Parts of the Bow
It’s easy to see that instruments are made of wood–with strings being one of the important parts. Combined with expertise and care, these components come together to make a beautiful sound.
But what about the bow? What is it made of, and what are the different parts? Turns out what a bow is made of matters a great deal, and as much care goes into the creation of a fine bow as into a fine instrument.
Here’s the full scoop on the parts that make up a bow.
The stick is the part of the bow that makes it rigid and provides something for the hair to be tensioned against. It also has some resonant properties, which can affect the sound of the instrument (something we discussed in my previous “Physics of the Bow Stroke” post). There are four common materials for bow sticks: pernambuco, brazilwood, carbon fiber, and fiberglass.
Traditionally, fine bow sticks are made of pernambuco wood. Pernambuco trees grow in select regions of Brazil and only certain parts of the tree can be used for bows. The characteristics that make this wood perfect for bows are its strength, density, springiness, and resonance. Unfortunately this already-rare wood is becoming even more scarce and is under export restrictions, making research on suitable alternatives a priority. The scarcity of pernambuco also means it commands a premium price, with pernambuco bows costing anywhere from a few hundred dollars to over $50,000.
The next common bow material is brazilwood. Brazilwood is a generic term that encompasses several varieties of tropical hardwoods covering a wide range of quality. At the top of the quality range, a nice brazilwood bow can match a lower-end pernambuco bow in performance and price. If cost is your main concern, a basic brazilwood bow will set you back less than $100.
The increasing rarity of pernambuco has motivated many bow makers to search for suitable man-made alternatives, and carbon fiber tops this very short list. Carbon fiber bows are sturdy, nearly impervious to environmental conditions (such as humidity and heat), and are much more likely than wood to survive being dropped. Carbon fiber bows are more than just strong, however. A growing number of string players are finding that carbon fiber bows also possess many of the “musical” and play ability characteristics of a wood stick. Many fiddle players are using these types of bows because of their durability (many fiddle players play outdoors).
Fiberglass is another man-made bow material usually found in very inexpensive bows. Fiberglass bows have the benefit of being affordable and strong, but they lack the feel and nuance of bows made from better materials. Fiberglass bows likely won’t satisfy anyone but young children or the earliest beginner.
The ideal bow stick embodies several qualities: strength, responsiveness, elasticity and musical resonance. Pernambuco typically performs best in these areas. Brazilwood tends to be less responsive and resonant than pernambuco. Carbon fiber is consistent in quality because it’s man-made, and has strength and elasticity in abundance. Some players will not be satisfied with the responsiveness and “musicality” of carbon fiber as compared to wood (though others prefer it). Fiberglass has the advantage of being very cheap and strong, but generally lacks the musical qualities of the other materials.
The hair of the bow is the part that contacts the string and makes it vibrate, and real horsehair is the material of choice for this part of the bow. Synthetic bow hair is available, but it’s not recommended by most folks in-the-know. It is smoother than real hair, and doesn’t hold rosin as well.
Horsehair is available in different grades that affect its response and durability (and price). The best horsehair for bows typically comes from horses that live in cold regions like Siberia and Mongolia, as horses from these climates tend to have thicker, stronger hair.
Hair used for bows is most commonly white, and it’s better if it came that way from the horse. Bleaching colored horsehair white damages and weakens it. Other colors of hair are sometimes seen. Some bassists and cellists, for example, prefer black hair, or a salt-and-pepper mixture of black and white.
The frog of the bow encloses the screw assembly that tightens and loosens the bow, and also holds one end of the hank of hair. It’s most commonly made of ebony wood, though it can also be made out of plastic, horn, ivory, or tortoise shell. Many higher-end bows have an inlay of some type on the frog.
The weight of the frog can affect the weight and balance of the bow, which influences how it plays. There is no “perfect” weight or balance for a bow–it comes down to personal preference. The frog has little to no effect on the sound.
The button or endscrew sticks off the back of the frog, and is turned to tighten the bow.
The tip of the bow holds the other end of the hank of hair. The tip is covered with a material to protect and hide the bare wood. Common materials are ivory, bone, plastic, resin formulations, and silver.
The more exotic the tip plate material, the more you’ll pay for it. The tip and plate material have very little to do with sound or playability.
The Winding and Thumbgrip
The winding and thumbgrip protect the bow stick and help the player hold the bow. They affect the way the bow feels in the hand, a factor that should be considered when choosing a bow. The winding and thumbgrip have little to no effect on the sound.
The winding (or lapping, or wrap) is a length of material that is wrapped tightly around part of the stick. It can be made of imitation whalebone, plastic, or gold or silver wire, among other things. The material used for the winding can affect the weight and balance of the bow. This isn’t so much a concern when buying a new bow, as the maker has selected the material so the bow is balanced. When having the winding replaced on a bow, however, using a material of a significantly different weight can affect the balance.
The thumbgrip is a piece of soft material that covers the bow between the frog and the winding. It’s usually made of real or imitation leather, or exotic skin like snake or lizard skin. As with many non-critical aspects of the bow, what the ideal thumbgrip material is comes down to personal preference.
I know–rosin is not part of a bow. But given the fact that you couldn’t use a bow without it, we’re including it here. Rosin is a sticky, solid substance derived from conifer tree resin. When rubbed on the hair of a bow, it makes the hair slightly sticky and increases friction between the hair and the string. This makes it possible for the hair to pull on–and vibrate–the string. Horsehair without rosin will slide over the strings without grabbing, producing a whistling sound and no real tone.
Want to see a bow in action? Check out this fascinating slow-motion video.
If you are in need of a good quality bow, we highly recommend our Pierre Martin pernambuco bow. These significantly help sound quality production at an affordable price.
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