In order to have a great sounding viola you need more than just the viola itself, you also need a high quality bow. Just like buying a viola, there are numerous options out there for bows with different styles and specs. It all comes down to what fits your needs and personal preferences. A good combination of both will leave you with the perfect bow. Below are a few of the main things to look for when buying a viola bow.
Weight and Feel
One of the main things to look for is the weight and feel of a bow. Depending on your personal preferences, you may like a certain bow’s balance over another’s. Being such a personal and subjective decision, it is important that you go try out the bows in person before purchasing to make sure you like its feel. Some players prefer an overall heavier bow while some like it light as possible. Some like the tip to carry a bit of weight while others like the bow as close to balanced as possible. All these factors are determined by each player and what they feel comfortable holding. Remember, a key to improving and wanting to play your instrument is having the best playability possible. This includes the bow so make sure the weight and feel is comfortable to you.
The viola is an instrument that has been around for quite some time so it is no surprise that its roots are in wood (pun intended). The bow itself is no different. Wood, typically Brazilian wood such as Pernambuco, is the standard substance from which bows are made, but with technology of the last few decades, other options have been gaining traction, including both fiberglass and carbon fiber. Both wood and synthetic materials have their benefits and drawbacks. These new synthetic options can be made to be cheaper (less than $100), although some high-end carbon fiber bows are available, and they are also often times lighter. As I mentioned previously, this is subjective to each player. Some players may like the lighter feel of synthetics while others stick to wood. I would like to mention though that if durability is important to you, say you are purchasing a bow for a child who is learning to play or you just know you are rougher with your stuff, the newer synthetic materials tend to stand up to abuse far better then their wood counterparts. Carbon fiber bows in particular are for the most part indestructible. Something to take into consideration as well.
Round vs Octagonal
Although every bow is different, there are some characteristics of round bows versus octagonal bows that generally ring true. For the most part they differ as follows:
Round bows tend to produce a warmer, almost ‘rounder’ tone. Being more flexible and soft, the sound is often less harsh and more quiet.
The octagonal bow tends to be more stiff resulting in more attack and high end in the sound. These often have more treble and upper mid range as opposed to the round bows which often have rich low ends.
Like I said though, every bow is different. These are just some starting points so that you have an idea of what to listen for when trying out different bows.
The bow is made up of different components besides the main wooden or synthetic piece.
The frog is the end that your hand grips. Ebony is often used for the frog, though other materials like plastic can be used. A lot of times, the frog is used for the placement of inlay work and other aesthetics. It is important to look past the looks and make sure the frog is comfortable in your hand and doesn’t just look great.
Another place your hand rests is on the winding or thumb grip located along the stick. There tons of options when it comes to material choice here, and many materials are designed to look good as well as be practical. Again, like the frog you want to pick off feel rather then look/ design. Materials often available include leather, copper, or silver.
Just like violas, bows come in all different prices. Usually the more expensive, the better quality. You may have heard the general rule of thumb: Spend about 20 to 25% of what your viola is worth on the bow. All though this isn’t the end all be all (for example my bow costs more than my viola), it is a good starting point when you first walk in to a store. When you walk into a shop, make sure to have an idea of how much you want to spend so someone there can help show you some good options. There are good bows in any price range so it’s a matter of trial and error to find the best for you. As with many purchases in life, bow prices are often highly negotiable, so don’t be shy about haggling.
How to Test Out the Bow
Obviously the way you want to test out if a bow is right for you is to play, but what exactly should you play? It is important to play in a variety different styles of loud to soft, from staccato to legato. If you have the option to take a few home and trial them for a while, your best bet is to go through your normal rehearsal routine every so often changing out the bow. Within a couple of practice sessions, if not the first, you will be able to eliminate the bows that aren’t working. Whichever bow is left at the end is the one for you.
Another good check list is to go through your various scales slowly while really taking a listen to the tone. While playing through your pieces can give a great sense what feels right, slowly playing scales while intently listening can make sure you pick a bow that sounds great as well. The bow plays a major role in the tone of your viola so make sure it sounds good to your ears.
Clearly what matters most when choosing the perfect bow for you, is personal preference. The bow needs to sounds good, feel good, and priced good all for YOU. Most of these tests are subjective once a price point is reached, so use your ears and body to determine the best option.
For a comprehensive guide to choosing a bow, watch the video below: