Buying a Bow
by Roland Herrera
Westbury Park Strings
First Version completed 06 Aug 2012
See also Bow FAQ and Bow_Makers
If you enjoy this article do let me know
Anatomy of a Bow
Materials Pernambuco, Horsehair
Octagonal vs. Round sticks
EFG, English, French or German?
The Sound Spectrum
The Art of Tonus or Son Filé
Bowing strokes : Détaché Balzato & Chords
Characteristics of the Famous Makers
Make a wish list with Prices
Documentation Certificates & Appraisals
Reference books on bows
Unusually, I'm not buying a bow at the moment! But I am constantly helping my students with bows, and this week, someone has their eye on a very fine looking Bernard Ouchard. So now is as good a time as any to put down some ideas I have on bows, particularly for those seeking a good one, and are perhaps unsure of how to go about selecting the one bow that will remain a faithful playing companion for many years to come. I can't guarantee this will happen after reading my article, as of course, no set of guidelines I can give can substitute the years of experience one gains from searching for fine bows.. the fascination, the buzz, talking to the great soloists, orchestral players and teaching colleagues, makers, restorers, collectors, compiling information and comparing notes all the time. Anyway, today we have the Internet, and so you may read my own personal tips... just remember these are my own views. They can be questioned and challenged, I'm sure, but I firmly believe in my guidelines, and I am sure each reader can take something or some point which sheds light on the matter of choosing a bow! Read on to fast track your knowledge and gain insight into many secrets that took me years to discover! Lastly, before I begin, I would say this article is addressed to an advanced Amateur or Professional, rather than someone looking for a student bow. Some tips will still apply to the sub £1,000 GBP Brazilian or German bow, but let me set the entry level at around £1,350 for an unmarked / unstamped / anonymous French bow. Elsewhere on my site I mention the ratio Bow:Violin cost (of similar quality) is considered to be around 1:6. However, I and several other teachers, always recommend a ratio of 1:2 and even better 1:1.
Above: Most common parts of the bow around the bow frog area.
Below: Anatomy of bow head area.
Note this bow has probably been used to turn pages and keep the sheet music flat on the stand in an Orchestra
(You can spot the slight flattening of curve and wearing on the outer top half of the head.)
A quick word about Pernambuco (Caesalpina echinata or Guilandina echinata). Pernambuco is the name of a Northeastern Coastal State in Brazil from where the wood originates. It was imported to Europe mainly by Portugal, which maintained a monopoly from 1620-1850. It was initially used as a dye-wood, by extracting its red colouring matter. It was Francois Xavier Tourte 'le jeune' who discovered the unique properties of this wood, so suited to the construction of his new bow design around 1780, effectively marking the birth of the modern bow which we now use. Tourte's technique was essentially identical to the modern method used today, involving the cutting of the wood with straight grain running down the length, and subsequent bending of the bow using heat. Crucially, he did not cut his bows out of the wood cross grain in their final shape, because he recognized the advantages in strength gained by bending the wood, thus retaining the straightness of grain down the majority of the length of the bow. This feature is a crucial one to check for on all modern bows. Cross grain or short grained wood describes the very opposite tendency, whereby the grain of the wood, especially in the thinnest area around the neck, does not run parallel to the length of the stick. Of course, it's not possible to have a perfectly aligned grain throughout the whole length of bow, but a thorough check should be made around the head and neck of the stick in order to ascertain the straightness of grain, and the absence of significant short grain.
* Checkpoint * Checking against short grain / cross grain
Above: Pernambuco (Caesalpina
echinata). Brazilwood is listed as an endangered species by the IUCN,
and it is cited in the official list of endangered flora of Brazil.
The trade of brazilwood is likely to be banned in the immediate future, creating a major problem in the bow-making industry (see Smithsonian April 2004 Cover story)
The hairs must be 5g in weight, or around 150 in quantity. This will depend on the structure of the bow. My lighter Voirin functions far better with a modest amount of bow hair, stretched evenly and tightly across the width. Over-hairing bows is a sure way to stifle the performance of springing strokes in particular. Uneven hairing of bows can also cause them to warp over time, since they are tighter one side than the other. A good check is to loosen the bow completely, and as you tighten it gradually, check that the hairs all come under tension approximately at the same time. Likewise, when the first hairs come under tension, there should not be loose hairs, signifying some are longer than others. If you do the bow up 1/3 and find a few loose hairs, that's okay... you could even pull them out (though I advise not to). If you still have a small bunch or area of loose hairs which other areas under modest tension then your bow must be rehaired to higher standards as soon as possible. Also, if the overall length of hairs are too short (not allowing them to be loosened enough to take tension off the frog as you undo your bow after playing) or too long, then you also need a rehair. Note, it takes considerable skill to perform a rehair. Do not attempt this yourself. Most makers and maintenance workshops will do a fair rehair... but only a few will effectuate an excellent rehair. Note hairs are longer in Summer, as they absorb humidity. Also, during Winter, central heating can significantly remove moisture from the air, causing rather dry rooms. A hygrometer is a useful gadget to have in the room, or built into your violin case to check the humidity stays at around 50%. Anything below 40% becomes dangerously dry for instruments and bows.
* Checkpoint * Check for a well executed rehairing of the bow
A bow may fail one or more structural test and still perform successfully. A gross failure in several structural areas could compromise overall bowing performance, but will usually not affect the tonal qualities of a bow.
All things being equal, however, it is preferable to own a bow with healthy physical properties. Bows need careful checking and possibly maintenance over time, as they usually deteriorate with use.
Here's a practical checklist designed to identify structural weakness in a bow. Lastly, structural perfection in itself does not make a bow special. For that you need a bow which draws forth a great tone using minimal effort.
