Looking to purchase a violin bow? Or just curious about the different types of bows out there? You have come to the right place!
I have found there are four different materials that are commonly used to make bows. They vary drastically in quality and price, from super cheap (~$50 or less) to sometimes tens thousands of dollars! Let’s see how they compare.
These are definitely some of the cheapest bows out there. They typically come with rental instruments, and lots of local music stores carry them. It’s what I started out with as a kid.
The greatest benefit of fiberglass bows is that they are super durable. This makes them a great choice for younger kids because they can often be quite rough on their instruments. While wooden bows snap very easily (sadly, even professionals are known to break their bows), I have never once seen a fiberglass bow snap!
Additionally, fiberglass bows hold their shape very well. While wooden bows can warp over time, these sticks tend to keep their shape for years and years, even if you don’t loosen them when packing up your violin.
The biggest downside is that you don’t get the lovely flexibility that other materials can provide, so your playing will not be as beautiful as it would be with a nicer carbon fiber or wooden bow. So, while these bows are great for students who are just starting out, they will greatly limit your ability to execute advanced techniques as your playing matures.
While quality tends to be quite consistent with fiberglass bows, it can vary widely with bows made from brazilwood. There are some that actually play very nicely, comparable even to pernambuco wood (the holy grail for violin bows). But the most common brazilwood bow you’ll find will be even cheaper than the fiberglass and far less durable.
Funnily enough, brazilwood and pernambuco actually come from the same tree. However, pernambuco is made from the heartwood of the tree and brazilwood is not. Therefore, brazilwood is not as dense and usually won’t perform as well as pernambuco.
I have noticed in my own experience that brazilwood bows are very much prone to warping (curving out of their normal shape with time). So, their durability isn’t the greatest. However, since they are wooden, they will definitely have that nice supple flexibility to bring more nuance to your playing.
So, while a brazilwood bow can be a great way to access some of the benefits of a wooden bow without breaking the bank, I would not recommend buying a super cheap one (less than $70 or so). The craftmanship on those can be very subpar. For bows around the $50 mark, you’re much better off buying a fiberglass bow.
Commonly seen as the best alternative to pernambuco bows, carbon fiber bows have greatly increased in popularity throughout recent years. They are much more affordable than pernambuco, and far more durable. Carbon fiber is an extremely strong material.
The frog, similar to wooden bows, is made from ebony (a type of wood) and will definitely be the first thing to break if it ever does. And, unlike fiberglass, carbon fiber bows are known for their performance. Some professionals even use them!
However, similar to the brazilwood bows, carbon fiber bows can vary a lot in quality. That said, the cheapest carbon fiber bow will definitely be better than the cheapest brazilwood bow you’ll find. I personally played a carbon fiber bow for years which cost $700. While it served me well for that time, my playing improved dramatically when I upgraded to my $2500 pernambuco.
So, no carbon fiber bow will ever outplay the best pernambuco bows. But, in a lot of cases, a $500 carbon fiber bow will outperform a $500 pernambuco, so it can definitely be a consideration if you are an advanced player on a limited budget. The less expensive carbon fibers, in the $100-$200 range, can also be a great choice for beginning students.
Finally – the holy grail! Fine bows made from pernambuco wood are notoriously expensive. A lot of professionals own bows that cost them well over ten thousand dollars! However, you can also find a pernambuco bow for a few hundred dollars, sometimes less. Usually, the amount you spend will correlate with the quality, but it is so important to try different bows to see what suits you best. Sometimes you’ll like the $2,000 bow better than the $5,000!
Pernambuco is simply the ideal material for a bow. It is flexible, strong, and dense. Pernambuco bows made by skilled bowmakers sound amazing. To a beginner, it is hard to notice the difference. But to a professional, the difference is worth thousands of dollars!
You might be wondering why pernambuco bows can be so expensive. The wood itself is endangered and can cost more money for that reason. But for the really fine bows, you are paying for the craftmanship and sometimes for its antique qualities. Many fine bows are over one hundred years old!
However, pernambuco bows are delicate. They are durable when compared with brazilwood, but they are definitely known to break. The most common site of breakage is at the thinnest part of the stick, right near the tip of the bow (see picture). Unfortunately, when a bow breaks here, it loses almost all of its monetary value, though its playability is usually fine once repaired.
Overall breakdown: Pros/cons of different bow types
|Price||$$||$ – $$$||$$ – $$$||$$ – $$$$$|
|Playability||Average||Terrible – good||Good – very good||Good – exquisite|
In our modern world, there are a few different materials that are commonly used to produce bows. While each has its pros and cons, there are many good choices for players of all different levels. Fiberglass bows are a great starter bow for all beginner students, and upgrades to nicer brazilwood or carbon fiber bows are available at a reasonable price point when the time is right. Professionals have a choice between carbon fiber and pernambuco, with pernambuco definitely winning the prize for sound and playability.
What kind of bow do you use? Let me know in the comments below!