Bows: Choosing a Double Bass Bow
A Special "Buyer's Guide" from Mark
If you are considering adding arco (bowing) to your bass-playing arsenal, congratulations! It's a great skill to have, even if your primary musical pursuits don't necessarily require it. There's nothing quite like drawing a bow across a low E string and filling the room with that big, warm tone. And practicing with a bow is great for your intonation, too - the pure tone of a bow can really let you hear when you're slightly out of tune; when you're plucking, you "get away with" a little inaccuracy.
But it can be a little intimidating to get started. For instance: you can purchase a bow for well under $100 - and yet there are orchestral players who own bows that cost over $10k! Should you get an inexpensive bow or spend more money? Why, what's the difference? And should you get a French style or German style bow? What kind of rosin is "best?" What's the deal with quivers? Let's tackle it, one question at a time.
How much should I spend?
This is a tough question to answer, but our bow selection leans heavily toward the affordable. There's a reason that we don't carry "super high-end" custom bows; we feel that above a certain price threshold, you should probably be auditioning bows in-person with an experienced bow-maker. Once you're at a playing level where minute differences in a bow's balance, materials, feel and construction can really have a major effect on your tone, holding them in your hands (and experiencing their feel in person) is the only way to make a confident choice about which one to buy - so a "top-quality" custom wood bow is probably not something you want to be choosing online. But if you're in the same boat as most of the rest of us (a casual, developing or intermediate player, rather than the first chair in a major symphony orchestra), a quality-made "factory" bow is an excellent, reasonably-priced choice that should serve you very well.
Here are some tips to narrow down your choices:
- If you're a very casual bow player, and just want a durable bow that you can use without worrying about treating it "with kid gloves" - or you're buying a bow for a young student who will be taking it back and forth to school (and maybe not being particularly gentle with it) - then a Fiberglas bow is probably your best bet. They're tough, inexpensive, and will do the job. Just be aware whether the budget bow you buy is strung with real horsehair. While there are some very nice high-end synthetic bow hair options available on some bows (Coruss brand synthetic hair is actually quite good!), we believe that the only real use for the fake stuff they use on budget bows is to string up the people who invented it!
- If you are planning on taking arco more seriously, and intend to pursue it more than just casually, you will benefit from the craftsmanship and balance of a well-made wood bow. Our Brazilwood bows have a wonderful, long running reputation (we've carried the same ones for over 18 years and they're in use all over the world!) and both Mark and Bob each use one of their own. Those Brazilwood bows (and our similar step-up bows made of Pernambuco, also made in the same facility) are excellent choices for university students studying the bass, as well as semi-professional and community orchestra players.
- We also carry a couple (1, 2) of bow options that are made of Carbon Fiber, which is a modern man-made material, mostly used for many applications where an item needs to have light weight and strength - for instance, bass bows! These bows are a bit pricier, but are exceptionally well-designed and made, are quite consistent from bow to bow, and feature excellent durability.
French or German?
Unlike the other stringed instruments, with bass you have a choice of bow styles. If you're new to the bow, how are you supposed to know which one to choose? Here's a quick overview that may help you decide (Check out our FAQ for more on this subject, and many others!)
The French bow has a smaller frog (the part of the bow you hold) and looks more like the bows you'd use to play cello, viola or violin. It is also held in a similar fashion as with those instruments, with an "overhand" grip.
The German bow (aka "Butler") has a taller frog and is held in an "underhand" grip. Generally speaking, the rest of the bow is virtually identical, using a similar stick, and is haired in the same way.
There isn't one type of bow that is necessarily "better." It's sort of like asking, "what's better, vanilla or chocolate?" I guess that it depends on who you ask (personally, I favor vanilla - especially a good vanilla bean ice cream... but I digress.) That said:
- If you're planning on learning your arco technique with a teacher (recommended!), then you should ask him or her which style you should get. The grip and mechanics used to play each bow is different; if your teacher specializes in a particular bow style, they'll be better equipped to instruct you in that style.
- If you're planning on self-study, examine your study materials to see which bow they more prominently feature. In the USA, that's likely to be the French Bow, it seems that they are the more popular bow style here.
- If you previously played other stringed instruments (cello, violin, viola) you may find it easier to play a French bow due to the similarities in grip (it's held overhand, like the bows for those instruments, whereas the German bow is held with an underhand grip.)
What's it mean when a bow is described as "Fully Lined" or "Half Lined"?
Nicer bows have a metal lining, usually of nickel or silver, which is fitted to the top surface of the frog, to allow the frog to glide smoothly along the surface of the stick when tightening and loosening the bow hair. This is called a "half lining," which is featured on all of our Brazilwood and Pernambuco bows. Additionally, our French bows also have a heel plate, which is an matching, inlaid metal piece that rounds the corner on the back of the frog, down around to the pearl slide on the bottom; the addition of this heel plate to a half-lined bow is what makes a bow "fully lined." The heel plate is rarely used on German bows because of the different profile of the back of the frog, so it's not a "downgrade" to not have a heel plate on a German frog; it's actually pretty normal and expected.
What about rosin?
Rosin is a necessity for bowing; without it, your bow will glide across the strings without being able to grab the string and begin its movement. Only experience can tell you which rosin is the best for you, your bow, your bass, strings, and style of play... and that can change over time. (Check out our FAQ for more on this subject, and many others!)