* Checkpoint * Check the length of a bow. Bows are not made equal in length. Below, I placed six French bows in a case and lined them up so the buttons were flush against the bottom of the case. Longer bows are harder to make, or you could say shorter bows are easier to make. All things being equal if you make a shorter bow, for sure it will be stronger, straighter and structurally more stable... but that's also cheating a little! I'm not going give out names of who makes shorter bows, but in the photo below, F.N.Voirin made the longest (by far) of this bunch. Personally, I like a long bow... mainly because I have a long arm. If you get used to a long bow, then change to a short bow, it takes a while to adjust. Otherwise, I'll sail right past the tip (a bit like picking up a students 3/4 size violin; forgetting, you draw the bow clean off the strings! It feels horrible, like falling off the edge of the world, and can look very embarrassing for a second or two!). Whatever your bow, you will get used to its length in time, and draw it up to but no further than maximum. Let me just say if you have a longer arm, you will welcome more length (which translates into more sustain, longer held note / tone). Normally a variation of a millimeter or two will go unnoticed, and you would be right to say it's not normally a big issue or a deal breaker, but it is a small detail which can turn into a major annoyance when going from longest to shortest examples. Just look out for a bow which is unusually or excessively short; this could be a cut corner and a bad sign. To check for an unusual length you'll need another familiar bow, a "control", to compare it to.
Above: Bows are made differing in length.
A small difference... but is it so small?
Below: Comparing longest and shortest of the bunch
* Checkpoint * Check for corkscrew twisting: (but note that not all misalignments are bad!)
Look down the length of the bow you are examining.
Below: You want to see it all lined up, straight and symmetrical like the picture below left
Below right: Beware: This twist cannot be corrected / adjusted by a maker / restorer.
So there you have it. The only serious misalignment that cannot be corrected is the type of twist you see above right. The bow hairs will not be flat, but the surface plane of the hairs will alter its angle gradually throughout the bow. If this distortion is minimal, you won't notice it. If it is severe, it could detract from the overall performance of the bow, and you will notice the angle of incidence of the hairs on the string changes as the bow is drawn. Now, it's important to realize that most other misalignments, though they may look bad are not usually noticed when playing with the bow. They may be visible when you look for them, but while playing, you might not even notice a bend in the bow. And let's be clear... while all bows start off straight, they are then bent by the maker, so respringing a bow (the process of rebending a bow using heat, usually to restore its original curve), may bring a bow back to life. A bowmaker may be reluctant to respring a bow with short grain, cross grain wood and severe knocks or damage that constitute an overall weakness and involve too high a risk of breakage.
Above: This kind of warping can be completely
fixed or at least greatly improved
(note the middle bow is not warped, and that the hairs are straight on all 3 bows)
Above you can see the kind of warping that might arise from leaving a bow in the Sun, or right up against some central heating. The lower of the three bows is the most annoying with the stick bending to the right, or away from the violinist. This is because when playing softly or piano, we sometimes tilt the bow away (and therefore the hairs are lilted towards the player). If the bow is already warped in this direction, it can come dangerously close to contacting the string. That side of the bow will feel weaker, and softer. Therefore a warping to the left is preferable, whereas a Cellist would prefer a warping of the bow to the right. I remember in my late teens my Russian teacher insisting I get a special bow. I had been using an excellent * Albert Nurnberger *, which was pretty solid and had a good bass; in fact I regret not having it any more. But anyway, a wonderful opportunity had come up, and I had a choice of an FN Voirin and a Lamy. They were both genuine articles; the Lamy had the warmest sound, pure velvet, and certainly the fattest sound I had ever held in my hands by a long way. The Voirin had a good resolution of sound, very vibrant too, but had the additional quality that spiccato (all off the string) was effortless and perfectly even, as well as very rounded. My teacher recommended the Voirin which is what I got, and used for many years. Only later did I realize that its weight of 56 grams was a slight negative. The Voirin was as straight as an arrow, whereas the Lamy had a moderate amount of warp (8/10) and that's one thing that put me off at the time (though I wish it hadn't as it certainly was not detectable by playing alone). At any rate, either bow was going to teach me a lot, and though I now play on something different, I could never have developed my tone fully without a first rate bow. I expect many a fine bow has been needlessly rejected because of a modest amount of warping.
* Checkpoint * Check for warping.. Here's a good practical test: A great tip for testing the equal balance of a stick on both sides is to completely loosen the hairs, and sight along its length to check for straightness. Do it up & tighten the hairs to about 1/3 strength, and recheck the straightness. Do it up to 2/3 and 3/4 tightness and recheck the straightness of the bow under tension. Very often you may start out with a straight bow, but a structural weakness on either side will become apparent only when you start tightening the bow.
* Checkpoint * Check for sufficient camber. Check the Camber of the bow. The Camber is the arching, or the bend of the bow. There are two main types of Camber, but really, you want to check that the bow has enough camber, and has not lost a significant amount. Some bows age and grow tired with time, the wood losing its spring and camber and warping badly. This happens not infrequently, and could depend on the initial strength and properties of the wood. Some Peccattes are as strong and fresh as the day they were made, and some have tired and lost a lot of life... they are worn out from being played so much. A bow with good camber should touch the table in the middle (of the bow) when laid flat, loose hairs pointing down.
Below: A bow with good healthy camber. The test. Loosen the hairs, and stand the bow hairs down along a flat table surface. The frog and tip touch the table, but so should the bow touch in the middle of the stick, where the camber is at its greatest. If you have a stick that does this, then you have excellent strength and spring in the bow. Most of my bows do not do this, but the one below is by Andre Vigneron and does touch in the middle.
Benoit Rolland has a third type of camber he uses; down, straight and up. German bows have another feature (or lack of) at the heel; often they do not possess any curvature, or camber at the heel; the stick appearing quite straight in the last few inches before the button (can sometimes look like some sort of sagging). French bows, however, will continue to curve, the stick following the camber right to the button (screw); the last few inches at the heel will be curved.
Above: The two main types of camber . The new style above with shorter head and stiffer and straighter bow near the head by Peccatte, Andre Vigneron and others
Below, the Voirin style, with elongated head and pronounced curving of the stick in proximity to the head (followed by Bazin, Sartory and others).
Also, on the topic of camber, I would say the Peccatte style (new) gives the feeling of a stronger and firmer bow, perhaps livelier and the Voirin (old style) a softer bow, more poised and settles on the string. Of course, a good bow may follow either curve; one is not better than the other, they are simply two different strategies for building up strength into a bow. Let's face it, mechanically, a bow's function is to keep 5grams of hair straight and tight. This is the incredible task that 50 grams of pernambucco must achieve. Camber, like the arching of a bridge, is the ideal shape the wood must have to act in the strongest way.
