Differences Between Bows

Posted by Brittens Team on

We are often asked what is the difference between bows for violin, viola, cello and bass and why do they vary so much in price. We have aimed to give a simple explanation in broad terms below but it is an extensive subject where people hold different opinions in certain areas.

How do bows for the different instruments vary?

What are bows made from?

Why are some sticks round and others octagonal?

How important is weight?

Why do bows vary in price so much?

Summary

How do bows for the different instruments vary?

If you consider the different sizes of instrument from violin to bass and the increase in thickness of string between each, this determines the design of the corresponding bow. Violins, being the smallest of the four have the lightest bow and the narrowest hair as the strings take the least energy of the four instruments to get them to vibrate. Violin and viola bows are of similar length as the playing position, under the chin, means the arm can achieve a longer stroke than when held in an upright position as in the cello and bass. The double bass, requiring the most energy, has a much heavier and shorter bow and comes in two styles, French and German, the latter being gripped in such a way as to enable greater downward pressure rather than held in the same way as a cello bow.
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What are bows made from?

The main part of the bow, known as the stick, can be made from a number of woods or these days from carbon fibre. The majority on modern fine bows have a Pernambuco stick with cheaper bows being made of Brazil wood. In the past, both the above woods were used along with snake wood and cocca wood. The very cheapest bows in the past were made of beech. 

Example of a Violin Bow Frog

The Frog

The frog is usually made of ebony, though some of the finest bows in the past had frogs carved form ivory or tortoiseshell, both of which are now banned from use.

There are a number of other components that use a combination of steel, nickel, silver or gold, brass and 'mother of pearl'.

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Why are some sticks round and others octagonal? 

Some consider this as a largely cosmetic difference where others consider that octagonal bows tend to be heavier and stronger but we believe every bow differs and should be considered on its individual merits.
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How important is weight?

The question of weight has two elements, absolute weight, what it says on the scales, and weight distribution. A bow can feel quite heavy because of the distribution of weight along its length but in absolute terms weigh far less than a lighter feeling bow. There is usually a sweet spot on the bow where 'spiccato' is easiest to achieve, usually where there is 50/50 weight distribution either side of the string contact point. Heavier bows are sometimes made to compensate for the timber not being strong enough were more material to be removed. Ultimately, it is a question of taste once a player is of a high standard.
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Why do bows vary in price so much?

Lower quality bows are mass produced lowering production costs. Better mass produced bows use more expensive raw materials in their manufacture. Bows made individually by a maker are much more expensive to reflect both the high quality of materials used and the quality of the workmanship that requires many hours of the makers time. The most expensive bows tend to be older, made by makers that are no longer with us, so have a historical and antique value as well as being very high quality as a useable bow.
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Summary

Bows for the different stringed instruments vary in design to reflect the needs of the instrument.

Bows can be made of a number of materials, better bows tending to be constructed from higher grade materials.

Round and octagonal sticks do the same job but type can influence the bows performance.

Bow weight influences the performance of the bow and is a matter of taste. Balance point or sweet spot is determined by the distribution of weight and the strength of the stick.

Bows dramatically range in price reflecting the quality of materials, method of manufacture, the skill of the maker and historical significance and rarity.

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