Bow tension

Bow tension

Not the most exciting subject I agree. I have always favoured a very tight bow, to the point where the stick was almost straight, and that worked fine. However I have been concerned about a harsh tone, not a problem so much with tunes but on airs and when accompanying songs i think it is not the best. Reducing the tension a lot has improved the tone and I think helped me to play more expressively. But it is a lot of work to re learn this basic skill. I wonder what views others might have or is bow tension academic and good tone comes from other aspects of technique?

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Re: Bow tension

It depends on the bow too. They are all designed that little bit differently. I’ve found that cheaper bows need to be that little bit tighter.

"They say" that a pencil width between the bow and hair is about correct. I also agree that it’s good to have the bow slightly "less tight" for slower tunes, airs, waltzes etc.

Re: Bow tension

If your bow hair is tight enough that the stick stays off the strings, that’s all the tight you need. The sound is better if you don’t ratchet the bow down as tight as she’ll go.

Re: Bow tension

"I’ve found that cheaper bows need to be that little bit tighter."

I think it would be more accurate to say that the wood used for cheaper bows is less stiff, so that it deforms more under tension. Thus, you need to turn the thumbscrew more to achieve the same tension on the hair. In the cheapest bows, you sometimes see the arch in the stick flattened out completely (or even inverted) when the hair is at normal tension.

Re: Bow tension

Bow tension is a personal thing. Having the hair a bit slacker makes the bow more forgiving - consistent tone becomes easier and the bow has less tendency to bounce. But with tighter hair you can produce more volume and better projection. On a bow in good condition the pencil width or a little it more is a good starting point, but from there you need to experiment a bit and find what suits you personally.

You do quite often see people with the straight or inverted camber bows that CMO mentions, but if anyone has one my advice would be to bin it. On a normal bow, because of the camber, when the hair pulls the tip forward it traces an arc and actually moves slightly further away from the frog, so it fights against the hair and allows you to increase the tension. But with a flat or inverse cambered bow, as you tighten the screw the tip just moves towards the frog without increasing the tension in the hair.

Re: Bow tension

As Nate Ryan said, "If your bow hair is tight enough that the stick stays off the strings, that’s all the tight you need." Frankie Gavin says this to be true. I agree with him. Also reduces bow bounce.

Re: Bow tension

Bow tension is very much a personal preference, as Mark said. Obviously the tension will vary, depending on the stiffness / quality of the bow stick (which may be made of wood or of carbon fibre).

I think the ‘pencil width’ as mentioned by Johnny and Mark is a good guide, but the real test of ‘proper’ tension is when you play your hardest and all is well. Meaning - whether that be digging in and playing blistering reels, or punching out 3-note chords, there’s no chance of the wood contacting the hair and strings.

I’m a firm believer in having a bow tension that will work for everything (ie not adjusting the tension to ‘suit’ what you play).

Going back to the original post : "I wonder what views others might have or is bow tension academic and good tone comes from other aspects of technique?"

Once you’ve got the bow tension you’re happy with, then good tone is *all* about technique. Put simply, your tone is governed by several factors :

1. Bow pressure on the string(s)

2. Consistency of that pressure for the whole bow travel (unless you choose to accent a note)

3. Sounding point - ie near the bridge, or near the fingerboard, or in the middle

4. Speed of bow travel - greater speed = more volume

5. Straightness of your bow travel - (almost) always parallel to the bridge

6. Straight line on the return bow - if you ‘skew’ as you change direction, you’ll miss the initial bite of the fist note. (With many players, it happens a lot, but if you are playing a fast reel, it’s not so noticeable).

Exception to #5 above - eg, on the last long note of a slow air, you could start the note near the bridge, then move the bow in a diagonal direction, so that you end the note near the fingerboard, making for a nice little ‘fade-out’.

Re: Bow tension

I have four fine bows: Two of the bows are in the French tradition by a modern master. These generally lighter bows like less tension: That is, they like to be tensioned just enough not to hit wood. At the right tension, these bows resonate with the fiddle - the sympathetic vibrations can actually be felt by the bow hand fingers. It was exhilarating to first experience this phenomenon. My heavier German bows like a little more tension and they are very useful when more volume is needed and appropriate. That said, the ideal tension changes from bow to bow depending on the tune, the required volume and the humidity. (At very low humidity the bow may be damaged by too much tension.)
I play about 4to 5 hours a day. All my bows are easily accessed being right at my side: At times, a single bow seems best. I am always making fine adjustments to the bow tension. I have two fiddles and each one seems to have their favorite bow and each likes a their own idiosyncratic amount of tension.

Not that any of my bow obsession is necessary or even desirable. I just like to test and tweak and listen and learn. Its probably not an very important part of ITM but personal idiosyncrasies concerning tension probably do contribute to each fiddlers unique "voice". If you look at the album cover for Kerry Fiddles, you’ll see Padraig O’Keefee’s somewhat fat bow with what seems like an enormous amount of tension: I would give all my bows and probably the rest of my possessions to play like O’Keefee. So I would say, play on - experiment - observe -
and learn but don’t give it too much emphasis.

Re: Bow tension

All of the above is very interesting to someone (me) who has only had 7 lessons and is using a bow that the shop gave him as a freebie (worth about £25). I’m currently using the pencil width as a guide on the recommendation of my tutor.

m.d.

Re: Bow tension

You are a man of many talents. I’m sure Mike will give you a few good tips.
😉

Re: Bow tension

Interesting thread; I play with an Incredibow which is convex and has non-adjustable tension- I like its lightness and manoeuverability. I am now going to try my standard bow with different tensions to see what effect it has on my (decidedly average) playing, especially as I love slow airs and waltzes. Food for thought as always!

Re: Bow tension

A woman came to our session last night who had one of those Incredibows. I was awed by how comfortable it was to hold, with the rubber type grip they make for it. But it was the strangest thing while using it to see the fingerboard through the enormous space between the hair and the stick! It looked like an extreme baroque bow - or one that was horribly warped! lol But at the same time it had a lovely tip and clearly was carefully crafted. I just had to laugh at my split reactions over it - and I did enjoy playing with it. I know I would still use one of my good bows for most gigs and recordings I think; you can still do more with a "normal" stick but I was totally intrigued and really, now I want one because it’s pretty indestructible and handled well through a fast jig! And cause it’s pretty cool. 🙂

Re: Bow tension

Diane, the Incredibow works fairly well, but it’s worth noting that it was not originally designed to play the violin with. It was designed to fire arrows from, which is why is has that convex/concave shape (which changes, depending on before or after the arrow is fired).

When I used it as a violin bow, I couldn’t help notice the punishment lump near the frog. Some of the other models don’t have that 🙂 🙂

Re: Bow tension

Thank you so much Jim for the information! This bow is way cooler than I thought!

I MUST buy one and figure out the arrow firing thingy. Might be useful in the studio in place of the riding crop I use to um, encourage my students. :D