For the player, a strong bow with a strong camber will feel like a hard bow, and a weak camber a soft bow. Heavy handed players using too much downward force on the strings will find the wood of a softer bow scraping along the strings... but quite honestly, this kind of forcing does not produce a good tone, for a violinist crescendos using bow speed and quantity rather than downward force. Besides, the tone produced is squashed and unimpressive. The best tones with widest amplitude are produced when moderate downward force / weight is applied, so as not to stifle the vibrations of the strings and light enough to allow the sound to escape from the violin without being forced / trapped inside. In fact, even on a weak camber, I always like to do up the hairs 1/2 way (and 1/3 way on strong bows). This is because the bow is stronger, and has more spring (due to the camber) and works better when not tightened all the way, when the camber would straighten out. On a very soft Louis Bazin bow I own, possibly with insufficient camber, the sound is so warm and chocolately, that I have no need to dig into the string; the sound emission thrives on a relatively light touch that does not compromise the freedom of string vibrations. The bow grips the string with minimal effort, thus for me the camber is adequate.
* Checkpoint * Check condition thoroughly for for all breakages, repairs and anomalies. Frogs are prone to damage, and can only withstand a certain amount of repair before having to be replaced. However, the stick itself is irreplaceable, and can suffer fatal damage if dropped. Once the line of transmission or nerve of the bow has been broken (a break to the neck, for example) the bow is worthless. This explains why the rate of attrition of old French bows forces prices up at an alarming rate.
Above: A frog requiring a modest amount of work.
Note that I haven't labelled the slide which looks 'caved in'.
Below: The same area in good condition on the frog of another bow by the same maker
Above you can see some examples of regular wear and tear. A good replica frog could cost £1,000 but is sometimes a good option on an old bow with a fragile frog which needs preserving. Gold and tortoise shell frogs are particularly fragile, and could shatter if dropped. Below yet another Ouchard, EA, this time in mint condition, as if it had just been made. You won't find too many of these around!
Below: A couple of Richaume bows. The Cello one has a broken frog. This was successfully repaired by a local bowmaker.
Below: the same Richaume Cello bow repaired. This is what it looks like.
Note the wear on the wood from the thumb.
Below: One more view of the repair
Above: Obviously a broken head
is fairly fatal. Not as fatal as a broken neck. Avoid this bow.
Sorry I had to pinch this horrible picture of a broken bass bow from somewhere on the net, as I don't want to see anything of mine broken!
Below: Just a missing pin
Below: Very common complaint.. a bent ferrule on a CN Bazin. This was not the first one I had to have straightened.
Below: Moving on to the stick, here's a weakness that could easily go unnoticed. This is not a breakage, but it is a clear case of wood shear, created by a kind of violent lateral force which befell upon this tree during a particularly violent storm. At least one modern bow maker says he would discard a bow if this sort of thing crops up during fabrication. Obviously Ouchard fils did not discard this bow, and luckily the shear does not look as if it goes right through the core of the bow; it's very much on the outer circumference. As with all these sorts of anomalies, it's best to show them to an experienced bow maker so he or she can explain the risks involved.
Above: Perhaps even
harder to spot; this bow has an inlaid rectangular
piece of wood
This was probably done at the time of fabrication, probably due to a knot appearing in the wood
This sort of anomaly instantly halves the value of the bow.
Below a few different examples of lapping. My favourite is
Silver thread. It's more expensive than silver wire, and less durable, but it's
The difference between Silver thread and silver wire is therefore more about the balance of the bow. Silver wire would bring the balance nearer the heel.
Bear in mind the lapping can be changed to your own personal taste.
* Checkpoint * Check the lapping, that it is secure and not unwinding
Above: Synthetic Whalebone lapping (plastic)
Above: Solid Silver Wire lapping
Above: Solid Silver heavy wire lapping
Above: Silver covered silk thread (Silver thread lapping)
Above: Original Silver thread lapping
Above: Gold thread lapping
This is a subject that some people dwell on far too much in my opinion. I suppose I had better add some thoughts then on this matter. Recently I was reading on Paolo's Blog how the famous Violinist Boris Belkin when asked about the weight of a 63.5 gram bow misjudged it estimating it around 59/60 grams. Wrong answer, but probably a compliment, considering how good balance can make a heavier bow seem much lighter. I met the excellent violinist Boris Belkin, when studying with my Russian teacher in Milan. I was kindly introduced, and spent the day with him, and even ended up driving him to a concert he was giving in the evening; Soloist in the Paganini Concerto n1. We drove through thick fog, to arrive in Lecco, I believe, after the start of the concert. The Overture had begun, but he was just in time to comfortably step on stage at the start of the Paganini, and my did he play it beautifully. I remember after the concert I was waiting for him on the steps of the Concert venue.. my coat, height and hair style were very nearly identical to his by some amazing coincidence, and in the half light, many people were coming up to me asking for my autograph. I had to explain I had not been playing tonight (though I had given concerts at that venue) but I was not Maestro Belkin! At any rate, it doesn't matter whether someone can estimate the weight of a bow. I guess a heavy bow can seem light, and a light bow heavy. I have a light 56 gram Voirin that grips chords and produces a thickness of bass that knocks a 63.5 gram bow flat. On the other hand if you get used to a 60 gram bow, and then pick up a 56 gram stick, it'll feel light ... you might even feel a little shakey on the Concert platform waiting for the first solo. I cannot say a heavy bow produces a thicker sound than a light bow. I can say a heavy bow requires more finger muscle power to lighten when playing pianissimo. These finger muscles strengthen and adapt to a heavier stick in time (if indeed you have moved from a lighter to a heavier stick.) I would guess that the hardest step would be moving from a heavier bow to a significantly lighter bow. Sometimes, a heavier bow can give us a feeling of stability... but really I think it's mostly psychological and the generally accepted outside limits of 58-62 grams, or 4 grams of difference, really make no difference at all! Wunderlich places the outside limits at 53-63 grams. Roda from 42.5-63.7 grams. The Millant brothers considered 61 grams ideal; I would go with this on a Modern instrument. I use aluminium wound gut strings, Passione, and they respond well to medium-light bows. I would imagine heavier, tighter strings (say Evah Pirazzi) would respond well to medium-heavy bows, but not so much to my light Voirin. I'd also like to add that I played with my Voirin for a good 15 years before realizing it was a lightweight. When I discovered the 'truth' I changed the lapping to silver and this probably increased it from 54 to 56 grams. Still not enough, which lead me to other French bows, heavier ones? yes. Better tonally? Certainly not.
