This story begins about five years ago, at the Vancouver (BC) Folk Festival, where I was performing outside in extremely wet rainy and humid conditions and learned, in a hurry, the value of always keeping a good second bow in your case. What I had at the time (and I knew I'd been pressing my luck for years) was one fine pernambuco gold bow, and a wonky old Brazil wood stick with a flower inlay on the frog, worth about $40 on a good day. Though I'd had that flower bow since I was a kid, its main function anymore was psychological insurance. That or decoration. I never played it and it was essentially useless. But when the humidity at the Vancouver folk festival caused the hair on my good bow to go absolutely slack, rendering it useless, I had no choice: I had to use the old flower inlayed club for a few sets. It wasn't terrible. I survived, sort of. And I left that festival absolutely convinced that I needed to get myself a good second bow, preferably one which would not be so susceptible to the elements, and definitely one I might actually like playing on if the first bow went out of commission, as had happened in Vancouver.
I'd been hearing about carbon fiber bows - that they are in fact more stable than wood bows, less affected by weather, more consistent, and a good value for the money. It made sense: like so many other modern items, why not go on the presumption that antiquated wood bow making techniques could be improved by the use of new, more technologically advanced materials and techniques like cars and tennis racquets? Seemed logical enough to me, and I did have a limited budget to work with. So I narrowed the focus of my search: carbon fiber. Did some surfing around on the internet, read what people had to say about the various carbon fiber bows, and then spent the next 2-3 months trying bow after bow. What began as a search compelled by a need for a good second bow turned into (of course) a search to satisfy my own curiosity about what was out there, what were these carbon fiber bows about after all? Might there be something that was actually better, louder, sweeter, easier to play, more responsive? What did I have to lose?
Here's what I learned - and granted I didn't try all the carbon fiber bows out there. Only the ones that showed up consistently in on-line posts and magazine ratings, etc., at that time (2003).
The first bow to come in the mail was a Coda bow. Given that I have a fairly hard attack and need to generate enough volume to be heard over a full bluegrass band, I set my sights on their top of the line violin bow - the Coda Classic. And in fact, because I was in touch with a couple of violin shops simultaneously, I ended up with two of these bows to try at the same time. The first thing to impress me was that the two bows played and sounded almost exactly the same. Both were loud and smooth, handled extremely well, felt like a nice supple wood stick, and produced an impressive dynamic range, loud to soft. For the money, I was extremely impressed. Worse, my curiosity was further piqued: if this was what a less expensive (under $1000) carbon fiber bow could achieve, what did the more expensive models sound like?
Ultimately, I did not settle on a Coda bow. Though both sticks I had in the house were fun to play and decent enough, there was fuzziness in the tone and, when I really drove it, a lack of articulation which I knew would eventually hang me up. Back they went. I still recommend these bows to any beginning or evenly moderately advanced player. For the money, they are an extremely good value and are amazingly consistent.
The next bows to arrive were from Arcus - both a Concerto model and a Sinfonia model (middle price bracket, but still double or more than the Coda). I'd done a bit of research on these bows, so I had an idea what to expect. One thing which all bow makers who work with carbon fiber have to contend with is the fact that carbon fiber is much stiffer and denser than pernambuco. Because of this it is a material that is not especially well suited to traditional bow making techniques. Arcus's way of handling this problem is to make their bows about 10 grams (give or take) lighter than traditional wood bows, and much stiffer. Arcus argues that anyone who takes the time to adapt his/her playing to the lightness and stiffness of an Arcus bow will find he/she can play more easily for longer periods of time without getting tired, and without compromising tone. So, regardless, I knew I was in for an adjustment period of a few weeks, and knew I needed to keep an open mind and would have to change my technique as necessary. I wouldn't just grab the bow and fall in love with it.
What I liked about both Arcus bows, instantly, was the volume and the clarity of the tone they produced, and the ease with which they played fast. There was no doubt that I would have to adjust my playing fairly dramatically in order to get the most out of them, but I was instantly impressed with their potential. As I kept trading back and forth, I decided that the Sinfonia played a bit more like a traditional wood bow while the Concerto was more decidedly different in feel. But I liked them both.
Long story short: after a lot of playing and going back and forth (about a month), I settled on the Concerto bow. Put a check in the mail and then went to play my first gig with the band, using the Arcus bow. This was the one thing I had not done yet with the Arcus (big mistake, of course), in putting it through its strides - I hadn't experimented with seeing how it responded and blended in an ensemble situation. And to my dismay, it was a big dismal no-go. While there was no question that the Arcus could produce tone as loud and clear as any I'd ever gotten on my fiddle, that was about it. Perhaps because of the excessive lightness of the stick, it did not respond favorably or blend at all where softer dynamics were required. The options were loud and clear, or soft and kind of wimpy. Hugely disappointed, I sent the bow back and asked the shop to tear up my check. (An aside: I was also beginning to notice that the excessive stiffness of the Arcus was a bit of a problem, causing me some right hand pain. I could lighten up on the stick to ease that somewhat, but the resulting loss in tone was not so good. Though I didn't play on the Arcus to the point of injuring myself, this is one thing I'd be a little wary of.)
In the midst of trying Arcus bows, I also had a Spiccato bow in the house for a while. Though these bows have since been discontinued (I think) the interesting thing about the Spiccato is that it is designed so that a player can adjust the bow's camber however he/she likes by tightening or loosening an insert (like a truss rod) that runs the length of the stick. Theoretically, this should change the playing characteristics of the bow, giving you more or less flexibility, as you wish. I found that, in fact, the tensioning insert worked about the same as tightening and loosening the bow hair and that the bow performed best in its default position with the hair moderately tight. For my taste, playing on my violin at the time, the tone on the Spiccato was not significantly better than the Coda. It was OK - a little clearer and more focused than the Coda. But not so much I'd spend twice as much money for it. Back it went.
End of First Part
Part 2 (next time) Greg finds a bow (sort of)
About the Author
Greg Spatz is the fiddle player with John Reischman and the Jaybirds. His playing resume includes work with The Good Old Persons, High Country, Frank Wakefield, Rob Ickes, and many others. He's also a graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop and has published numerous short stories, a short story collection, and two novels -- most recently _Fiddler's Dream_ (for more info go to www.gregoryspatz.com). He also moonlights as a professor of creative writing at Eastern Washington University and plays bouzouki and fiddle with the band Mighty Squirrel.