Shopping for a Bow, Part 1

Shopping for a bow deserves as much attention as shopping for an instrument. This article will break down the details of each step and clarify some of the more peculiar aspects of violin family bows. The information that follows is what I have come to understand through my experiences as a bow maker, teacher, and musician. We will cover what I believe is pertinent to the process, as well as address some of the typical questions that may arise.

Find a good, reputable shop.

When purchasing anything from a dealer or shop, you are entering into a long relationship with the shop you are working with. They will work with you on maintenance, rehairs, and repairs. Their staff will help you determine a suitable budget and direct you to the right selection of bows. A good and courteous sales staff will give you some background information on particular makers and brands. Whether a handmade or workshop or a new or used bow, a good shop will have priced these items accordingly so you are looking at comparable bows in each price range. Additionally, the sales staff should be able to get an impression of what you might like during the selection process and direct you to more bows that will suit you. Ask a teacher or a fellow colleague, call around, visit, and feel out the local shops. Sometimes you may have to travel a distance, even across state lines, but this relationship is worth it no matter how little or how much you are willing to spend.

What about working with a bow maker directly?

There is the option of working with a bow maker directly and/or commissioning a bow to be built specifically for you. We are in an era of bow making in which most established makers are consistently producing competition level bows; modern makers across the world are crafting some of the best bows ever produced in history. One of the benefits of working with a maker directly is that they will work with you and tailor the bow specifically to your playing style and instrument. I strongly recommend this route for young professionals and music school students. Not only will you get a more personalized experience but won’t have to break the bank to get a super high quality bow. 

What are bows made out of?

Quality bows are made from a tropical hardwood called Pernambuco, historically several other woods have been used such as Snakewood, Ipe, and Ironwood to name a few. Pernambuco is a strong dense wood that can take a curve (the stick is heated and bent into shape) and has excellent sound transmission. It is still the preferred and accepted wood for bows even though carbon fiber bows are becoming increasingly popular in the entry level price ranges. Carbon fiber is an excellent alternative to pernambuco and you may even consider one (read more about Carbon Fiber Bows). Many bow makers experiment with alternative woods that show promise and would be a recommended discussion to have with your local bow maker. 

What is available?

We should begin with what is typically available to give you an idea of some of the price ranges of violin family bows. This may be of some help when determining your budget. You might find the following in their corresponding price ranges for violin and viola bows. Cello bows of comparable quality may be somewhere between 15% and 30% more than their violin counterparts.

Under $100 – Mostly Chinese Bows and Entry Level Carbon Fiber
$1K to $350 – Nicer Pernambuco Chinese Bows and Quality German Brazilwood Bows
$300 to $650 – Entry Level Brazilian and German Workshop Pernambuco Bows
$650 to $2,500 – Quality Brazilian and German Workshop Bows, Entry Level Handmade Bows
$2,500 to $10K – Quality Handmade Bows and Entry Level European Bows by Historical Makers
$10K and Up – Investment Quality Bows, Including the Finest British, American, German, and French Makers

Note that the nationalities listed are not a complete list but are typical of what you will find, there are always exceptions.

Handmade vs. Workshop

Violin family bows are complex and while machines and power tools may be used to rough out parts, they all still have to be finished by hand. Handmade is defined as a bow completely made by only one person from beginning to end. A workshop bow is defined as a bow made by multiple people, ie. the person who makes the sticks is different then the person who makes the frog is different from the person who makes the buttons. For example, the sticks of Brazilian workshop bows are completely made in house and they will import finished and half-finished frogs from Germany. This does not make them function any better or worse, but the price will reflect this, which may enable one to get a quality bow at a lower cost. 

New vs. Used

Just about all bows above $20K are used as they tend to be antiques by notable makers and workshops, some easily over 200 years old. Violin family bows are not like most consumer products; they do not lose value when you leave the show room. In fact, bows either hold their value or some of the finer examples tend to increase in value over time. Most bows under $5K are rarely investment quality bows in the financial sense. What you are investing in, is your sound and ability to connect with an instrument to make music. If someone gave you a Tourte to play, but you just cannot get a good sound and can’t seem to connect with it, you are almost better off playing a broomstick with hair that you do connect with. If you are looking to make a financial investment in instruments, like all investments, it takes money to make money and this article is definitely not for you. Foundations, museums, and the like, are the typical organizations who purchase these types of instruments and bows anymore as they are generally out of reach financially for most musicians anyway. Bows by F.X. Tourte are nearing $1 Million and works by D. Peccatte can range from $100K – $300K.

Determine your budget.

Keep in mind we are only dealing with art and music, this is not life or death. No one needs to go into serious debt to find a suitable bow. There are nice bows in almost every price range. If you are in the market for a bow and have a teacher, this is something you should discuss with them and they can give you some direction in price ranges for bow. Also keep in mind that a $10K bow is not twice as good as a $5K bow and a $100K bow is not ten times better than a $10K bow. If we try to put it in quantitative terms, the difference between a $1K bow and $5K is something like 20%, between $5K and $20K about 2%, and between a $20K and $1 Million maybe 0.2%. Now if you are a top tier seasoned musician, that extra 0.2% is might make a world of difference. Like a new driver trying to drive a Ferrari, they are not going to come close to tapping into the full potential of the car as a professionally trained race car driver.

As always there are exceptions, but the following would be an adequate break down of what I have found to suit violinists at different skill levels and stages of playing:

Under $650 – Bows suitable for beginners and intermediate students of all ages.
$350 to $1,200 – Middle school and high school students that study privately and enthusiastic amateurs.
$1K to $2,500K – Working musicians, advanced high school students and serious amateurs.
$3,000K to $10K – Professional Musicians and Music School Students
$10K and Up – The same as before but leaning more toward investment quality bows.

Keep an eye out for Part 2 that covers the process of testing out the bows and a guide of what to look for!

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