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Good bow/bad bow, cheap bow/expensive bow??


Alex_E
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If this question has been asked before, please excuse my ignorance, as up to date, Bow posts have not been of interest to me.

It's quite amazing to me to find that prices for bows range from a hundred or so dollars to many thousands of dollars. I had always assumed that the quality of the horse hair was the main ingredient in the difference between a good or bad bow.

Can anyone explain in laymans language how bits of wood that don't seem to vary much in their shape or arching and aren't hollowed in any way, can add thousand of dollars in value over other similar ones using the same quality hair.

Would the average player be able to easily tell the difference?, or is it "Name" value, that determines the value?

I know from previous posts that ctviolin has extensive experience in rehairing bows, so if you read this post Craig, I'd be very interested in your advice as to how much the quality of the hair affects both low value and high value bows and the relative effects on both after rehairing with the same good quality hair, plus how much effect an expert job has over an average or poor quality job.

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Can anyone explain in laymans language how bits of wood that don't seem to vary much in their shape or arching and aren't hollowed in any way, can add thousand of dollars in value over other similar ones using the same quality hair.

Would the average player be able to easily tell the difference?

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In my terms as a fiddler it relates to how a particular bow lets me get the sound I want with a particular technique on my instrument. Bows vary considerbly in stiffness, elasticty, balance, weight and a bunch of other properties that contribute to how they react when on (and off) the string and I think especially in the transition. Properties of individual bows, beyond hair a rosin and which I don't even pretend to understand, can make a huge difference in how a given instrument sounds.

I have no doubt that there is a 'name effect' on bow prices, but there are also a very definite differences among bows in terms of sound and playability that I (a so-so fiddler) can notice. In general, though not universally, the more expensive bows I've tried do play and sound better.

Hope this helps.

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". . .how much the quality of the hair affects both low value and high value bows and the relative effects on both after rehairing with the same good quality hair, plus how much effect an expert job has over an average or poor quality job."

I don't do bows at all, but let me comment that my shop partner does a beautiful rehair, and uses better hair than I usually see (he gets it from a "secret source" that isn't commercially advertised). He rehaired one Chicago Symphony member's bow, the word got around nearily instantly, and within a week or two, had a constant flow of CSO members coming through his door. That's how much difference technique and hair makes on good bows, at least.

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Michael appears to have responded to the second part of your question. Farbeit for me to pretend to be an expert but in altering a word or two from your question, you may find an answer....

Quote:

It's quite amazing to me to find that prices for bows(read: "violins") range from a hundred or so dollars to many thousands of dollars.

How is it that bits of wood that don't seem to vary much in their shape or arching can add thousand of dollars in value over others?


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There's the effect on the player, and the effect on the listener.

From the player's point of view, a great bow has balance, the right ability to grip the string, just enough resonance, and the ability to do tricky things like up-bow staccato.

From the listener's point of view, the right bow will make a violin sound so much better than the wrong one-- at every dynamic level.

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I agree with Omobono's observation. I'm certain that every one of us was at one time unable to appreciate the differences between violins because those differences fall inside fairly narrow parameters. I have a feeling that if you were to spend as much time paying attention to bows as you do violins, you'd become aware of differences you'd never notice at first.

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The differences between violin bows are not nearly as noticable as the differences between cello bows. I have tried dozens of cello bows at a sitting and could clearly detect the few bows that made a real difference in the sound of my instrument. There are certain favorable dynamic behaviors of cello bows that I have found in only about 5% of the cello bows I've tried - and not necessarily a function of price (a behavior that essentially "teaches" you how to spiccato).

The sonc differences in violin bows, while apparent, are less dramatic to me (coyuld be my hearing). It is not unusual for a bow to make a real difference on one instrument while another instrument may be relatively immune to its charms.

