I had absolutely no idea how complicated and precise the bow used to strum a fiddle or violin actually is.
Frankly, maybe I should have guessed.
Nothing in the construction of musical instruments is done on accident or without years of training. This holds true with the making of fiddle bows as well. In fact, many of the best bows in the world are made by families who are multiple generations of bow-makers deep.
So, what makes a good fiddle or violin bow? What are the parts and how will they effect the sound?
Violin and Fiddle Bow Basics
Before we look at the parts that make up a bow, let’s look at some important factors when judging the quality of construction of your fiddle bow. Major factors include length, weight, and balance and feel.
Fiddle bows generally come in two lengths. A full-size bow, otherwise known as a 4/4, is normally 29.5 inches long and a 3/4 bow is 27 inches. Generally speaking, the size of the bow should match the size of the instrument. Therefore, a full-size fiddle should be accompanied by a 4/4 bow, while a child’s instrument that is half the size of a standard violin should have a bow that is somewhere around 15 inches.
Another thing to consider is that a shorter bow will be stiffer than a longer one. This is great for beginners as it will help them keep constant pressure on the strings and produce an even sound. Experts, however, will want something that is more flexible that will really allow them to express individual notes as they play.
The standard weight for a bow is 60 grams, but they can vary anywhere from 54 to 80 grams. The heavier bows are generally used more for Viola and Cello players. Most players will not want to play anything over 68 grams with the violin. Fiddlers especially tend to want a lighter bow as they are playing with uptempo songs.
Balance and Feel
The basic test to check a bows quality is fairly simple and standard. Hold the bow at a 45-degree angle, the weight should feel balanced throughout the bow and feel natural in your hand. When shopping for a bow, find one that feels good in your hand, it will allow you to focus on playing more if you’re comfortable with your equipment.
Parts of the Fiddle Bow
Now that we have an idea of the qualities the bow should have when it’s finished, let’s look at the individual parts of each bow.
The stick is the main structural piece of the bow. The material that this is made of will affect stiffness and sound quality greatly. Traditionally high-end bows have been made of Pernambuco wood but today composite materials have gained in popularity.
The head of the bow is carved specifically to house the tip
Normally a small metal piece that attaches the hair to the stick at the head of the instrument.
Bows have historically used horse hair to make contact with the strings of the fiddle or violin. Many bows today still use horse hair, but synthetic hair has also been introduced as an inexpensive alternative.
The frog sits at the base of the bow and is attached to the stick and is responsible for maintaining the tension on the hair. It also serves as the place most violinist will hold the bow.
The screw sits at the very end of the stick and works in conjunction with the frog to manage the tension of hairs.
This piece is possibly the newest addition to the bow. Mounted to the frog it allows the hairs to be laid out evenly and flat before passing into the frog.