* Checkpoint * Check the overall bow weight is normal (around 60g for Violin 70g for Viola and 80g for Cello)
Above: Just to show I can be as fanatical as anyone about
the weight of a bow. This bow weighed 63.5
grams in Aug 2007
After restoration (it was cleaned, the screw shortened and a lighter silver lapping substituted) it clocked 61.5 grams in Feb 2010.
In Summer hairs absorb humidity so a bow can increase in weight by half a gram. Here you can see it now weighs 61.9 grams in Jul 2012.
What does this all mean? I have no idea. This hefty bow is a power horse whatever it weighs!
Even far more superficial a consideration than weight must be the debate 'octagonal vs. round.' Round sticks are easier to make, according to Retford. I do notice more German octagonal bows than French. I would also say an octagonal bow is likely to be a little stronger, and sturdier, yet may lack a certain focus of tone that a rounded bow may have. Also round bows may have a rounder sound.. but this is probably psychological. The French bows that I have come across that are octagonal are the fairly sturdy early Twentieth Century type; Ouchard fils, Victor Fetique and Andre Richaume.. also I once owned an octagonal CN Bazin. There are many octagonal Hills, and my Nurnberger from my student years was also octagonal. I did once come across an Octagonal 61 gram Voirin. I thought at the time this was an excellent combination of complimentary features; a soft maker using a more rigid structure. The bow was very fine, and highly desirable, I just didn't have the spare £8,000 cash at the time to buy it!
Although I am presenting a simplified view, French Bows are soft, German bows are stiff, and English bows are an in-the-middle hybrid combination of the two. Some Older English bows are a little soft, like French bows, and some Newer and Hill type English bows are harder, firmer and much stiffer, like German bows. That's a generalization, of course. Of the French bows there are some Victor Fetique, and Emile August Ouchards in particular that are incredibly stiff, as much as any German bow. It is good to keep an open mind on this subject. Usually players who use a comparatively stiff bow cannot get along with a soft bow, and vice verse. The reason we need to keep an open mind is that it does not really matter whether a bow is relatively hard or soft. In time, a player will adjust his hold, point of contact, bowing speed and grip, even his whole posture and body springs to match the stick he is using. A lighter bow, in particular, with its lighter weight and more supple downward force on the strings, suggests lighter left hand pressure can be used for fingering. This is rather the opposite effect on the left hand that we experience playing pianissimo , where more left hand contact, firmness and vibrato nerve can help project the sound, and allow the right hand to flow with freedom. (One hand becomes more active (dominates) the other, conversely relaxes and softens.) In a similar way, perhaps, a hard bow can require a soft bow hold to compliment it and a soft bow often requires a more active or firmer hold. Also, which precise part of the bow used for springing strokes will change from bow to bow. Very hard bows and very soft bows are hard to bounce... medium, lively bows have the best spring and are easiest to bounce. The core of the sound / or the density of sound can be present or absent on either type of bow. This density of sound will also show up (or not) in the roundness of springing strokes as much as alla corda playing. To dig a little deeper, I will introduce a little section on technique and tone production.
Recently I was reading through a blog/thread on bows on
violinist.com, and I found this colourful account on the
experience of migrating from 'typical' German to 'typical' French bows:
"I used stiffer bows for years, in particular good Nurnburgers... which now retail for around five to six thousand dollars. When I decided to switch to French bows I took a few hours (?) to make the transition. In this case by `French` I am making the rather sweeping generalization that a good 'old `French bow is a distinct and generalizable quality as it were. These bows often feel very soft, even initially, rather mushy. Once I got the hang of really using them to draw the sound out the volume was huge. The bonus on top of this was the range of detailed nuance that one could patiently find. A whole new palette of colors opened up. The best bow I have ever owned was a Millant which I found for me superior to a whole slew of Tourtes ... Sartory... and lower end Peccatte that cost 1200000 yen. Don't confuse this with carbs when you do the conversion." Stephen Brivati, Violinist.com (used with permission).
Although it is the instrument which fabricates the sound, one will often find one bow extracting a treble portion of its sound spectrum, and another bow extracting a bass gamut of sounds. Thus we simply might say one bow has a brighter tonal colour than another, which may be described as being dark sounding. There are many shades between lightest and darkest tones, and one must not confuse a treble tone, or brilliance of tone with harshness, or brittle, squeeky or cold sounds. For if the sound is vibrant, of fine resolution, and has a certain transparency or lightness, it can really sparkle in a special way. Likewise, there is plenty of appeal in dark mellow sounds, rich in body and bass, and very rounded in warmth. One may wisely seek out equipment with complementary components. For example a treble sounding violin may marry a dark sounding bow successfully... a dark sounding viola may produce a pleasing balance of sounds by marrying it with slightly harder strings, and a treble sounding bow. Conversely, two dark sounding components, violin and bow, will often lack a certain balance of sound; in this case it would lack 'presence'. Other qualities in sound, aside from light and darkness, include narrow or closed sounds, as opposed to broad, open sounds. Along those lines, the focus of sound can be narrow or wide. A sound can be hard or soft, large or small, robust or delicate, dead or alive, dull or vibrant.... etc. We must not only marry the right bow to the right instrument, but also consider our own natural tone... do we favour brilliance or warmth in our sound? What sort of bow complements our technique? Students will generally do well to develop with sturdy bows, and move on to softer, more mature bows once they have developed their bowing technique; specifically, their string holding (all corda) technique, and detache, in depth. Use of a rigid bow in detache, for example, will generally require more supple use of hand and wrist components in detache. In other words, a rigid bow will require a looser hold, whereas a soft bow will require a firmer hold. Softer bows generally have a wider gamut of sounds, and are warmer and very often (but now always) darker in tone.
