My double bass playing took a major leap in quality once I got my Lowendahl bass (more on that in part 1 of this series). The next big step for me in finding my “perfect sound” was upgrading my bow.
Lesson No. 2 – Upgrade Your Bow Before Your Bass
If you can only pick one to upgrade, get a better bow before getting a better bass. I tell my students this all the time.
It’s amazing what a tremendous impact a good bow makes on your overall playing. If I was forced to choose, I’d pick an inferior bass with a superior bow any day over the opposite. With a bass, at least, you can experiment with set-up, strings, and other tweaks. But you really can’t do much with a bow in terms of set-up. Sure, you can change the hair, or even add a steel tip or weight at the frog, but that’s about it.
To make matters worse, playing on a bad bow often leads to bad right arm technique as you try to compensate for the bow’s weaknesses. Cheap bows usually don’t bounce well, and it’s easy to develop all sorts of bad habits attempting to pull a full sound out of the instrument with a poor stick.
What to Look for in a Bow
I interviewed Sue Lipkins, one of the best known bass bow makers in the United States, for my podcast a few months ago. It was a great interview! You can listen to it below, or you can subscribe to the podcast and get all of the episodes delivered automatically.
Sue and I start talking about what specifically to look for when buying a bow at 33:15:
Here are a few key points that Sue covers:
- Sight down the bow and see if the head lines up with the frog.
- Look for cracks.
- When buying an expensive bow, get a bowmaker to look at the bow.
- Condition of the frog.
We also talk about tonal characteristics of different wood for bows and all that goes into making a bow. It’s a really cool conversation!
Tone and the Bow
This might be surprising to less experienced players, but a bow can have a massive impact on the tone of the bass. It’s kind of like switching amplifiers for an electric bass: even though you’re playing the same instrument, an Acoustic Image amp will sound totally different than an SWR. The same is true for bows.
As I experimented with different bows, I noticed that the color and quality of my sound would vary drastically from bow to bow. One might be buttery and bassy, while another might sound really bright but not have any punch.
I’ve upgraded my bow many times over the years, and with my current bow (a great French bow by Bernd Dölling), I notice two important things about the tone:
- First and foremost, it pulls out a lot of the “fundamental” of the string. It sounds like someone attached a subwoofer to my bass when I play it.
- Also, it pulls a really clear sound. I can hear the entire frequency spectrum of the string, and I can hear my bass sympathetically resonate on almost every note with this bow.
Playability and the Bow
Cheap bows typically don’t grab the string as well as better bows, forcing you to either rosin up like crazy or overcompensate with your right arm technique to get the string to speak. They also tend not to bounce well or to bounce erratically.
There may also be inconsistencies throughout the length of a legato stroke. Perhaps the bow is easy to play at the frog but is hard to control at the tip, or vice-versa. Maybe there’s a “soft spot” somewhere along the stick where the bow loses control.
Good Bows Require Less Work
I also found that I quit working so hard once upgrading to my Dölling bow. Every type of bow stroke became easier. In hindsight, it felt like I had been wearing wrist and ankle weights for years and had finally been freed of all that excess weight.
Getting a better bow actually increased my articulation and tonal vocabulary. I felt like I suddenly had new words that I could use in sentences, and new colors of paint for my paintings. I didn’t have to focus so hard on just getting the string to speak. It was a fantastic feeling, like being unshackled after years of bas bow imprisonment.
So far, I’ve covered the huge benefits of making that first bass upgrade and how important a quality bow is on your playing. Next time, I’ll dig into what you can do with your bass in terms of set-up to take it to a new level.
Thanks for following along, and feel free to add a comment or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with your thoughts!