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Trying to Understand Bows

Discussion in 'Bows and Rosin [DB]' started by Steve Freides, Mar 8, 2016.

  1. Steve Freides

    Steve Freides Former Mannes College Theory Faculty Supporting Member

    Dec 11, 2007
    Ridgewood, NJ
    Lately I find myself trying to wrap my brain around the idea of a bow in the music-making chain of things. These are naïve questions, I realize but hey, you gotta start where you are, and I'm pretty ignorant here.

    Lately I've heard people talking about how a bow is, at least in part, a balancing act between strength, springiness, and light weight. You want - I think - a strong stick with a lot of elasticity/spring to it, and you want it to be relatively light, and definitely well-balanced in your hand.

    So what, e.g., would make a bow sound particular bright and/or harsh, or particularly mellow/rich?

    I own several handmade, albeit pretty inexpensive, bought-used, made-by-not-super-famous-people handmade bows, and they're each so different from one another. And I had the opportunity a couple of days ago to listen to my teacher play his wonderful bass with both some of his first-rate bows and with some of my bows - the difference between two bows that cost 5 figures can still be quite dramatic, and the difference between my apparently not-too-shabby sticks and the more expensive bows was, frankly, less dramatic than I expected.

    My general observation so far is that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link, and a good bass with crappy strings or a crappy bow is not going to sound great, but I've heard some pretty mediocre basses sound pretty good when strung with good strings and played with a good bow so, like I said, I'm just trying to wrap my feeble brain around what a bow does.

    And the answer is - it all matters: you, the bass, the strings, the bow, the hair, the rosin, the room.

    Thanks in advance.

  2. Mgaisbacher

    Mgaisbacher Supporting Member

    Oct 18, 2012
    Nashville, TN
    As soon as I started taking arco serious I had the chance to play a few really nice bows, A lipkins and a few other ones that I don't think I ever knew the name of. At the time I couldn't tell much difference between them and my bow which was nice but nothing special. I could tell that just from holding them the balance seemed a little better and maybe it grabbed the string a easier but the seemed like very small factors being that these bows were thousands more than my bow. Looking back on it, no matter what bow I was holding, a glasser fiberglass or a satory, I didn't have a developed bow arm and didn't know any bow well enough to tell differences.

    Recently I tried the same Lipkins again, as well as played some bows in the $3k-13k range at David Gage, and a few other higher end bows from people I know around. Now after being way more comfortable with a bow I can tell major differences in the sound and feel of the higher end bows. Enough that after trying the Lipkins again I called Sue and got on her waiting list. For me the small differences that I kind of noticed at first turned into major changes in the way the bow felt. Some of them felt like extensions of my arm and it seemed to take no effort from frog to tip to get a full even sound. Also my arm could stay completely relaxed while drawing a sound. Most of these higher end bows also seemed a lot more articulate than my current bow. When playing fast 16th notes I could hear the slop in my left hand which I feel my bow almost covers up somehow, my bow almost sounds "muddy" compared to them. These better bows felt effortless and no matter what I wanted to do, I never had to fight to make it happen, like I feel I have to do with my bow sometimes.

    Also I could tell major differences in the sound between them. When I was at Gage I didn't have my bass but was trying all the Bows on a Lloyd bass. Some of them sounded very bright while others were super dark and full. One of my favorites was a Reid Hudson which to me had a great mixture of clarity and fullness (my favorite in terms of sound). When I tried the Lipkins I did have my bass and it seemed to open my bass up more and as a stated before sound clearer and more articulate while still sounding full and even. Also in the upper register it was really clear and even, which I feel my current bow isn't quite as good at.

    After this I realized I used to be in a similar position where I could not tell the difference between a okay bow and a great bow. I couldn't fathom spending even $3000 on a fancy stick of wood but after developing my skills more and getting more control on my arm I can now notice the differences. I look at the same way as basses. If you have never played an upright before and you go to a place that has basses from $1500 to $200,000 and with your eyes closed someone handed you both basses and told you to say which is the most expensive bass, theres a good chance you wouldn't be able to really tell a big difference other than maybe the obvious that one is louder or brighter, but you may not know how to identify the nuance in the sound.

    Also I want you to know I am in no way saying you are not experienced or don't have good bow technique, because I have no idea if you do or not. For me after a while of really focusing on my right hand and getting comfortable with a bow allowed me to notice the differences between them and how some really good bows can feel like and extension of your arm. Also I sill am new to the world of higher end bows and honestly don't know what I want in a bow yet, but by getting on Sue's waiting list for me that gives me about 6 years to play as many great bows as I can so when the time comes for her to make mine I will hopefully be able to tell her exactly what I want.
  3. Steve Freides

    Steve Freides Former Mannes College Theory Faculty Supporting Member

    Dec 11, 2007
    Ridgewood, NJ
    @Mgaisbacher, thank you for in-depth reply.

    I can certainly hear the differences; I'm just trying to understand them. It's rather like playing two instruments at the same time - that's what's weird to me.

  4. Mgaisbacher

    Mgaisbacher Supporting Member

    Oct 18, 2012
    Nashville, TN
    I realized after I posted it that I may not have answered the actually question being ask.