Above: Bow 1 draws out
the lower part of the spectrum
Bow 2 has a brighter sound as it draws out the upper harmonics of the sound spectrum
Tone is in our right hand.
We cannot produce a sound by any
manipulating of a violin (viola/cello/bass) itself.
We can only produce a sound by manipulating a bow.
I'm going to spend some time to convince my reader of the importance of the bow. Nathan Milstein once stated that the only reason one would want to change his/her bow was for the sound. I believe, as players, we each have our own individual tone (see my articles on tonus) which depends mostly on our physical build, on our training, the sophistication of our bowing technique, and our skills as a player. It has been observed that no matter what violin (and to an surprising extent no matter what quality of violin) a celebrity player picks up, their own unmistakable tone comes forth each time. David Oistrakh once said he didn't mind what violin he would have to play on (he could switch instruments on a temporary basis) but that he could not make an immediate switch from bow to bow; so it was important to him to have his trusted Richaume, a bow he knew well with him at all times. Incidentally, Oistrakh was a great fan of French bows, including those by contemporary makers, and he would often return from a visit to Paris with several new bows. I also believe it takes longer to switch bows, (because bows, not violins are our interface with the string and sound) and like changing strings, each bow, because it possesses a different consistency, requires a different touch to obtain an optimal sound from. The three variables involved with the production of tone by bowing are weight (w) velocity (v) and contact point (c) . We change these subconsciously over the period of a week or two when we change our brand of string. (For example, if you fit softer strings these may require a higher bridge, and a change in contact point, pressure and bowing speed.) Also, we subconsciously take time to adapt to a new bow, altering these three variables subtly. In addition we vary the firmness of our hold on the bow, to match (or compliment) the sticks own firmness. It just takes longer to adapt to a different bow than a different violin, because the bow is a more important element than the violin in the tonal production chain. Even a bad violin played well will sound good.... (that's not to say you can actually develop your tonal skills on poor instruments...), In other words superior bowing skills, and tonal experience (once developed) will determine the final tone. Players who scratch will scratch, players who have a certain hardness to their sound will gravitate towards producing their hard sound no matter what equipment they hold in their hands. These assertions are readily noticeable, and inescapable. The player owns the tone, not the equipment. More precisely, the sound is actually in the right hand.
Above: When studying
détaché I was taught by my Teacher from St Petersburg that the
tonus (tone) was centered around this part of the hand.
ie. This is where we make our tone. Although is may be described as a focal point, the whole hand feels as if it holds the sound in its grasp.
It is a powerful and magical feeling to approach the strings with a fine French bow:
The vibrancy and resilience of the hand (capable of such a range of touch, from firm and powerful to delicate and supple)
coupled with our musical imagination and intent contains a beautiful tonus before the hairs touch the string and it is even produced.
Now it's possible that in the process of building up our tonal skills, and technique in general, if we owned a French violin, then our sound may well have been influenced and shaped by that instrument. If we then owned a fine Italian violin and French bow, our sound then became further influenced and assumed warmer qualities. Our teachers and their schooling may have developed and reinforced certain qualities, and so over the years of formation as a player, we develop and mature our sounds into something sophisticated, warm and tasteful. It takes years of training. Now, assuming we carry our own individual tone with us, it follows that in testing and trying out different instruments, we are trying to reproduce our ideal sound signature. Violins have nothing we need to adjust tonally... we need accurate fingering, good shifting, and good vibrato skills... they vary little from instrument to instrument. Bows, however, represent 100% of what we can take control of to change and produce sound. We cannot produce sound by manipulating a violin... we can only make sound by manipulating a bow. This is why Viotti cried "Le Violon, c'est l'archet."
So the bow makes the sound (that we have built into us). Therefore we use bows in such a way as to obtain our own tone. We use different bows differently to reach our sound. We compensate and use each bow with a unique combination of (w), (v) and (c) perhaps using a different firmness of hold (h) for each bow... "don't squeeze da bow". These adjustment are very subtle and non immediate. (One fiddle might be slightly larger than another and require some left hand adjustment for intonation... but this is a very explainable, measurable and quantifiable adjustment, unlike right hand technique). This is why it takes much longer to switch bows and produce the best sound that bow is capable of producing (in our own hands). If follows that each players is limited by their own tonus, and by the limitations of the bow.
Tone is in the bow
So what does a good bow feel like under a capable right hand? All the external measurements and qualities of a bow are unimportant until the bow contacts the string and begins vibrating. Before that, the balance and firmness of the bow, or how the bow feels like in the hand is actually irrelevant, as with time, one can adjust to any weight and balance. We just tend to gravitate towards selecting a bow that has the same weight and balance as the bow we normally use. This normality can change with time. The moment a bow contacts the string is the moment that bow gives us vibrational and tonal feedback, as it draws its own unique audible spectrum of sound from the instrument. A good bow can coerce a much better sound from an average instrument than a bad bow can. So apart from the better, more sophisticated sound spectrum produced, what does a good bow feel like? It feels warm, soft, hard, variable, pleasant, effortless in sound production, rich in overtones and/or fundamentals, vibrant, poised, lively, settled on the string and it usually tingles pleasantly under the hand. Those are a lot of sensations (which is what a good bow gives). A bad bow feels dull and lifeless... like drawing a stick from a tree across the strings. It feels like an inert, inanimate object that no matter how it is manipulated draws forth a shallow, harsh, hard, brittle tone with no body. It also does not tingle under the fingers... The bow makes a poor sound, and provides absolutely no positive feedback which might encourage a more careful touch, which in turn might encourage or lead to a better tone. Good bows reward a great tone by vibrating under the fingers. They feel positively alive and rich in sensation, and they feel very coherent and happy when a very even and pure tone is produced. When that high degree of tonal focus is attained, the bow lets you know very clearly. You get feedback, and in turn that encourages more healthy vibes, which in turn produces more feedback, and so on.... Again how bows produce this feedback is complicated... (that's why fibre glass bows cannot substitute wooden bows). Different strategies are required in order to receive that positive feedback. Incorrect tone production is not going to excite the bow (which in turn will provide no feedback to excite the player). Good sounds and warm vibes develop both the player and his bow / and instrument.. this is why violinists in their 60s generally have a greater capacity for tonal sophistication and warmth than violinists in their 20s who might be technically a little more crisp. Of course, good schooling can even out this tendency, providing young players with a rich, mature tone, and old players with pristine technical facility. At any rate, I like Milstein's second solo Bach recordings made in his 60s, more than his first set! He claimed also to prefer his second set to his first.