You'll see various types of rosin available for different tastes and environments. Those termed Winter, Soft, etc., are generally stickier in composition, to compensate for the typically drier (inside) air. A more dry and powdery rosin is applicable to humid weather, where you'll find Summer, Hard, or a similar term applied. Medium, All-Weather, and those available in only one composition are generally aimed at environments with a more moderate humidity.
Rosin is (relative to other "bassic" needs) fairly inexpensive, and with care it can last a very long time. So it's not too much of a risk to try a few types - it's not uncommon to see a player carrying two or more different "cakes" of rosin in his/her gig bag so that he/she can be prepared for varying temperatures and humidity levels. Bob and Mark both commonly use Carlsson, a Swedish-made rosin which most consider to be of the "all-weather" variety; it's a good start, and among our most popular choices. Rosin Choices are found here.
What's a "Quiver?"
Simply put, a quiver is a "Bow Holster" that you can attach to your bass which holds the bow in a "ready-to-grab" position; if the music you play jumps back and forth between arco and pizzicato, you can quickly transition between the two without worrying about the bow falling off your music stand - and likely getting damaged!
The quivers we carry are stiff leather (the floppier leather allows the bow to get "caught up" in the folds) and are fully lined with the smooth side of the leather (again, to prevent "snagging.")
- Fiberglas/horse hair Bass Bow:
These are the top quality name-brand (NOT the cheapies!) with real horse hair (whoever invented the phony stuff should be strung up by it). It's a common student model bow, with its lower price and more durable nature. Available in French and German style; the French bow is 28¾ inches end to end, with about a 22½ inch hair length. The German bow is 29¾ inches end to end, with about a 22½ inch hair length
- Brazilwood Double Bass Bow:
A fantastic bow value that you'll find enthusiastically reviewed all over the web. A Brazilwood stick with black horsehair, a fully lined ebony French or German/Butler frog. Our Brazilwood bows now have black horsehair, and are considered 3/4 size (there are no strict rules on sizing). The French bow is 27¼ inches end to end, with about a 20¾ inch hair length. The German bow is 29 7/8 inches end to end, with about a 22 3/8 inch hair length.
- Pernambuco Double Bass Bow:
A great bow at a great price from the maker of my well-reviewed brazilwood bow - nice Pernambuco sticks with fully lined ebony French or German/Butler frogs, and octagonal Pernambuco sticks. The French bows weigh around 125 grams, with the German/Butler at about 132 grams. The French bow is 27¼ inches end to end, with about a 20¾ inch hair length. The German bow is 29 7/8 inches end to end, with about a 22 3/8 inch hair length.
- "Artist" Carbon Fiber Double Bass Bow:
I held off getting a mid-range carbon fiber bow for a long time; I was waiting for the quality to go up (and the prices to come down.) Now, I've found this wonderful bow, which is quite well-appointed, nicely balanced, and very finely haired. This is also a very good-looking bow, with a warm brown color, ebony frog with pearloid inlay, and a real woven carbon fiber finish; it's traditional meets high-tech! And with a comfortable, familiar feel, you get get right to work with it. Also available in a package with a hard-sided bow case.
- Artino "Aria" Carbon Fiber Double Bass Bow:
This professional-grade bow is specially made of a uni-directional carbon fiber, which is not gunked up with a heavy overspray. It gives it a nifty "unfinished" look when seen close-up, but that's not the important part - the lack of heavy gloss finishing makes this bow feel very "alive" in the hand. You can hold the bow in one hand, and gently tap on the other end, and feel every nuance of the vibration. I love getting that level of feedback from the bow! For aspiring semi-professional players on up. Really nice bow, especially for the price!
Finally, A Word About Using Your New Bow
When you get your new bow, especially if you have a new bass (or new strings), you should be aware that it will take some time (and a bit of extra rosin-ing) to get the bow "up to speed."
Rosin is the "magic ingredient" that allows us to bow our instrument; a somewhat sticky catalyst that allows otherwise smooth, slick materials (bow hair and a bass string) to "grab" each other and inspire movement. A brand new bow has clean hair that’s never had rosin applied to it. This works against getting great results on a bow you just took out of the box; it takes time to "season" a bow, just like a brand new catcher's mitt needs to be "broken in" before it becomes great.
When you apply rosin to a bow, the friction generates heat. The heat melts the rosin, and the rosin melds itself to the bow hair. When you subsequently run the bow across the strings, the rosin re-heats, and a thin coat of it transfers to the strings. Moving forward, the adhesion between the rosin on the strings and the rosin on the bow allows you to set the strings into motion.
In the future, that "base coat" will be so good, that you might not need to grab a swipe or two of rosin before beginning to play, especially if you play often. But with a brand new bow that isn't there yet, you'll probably need to over-apply a bit until you get to that level, which takes time and persistent play; and before it becomes fully “seasoned” it will skate and fail to grip as well as it “should.”
So trust me – it will likely be a little frustrating at first, particularly if you're new to arco; but as you work with it, it will improve. Just use a swift, firm stroke as you’re applying the rosin to the bow, that should help generate the heat needed to more quickly “coat” the hair well and smoothly. Once you get over the hump, it'll all be easier from there!