    I think it really depends on the bass and player and what you are trying to do. I know people with really heavy bows and some with really light bows and both are good bows. I feel like saying "a light stick is better than a heavy stick" or anything is to broad of a statement and it really comes down to your hand and what feels good to you.

    In terms of what makes a stick bright or mellow I think it has a lot to do with the quality of wood, craftsmanship, hair, chamber, and probably many other factors I don't even know about. Hopefully more knowledgeable people will chime in.
  5. There's definitely lots of difficult-to-describe "mojo" between bows, strings and basses. I have several bows, none of which is pedigree-caliber. (The only "name" in the bunch is a Heliomar Cirillo.) One of my German bows is a heavy (153g) snakewood stick that I never liked that much on my bass, a four-string with Helicore low-tension orchestrals. However, I played that same bow on a 5-string with Belcantos, it was an entirely different experience: great big sound and crisp articulation. The bass, strings and bow all liked each other.

    I had that same bow rehaired recently, and the luthier commented that it was an exceptionally stiff stick. That got me wondering about how the stiffness/suppleness affects the playability. I found some online reading that may be of interest:

    characteristics of a stiff vs soft bow - Discussion Forums - Fiddle Hangout
    David T. Stone Violins - Drawing the Sound
    flexable bow Vs. Stiff bow. - The Pegbox

    Also, Jason Heath recently posted an interview with Sue Lipkins that has some interesting insights. Sue talks at some length about the importance of camber in a bow's playing character. The interview can be heard here: CBC 183: Susan Lipkins on crafting bows, tonal characteristics of wood, and how to choose a bow

    IMHO, solid bow arm technique and finding a bow that's a good mate for your bass will allow you to accomplish a lot with a run-of-the mill stick. (Although I'd still like to own a top-shelf bow again. Back in school, I played a Schicker French stick and an amazing Lothar Seiftert German bow. I could kick myself for parting with them, but 20-some years ago, I needed the cash more than the bows.)
    lcdck and Lee Moses like this.
  6. what the pluck

    what the pluck

    Oct 13, 2010
    Yeah, my carbon fibre french bow just doesn't cut it on my french bass with Belcantos but my relatively heavier German Pernambuco just pulls the sound out nicely.
  7. MikeCanada


    Aug 30, 2011
    Toronto, ON
    As mentioned, creating the best bow comes down to finding the right balance of a significant number of variables.

    A bass bow that is the same weight as a violin bow (typically 60 grams) would be way too light, and with the exception of the New Dutch School guys who apparently prefer bows in the range of 180-250 grams, most bass players will find anything above 160 grams far too heavy. Heavy French bows are usually in the 140's and German in the 150's, but there are obviously exceptions and plenty of players that find bows much lighter than that still too heavy. There are players who have found their ideal bow weight to within a few grams and specifically look for something in that range or will request it when commissioning a new bow, but there are a lot of other factors to consider besides just weight.

    Balance is often what players are feeling when a bow feels tip or frog heavy. Again, there is an accepted range that the majority of bows fall into, some players have their preference figured out to an exact measurement, where others don't know the number but know what feels right to them. A well balanced bow usually feels lighter because the weight is distributed and performing in the way the player wants it to, and they are not forced to accommodate for the "extra" weight on either side of the balance point.

    In the above CBC with Sue Lipkins she discusses camber far better than I can here. The Coles notes is that some sticks want to have more or less camber, and some players may or may not have the same desires. Camber plays a very important role in both how a bow performs and sounds, but it is something that not too many players have a lot of experience experimenting with. More is not always better, even and continuous often is, and getting the desired camber can often be a significant amount of the overall time spent making a bow, especially on bass bows that are so much thicker than the rest.

    Materials play a large role as well. Sue mentions the different sub species/variations of Pernambuco and what she prefers for her bows, but since wood is an organic material, there can be significant variation from stick to stick. A colleague was cutting blanks once and had one that floated and one that sank, (many makers prefer sinkers because they have a higher density, but there are some great old bows out there that would float) cut side by side from the same board. This is part of the reason why bows of the same model by the same maker can sound quite different from each other. There are also other species of wood than Pernambuco, and they come with their own characteristics and variables.

    The model influences how the bow plays as well. The height of the head and the height of the frog influences stability (along with camber) and they can change from maker to maker and model to model. The shape of the throat and thumb projection (the ebony part by your thumb on French bows) can make your thumb more or less comfortable, the size and shape of the frog can vary greatly particularly on German bows, and some models even have wider heads/ferrules which changes how wide the ribbon of hair is. Just like instruments, plenty of makers copy famous models, draw influence from them, or create something uniquely their own.

    How a bow is graduated changes the weight distribution and stiffness of the stick, and can leave you with a club or a wet noodle depending on when the maker decides to stop. What feels like a heavy club in my hand might feel like a light wet noodle in someone else's, so again it comes down to finding the right balance of variables.

