Tuesday, April 28, 2015

How do I find a Bow?

Now that we have spent a long time going over how to buy an instrument, what about the bow?

The world of stringed instrument bows can be a daunting one. Choosing a bow can be harder than choosing an instrument at times. As I tell the customers that walk through the door looking for an instrument and bow; I can get they type of instrument pretty close to what you are looking for, the bow I can only give you a selection to try, and you need to decide on the rest.
Choosing an instrument can be a relatively simple task from a salesman's point of view. The customer can describe a sound and you can pick instruments that tend to give that type of sound. Italian instrument tend to be on the mellow side; French sweet; and German powerful. A bow will play so differently on each instrument that you can only narrow it down to a few categories and just dive into trying out many different bows. 

Bows can be divided into only a few broad categories; construction, mounting, and weight/balance.

Construction of Bows

Stringed instrument bows have been made from wood for hundreds of years, over that time the type of wood has varied, but most are made of Pernambuco. Permanbuco is an oily, reddish orange wood that grows in rain forest climates of South America.  It is loved by bow makers and players alike because of its unique flexibility properties and its strength to density ratio. Most players will end up with a wood bow in their lifetime, usually made of Pernambuco. Pernambuco of a lower quality is given the name Brazilwood. Even though they have two different names, the wood actually comes from the same tree. It is all about quality. When purchasing a bow, be on the lookout for the different names. Not everybody grades wood the same way either, for one company a top of the line Brazilwood bow might be a mid grade Pernambuco bow to another, and vice versa.

Another up and coming bow group is the composites. Bows made of composite materials can range from inexpensive fiberglass student bows, all the way to top of the line professional braided kevlar/carbon fiber bows. These bows have only been on the market for about 30 years, but are quickly gaining market share. Composite bows have a few main advantages over wood bows. The biggest is their durability. If a fine wood bow is dropped, it can break, and many breaks are not repairable. A strong composite bow will not break under normal day to day conditions. Wood bows tend to warp side to side over time, which can be fixed by an experienced bow maker/repairer, but may never be the same. Composite materials have much more resistance to warpage, even if the player leaves the hair tight all of the time. Because of the durability of these bows, it has become the main choice for student bows and rental programs. The main downfall of these bows is the sound. Many professional players swear that when comparing their old, fine wood bow to a top of the line composite bow, there is no contest. Wood wins. In the lower priced bows, under $1,000, many cannot tell a difference other than the playablility of the individual bow.

The nice thing about composite bows is the reliability of sound. Because they are manufactured from a synthetic material, they all will be very similar in weight, balance and sound they produce. A wood bow can vary greatly with each stick, even coming from the same maker.

To confuse players even more there is a newcomer to the market. Hybrid bows are supposed to be the best of both worlds. A hybrid bow looks and feels like a wood bow, but retains many of the structural properties of a composite. These bows are made by taking a high quality wood bow, splitting the stick lengthwise and carving out a space to fit a solid carbon fiber stick, and gluing it all back together. Once it is glued, it is finished like any other wood bow. They have more of the sound of a wood bow, but the structural rigidity and resistance to warpage and humidity of a composite.


There are three main different metal mountings available on bows; nickel-silver or German silver, silver, and gold mounted. Nickel-silver is the standard mounting for many bows in the beginner and intermediate levels. Nickel-silver is a misleading term, as it contains no silver in the metal. It resists tarnish and wear, and is a very durable metal. Silver mountings are usually sterling. This type of mounting is usually reserved for makers better bows, usually in the intermediate and advanced levels. Expect to pay much more for a silver mounted bow than a nickel-silver. Many of these bows sale prices fluctuate due to the changing cost of silver on the market. Gold mounting is reserved for only the best. Few players will ever have a gold mounted bow. Only the best materials are used to make these bows, many even have ivory (if an older bow, it is now illegal to harvest and use ivory) or tortoise shell frogs, perfect sticks of Pernambuco, with the tightest and most even grain. Expect to pay a premium for a gold mounted bow.