Bow stroke tests; Tonus
So what can we play to get to know our bow? In a simplified view, bows either draw out the treble or the bass of your instrument. Naturally the violin has a high register.. I lean towards dark mature tonal bows therefore. A viola player might do well to brighten his/her tone with a treble enhancing bow. Older bows tend to be darker and newer bows lighter in tonal colour. My favourite test is simple and yet not so simple; there is no limit to how well one can perform this test; it's called tonus on the D. An exercise all my students know. You play an open D, a very rich, mellow and rounded sound on the violin from the very heel to the very tip. The sound must be even throughout the whole length of the bow. This is the only rule. There are different grades of tonus; fast and light away from the bridge (contact point 4) / normal weight and speed (on contact point 3) / slow and weighty nearer the bridge (contact point 2). First try some slow open Ds from contact point 2 to 3. This should draw maximum Bass from your violin (the G string is too low for the natural range of the violin, and requires a different, special technique to sound full. (Would be contact point 4 with fast lighter bow). The contact on the D should provide a thicker connection between bow and string. This is where you will become acquainted with the stick and feel and listen to what feedback it is giving you. You should be drawing out a superb unforced, yet full tone, rich, rounded and mature in the extreme.
Above the 5 contact points
Correct, healthy tonus is a great warm up exercise I give as much to advanced students as lower level students. It is vital to play with your natural weights and use gravity. Many players cannot apply a weighty tone at the heel. Either their bow hold is to angled (so weights are not directed vertically downwards into the strings) or they are not allowing their arm weight to participate in the lower half of the bow. This is an art, and must be studied. A good tone can subsequently permeate everything you play and make a huge difference to the confidence of your left hand in passage work too. For no amount of left hand finger work can impress unless it is performed with a healthy bowing tone. Indeed the right hand must always dominate in violin playing. Not only does it dictate colour, artistry, nuance and rhythm, it also creates the basis, the tone, the medium of sound that we use and shape to make music. Interesting music can possibly be made with a mediocre sound, but a fine sound that ravishes the ear provides a huge head start, and an inviting background base sound upon which one can build further. So Tonus on D is our first test... does the bow really connect deeply to the string? Does it instead fail to sink into the string and disappointingly skip along the surface without drawing the fundamental harmonics? A great bow will grab the D string and impress.
Next go for the E string. We do practice tonus all all 4 strings, but a bow with no bass and thin tone will make a scratchy E string tone. Try some higher notes in 5th position. If the E string tone comes out with no weighty bass (yes that's right... a good bow even makes an E string sound with body and bass), then the bow it possibly rigid, being held too tightly, or is simply a very treble sounding bow possibly with little bass, and possibly made of a porous light wood. The best bass sounding bows I have used make an astonishing difference to the body of sound of the E string. Even an open E string, while not generally attractive, if played with a certain tonal focus and with all the right experience of an expert at tonus should contain tonus. The word tonus was described to me as something that feels good in your tummy... like a nice plate of pasta. Recent medical research has proved the nerves in our tummies are very central to our well being and grounding.. which is exactly the same mechanism that goes on in good tonus! The violinist with exceptional qualities is the one who draws the bow with such pleasure and joy that the tonus produced is the fruit of this love and labour... and that can be heard by musicians and non musicians alike!
Further Technical tests
Having ascertained the performance of your bow on the string, it's time to try it off the string. Be sure to have run through several different types of détaché studies and Concerto passages. Bow adherence on the string 'alla corda' can really determine how well it will perform off the string. Just like technique... good adherence to the string and refined on-the-string technique is the key to mastering off-the-string strokes. The refined bounce.. soft, close to the string, derived from the forearm as is pure détaché, are all qualities that a good bow will help achieve. Bouncing bows on 4 strings, as in Paganini's caprice n1 or one of the Sevcik 3 or 4 string chordal progressions are good tests for a refined precision bounce which keeps close to the string yet articulates each note crisply and at the same time with fullness and roundness of tone. Sounds too much to hope for ? Well, it might be if your technique doesn't stretch this far, but if it does, a bad bow will have a brittle bounce, and a good bow will have a fat bounce. The soft Bazin bows are very lazy in their bounce, but one can certainly appreciate the warmth and quality of sound when they do bounce. By the way, every bow will have a different sautille bouncing point for a given tempo. It rises up towards the tip as tempo increases for all bows. It's okay for bows to have their unique individual bouncing spots, it just takes a little while to discover them. Some German bows are stiff, and are generally harder to bounce. I learnt all my off-string strokes with my Russian teacher on a Nurnberger. That bow, I swore, refused to leave the string. (It was a great détaché bow!). The teacher would not accept that complaint, and I was told to get on with it. Needless to say when I acquired my Voirin, off the string playing just happened with magical ease... auto pilot mode in the extreme... easy and even... precise and infallible. Of course it was, after all I had learnt to bounce a Nurnberger!
Above: Paganini Caprice number
1 from 24 Caprices op.1
I used to play this... until I add my own here's a YouTube clip
Chords are easier to play with a good bow. I am very convinced about this. The richness of tone of a good bow helps massively in the tonal production of chords. Our left hand can be under considerable difficulty say in Dont Op 35 n1... but a good bow will guarantee the success rate of each chord. A poor bow will not round the corners, not focus the bass, not hold the treble transparently, and the chords will not sing. In addition they will be harder to play. Another massive improvement from a good bow is the purity and focus of sound which is a huge bonus for intonation. Good bows make it much easier for us to play in tune, because they are forming a sound which we can readily hear and shape into tune. The coherence of sound is greater, and therefore the purity of intonation in double stops becomes far easier to produce. In fact, double stops too are likely to fail with a bad bow. Basically, if you're having a bad time with chords, chances are your bow is not helping the left hand. This is based on the concepts I wrote about in the tonus paragraph; concepts on tone which are very evident when it comes to double stops and chords, alla solo Bach.
