Chapter 12

Strip your bow

I have been making bows for twenty-five years and I am still learning. At the moment my focus of interest is on the silver winding.

I was encouraged to go down this route of research through my friendship with Gordan Nikolic. He is an extraordinary violinist and a very inspiring person to all who come in contact with him. My deep admiration for his playing, and his infectious energy led me to explore new ground. We have spent many hours together trying out all sorts of different bows. The roles are very clear: he is the player and I am the listener. Sometimes I rehair his bow while he is playing, sometimes I sit in my armchair and just listen. Of course I always ask him to try out my new violin bows. Gordan and his playing are so familiar to me now, that I really feel able to hear and judge the bow for what it is. We are comfortable together and have developed trust and confidence over the years.

Recently Gordan came into the workshop excited by a new idea he’d got from a friend that all Tourte bows have their balance point at exactly 19 cm from the frog. He even wondered if 19cm was perfect for all violin bows. That was his premise and even though I was very skeptical, he pushed me to explore the idea further.

We began by stripping a Tourte bow and fiddling around with different wrappings until we got the balance point perfectly at 19 cm. To cut a long story short, we discovered that 19 cm was in fact not the ideal balance point for this particular bow. It became also obvious then for both of us that the 19 cm rule was certainly not applicable to all violin bows. We had quite a collection of fine old bows to experiment with: a Leonard Tourte, a Dominique Peccatte, two Voirins, a Nicolas Maire as well as some that I had made.

To our astonishment all the bows improved immediately when we stripped them of their silver winding. It is important to mention that Gordan Nikolic recently switched to gut strings on his Guarneri, and he firmly believes that everybody else should do so too.

In fact, steel strings are a relatively new development. It was only by the fifties that steel strings became the norm. I have heard about a letter to the members of “het Concertgebouw orkest” from their management dated 1929 forbidding the use of steel strings in concerts because they broke so often.

All string instruments built before then were originally intended to be played with gut strings. That is hard to deny isn’t it? If you own an old violin and gut doesn’t work for you then you could use modern “gut imitation”, but no steel strings please!

Silver winding was developed around the same time as steel strings. They belong together. So, if you play an old instrument and you use gut strings (very good), then try stripping your bow of its silver winding.

If it doesn’t improve then feel free to write me a mean letter or email. Then go back to your bowmaker and have him rewind your bow. The damage should be around $50.

The bows we stripped didn’t only sound better, they also played better without loosing any volume. I really stood with my mouth open (while Gordan cracked-up laughing) when I saw that the bows also scored better on the Lucchi meter. This is one piece of real evidence that proves that silver winding acts as a dampener.

For those who don’t know what a Lucchi meter is, it is a machine that sends a high frequency through the stick and measures how long it takes for the impulse to get from one end to the other. The shorter the time, the greater the elasticity of the stick. A high reading doesn’t necessarily make a good bow, but if you get accustomed to using the machine, it can give you important information when judging the properties of a stick. It was invented by one of my former teachers Giovanni Lucchi.

Nowadays everybody tries to give his ideas a scientific facelift. I’m not a very scientifically minded person myself. For me personally the truth is something which has to be understood emotionally, with all our senses and intuition. A scientific approach can be helpful, but it’s certainly not the only way to understand the world. Many people believe too much in numbers.

Personally I need to understand what the bow actually does while being played by a musician. When a musician plays his instrument, he puts energy through the bow and the string into the instrument and what comes out is music. All three parts, musician, bow and instrument are interrelating with each other .This makes it very difficult to understand the movements of a bow scientifically. It’s obvious that the bow plays a big role in conducting vibrations.

As an analogy I imagine a heavy rope that’s tied to a post at one end while at the other someone shakes it up and down so that the rope makes waves like a snake. If you attach a weight to the rope (like the winding on a bow) and you move it in the same way as before, it behaves differently. First you have to whack it a bit harder but then the extra energy follows through to the post. When the wave returns back from the post to the person the weight acts as a dampener. In my understanding the same thing happens with a bow when it is wrapped with a silver winding. The bow becomes heavier and reacts more slowly which especially dampens the high overtones. This is what I heard so clearly that day with Gordan.

If you accept the theory that silver winding has a dampening effect on bows, then the next thing to be established is whether or not this is beneficial. In fact some damping could be a benefit in conjunction with steel strings which sometimes sound shrill. If you really like steel strings (bad) then silver winding might well be a good option, even though the bow becomes heavier and less sensitive. Gut strings are probably a little less powerful, but they make up for this with a richer spectrum of overtones. If your bow has a silver winding and you play gut strings then you are not taking full advantage of the possibilities of your instrument. Silver winding on a bow works well with steel strings, but not with gut or gut imitation.

If you are not completely satisfied with your bow and would like to experiment, then I suggest you go to see your bowmaker. Before you do anything, measure the exact weight and locate the balance point of the bow. Bear in mind that a full silver winding weighs between 4 and 5 grams. If the winding ends just underneath the leather grip it will weigh about 1 gram less. The leather weighs between 0.5 and 1.5 grams. A heavy silver winding can move the balance point about 2 centimetres. A pure silk winding should not weigh more than 2 grams including a leather. This gives you just a little idea of what to expect. There are no hard and fast rules. Some bows have thicker wood making the winding heavier, the diameter of silver windings can vary (between 0.2 and 0.4mm) and some windings are longer than others (between 7 and 8 cm).

When you take off the silver winding you will be astonished that you don’t loose much power. This is because even though you loose some weight the balance point moves up towards the tip giving more leverage.

More weight at the tip has both advantages and disadvantages. The balance point of a violin bow is often best at around 19 cm from the frog. Don’t take this as a fixed rule, every musician and every bow is individual. However, in general the lighter the bow the further up the balance point should be.

So if you want to strip off, go to see your bowmaker and have fun. The worst that can happen is you loose some time and your winding. The best that can happen is that your bow hugely improves.

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