The Lowdown with Dr. D.: Buying Your First Bow
Using the bow on an Upright Bass can open up a world of creative possibilities. Most people who get into it never get out! Before you can wow and amaze your friends, however, you will need to own a bow.
When you start investigating bass bows you will find that there are two main styles of bass bows. Their physical differences result in different technical approaches for the player. The German bow has a large heel or “frog” and is played with an underhand hold while French bow has a smaller heel and is played overhand. To see the bows in action: Gary Karr and John Clayton play German bow, Edgar Meyer and François Rabbath play French.
Although there are certainly differences between each of these styles of bows, and each one has pros and cons, both are equally viable and neither will keep you from achieving a high level of artistry. Oftentimes your teacher, or simply what is available to you, will heavily influence your initial choice of bow. I do suggest, however, that if you have short arms, you veer toward the French bow if you can. After a time studying one bow or the other, you can make an informed decision on your own. Many people play both bows for a time before settling on one or the other.
Buying a bow
Bass bows are made from a variety of materials, the most common being fiberglass, carbon fiber and wood. The lowest quality bows are made of fiberglass and the highest quality bows are generally made from woods such as Pernambuco, Snakewood or Ironwood.
If you are unsure of exactly how much you will use a bow, then I suggest a new fiberglass bow. You can get one of these very easily for $80, often much less. I tend to think of fiberglass bows as disposable bows, as it costs less to buy a new one than have it rehaired. (see below) A fiberglass bow is good for those people who are not sure if they want to pursue arco (i.e. bowed) playing.
If you have a few more dollars to invest, or if you are fairly certain that you want to pursue using the bow, I would suggest buying an inexpensive carbon fiber bow. New or used is fine with these, as they are made to last for years. There are a number of companies who produce carbon fiber bows, and quality can vary widely at the same price point. A $200 bow by one company can be greatly inferior compared to a similarly priced bow made by another company. Your private teacher should be able to steer you toward businesses that sell quality carbon fiber bows at your price point. As always, listen to teachers and players over a salesperson.
Carbon fiber bows can be great as there are several brands under $500 that compare favorably to wood bows of equal or even higher prices. There are even carbon fiber bows which compare favorably with the highest quality wooden bows, although they carry larger price tags. Even if you are able to spend up to $1000, I would suggest you consider both wood and carbon fiber.
Despite my enthusiasm for carbon fiber bows, the highest quality bows are generally made of wood. Bows made of Pernambuco (the most commonly used wood), Snakewood and Ironwood cover a variety of price points. For many players, Pernambuco bows are the most sought after. However, do not assume that a Pernambuco bow is always the best choice. Pernambuco bows vary significantly in both quality and price. If you are unsure of how to determine quality, ask your teacher, or some of your more experienced bass playing friends.
Brazilwood bows are the most inexpensive and lowest quality wood bows. Although they are wood, I would suggest you avoid them entirely. Most often, a carbon fiber bow will be a better investment than a Brazilwood at the same price.
When you are looking for bows, don’t forget to ask other players. Players buy and sell bows amongst each other all the time. Often a bassist-to-bassist bow sale will be cheaper than buying from a business. Whether you buy from a player or a business, I wouldn’t suggest spending more than $1000 on a bow unless you feel confident evaluating the quality of that bow on your own.
You will need to apply rosin to the bow hair for it to grip the string and make a sound. Not all rosin is equal, even if it says “Bass Rosin” on the package. As a guide, look for a sticky rosin that melts in the sun. Your teacher, or other bass players that use the bow, can give you some brand suggestions and show you how to apply it. Ultimately rosin brand becomes a matter of personal preference. Once you have the bow and the rosin you are ready to start playing!
After you have been playing for a while you will entail upkeep costs. The most regular expense you will have is rehairing the bow. Playing with the bow takes a toll on the hair and it eventually wears out. Some signs to look for are dark “gunk” on the hair, hair that falls out or breaks easily, and hair that won’t hold rosin well. If you play several hours every day, you will probably need to replace the hair after about three months. No matter how little you play I would rehair the bow at least once a year.