Selecting Your Violin Bow | Part 1: Length and Playing Surface

Next to the instrument itself, the most critical piece of equipment for a violinist is the bow. The violinist’s bow is an extension of the player’s body, and is in great part responsible for the quality of sound that player draws from the instrument.

The Criteria for Violin Bow Lengths

As a rule, the length of a bow is proportional to the size of the player. Thus, a small child for whom a ⅛ size violin is appropriate would have a much shorter bow than an adult playing a full size instrument.

In addition, the length of the bow directly affects the stiffness: the shorter the bow, the stiffer it is. A stiffer bow will not be capable of the range of expression that a more flexible bow has, but it is more controllable for a player who may need the extra security to help “keep the bow in place and tracking,” explains bow maker John Crumrine. This quality tends to benefit younger, less experienced players.

Violin Bow Hair: The Playing Surface

Usually made from the tails of horses, the hair is one of the most sensitive parts of the bow. It is the part that is most affected by environmental conditions, such as temperature and humidity, as well as suffering the most wear and tear over time due to use.

Maintaining the Bow
“What violinists can do to keep their bows in good working condition, first, is just wash their hands before they play,” Crumrine advises. “You get a lot of buildup of perspiration and residue that collects over time.” Besides starting with clean hands, players should “wipe down their bow when they’re done playing to remove any excess rosin or oils.”

Indications That You Need a Violin Bow Rehair
You’ll know it’s time to get your bow rehaired if you’ve “broken a number of hairs and don’t have a good ribbon of hair, if the hair is stretched out from a lot of use and maybe changes in the weather, and if you’re not able to get the tension you want,” he explains.
Finally, a rehair is necessary for those players who “just play so much that the hair tends to lose its ability to get the kind of grip that they want, and it doesn’t hold the rosin properly anymore.” In that case, he says, “the bow tends to feel slippery, or those players lose some of that fine articulation they want. This means that the hair is worn out and the bow needs new hair.”

How Often to Get Your Bow Rehaired
“If they’re playing on a daily basis, most people will get their bow rehaired at least once or twice a year,” Crumrine points out. “Professionals will get their bows done three or four times a year. It depends how much they play.”
The environment is a critical factor in the need to get a bow rehaired as well. “In [an area like] New England, if you’re playing in a festival up in Maine on the coast in the summer and it’s 100 percent humidity and 85 degrees, the bow hair will stretch tremendously.”

Additional Resources

Carriage House Violins

Located in Newton, Massachusetts, Carriage House Violins is the instrument sales division of Johnson String Instrument.

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Johnson String Project

A charitable foundation whose goal is to provide high-quality instruments to children who live in under-served communities and who are participating in El-Sistema-inspired programs in Massachusetts.

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