Some bows have different types of frogs as well. Most bows you come across will have an ebony frog, but you might be lucky enough to see bows with all sorts of exotic materials. Tortoise shell has been used, as well as ivory, and even abalone (mother of pearl)! New to the market are composite frogs. Coda Bow has released a line of bows with Xebony frogs. This composite material looks and feels like ebony, but is not. The main advantage of the composite frogs is for travel. Coda Bow bows have no natural parts (except for the hair) and therefore are free to cross international borders without question.

The tip of most bows will be some sort of composite fiber or imitation ivory to protect the wood of the bow, but many older bows will have genuine ivory tips. Be very careful to consider the travel restrictions that will be placed on the item. Some bows will have metal tips as well. This adds weight to the tip and changes the balance point of the bow. Some makers will use metal tips to counteract an unusually light stick or adjust a balance point.

Weight & Balance

The final category is the weight and balance of the bow. Violin bows generally weight between 59-64 grams, viola 69-74, and cello 80-86 grams. Even a tenth (.1) of a gram can make all of the difference to the player. Some players like a tip heavy bow, allowing them to use less force to get a louder tone, and some prefer a more frog heavy bow, making it feel much lighter (even if it really isn't) when playing.  Because weight is such a personal thing, the only thing I can do is help the customer pick a construction, a mounting, and give you a range of bows to try. The balance point is generally around the one third point from the frog end of the bow, but differs greatly with each bow. The balance point is generally where the player would play spicatto, or lightly bounce the bow to get a specific type of sound.

Spare Bows

Many players have a spare bow or 2. This is for a few different reasons. The first and foremost would be as a backup in case their primary bow is damaged, not working correctly, or in the shop. The second is for playing alternative styles of music. Many have a  fine wood bow as their primary, and some type of composite as their secondary. If they are playing at an outdoor venue, many will use their composite bow, as the suns rays can damage the delicate finish of their good wood bow. If the weather was to change and it begins to rain, they are able to protect their good bow as well.
The second reason for having another bow is for alternative styles of music. Some players can play rock music on their instruments, and that involves lots of heavy and hard playing, and sometimes even striking the bow stick against the strings (known as col legno). Who would want to risk damaging their good bow?!

When in doubt about choosing a bow, take a couple that you like to your teacher and have them pick one based on their years of experience.


Tuesday, April 14, 2015

The Confusing World of Strings

As the title says, choosing the right string for your instrument and playing style can be very confusing. There are so many different options in so many different price points. What kind of strings do you really need?

Strings can be divided by both their core material, and their wrapping (or lack there of). There are 3 main types of string cores, gut, steel, and synthetic. After you choose the string core, then you need to choose the kind of wrapping; gold, aluminum, chromium or other kinds of metal.


Gut strings have been the standard string core since the creation of the violin family of instruments, as we know them today in the 17th century. The natural fiber, made from sheep intestine, is either plain, with no metal winding, or wound with different metals to give the string the specific weights and tones needed. Many professional musicians swear by gut strings. They will give you the best overall sound, with many rich, wonderful overtones when played. The overall warmth of gut strings is also something to take into consideration. They can make an instrument have a very dark, deep sound. Gut strings take a few weeks to break in and fluctuate pitch greatly with changes humidity and temperature, requiring lots of retuning. Because gut strings stretch so much, fine tuners are almost useless, so you better be good at tuning with your pegs before trying gut strings! Gut strings can be moderately to high priced, and because gut strings also wear out relatively quickly, (usually within 6 months of moderate playing) they can cost a lot more over the lifetime of your playing. Because of this, more and more players are switching away from gut core strings. Older instruments tend to have gut strings on them because of the lower tension and warmer sound. Switching an instrument to gut strings takes more than just replacing the strings. The lower tension of gut strings requires a new bridge to compensate for the extra room needed for the oscillation of the string. Some instruments may even require some work on the fingerboard to increase the "scoop" to keep the strings from buzzing against the board when played. Passione Strings, from the Pirastro company are a great set of gut strings.

