spectrum in the middle, and some bow makers even blend them.
    Generally speaking, because of the nature live stallion white hair, it can have a smoother sound. Paired with the right rosin, bow, bass, strings, technique, weather conditions and choice of lunch that day, it can be great for solo music. Black hair, with the same or more variables, tends to have a darker, rougher sound. Some orchestra players like how it has bite, and more punch than white hair. And hair in the middle has middle-like qualities. Hair, like so many other things is a preference thing, and there are black hair players that have beautiful, smooth singing solo sounds, and white hair players that can play thunderously loud, dangerous, titan-like sounds too.

    Rosin: Climate makes a huge difference to rosins. If you live in Northern Ontario and it is January, and it is -40 degrees Celsius and extremely dry (yes, this does happen) or in Toronto in the summer time when it is +40 degrees Celsius and so humid you can drink the air, or anywhere else where there are differences of temperature and humidity, your rosin will perform differently.
    Generally speaking, the harder and more powdery the rosin is, it can have a smoother sound, the softer the rosin, it can have a coarser sound. HUGE GENERALIZATIONS!! But, having played with Salchow & Sons rosin, that is used by violinists, violists and cellists, I found a smooth sound, without a lot of bite, but very articulate. When I wanted to have more bite, growl, punch, big fat orchestra sounds, I would use a softer rosin, such as Pops or Kolstein Soft, and be very pleased with its ability to do that for me. In Toronto summers, or other places prone to hot and humid spells, you have to be careful with soft rosins, as you can easily add too much of it, and I have had it melt in the container in my bow case in extreme conditions.

    Wood: The wood used for the bow can make a huge difference, and there are some blanket statements that can be made about different types of wood. However, I hesitate to make them, because each piece of wood is unique. The difference between wood species, and the difference between individual bows of the same wood, by the same maker, copies of the same model etc. can be vast and varied.
    Pernambuco: Is the most well known bow wood. It has great sound, strength, flexibility, holds a curve really well, and can be made into fantastic bows. It is also endangered, and cannot be transported across international borders without a lot of paperwork (the wood, before made into bows, finished bows are fine)
    Brazil wood: A confusing name, because Pernambuco can also be called Pau-Brazil or Brazil wood as well. There are a LOT of different species of Brazil wood and Pernambuco, and they can be quite different, or quite similar. A lot of Brazil wood bows are less expensive than Pernambuco, and are made with an affordable market in mind, but it is often very similar to Pernambuco in characteristics.
    Snakewood: The wood is often quite dark in colour, and looks like it has snake scales. The bows often have a quick attack to them, and a focused sound, without a lot of high overtones. Some people love this, some people don’t; it works really well with some basses, and doesn’t with others.
    Amourette: is also Snakewood, however it doesn’t have the scale-like appearance. It plays very similar to Snakewood.
    Ironwood: A dark wood that is a little less dense than Snakewood/Amourette. It can have more high overtones, and a bit brighter sound, and is really focused.
    Wamara: Lighter in colour and density than Ironwood. It plays pretty similar to Ironwood, I don’t have a lot of personal experience with it to comment.
    Bloodwood: Before nitric and French polish, (two finishing methods applied to bows when they are being made) Bloodwood is very RED in colour, but looks pretty similar to Pernambuco when finished. It plays quite similar to Pernambuco, is very lively, and a great wood.
    There are a TON of other species that have been used historically, and that modern makers are using now as well. Purpleheart, Ipe, Hakia, Bulletwood, Beefwood, Massaranduba, etc. and there are a lot of different names used for all of these woods as well, considering they are all rainforest hardwoods, and the languages used, English translations and names used by bow makers can vary greatly.

    After all of that, the question of what makes a good, great, amazing, or unique bow is a combination of everything above, and more. Usually, individual players have preferences for all of the things mentioned above, and some other factors as well, even if they aren’t super aware of it. Sometimes, bows outside your comfort zone, or what you think are your desired preferences surprise you. I know players that swear by white hair that have enjoyed bows with black, as a basic example. A great bow will be inside the standard range of length, weight, and balance and it will have an even camber without any flat spots. It will have a fresh rehair by a talented bow maker, in the hair colour of your choice, and just the right amount of your rosin of preference. It will be made of a piece of wood that was chosen for straight grain, desired weight and density, and minimal abnormalities.

    And, all of these things are personal preference. KEEP AN OPEN MIND. When bow shopping, too many players are too quick to make judgements based on hair colour, if the stick is round, half round or octagonal, if it has a silver, silk, or whale bone winding, what type of wood it is made from, and at that point, they haven’t even picked up the bow. Try as many as you can, and eventually, you just know that you have found the right bow.
  5. MikeCanada


    Aug 30, 2011
    Toronto, ON
    I said I would mention something about New Dutch School and didn't. Sorry. The New Dutch School uses very heavy German bows (around 200grams) I know absolutely nothing to make an educated comment about them, because I have no experience working with one of those bows, and although I have made some "normal" French and German bows, I have yet to try something like that.

    I think there are a couple guys on here that have some knowledge though, so hopefully they can throw in their two cents.
  6. SeayBass

    SeayBass Supporting Member

    wow. I am glad I asked thanks for the great responses!

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