Chapter 2.1

The bass bow

I myself play the double bass a little, and my wife is a professional bass player. When I go to a concert, I therefore listen to the basses with special care. My impression is that bass entrances are chronically late - with the exception of my wife, of course. The bigger the orchestra, the later the basses come in. In fact, if you watch the basses play, it looks as if everything is right. But if you listen, what you get is something like the lag between lightning and thunder. In the latter case, what accounts for the lag is the different speed of light and sound. But so far as I know, the sound of a violin and a bass move at the same speed. Therefore, the delay we hear originates in the instrument itself. This is no surprise, considering the difference in size between a bass and a violin. The string is about three times longer. When the bow moves across the bass string at the same speed it moves across the violin string, the bass string needs a correspondingly longer time to start vibrating. The vibration must then move past the bridge (four times higher) to the top (with a surface ten times larger). Far more mass needs to be moved, and a longer path traveled, before the vibration of the string becomes audible. Therefore, a bass will always be more sluggish compared to the other instruments. This sluggishness is a challenge to the bow's response. In the case of the bass, this means that it is especially important that the bow's response fit the instrument. The damping capacity of the bow, on the other hand, is less important, since there is more than enough of this in the instrument itself. It has always surprised me that double basses with more than three hundred cracks and a tangle of badly-executed repairs can still sound so good. This only makes sense if the damping is understood as an important part of the tone. The repairs and cracks are actually dampers.

The instrument's size, of course, is a damper in itself. The damping capacity of a bass bow is therefore not something that needs to be worried much about. The real problem is getting the instrument to vibrate. It is well-known that there is a French and a German way of holding the bow. The French bow is also constructed differently. Usually the French bow requires more pressure on the strings and near the bridge. This calls for a strong bow with a pronounced response. In the case of the German bow, the string tends to be drawn from the wrist, allowing the bow to be softer and lighter in order to achieve a softer response. There is also a significant difference with respect to balance. The French bow is a bit shorter, and therefore needs a much more massive head. The German bow, on the other hand, needs to be light at the tip, since it needs to cover more distance when changing from one string to another.

It makes no sense to add a German frog to a French bow. Their respective qualities should not be mixed, nor should the character of the bow be modified to compensate for the disadvantages of one or another style of holding the bow. German is German, French French, and a good musician is good, whether German, French or Greek.

In summary, response is the main issue in bass bows. Tone is largely dependent on response, because the instrument itself offers more than enough damping capacity.

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