Steel core strings, introduced in the late 1950's, are a great student string. They have the shortest break in time, stay in tune well, and are relatively low priced. A lot of student instruments are fitted with steel core strings. Steel core strings last a very long time, years possibly, and are a great backup string to have in your case because of the ease of tuning them up and pitch stability. Steel strings have a very stark sound, lacking depth and complexity of gut, with few overtones. They also tend to have a very bright, sometimes even shrill sound. Steel core strings can be broken down into 2 more sub categories, solid and stranded. Solid steel core strings are just that, one thick wire running the length with the wrapping put around it. These are the easiest to produce and cost the least. Many very basic steel strings have a solid core. More advanced (and more pricey) steel strings tend to have a stranded steel core consisting of many thin steel wires wrapped tightly together and covered with a wrapping. Stranded strings tend to be considerably thinner under the left hand compared to their solid counterparts, and much easier to start and stop with the bow. Steel core strings tend to have a higher tension compared to synthetic and gut strings, making them feel "tighter" under the left hand. To compensate for this, bridge heights can be reduced and a flatter fingerboard can be used with steel core strings. A great example of solid steel strings would be the D'Addario Prelude strings, and stranded would be the D'Addario Helicore strings.

Synthetic core strings, introduced into the mass market in the 1960’s, are considered the best of both
worlds. They can last a long time, but have good overtone ranges. Most synthetic strings are based on some type of nylon (plastic) strands wrapped together with a variety of metal windings around them. Synthetic strings are good at recreating the sound of gut strings, with their warm and complex sound, but can lack the depth of gut strings. There are so many different brands of synthetic strings with an even wider selection of sounds. Most strings produced today in both the student and professional markets are synthetic core. They can be mass produced with a relatively reliable tone. I always tell customers the a year of moderate playing on synthetic core strings is about the limit, but many people stretch this to two years. Synthetic strings are moderately to high priced, depending on their winding and exact synthetic core. Most people in the orchestral industry will use the Thomastik Dominant string set as their standard set. When people compare string sounds, it is usually compared against Dominants.


String windings are a whole different ball game, or should we say, orchestra concert. We’ll discuss a few of the most popular here; gold, tin, chrome, nickel, aluminum, and tungsten.

Gold is primarily used as plating on violin E strings, but is now being applied to other strings as well. It reduces the shrillness of hitting the E strings during fast string crossings and heavy, loud playing. It also gives players a warmer tone compared to standard steel E's.

Tin is used in the same way as gold. It is electroplated to violin E strings. It adds a warmer tone that standard steel E's, and is much cheaper than gold, making the overall price of the string much cheaper.

Chrome and Chromium are used on a variety of strings. Chrome plated E string are very much a standard, and chromium gives strings a darker tone without adding much thickness or weight. Lots of higher end cello strings are wrapped in Chromium.

Nickel is used to add weight to a string. It is used as the standard wrapping on most standard sets of steel strings. It adds a darker sound to the string, without adding to much weight or thickness to it. If you are allergic to nickel, then be sure to look for nickel free strings, such as Thomastik Belcanto Gold cello strings, and no, they do not contain gold.

Aluminum is also used to reduce the piercing and whistling of violin E strings. It does add to the thickness because unlike the gold, tin and chrome that is electroplated to the string, it is wound, culminating in a much thicker feel under the fingers.

Tungsten, used on expensive cello strings almost exclusively, adds a great deal of mass without adding to the thickness, especially on the cello G- or C-string. These strings feel much thinner under the finger and bow compared to a nickel wound string, and are easier to start and stop than a standard nickel wrapped string. The tungsten wrapping also adds to the overtone range of these lower strings. With the added mass to the string it tends to ring longer, and play louder due to the momentum of the string. Because of the price of tungsten, the strings tend to be very expensive, sometimes over $100 for a single string!

One more thing, Soloist sets of strings are very similar to a standard set of strings, but with one important difference. The tension of the set is usually higher. The added tension makes the strings louder and cut through a full orchestra better. This creates more stress for the instrument to cope with. Before putting on a soloist set of strings, ask your local string repair shop if your instrument can handle the added stress.

This is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to strings. Other things can be taken into consideration when choosing strings, such as price, tension, quality, pizz vs arco sound quality, the dampening material added to strings, and so much more.

When in doubt, ask your friends, or teacher, as they will always have a recommendation on strings!