Above: Dont 24 Caprices
You can see a clip of me playing it here (coming soon, I'm looking for link)
(sorry about the mayonaise sauce on my laptop camera lens)
Every maker has a specific "signature tone"; every bow he makes will have some of the same sound or tone (to a greater or lesser degree). Rather than just the tone I should probably add the combination of "tone and feel"... in fact all the bows from a given maker will require the same feel and strategy in use to produce efficiently its best tone. This is how I identify and recognize a bow, since I am not a bow maker and do not know the nuances in hand craftsmanship that someone like Raffin would certainly recognize. One might argue that every player has his own signature tone, and will use a bow in such a way as to produce that tone. Well that's true, too. Lastly, I have not commented on Tourte and Peccatte, because I have not often played with these bows. They are rather expensive.
Bazin Family: Soft. Appear a little tired and slightly lacking in spring (but this is their quality). Wonderfully rich and warm chords. Spiccato very rounded with a fat, plumpy bounce. Dark woods often used. Rounded bows. (CN Bazin made octagonal firmer bows... good all rounders) Louis Bazin made the softer chocolate looking (and sounding) bows. "Chocolaty warmth bows"
Fetique Brothers: Jules : Good warm tone. Modern bows (early 20th Century). Flexible, soft (but not too soft)... rigid (but not too rigid). Weighty, well balanced. Possibly heavy (63 grams) built. Certainly well built. Victor: Very hard bows. Firm. Dense sound especially when dense wood used. Some (maybe a minority) poor examples from workshop stamped with his name. These can be short grained, for example. Very tense. Like a German bow but far far warmer in sound. Limited flexibility. Detache works well, however. Fascinating bows; probably the hardest French bow to have been made. Victor's bows are more plentiful, but the harder to find Jules is now the higher valued of the two. Quite different from each other. "Workhorse bows."
Lamy: Master of warmth. Like a Bazin, but to a higher level. Very close to a Voirin, but more like a fat rounded Voirin. Beauty of tone. Bass and warmth of tone in abundance. Lush chords. A weighty tone. Great string holding ability. Rather soft. Some bows are tired and over used and may have lost some spring. Obviously they were made a little soft to start. Dark warm looking wood. Usually round bows. "Dark Tonal bows"
Ouchard family: Emil August is the finest of the three. Very fine craftsmanship. Middle golden period produced flexible bows, before a period of very stiff bows. Fine all rounder. His Father Emil Francois made very high resolution bows (possibly out performing his son tonally if not in quality of craftsmanship). Bernard was the third and a provided a vital link from the classical old school to the modern contemporary school of makers. Not all Ouchards have an immediate warmth of tone, and many are very rigid indeed. Too rigid, possibly. All three were quite different, though certain things in common. For example, nearly all Ouchards have a fat or wide band of hair.They nearly always have an excellent well controlled bounce and even spiccato behavior. "Firm Springing Bows"
Richaume: Similar to Jules Fetique, but a little harder. Very good all round Modern bows. All the great qualities of a French bow are there, except to a lesser degree tonally than the softest of French bows. Very good all rounder, with excellent warm spring and decent warmth of sound. David Oistrakh often played with one. "Modern Rounded Bows"
Sartory: Classical sound. High resolution sound with plentiful rich high overtones. Bright but not harsh bright in sound. Very flexible bows, medium to medium-soft. Excellent bounce and all round stability. If you come across a hard octagonal Sartory it was probably made by one of his German assistants (and unfortunately not in the same class). Poised and able to sustain sound effortlessly. Let me explain my high resolution term: Like HD TV... you see more detail. Well with a Sartory, draw an inch of bow, and you get as many vibes and overtones as a normal bow being drawn for two inches! ie. Small effort produces a large sound / result. Very efficient tonally. "High resolution bows with fine overtone"
Thomassin: Affordable, warm all rounders. Round ferrule at heel (look here to see if it is a Thomassin). Camber variable, all Thomassins have warmth and good balance of qualities. Rounded sound, rounded feel. Happy bows. "Rounded bows"
Vigneron Family: Father was very noble, classical maker. Fine bows, elegant yet solid. Good firm modern measurements. Valued higher than the son. Son, Andre, made a bow a day. Speedy worker who worked with broad sweeping ideas. Worked fast. Lots of flare, and ability to see the bow from the outset from a blank piece of wood. Modern camber. Warm sound. Strong strong build. Sturdy, yet flexible. Dark woods. Interesting shapes. Not as precise as Father."Classical Fine bows" and son "Versatile and original bows"
Voirin: Long elegant bows. A noble full depth of tone. Deep sounding. Soft to medium-soft sticks. (Very few stiff ones exist). Thin heads, thin stick at heel. Camber towards head (hence long heads). Perfect springing strokes, perfect balance of elasticity and string holding ability. Very precise workmanship. Even his lightest bows draw forth a massive bass. His lighter bows were probably made on request by slender lady violinists; commercially these do badly, weighing around 56 grams. He made round and octagonal bows. Very undervalued maker. "Noble grand master Bows"
Trio of the early 20th Century's finest makers
These are firm, well built bows, stiff - but not too stiff: Essentially Modern bows
They are powerful bows, yet all three retain some finesse
Create a wishlist... of favourite bows. (Prices are approximate / average / 2012 London Retail Prices)
I know very little first hand of Peccatte and Tourtes, having held one of each only briefly. Also I need to win the lottery first; a Francois Xavier Tourte fetched a top estimate of £160,000 (from now on £160k) at a Christie's auction in April 2012. I haven't looked up what it sold for in the end. Anyway out of what I know if I saved up I'd like a round dark wood Lamy (£14k) in great condition...soft, but not too soft and tired. Possibly a full weight red, octagonal Voirin (£9k)... (my Voirin is one of the lighter models). Next an exceptional Arthur J Vigneron (£15k) in preference to the very best Sartory (£16k), middle period. For teaching and every day use I wouldn't mind an exceptional Thomassin (would cost £8.5k). I am very keen on the finest bows of the English School, Dodd, Tubbs (£8.5k) and the Hill bows (£4.5k), but I have little experience with them. Lastly, I'd like my best students to have a solid German bow; Nurnbergers (£4-6k), Pfretzschners (£2k) or at least Paesold (£1.2k) bows are the ones I like. As it is I have been lucky to have played on some nice bows (such as Albert Nurnberger, Charles Nicolas Bazin (£5k), Victor Fetique(£10k)) in the past and continue to enjoy other French bows in the present. The bow I use most these days has a rather bright sound, with many overtones, good structure and versatility; it is not even particularly expensive; it is a modern Thomachot. I have made an article on it elsewhere on my site. I grow to like it more and more as it matures its sound day by day.
