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.
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.