Like violin "value," bow value is also not a proportional thing, but rather a logarithmic thing. The last few percent in performance may cost the last 90% (or even 99%) in price. The first 50% improvement in performance costs about 10 times the price. (So I doubling of "performance" may move one from a $100 bow to a $1000 bow. (Of course, there is also the famous name factor, too.) The choice of what variables are of what value, is a subjective thing to some extent, but the fact that prices can be set and are paid is some indication the there are objective measures too.

Sometimes, with some instruments you will find all the bow value you need at a very modest price. One example that may people have found is the Coda Aspire bow at about $239 (US). I have tried a number of bows on one of my violins (that my grandaughter uses now) and the Aspire is definitely the bow of choice. Above that one must go to my Voirin or Siefried to find a slight improvement in sound.

Andy

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Are you asking these questions because you are in the market for a new bow, or just because you are curious? If it is the former, I will repeat what I say in response to all of the bow posts and what is implicit in the previous replies. There is no substitute for trying a whole bunch of different ones (in function of your budget) to see which ones feel and sound best and then having someone play the top choices for you on your violin to see how they sound to a listener.

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It's a good question Alex. Excuse me if I go off on a blabber binge here because I really do have a firm opinion about bows and bow quality.

I think the key word here is nuance. I like the Merriam Webster definition so much I will include it here.

nuance 1: a subtle distinction or variation 2: a subtle quality :NICETY 3. sensibility to, awareness of, or ability to express delicate shadings (as of meaning, feeling, or value)

A good bow has the ability to help express subtle musical nuance intended by the musician, and the better a musician you are the more you can take advantage of this quality. A poor bow lacks the ability to help express the wishes of the musician, plus it produces (generally) a course tone with no ability to produce subtle shadings and different textures. I will admit that it was many years before I discovered the great differences that exist between bows, and rightfully so because it was years before I became an adequate player. It's just not an awareness that comes easily without a great deal of experience in playing.

It's kind of like developing an ear for good tone.

As far as the quality of hair affecting low and high quality bows - you have to realize that the quality of the stick isn't really going to change depending on the quality of hair, or the quality of the rehair job. It's playability will be affected - for example, you can rehair a good bow so as not to take advantage of its potential, but you can't rehair a bad bow so as to make it play well. Or you could rehair either one so that it will play as well as it can. Hair quality does affect a bow that way, of course.

I'm convinced that, much like with setting up a fiddle correctly, some experience is required in order to know what "correct" consists of. The whole key is playability. That's why it is easy to have an opinion based on the fact that one bow looks much like another... so, how could there be that much difference between them, right? The entire difference lies in the playability of the bow. And playability is not something that is visible right off. The more you demand from the bow, the more expensive it will be, in general.

On the other hand, playability IS where you find it. I've run across four bows that I use that I've bought for right around $100.00 each, though it has taken me about twenty five years to run across them, and none of them is in very good shape - they just play well for me. Since I don’t play for a living or for income it doesn’t matter to me if I ever get a better bow.

Regarding the hair itself, independent of the bow quality:

Good hair, the right amount of it, ('too much' especially will deaden any bow, so when they come in requesting "lots of hair" I usually just tell them that the bow will accept only one correct amount of hair and I won’t put any more than that in it) put in at exactly the right tension, with an even spread across th ferrule and with no tendency to pull the bow in one direction or the other will allow any bow to play up to its potential - but no further.

If you have never experienced it, Alex, a great bow is almost a magical thing. A great bow will make you want to own it. But you won't be able to identify it unless you play well enough to demand things from it that lesser bows are just not able to deliver - then the value and the difference become obvious.

Another funny thing about great bows is that they cannot display their best unless they are matched with the correct violin and player, in my opinion.

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Thom is right. Bow shopping is a time consuming but fun activity and it occurs on the scale of months, not days. This is because you also change in your perception of how a bow affects sound for you (the player) and your violin. The name and price are just guidelines for you to narrow your search. But, the interesting thing as Andrew points out is that the last few percentages of improvement might have the largest price differential.

