The Lowdown with Dr. D.: “Heavy” Bows
Here’s a question I received recently from Miguel G., and one I hear often:
Q: Someone told me you use a super-heavy bow. Is this true? Can you tell me what this is all about?
A: This is a very expansive subject, but here’s a bit of an introduction to the topic.
It is true that my bow is heavier than most bows you will find. Most bass bows you will come across will weigh between 120 grams to 160 grams, with the majority falling in the 130’s. Using this guide, a 115 gram bow would be extremely light and a 165 gram bow extremely heavy. By contrast, the bows I use are all in the 250-260 gram range. My bows also have a few inches/centimeters more playing length as well. To my knowledge, you won’t find any older bows in this weight range, but there are several contemporary makers who are making “heavy” bows in Europe. Henk te Heitbrink, a wonderful Dutch maker, made the bows I own. You can find him on Facebook.
Some people balk at bows in this weight range and blithely state that “balance is more important that weight.” While it is true that having a well-made and well-balanced bow is important, weight is a factor that cannot be discounted. This is particularly true when we are speaking of a weight differential between bows not of 15 grams, but rather 100 grams or more.
To more clearly illustrate the point, imagine using a perfectly balanced violin bow, weighing 60 grams, on your bass. (I once had to do this on a gig many years ago. Thankfully it was a low profile gig and just 30 minutes of music.) Given the choice, most bassists would prefer to use a poorly balanced 135 gram bow over the perfectly balanced 60 gram bow. I would certainly prefer to use a cheap fiberglass bass bow that had not been rehaired in over a year, to a 60 gram bow of any quality. I could do more artistically with the fiberglass bow than with the violin bow. This is the sort of weight disparity we are speaking of between my bows and the “standard” bass bows.
The obvious question to ask then is why use a bow so much heavier than standard? Hasn’t it all been figured out years ago? Well, there are a variety of reasons, and I certainly am not the first person to advocate for significantly heavier bass bows. As early as 1845 F. Carl Franke suggested adding lead to the bass bow, and in 1848 August Müller suggested using a much heavier bow as well. The each made their points well. Russian Virtuoso Rodion Azarkhin (1931-2007) further believed that the “standard” bass bow was weighted and designed for use on instruments with lower tension gut strings. His thoughts were that that the modern bass bow must be significantly heavier to accommodate steel strings. A growing number of people use these “heavy” bows worldwide, including Dutch bassist Hans Roelofsen. In short, many who investigated the question of bass bow weight have arrived at the same conclusion: The “standard” bass bow is far to light given the size of the instrument and tension of the strings.
For me, it came down to ratios and relationships. Consider the weight and size relationships of a violin to its bow. Then do the same with the bass and its “standard” bow. In doing so, you will find that the bass bow is both light and short in comparison. The same is true when you compare the cello-to-bow relationship with the bass-to-bow relationship.
Artistically, I wanted to do more of what the cellists and violinists were doing with their bows. I ultimately determined that do so I needed a bow that had a relationship to the bass that was more similar to the cello-bow or violin-bow relationship. I also wanted to do less work, and get more out of the instrument. I wanted the bow to do more of the work for me. I wanted more physical ease and increased artistic possibility.
Although it took time to adjust, when I switched to my 250 gram bows my physical pain and problems went away. In due course, I was able to execute certain bowings with more precision and with more refinement than with a lighter bow, all with greater ease. Additionally, the resonance of any instrument I played was enhanced. Instruments responded more quickly and more fully under the heavier bows, and I was able to play at a higher level of artistry with a higher level of physical ease. I was sold on both the intellectual and practical level.
This is just an introduction to these “heavy” bows. As I mentioned at the outset, this is a very large topic that cannot be address fully here. If you want further reading and discussion, I highly suggest you check out my colleague Silvio Dalla Torre’s website, specifically the section under “Heavy Bow.”