The last carbon bow to come in the mail was a silver Berg bow, made by Michael Duff. By far the most expensive of the carbon fiber bows I'd tried to that point, it was also, without a doubt, the most responsive and easiest to play, and got the best tone of the lot. The weight and feel of a Berg is essentially identical with a good pernambuco stick, though it is a bit stiffer, and, as Mr. Duff likes to point out, there are no inconsistencies or weak spots anywhere in it. Though I talked to him at some length, I never did find out what his trade secret is for so handsomely concealing the carbon fiber as wood, or how he deals with the inherent problems of weight and flexibility in a carbon fiber bow, but he's done it. True, the Berg was way out the other end of my initial budget; but I decided, ultimately it was too good to pass up - besides, a comparable wood stick would have been easily twice as much money. So I went for it. For a time it was even my primary bow - I recorded and performed on it, and to this day I am as happy, almost, playing on it as I am playing on a good pernambuco bow. Just as I had envisioned from the beginning - the Berg waits in my case, more impervious to weather changes than my wood bow, and when I need it, there it is, and I am completely satisfied.
But there is a difference, and in the bigger picture, what all my experimenting with carbon fiber bows taught me is this: for the money, you can't beat carbon fiber. It is cheaper and more consistent than wood. But when you really listen hard, a carbon fiber bow just does not have all the tonal characteristics of a pernambuco bow. Probably because of the sympathetic vibrations created between the wood stick and the wood violin, there is a whole range of frequencies which a carbon bow just cannot produce (at least none I've tried, as yet). You could probably analyze the waveform to see what's missing and maybe someone already has. To my ear it's mostly lower frequencies that seem to be lacking, so there's a certain depth and that ever-illusive warmth of tone you can get from a pernambuco stick but which you just can't, in my experience anyway, get from a carbon fiber bow. You can come close. But wood is wood, and carbon fiber is carbon fiber. Use the wood in the studio and the carbon fiber when you're on an outside stage in some kind of weather.
Some other tips on bow hunting (learned, sadly, by trial and error):
Hair makes a difference: Make sure the bow you're trying is well haired. Most violin shops and bow makers use the best quality Mongolian stallion hair they can find, so the quality of the hair, generally speaking, should not be a factor. However, it's definitely worth your while to make sure the bow has been well haired. Uneven or crossed hairs will cause the tone to seem fuzzy or gritty, and may also drastically affect the bow's responsiveness. To check for evenness, loosen the bow hair until almost all the tension is out of it and then visually inspect the evenness of the hair tension. It can never be absolutely perfectly even, of course, but if many hairs seem to you much longer than others, many much shorter, and in general the tension does not seem even all across (if the hair looks more billowy than ribbon-like) then you've got uneven tension and you will not be hearing anything like the bow's real potential when you play on it. To check for crossed hairs, tighten the bow hair moderately and then take a business card or index card (or something like it - thin but stiff enough) and insert it through the hair at the bow's tip. Next, gently draw or comb the business card slowly down the length of the bow until you're at the frog. Look closely at the hair there. Inevitably you're going to find a few hairs crossed and tangled up against your business card. That's normal. But if a lot of hairs seem to be crossed and tangled, you'll be getting a compromised sound out of the bow. It will not sound or play to anything like its full potential.
Rosin makes a difference: Not all rosins play well together. Ask the violin shop or bow maker whose bow you're trying out what kind of rosin they've got on the hair and try to stick with the same thing or something similar during your trial. Rosins with metal particles or metal solvents in them (Pirastro Gold Fleck, Liebenzeller, Motrya, etc.) will interact really badly with more conventional older rosins (Bernardel, Millant, Hill, etc.) Applying one on top of the other, in my experience, will actually make the bow hair feel slick and soapy - and the more you apply the worse it gets. You can do an alcohol dunk later, if you buy the bow, remove all rosin from the bow hair and then re-rosin it with your choice of rosin.
Don't over-rosin the bow while you're trying it. Because most of the friction between the bow and string is actually caused by static electricity and not by rosin application, play for a good 10-15 minutes before applying rosin. Let the bow warm up and then see if you still feel in need of more rosin. If you do, just take a few swipes - don't overdo it. If you see a lot of rosin dusting off and covering the violin, you've probably got too much on. No big deal. Just play a while before applying any more.
Keep your setup consistent: Make sure your strings are not too old or too new. Don't change strings or change anything about your setup while you're trying bows. Different bows responded differently to different instruments and setups. A good bow on one violin is a lousy one on a different violin; a good bow in one player's hands is useless to another player. So do your best to keep at least one element of the bow-choice tri-lateral equation (player, violin, bow) consistent by not messing with anything in your instrument's setup.
If you're in a shop, try several bows quickly and use your initial impressions to narrow the field down to 2 or 3. Then take a little more time trying to figure out which of the 2 or 3 you like best. Then use that "best" one as a yardstick against which to test any other bows that come along.
After Part I of this article appeared, I got a nice note from Jeff Van Fossen at Coda Bows, asking me if I'd like to try their brand new Diamond GX. He thought they might have addressed some of my concerns about focus and clarity with this new, improved model. Of course, I like trying bows. Why not? The bow shipped overnight, in time for me to bring it on the road and test drive it with the band. What a great company!
Again, I was impressed with the look and feel of the Coda, and instantly felt pretty comfortable playing it. And though the GX seems like a definite improvement over the Classic, it still has a bit of the same problem, at least for me: lack of focus when you really try to pull tone, and, overall, a bit more string sound (mostly high end and mid-range frequencies) than fundamental, when compared with the Berg or with my wood bow. It feels and plays great, and I would recommend it in a heartbeat (I already have) for any moderately advanced player, or as a second bow. An excellent value for the money.
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.