Most string players own several different bows during the course of their playing career, usually starting on a fiberglass or inexpensive wooden bow in early years of study and upgrading many times on the journey toward professional-level playing. Like strings, rosin, and other key pieces of gear, bows are a very personal and subjective item, and many string players spend their entire lives in search of the perfect bow.
Early Student Bows
String players generally start of a fiberglass, cheap carbon fiber, or brazilwood bow as part of a rental package or school instrument set-up. While this kind of stick may be adequate for the very early stages of development (particularly if one starts as a young Suzuki student), upgrading to a higher-quality bow in middle school or high school is one of the surest ways to increase the playability of a student’s gear.
Early student bows are likely to have the following characteristics:
cheaply constructed – either fiberglass or brazilwood
poorly balanced – too heavy, too light, inconsistent weight distribution
poor camber in the stick – straight and unwieldy sticks are par for the course with many brands of student bow
overall stiffness – difficult to use for more advanced bow strokes
While these kinds of bows are adequate for the early stages of a string player’s development (and may be the best kind of bows for Suzuki or early elementary playing, where instruments and bows are getting banged around on a daily basis), once a student starts taking private lessons and attains a moderate degree of proficiency, these cheap bows should be a number upgrade priority.
Moving to a Better Stick
When a student begins their search for a higher quality bow, there are several factors to consider that will help to narrow their search:
Budget – How much can a student reasonably spend on a bow? Some students (and their parents) balk at spending even $300 on a bow, while others have no qualms about spending $1500 or more on a first bow upgrade.
Carbon Fibre or Wood? – I generally recommend that students looking for a bow under $1000 invest in a carbon fibre bow. One can get a carbon fiber bow that is very well-balanced and that responds quickly for around $800, and I have seen some models priced as low as $400 that work very well as an upgrade bow. While many students like the idea of owning a wood bow, unless the player gets lucky and finds something that handles exceptionally well, I usually recommend that students looking to spend less than $1000 seriously consider a carbon fiber bow.
Buy from Local Shop or Have Bows Sent Out? – I like supporting local instrument businesses. After all, when one’s bass is in need of an emergency repair, how much help will a retailer located four states away be? I firmly believe in helping give local luthiers and instrument shops business, and I will recommend them over national outfits in any circumstances. When looking for a bow, however, one may simply exhaust the local possibilities without finding something that really “clicks”, and in this case I recommend that students contact a regional shop (for the double bass, Kolstein, Robertsons, and the Cincinnati Bass Cellar are three good retailers with a lot of credibility) and have them send out a few bows for a trial.
Buying a bow privately – Finding a local player who is selling a stick may be the best way to find a good bow. Keep your ears open and ask around—it’s quite likely that a bassist in the area has a good bow that they are trying to sell!
The Best Method for Trying Out Bows
Whether trying out bows from a local shop, national dealer, or private individual, there are some things that every student can do to ensure that they give these sticks a fair and logical trial. After all, bows are a very subjective thing, and one may fall in love with a bow and buy it impulsively, only to realize a few weeks later that it’s not really that well-balanced…. maybe a little too heavy… maybe that gold wrapping and fancy inlay disguise the fact that it is somewhat lacking in actual playing quality…
Don’t let this happen to you! The following tips will help to ensure that you are well-informed and have fairly tested your options before buying:
Always have your teacher try the bow….always! – I’ve had a few (not many, thankfully) students come in with a brand new bow to a lesson. I widen my eyes in surprise, then in silent horror as I start to play. Students really shouldn’t buy a stick without having their teacher try it out! Emotion plays a big part in selecting a stick, and a student may “fall in love” with a bow that really doesn’t work for them. Also, they may notice that the bow they are trying out is an improvement and just by it because it feels better. What they often don’t realize (without the guidance of a teacher) is that a little more thorough hunting could have yielded a bow at the same price that works significantly better.
Realize that this process may take time – This bit of advice also applies to instrument purchases! Though a student may be anxious to get a new bow immediately, they really should take the time and do their homework, try out a lot of sticks and really live with them for a week or so before making any decisions. And if nothing that really satisfies during this search, don’t just buy the least unappealing option! Try out merchandise from another outlet, ask around and see what’s available, and bide your time—the bow for you is out there. Just be patient.
Never try out only one bow – When looking for a car, few folks simply into a dealership, test drive a car, and purchase it without doing any research into mileage, safety features, consumer reviews, or the like. If people are reluctant to simply buy the first car that crosses their path, why should buying a bow e any different? And bows are much less standard than cars—even more reason to try many models before making a decision.
Try out bows from different shops – While you may very well get lucky and find a real gem of a stick from the first shop you try, realize that the quality of merchandise and pricing varies dramatically from shop to shop. I’ve played bows priced at $4500 that I would pay $1000 for, and vice-versa! Even if your budget is in the sub-$1000 category, there is still a wide discrepancy in stick quality out there, and many shops tend to get their less expensive bows from only a few makers, so a different shop is likely to yield bows from different makers.
Don’t buy bows from eBay unless you really know what you’re doing – I buy my fair share of merchandise off of eBay, but I usually tense up when a student tells me that they’ve found the “perfect bow” online. It’s one thing if you’re a professional and are making an informed purchase, but students looking for a solid stick that works with their laying style really should try out many bows for an extended period of time before making a purchase.
There are circumstances where using eBay makes a lot of sense for bow purchases. If you’re looking for really cheap student bows you’re likely to find quite a few out there, though I’d rather give that business to a local retailer and help keep my area shops in business. Also, if you’re looking to buy or sell a quality professional bow and you know what you’re doing, eBay can be a dynamite way to find a good stick. I’d highly recommend that students looking for an upgrade stick steer clear of eBay without the help of an informed teacher.
Should you have a bow made for you?
I tend to shy away from having instruments or bows custom made for me. I’ve found that I often love one particular bow or instrument, only to be sorely disappointed in another model from that very same maker. Even if the maker makes it clear that I don’t have to buy this particular new bow or instrument, I still prefer to try out several different pre-existing instruments from several makers when making purchase decisions.
Still, many professionals have instruments or bows made specifically for them, with great results. There’s something to be said for the relationship formed between luthier and player during this process. Luthiers usually stand behind their work and will do repairs for free (or a reduced rate).
Also, for very popular makers, getting on a wait list for a custom-made bow may be the only way to get a stick from this maker. Wait lists usually require a deposit (which is sometimes refundable if the player decided to bail—check this out before signing up!), and the player is then guaranteed a bow somewhere in the upcoming queue.
There’s nothing quite like the feeling of finding an excellent stick that really fits with your particular playing style, and taking a little extra time in the research and trial segments of the bow purchasing process can really pay off. Even if the first bow you try out seems to really fit, taking a little extra time and checking out some of the other available options is a much more prudent course of action. If you don’t find that “perfect stick” right away, don’t despair! There is bound to be a good bow out there that fits your budget and playing style, and you’ll be glad that you took the journey.