Sunday, December 4, 2011

Fiddle Bows (Upgrading) - Part 2

If you haven't read Part 1, you might want to do that first so that you have the background information that will apply to this article.

One of the most common fiddle bow questions I get is "When should I upgrade my fiddle bow"?  After that, folks generally want to know what to upgrade TO, how much money they should expect to pay, how much difference a better bow will actually make, and how to select a better bow.

There are several good reasons to upgrade your fiddle bow.  It could be obvious, like you broke your bow, or your bow needs a rehair, or it could be that you are getting a better fiddle and you'd like to upgrade your bow at the same time.  I think it is important that you have played long enough to establish some consistent bowing habits before you spend much money on a bow.  After six months of playing, you should have established some consistency of bowing -- good, bad or ugly!  Why is that important?  Because if you bow differently every time you play, the bow you play best with today may not be the bow you play best with tomorrow.

When you are ready to upgrade, I think it is very important to be able to play the bows from which you are selecting.  That is not always possible, but it is certainly best.

Finally, it won't do you any good to have someone else try all the bows and select one for you, unless you are in a "must replace" situation and are a rank beginner.  The sound the bow makes is different based on who is playing with it, the type of strings, and the actual instrument!  That means whatever bow I play best with will not necessarily be the bow that you play best with.

WEIGHT - Bow weight is measured in grams.  Most violin shops should have a bow scale that will display the weight of the bow.  In general, you want a bow between 59 and 64 grams.  If you don't use bow pressure when you play (you SHOULD), then you may want the 64 gram bow.  If you tend to bear down on the bow too much, then you might want the 59 gram bow.  One gram can make a very big difference!

BALANCE - The balance of the bow can make a huge difference in how it plays.  A heavy bow can seem light if the balance is different by even a mere 1/4"!  You can find the balance point of a bow by simply balancing the bow on your finger.  Make sure you do this in a safe way.  You certainly don't want to scare the shop owner or actually have a bow slip and fall on the ground.  Hold your finger out straight, and then move the bow slightly one way or the other until it stays balanced on your finger.  Don't try to balance it on the tip of your finger!  This probably won't be very useful in selecting a bow, but if you notice that a heavier bow seems lighter, this would explain it.  A bow with improper balance just won't FEEL right when you play with it.

BOW COMPOSITION - Unless your teacher is telling you to purchase a certain type of bow, try bows of all compositions.  You won't know if you like a wood bow versus a carbon bow unless you have tried them.  Also, make sure you try more than one of each!  If you are trying out carbon bows, try out five or six of them.  If you want more information on bow composition, make sure you read Part 1 of this article.

PRICE - If you are purchasing your first bow upgrade, expect to pay at least $100.  Bows can cost thousands of dollars, but you don't need one of these unless you are playing quite frequently or are a professional.

HAIR COLOR - Violin bows are generally haired in white (or bleached) hair.  Mongolian horse hair is the most common because it is very consistent.  If the bow hair has any deformities in it, kinks or knots, you will hear this as the bow slides across the strings.  Black horse hair is generally used only for cello and bass bows.  This hair is slightly thicker.  It grabs the strings more.  Sometimes fiddle players like this, but it is hard to find unless you request your bow to be rehaired in black hair.  You may also find bows that have dyed hair, so that the hair could be any color of the rainbow.  Since you are UPGRADING, you probably don't want one of these because they are more for fun.  A good quality bow is not going to come with red or blue hair!

BOWS THAT YOU CAN REHAIR YOURSELF - P&H makes a bow that is simple to rehair yourself.  It is the only brand that I know of, but there may be more out there.  Otherwise, you will need to take your bow to a violin shop to get it rehaired.  It costs about $60 to rehair a bow.  If you have the P&H bow, it will cost you about 1/3 of that.  P&H rehairable bows are fiberglass and tend to be rather heavy, so this will not work for everyone.

BRANDS OF BOWS - I really don't put much stock in a specific brand of bow.  There are so many good bows out there.  If you can't try out your bow first, a specific brand may help you get something that is quality.  Otherwise, just make sure you are purchasing from a reputable place that will guarantee their products.  It is nice if a shop will allow you to try out several bows and send back what you don't want.

QUALITY AND APPEARANCE OF BOW - Make sure you read Part 1 of this article so that you are knowledgeable about camber, warping, general appearance, and proper function of the bow.

HOW TO ACTUALLY SELECT YOUR NEW BOW - This is where the rubber meets the road!   Will you actually be able to tell a difference in the bows?  Almost always!  Not only will you FEEL the difference, you should be able to HEAR a difference.

The first thing you want to do is play the fiddle that you normally play.  Don't just arrive at the fiddle shop and play one of their fiddles.  You want to hear the bow on YOUR fiddle with YOUR brand of strings.

Next, pick out at least five bows to try of varying compositions.  If you can pick from more, then do it!  Play the same song with each bow.  You might want to start with a slow song using each bow, then play something faster or completely different with each bow.  You should notice a difference in feel (weight and smoothness), volume and tone quality between the bows.  Every once in a while, we will have someone in the shop that we simply can't really notice any appreciable difference between the bows.  This is rare, though.  Generally, the bow that feels the best when you are using it will be the one that sounds the best.  If you can't notice any difference and you really need a new bow, select the one that is the least expensive or simply pick by which one you like the looks of the best.  I know this sounds simplistic, but it simply doesn't make any sense to spend a lot of money on something that doesn't make a difference in your playing.

When I got the bow that I currently play with, it made a huge difference in my playing.  The tone that I am able to get out of my fiddle is so much better, and I simply play better!  I would say it took me about 2-3 weeks to really get used to my new bow, but I liked the feel and sound immediately.

I hope this has helped answer some of your questions!  When it comes to fiddle, any time is "bow season."  Happy bow hunting!

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