How to Go About Purchasing a Bow
Purchasing a new instrument can be a daunting task. There are seemingly endless possibilities of woods, varnishes, luthiers, etc. to choose from. And, since most of your options can be a little pricey, so your decisions carry a lot of weight. Most people don't know exactly what is best for them, so naturally, they will invest a lot of time and research into making the right decision for their instrument, but many people don't think to do the same with the bow, when they should. The perfect match between a bow and instrument can create the magic that inspires you to play for the rest of your life.
1. What is your level?
Before you set about purchasing a bow, you should first determine whether you are looking for a student level, intermediate, or professional grade bow. And be prepared for it to cost maybe a little more than you might think. A student level beginner bow can be in the range of $50 - $200, while more professional bows can cost $1,000 or more. But don't be disappointed by this, because the right bow is a VERY important investment to make. It makes a large difference in the sound you can produce, and can negatively or positively affect your technique. Bows are important. So let's dive into different qualities you should be considering when purchasing a bow.
2. How does the bow feel?
One of the most important considerations to make when looking at different types of bows is seeing how it feels in your hand when you hold it and play it. NEVER purchase a bow online unless you have personally tried it out or it is a student bow and you receive a recommendation from a seasoned teacher or professional! Otherwise, you need to have physical experience with the bow in order to determine if it is right for you. Visit a violin shop, and bring your own personal instrument with you. Trying out bows on your own instrument is the only way you will get an accurate understanding of how it will feel after you have purchased it.
The weight and balance of a bow is subjective. Every person will have a different preference, and if you have never shopped for bows before, you'll want to try out a large quantity of them to get a good idea of what feels best to you. So pick out lots of different types of bows, and test out all the bowing techniques you know. Play loud, play soft, play legato and staccato. Play passages that you have memorized and scales that you can easily play through, and find the bows that feel the most natural to your hands across the full range of your playing.
When you do this, also pay close attention to the differences in the tone you are able to produce with the different bows you are trying out. All in all, you want to find the bow that feels and sounds the best to you. The price shouldn't determine your decisions. In the world of music equipment, MORE EXPENSIVE DOES NOT ALWAYS MEAN BETTER! Again, the quality of your equipment is subjective to you, so you should be looking for what feels and sounds best to YOU. That is how you will be most satisfied with your purchases.
3. What is the bow made out of?
Another consideration to make when purchasing a bow is the material used to make the stick. There are four basic materials typically used to make bow sticks. These are brazilwood, pernambuco, carbon fiber, and fiberglass.
Brazilwood sticks comprise the majority of lower range bows. They can be made from several different types of hardwoods, but they are all similar in quality. These are typically going to be used for the student level bows that you come across. The wood comes from Brazil or other tropical locations. Pernambuco is the typical wood of choice for the creme de la creme. Hailing from Brazil, it is dense, heavy, and sturdy wood that also possesses a fair amount of elasticity and responsiveness. These bows will be on the more expensive side, due to the quality of sound and the responsiveness of the bow (most professional players seek from their bows) as well as the fact that pernambuco is becoming scarce in the regions it comes from. More recently, we have seen the rise of bows on the market that are made from carbon fiber. These bows are durable and possess a certain quality of responsiveness. On the one hand, they aren't as flexible as the wood-based bows, tend to be heavier, and typically produce a sound quality that is lesser (at least to a trained ear). On the other hand, they are usually pretty good value for the price and they will last longer. Fiberglass is another option that bears some similarities to carbon fiber. These bows are durable (if treated properly!), but they are not generally as responsive or flexible as the carbon fiber bows.
4. What type of hair is on the bow?
You also need to consider the type of horse hair that is on the bow. You want to have hair that is taken from a horse with naturally white hair instead of brown hair that has been bleached. Bleach will break down the fibers of the hair and make the hair more brittle, thus making it more susceptible to breaking (Note that hairs will come off either way and they will likely come off right away. However, you will get much more longevity out of naturally white hairs). For bass players, many people prefer to have black hair. Ultimately, these issues can be addressed later if they come up. Bow hair can be easily replaced at most violin shops and most places that offer this service will have a few different types of hair to choose from.
Furthermore, there are different decorative properties of a bow such as the frog or the winding. There is no correlation between these embellishments and the sound of the bow, though the inlay in the frog can slightly alter the weight of the bow. Otherwise, the decorative pieces on the bow come down to personal preference. You should always prioritize the right weight and sound of a bow while trying to look for one that has an appealing design that you like.
Purchasing the right bow for your instrument is an important and delicate decision to make, but if you follow these general guidelines, take time and consideration, and try out many different types of bows to find out what is right for you, the right bow will come to you, and you won't regret the purchase you make. So get out there, and find the bow that was made for you!