Selecting Your Violin Bows | Part 2: Construction and History
Parts of the Violin Bow
Besides the hair, a violin bow is composed of several parts. The stick has traditionally been made of wood --— generally pernambuco. In a cross view, it can be perfectly round, or have an octagon shape.
Entry level student bows can be made of fiberglass, which is much less expensive and especially durable (a valuable quality for the younger player). More recently, carbon fiber has been employed, since not only is it durable but can be in some ways comparable to wooden bows.
The part at the end of the bow that players hold is called the frog. It’s typically made of ebony, with metal fittings that --— depending on the quality and price of the bow --— can be plastic, nickel, silver, or gold.
Choosing the Materials for Wood Bows
Possibly the most critical choice for the bow maker is what materials to use, especially for the stick.
“The quality of wood that would be used for the stick portion of the bow,” says Crumrine, “is going to be much better when you go from a commercial, mass-produced sort of bow to a handmade artisan type bow.” When making a high-end bow, the craftsman “works to try to get the best of what each piece of wood can allow.”
For bows in the lower price ranges, “people just work to numbers; they work within a set of dimensions that may not be ideal for each piece of wood, but, in a large perspective, works well enough to create a high-quality bow.”
How Violin Bows Have Evolved Over Time
“From the very early pieces written for the violin family of instruments, the technical demands kept changing and growing,” says Crumrine. Composers and players “kept pushing the envelope to be more and more virtuosic, producing a broader range of dynamics, using off-the-string strokes, and employing a lot more on-the-string strokes.
“In the Baroque era, pretty much everything was done only with the bow on the surface or on the string. There was no bouncing, there was no ricochet, no off-the-string playing --— that’s something that was developed in the mid-19th century. And the bows changed tremendously because composers and musicians had…constantly shifting and growing needs.
“A modern bow --— starting around 1800 --— works completely differently than a Baroque bow does,” he says. “The early bow was made with the curve going away from the hair, and with the modern bow, the curve sinks down toward the hair.” However, “things haven’t changed very much in the last hundred years or so.”
Choosing Your Violin Bow (or Bows)
A dealer knowledgeable about bows will know what questions to ask the player. Questions such as where are you on your musical path? Have you been playing for a long time, or are you looking to head off to college to pursue music professionally? Are you a working professional? Are you taking on some type of new music? Have you just changed instruments and your old bow just doesn’t seem to work well with the new instrument?
Many players also require multiple bows: “There are plenty of people who have up to four bows,” says Crumrine. “They may have a bow that they like for music of Mozart and earlier, and another for 20th century music. A lot of teachers have a bow that they just use for teaching, because they don’t use their good bows around their students.”
In the end, how many and what types of bows are necessary is up to the individual player.