Many bass students worry about getting a good instrument, but I see more students whose progress is hampered by their bows than by their basses. When you are working on developing your technique and mastering bow strokes, a bow that is poorly balanced or too stiff can make progress difficult at best. Even worse, many students with inferior bows wind up internalizing bad habits as a result of compensating for their bows’ faults. With an excellent bow you can make a pretty bad bass sound good; with a bad bow you can make even a great bass sound pretty bad! I advise all my students to invest more of their instrument dollars in a good bow than in a good bass. I think of this as good news. After all, the most expensive bows in the world are still less than even moderately priced basses!
Here’s a few pointers I give to students when bow shopping:
- While you want to find a bow that draws a great tone, it’s even more important that you find a bow that is well balanced. When you’re learning how to use the bow, and especially when learning spiccato strokes, a bow that is tip-heavy or has too much material in the stick can result in problems. Balance the stick of the bow on your index finger. Most good bows balance a couple of inches past the end of the frog. If they balance somewhere else, that can often be a sign of trouble.
- Try lots of bows – including ones that may be well beyond your price range. The only way to understand what you are looking for in a bow is to see what an excellent bow feels like. (The same applies to basses, by the way.)
- Let your teacher (or another experienced player) try out a bow before you buy it, if at all possible. This is especially true if you are still developing your off the string technique; it may be difficult for you to accurately judge the balance of a bow.
- Carbon fiber bows are getting better and better, and are a great alternative for many students. One benefit of these bows ties in with my first point: they are all balanced the same way, and should all react very reliably to your movements. Several of my students have had good results with the Robertson carbon fiber bows, and Carbows are also quite nice. Plus, they make great spare bows if you someday purchase a high quality wood bow.
I hope these points are helpful. Let me know in the comments if you have any interesting bow shopping ideas, stories, or concepts. I’m always looking to learn more about where to find good bows…