You should try and obtain certificates of authenticity for the valuable items you are considering buying. Certificates of valuation, receipts and sales documents are highly desirable, possibly indispensable for peace of mind. If a bow is certified by M° Jean Francois Raffin in Paris as being a Voirin, then it is a Voirin. His daughter assured me he was 200% sure about every bow he certified, otherwise he would not certify. Also if not sure he may write "tres probablement" by Pierre Simon, for example. At any rate his authority is respected Worldwide, and therefore to facilitate sales and purchases it makes one of his certificates of authenticity very desirable. Also, M° B.Millant in Paris has the same status as M°Raffin.
Above: A valuable document. A
JF.Raffin Certificate of Authenticity.
This type of document costs perhaps 5% of the appraised value but it usually pays for itself
Also bear in mind that a Certificate, a written appraisal and a verbal appraisal a three different things.
Other experts whose certificates are respected worldwide include M° Gruenke for bows of the German School. (Gruenke is co-author of the two volume work "DEUTSCHE BOGENMACHER 1783 - 2000" with C. Schmidt, & W. Zunterer.) and Mr Charles Beare and Hill Certificates for bows of the English school. There are several other certificates which carry less weight than the ones already mentioned. In the USA, in circulation, you may come across M° Isaac Salchow or Paul Childs, New York - Alex Gartsman, Newport News, Virginia - Kenneth (now James) Warren and Son - Fred Oster in Philadelphia - Robertson and sons in Albuquerque - Morel and Gradouxmatt in New York city - Paul Siefried in Port Townsend - John Montgomery in Raleigh, NC - in Bruxelles, Europe, appraisals by Pierre Guillaume - and others.
Above: Another possible route if you buy a bow at one
of Sotheby's or Christie's Fine Instruments Auction is that you have a certain
amount of expertise and guarantee behind these Auction Houses.
It is wise to check the condition of Auctioned items and usually it's not possible to view the items for longer periods of time. Items might go for as much as half their retail price.
If Sotheby's sell an item which is subsequently shown to be a counterfeit, they will refund the Buyer the total amount paid for that item. This is why they take care!
They will not state a bow is by FN Voirin if they are not sure about it. With regards authorship, attribution, origin and so forth, Sotheby's employ a scaled system:
1. Albert Nurnberger (Fl Markneuhirchen, from c1890) = bow is, in Sotheby's opinion, the work of named maker.
2. Ascribed to Albert Nurnberger (Fl Markneuhirchen, from c1890) = according to certificates supplied the item is believed to be by the named maker. In Sotheby's opinion it is not necessarily the work of this maker.
3. Attributed to Albert Nurnberger (Fl Markneuhirchen, from c1890) = A traditional attribution as to the identity of the maker with which Sotheby's do not necessarily agree.
4. Workshop of Albert Nurnberger (Fl Markneuhirchen, from c1890) = In Sotheby's opinion the work of an unknown hand, in the premises of, and under direct supervision of named maker.
5. Circle of Albert Nurnberger (Fl Markneuhirchen, from c1890) = A contemporary of the named maker, in Sotheby's opinion.
6. Follower of Albert Nurnberger (Fl Markneuhirchen, from c1890) = May not be from this period or maker, but the item bears characteristics of the named maker.
7. Bow in the manner of Albert Nurnberger (Fl Markneuhirchen, from c1890) = Made in the style of, but substantially later than the name maker.
8. Labelled or Stamped or Inscribed Albert Nurnberger (Fl Markneuhirchen, from c1890) = Descriptive term only and does not indicate authorship, provenance, origin, date, age etc. Item not made by named maker.
Below There are not many books on bows. Bows are hard to photograph. They come out dark, and have awkwardly long shapes for printing.
One of the first was "Bows and Bowmakers", by William Retford published in 1964 pictured below.
This has been reprinted in paperback by Orpheus Publications Limited in 1999, and is available from the Strad Library.
Also "Arthur Bultitude and the Hill Tradition" by Richard Sadler, publ. 2000 Ealing Strings, has some good stories, if only a few pictures of bows
Above Centre: Vatelot's Les
Archets Français in two volumes used to be the top reference book on
More recently, a major additional work has been published; the Raffin and Millant L'Archet which costs £1500 and comes in 4 heavy volumes.
Below: This book by Paul Childs on the 3 members of the
Peccatte family also has some good quality
photographs in it
it also contains testimonials and anecdotes on Peccatte bows by famous players and experts.
From top to Bottom, "Francois-Xavier
Tourte" by Stewart Pollens and Henrky Kaston, publ. Machold Rare
Violins, New York 2001 ISBN 0-9705417-0-8
"The Retford Centenary Exhibition", Ealing Strings, London 1975. The black and white bow pictures are unfortunately very dark.
"Peccatte" by Paul Childs, (limited edition n2487 of 2500) The Magic Bow Publications, New York, 1996 ISBN 0-9651788-1-1
French Bows: A good investment?
Does a fine French bow appreciate at double the rate of inflation!?
This and more topics to follow!
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