I consider my ability (or lack thereof) to discern the last few percentage of improvement as a blessing, because if it does not make a difference to me at my low level of playing, I do not have to pay for it.

As others have said, as you grow in ability and experience, your discernment will also grow, and then you'll find yourself wishing to own a bow that can do those magical things.

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Thanks Craig, for that very clear and concise explanation of bow properties and my thanks also to all the others who have taken their time and patience to answer a typical newbie question.

I asked the question for two reasons, firstly because of interest and secondly because at some stage I wish to purchase a new bow. I understand now that trying bows is more important than simply ordering one that people have recommended, as one that works well for them and their violin may perform quite differently for other players/violins.

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"Regarding the hair itself, independent of the bow quality:

Good hair, the right amount of it, ('too much' especially will deaden any bow, so when they come in requesting "lots of hair" I usually just tell them that the bow will accept only one correct amount of hair and I won’t put any more than that in it) put in at exactly the right tension, with an even spread across th ferrule and with no tendency to pull the bow in one direction or the other will allow any bow to play up to its potential - but no further."

Some more questions for you Craig, if I may:

Do all violin bows have the same "correct' amount of hair or can it vary between different bows?

How do you calculate the correct amount required, is it so many strands, or so much total thickness, or is it a subjective thing only arrived at through experince?

I notice on Pioneer Valley Luthier Supply Co website they have six different types or grades of hair for sale, do you choose a different grade depending on the tpype of instrument the bow will be used on?

The more I look into bows and bow hair the more bewildering it becomes, trying to sift fact from fallacy can be as difficult as with instrument making.

I remember reading a post some time back where the Poster maintained that Mongolian bow hair was the best, particularly tail hair from mares, as the urine absorbed by the hair gave it a special quality.

In my experience with horses, the mares take great care to have their tails raised well out of the way when passing urine, but that doesn't rule out some finding it's way there I suppose, so that Posters opinion may have been spot on.

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Quote:

Properties of individual bows, beyond hair a rosin and which I don't even pretend to understand, can make a huge difference in how a given instrument sounds.


I'll second this. I have an Egidius Doerfler bow purchased for $800 about eight years ago that sounds quite fine on my previous 'cello, but pulls a decidedly inferior sound on the 'cello I bought a few years ago. Oddly, the winner on the new 'cello is the F. C. Pfretzschner shop bow (purchased for $400 in 1988) that I abandoned in favor of the Doerfler when I was still playing my old instrument as my primary!

- Mike Stein

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We have a luthier who has been experimenting with different type and sources of bow hair over the past year or two. So far the vote here is for some kind of "Mongolian stallion hair," but that could be strictly a personal preference.

On the topic of sound differences between bows, the orchestra my husband plays with just wrapped up recording for a CD. On it, he decided to use one bow for the orchestral stuff and concertmaster solos and another for the short solo piece he recorded. I'll be interested to hear the final result. The two bows are quite different when you hear them back to back but I don't know how much of that will make it through onto the CD.

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Interesting discussion, & I concur with most of it. 15 years ago upgrading instruments/bows was a real chore because although I'm a good (amateur)player I really didn't know what I was looking for, and everything I tried was infinitely better than what I had. Over the last 5 years I've done some serious upgrading ($12000 viola and $4500 bow). It was much easier because I knew what I what I wanted, but also there was a falling in love factor - 1st viola & 3rd bow. Of course, it probably helps that both had damage that devalued them but didn't affect playability. I feel very lucky!

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Not having played with a lot of bows, I figured my Glasser composite just had to be a dog. My teacher insisted that it had a good sound. I figured she was just trying to save me some money and so I went and tried out about 4 different bows. Only one very expensive pernambucco (spelling?) sounded noticeably different on my resonable quality violin. However, on more expensive violins, I could distinguish more differences. I suspect that there is a "resonance coupling" between some bows and some violins that makes a good match.