    A really great bow finds the best combination of all of the above variables for the player. There are some makers who consistently got really close historically, and there are some modern makers who are exceptional at asking the right questions, listening to the player's wants and needs, and coming really close as a result of those discussions. If you are looking for really dark, bright, heavy, light, bouncy, into the string, or any other characteristic, getting that end result usually involves tweaking more than one of the variables above, and understanding how they relate to each other. "Sounds like chocolate" isn't as simple as 134 grams, 8" balance point, reddish-brown Pernambuco with 5900 Lucchi reading, Pfretzschner model, graduations spaced at two thumbs, and that's the formula. It comes from starting out with a desired outcome, making some educated choices along the way, and seeing how close you get. Sometimes that particular bow does not want to become what you initially set out for it to be either, but that doesn't inherently make it a good or bad bow, it just might mean that it isn't the bow that particular player is looking for.
    DC Bass likes this.
  8. Steve Freides

    Steve Freides Former Mannes College Theory Faculty Supporting Member

    Dec 11, 2007
    Ridgewood, NJ
    @MikeCanada, I would think that selecting the right piece of wood is _very_ important, and that must be tough to do with any certainty.

  9. MikeCanada


    Aug 30, 2011
    Toronto, ON
    Many of the makers who have been in the business for a long time have a very large wood pile. The regulations put in place on Pernambuco happened over the course of about 4 years quite recently, and many makers who did not have a large stockpile were able to buy an entire career worth of wood before sources became a problem. Some purchased significantly more than that because they could, because it would give them more wood to select from, and some have intentions to pass on their wood to family members, apprentices, or to sell and use it as essentially a retirement nest egg.

    Up until that point, a lot of the wood was sold in logs and boards. When purchasing by the log and direct from the source, you could specify desired sub species and other characteristics you were looking for. While there is variation in wood cut from the same tree, it tends to be less than the difference between separate trees, and again from separate sub species, which are not very easy to distinguish from each other when you are dealing exclusively with blanks. Those who have large enough wood piles consisting of a lot of wood from the same tree can make assumptions about the characteristics of wood cut from that tree based on the results of the other bows that came from it, and there are some makers who have everything carefully separated, labelled, and keep meticulous notes about each blank they use even when it does not make it all the way through the process to becoming a bow. In those (ideal) situations combined with inspecting each individual blank and years of experience, wood selection can be slightly less of a guessing game.

    The majority of the wood that is available today is coming directly from those makers and it is significantly easier to purchase within your home country because extensive paperwork is required in order to move it across international borders. What we can purchase now is almost exclusively cut into blanks with a few small boards here and there. Depending on how much wood you are purchasing from a maker and how they organize their wood pile, you may or may not be able to get wood from the same board/log if you are purchasing multiple blanks. If that is the case, you have fewer points of reference to guide the decision making process. Each blank is inspected for (un)desirable characteristics and concerns, and as you start to go through the making process you get to know that particular piece of wood.

    The benefit of using traditional methods and hand tools is that everything starts oversize and as you work with the wood you discover what choices you will need to make to get the best bow out of that blank. This is where personal philosophy and methodology comes into play for the maker. Some have a few of their own specific models that they make, and they let the wood tell them what it wants to do. Others prefer to make copies of well known makers typically from a bow they had the opportunity to study closely for an extended period of time, and try to recreate that bow as closely as possible. Others still take commissions from players and give them a lot of choices about what they are looking for. If you haven't had the opportunity to listen to the CBC with Sue Lipkins, I strongly suggest it. In it, she talks about a bow that wanted to be something other than what the customer asked for, and she ended up making that customer a second bow as a result. While there is not a bow maker out there that sets out to make anything less than the best bow they can, sometimes what you set out to make and the end result can be different. Some embrace that as part of the mystery of life, and some get frustrated when they have a commission that isn't working out as planned.
    DC Bass and Jon Stefaniak like this.
  10. Johnny L

    Johnny L

    Feb 14, 2002
    Victoria, TX
    Bows especially are about 95% player to me.

    Sure as a player gets better he can distinguish differences between bows that help him decide what is better or worse in a particular bow, but his technique plays such a big role in a bow's characteristics that it's not very easy to be objective.

    For example, a player finds a bow to draw a nice core sound...but he typically plays closer to the bridge and rarely covers more than 60% of the bowhair length. Another player uses the same stick and gets a "skipping" feeling in a part of the bow that the first player almost never reaches, and rejects it for another bow that pulls a less satisfactory tone.

    I have a bow that I think is awesome but I have to, say, get closer to the frog to get the spiccato sound I want because it doesn't have a lot of weight and I am not a rosin addict. It doesn't have the best tone I've ever heard either but it draws sooo smooth...
    DC Bass likes this.
  11. lcdck


    Dec 8, 2011
    New York, NY
    Just listened to the Susan Lipkins interview. It was fascinating! Thanks for posting the link csrund!
    csrund likes this.
  12. Jason Heath

    Jason Heath

    Nov 8, 2015
    Thanks for the Lipkins interview link! She is such a cool person. There's a great video of CSO principal bassist Alex Hanna demoing his Lipkins bow:

    Kickdrum, csrund and Michael Eisenman like this.

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