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My Double Bass Setup: Part 1 – The Bow

Donovan Stokes

Usually in this column I talk about general double bass (upright bass) subjects, or answer specific questions that I think will be of benefit to the largest number of readers. Lately, however, I’ve been getting a great many questions about my personal bass setup. So, in the next few columns I’m going to go through some of the things that make my personal setup a bit different than “normal” and briefly explain some of the “why” of it all.

Although there are any number of things about my double bass setup that might be considered unusual, I’m going to focus on those aspects that I believe are not simply personal eccentricities. Instead, I’ll focus on things I hope will be more widely adopted by bassists-at-large. In each case, I’ll tell a bit about what is unusual by modern day standards, as well as tell a bit about why I do things that way.

Donovan Stokes' 262 gram bow vs. traditional bow

My 262 gram Bow

I do use a heavier-than-usual bow. A standard bow might be in the 120-160 gram range, whereas my bows are all approximately 260 grams.

My bow is also a bit longer than usual. The important part here is not the length of the bow itself, but the length of the playable hair. A more standard bow might have a playable hair-length of about 22.5 inches, whereas my bows have approximately 26.5 inches of playable hair.

The benefits of extra playing length should be obvious…longer notes, fewer bow changes required for long musical lines, etc. Although people with longer arms than myself might benefit from an even longer bow, 26.5 inches of playable hair may be the limit for the time being. Bow re-hair specialists may have a difficult time finding hair for a bow any longer than this. My personal re-hair specialist buys a special stock in just for my bows as it is.

Then there is the weight of my bow, of course. The weight of the bow tends to be a controversial subject. Many suggest that a lighter bow is best, implying that use of a player’s arm weight is more important than bow weight. It is true, of course, that we must control our use of arm weight to play properly with the bow. In my experience, however, I have found that bows in the 250 gram range (as opposed to the 130 range) generally allow for a quicker speaking, more resonant sound, a broader dynamic range, a larger color palette, and greater variance in articulation, all while requiring less physical exertion than when using standard bows.

I came across the idea for using a heavier bow when I was researching and interviewing the Russian double bass virtuoso Rodion Azarkhin in the late 1990’s. However, I was unable to find a bow maker willing to make a bow to my specifications until around 2004. In the meantime, I used tire weights, golf tape, finger-weights and Band-Aids.

Although more and more people are interested in these heavy bows, they are still difficult to find, especially in the U.S. and are usually custom made by only a handful of makers. Although I am happy with each of my bows, I am sure there are refinements to be made as more and more skilled bow makers venture into the “heavy”-bows-for-bassists business.

For even more on this style of bow, read this column.

Next time: Number of strings, Tuning, Fingerboard length