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I've had a violin Glasser Composite as a beater for years. On my violin the sound is strong, but brighter than I like, lacking in depth and very inflexible. It handles OK but feels a bit club-like (though its strength is a plus for orchestra playing). Still, there's no doubt that you can do quite a bit worse for quite a bit more money.

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My bow is sort of a case study of how not to shop for a bow. I was too intimidated to try anything out in the shop, and I didn't realize I could take home bows on approval. So... I looked through all the bows at the top of my price range and picked the one the I thought was the prettiest. That was my selection process. What's strange is that last year I decided to buy a "real" bow, asssuming mine was lousy. I took home a group of them to try out at home, and much to my surprise the original bow turned out to be pretty darn good for that price bracket. Go figure.

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I talked to the bowmaker at our local shop, and he said that right now, I like the stiffer bow that gives me a louder sound, but in a year I'm going to want a creamier bow that brings out a better sound. Only trouble is that those creamier bows are > $3000, like the $5500 Pajeot I tried, and a few others. So, sticking to my budget I've decided to buy the stronger bow for now, and use the club to break-in my violin (which is 2 months new), and use it for future orchestras.

There seems to be a black hole in the $1500-$3000 range where there is not a discernable difference, or random differences, not necessarily correlated with price. At least that is my limited experience.

I'm also going to order the Incredibow and really shock my teacher. He knows I've been bow shopping and is curious to see what I'll come up with.

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I found distinct differences in bows in the $1200-$3200 price range -- but primarily if you look at bows made by modern bow makers.

Which makes sense when you think about it. As near as I can tell, the price of new bows seems to reflect people's opinion of the overall quality and consistency of a bowmaker's work.

Whereas with older bows, age and antique value starts to affect the pricing as well.

- Ray

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"Some more questions for you Craig, if I may:

Do all violin bows have the same "correct' amount of hair or can it vary between different bows?

How do you calculate the correct amount required, is it so many strands, or so much total thickness, or is it a subjective thing only arrived at through experince?

I notice on Pioneer Valley Luthier Supply Co website they have six different types or grades of hair for sale, do you choose a different grade depending on the tpype of instrument the bow will be used on?"

The quick answer is that every bow IS different. I look at the size of the mortice(s) and the relative stiffenss of the bow and do a quick mental calculation of whether or not I have to "stuff" the mortice(s) in order to get the bow to play well. Often it is a compromise - often I will rework the mortice quickly if it was cut way too small or if it is a cheap bow where the mortice was simply drilled, left round, and the hair was glued in quickly and cheaply. On glasser bows no such decision is needed and they require a more standard amount of hair.

On a decent bow, I won't touch anything - but will rehair based on what the bow will accept.

I use the cheapest grade of 'good' hair that I can buy for 90% of the jobs I do for the school and for the bows I get from the music store, which are mostly student bows also. The point there is to get a lot of bows done quickly and cheaply - after all, you can get a brand new Glasser bow with horsehair for around $30.00, so the only real advantage to rehairing them is that they can get back up and running right away without missing their class.

For better bows I use a better grade of hair and charge a lot more for the job.

Does that answer your questions?

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If I can expand a bit on Craig's answer.... Imagine you have your bow strung with one hair, and it takes ten pounds to get the bow to playing tension. The tension on one hair is ten pounds. On two hairs, each would bear five pounds. With 150 hairs, adding only 15 hairs would decrease the tension on each hair by 10%, which is very noticible to a player. The result is a bow that feels weak (since the individual hairs aren't stretched as tightly) and floppy.

Many customers, figuring they're saving money by getting more hair, ask for more, which, as you can see, actually damages the way the bow feels. Or, they get a rehair and complain their bow doesn't feel good, like it did before. When selling bows sometimes, if I thought the bow was good, but over-haired, I've pulled ten or twenty carefully-chosen (!) hairs in front of the customer, and they can always feel the difference.

Anyway, in summary, a bow shouldn't get as much hair as you can jam in it, but rather the amount that makes it respond at its best.

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