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March 2007

Selecting the Right Bow

Angelo Eftimeo, Valley of the Sun Violins

Many players of all levels find it difficult when selecting a bow, whether for Violin, Viola, or Cello. If you follow the suggestions listed here, it can reduce much of the difficulty and make it much more likely that you will be selecting the right bow for your needs and the best match for your instrument.

Before going to the shop, find out what type of bow you generally like. Bows all have unique characteristics, but certain things fit certain players. Do you like a light bow or a slightly heavier bow? This has little to do with stiffness or balance and more to do with the weight your arm feels comfortable with. Too light and you need to press more to get a solid sound, too heavy and your arm gets tired too fast for a good practice session. Weights should fall into the following ranges: Violins 59-62.5 grams, Violas 70-73 grams, and Cellos 78.5-82.5 grams.

Proper balance on a bow can make a heavy stick feel light and improper balance can make even the lightest stick feel heavy. A proper balance point for all 3 categories of bows should be between 9 1/2 and 9 7/8 inches, measuring from the bottom of the button (where the wood actually starts) and the balance point. To find the balance point, just balance the bow on your finger and measure from this point to the spot where the wood ends and the button begins.

Bows can be flexible and lively or strong and rigid. In both cases find what you like, but don't go to either extreme. It's very difficult to get a great sound with either a "noodle" or a "club". Either way, make sure the bow has good resonance by doing the tap test, sometimes referred to as the Salchow test. To do this test on the bow, tighten the hair to normal tension, and with the little finger of your bow hand OFF of the button, slightly tap the hair on the first knuckle of your non-bow hand. On a good bow with solid resonance, you should feel the vibration all the way through the stick with your bow hand. Try this with a number of bows of different quality and price point and you'll see a noticeable difference. The more vibration (usually) the better.

When actually selecting sticks follow the list below:
  1. Try a variety of bows from different makers and price points. Even those above and below your budget. You may find a great value bow at a good price, and if you find a bow you absolutely love, but it's too expensive, now you and your shop can try to find the closest bow possible at your budget level.
  2. Try all bows using the same music passage(s). Make sure some of the passages require long bow strokes, in order to check that the bow retains it's sound all the way through. Also make sure some of the passages require a staccato. This will show how well the bow bounces and recovers and if the bow is quick enough for certain passages.
  3. Always try the bow(s) n your instrument. Bows respond differently to different instruments so finding a bow that plays well on another instrument may not help you to find a bow that is a fit for yours.
  4. Always play the bow yourself. This may seem obvious, but some beginners feel self-conscious playing at the shop in front of more experienced players. But since your style is unique, the bow has to fit you and your playing style. While you may want someone else to try it to see what they think, or to see if it can handle what you will be playing as you get more experienced, remember that this bow has to make YOU happy, so don't worry about anything else except that you end up with a purchase that you feel comfortable with.
  5. Don't feel pressured at the shop. Most shops understand if you need to bring the bow to your teacher for a final approval, and each shops have different policies on how they handle this, but remember it's not uncommon. Plus if the shop makes you feel uncomfortable or pressured, find another shop. You are the customer and it's their responsibility to help you, if the don't, won't, or can't, find someplace that will.
  6. Judge your purchase by your happiness. While we all can't afford the bow of our dreams, we should be happy with the final purchase. One easy way to check this out is this little check, If this bow is what you really want, the first thing you should want to do is take it home and play it. If your attitude is, "boy, I can't wait to get home and try this out", you probably made a decision you'll be happy with.
  7. Get everything in writing. Have all the information about the bow put on the receipt, have anything they promised (1 free rehair, full trade-in value down the road, etc.) put on the receipt or on another paper. This will help down the road if you ever want to trade in the bow or sell it to someone else.
Good luck and enjoy your new bow.

Article Submitted by:
Angelo Eftimeo
Valley of the Sun Violins
Scottsdale, Arizona
(480) 277-9081