Chapter 2.3

The viola bow

I make a lot of viola bows. This is not because I am especially fond of them, but because they sell well. Although there are a lot of excellent old violin bows available, fine old viola bows are rare. In instrument making in general, the viola is something of a stepchild, or was, at least, till the beginning of the 20th century. But all violas suffer from a common problem, which is their size. Size and range correspond in violins and cellos. But the viola is too small for its range. Rather than 40 cm., the body of the instrument should really be 54 cm. long , a length even an American basketball player would find unplayable. As a matter of fact, the double bass is also too small for its range. Vuillaume transposed the proportions of the violin and cello to the double bass, resulting in the well-known octobass. This too is totally unusable. I know of no similar experiments with the viola. All playable violas are too small for their range, hence their characteristically squeezed sound.

For a time, big violas of 42-46 cm. length were fashionable, but many players now prefer smaller instruments, which are more comfortable to play. In any case, violas come in all forms and sizes, but only a very few produce a really convincing tone.

The bowmaker must therefore build bows for sound. It has been my experience that most violas react well to a soft response, because it reinforces the bass. It also makes the sound warmer and fuller.

In all honesty, I have hardly ever encountered a viola bow I was really enthusiastic about, although I continually run into violin and cello bows that I admire without reservation. The general rule, I would say, is that sound production should have priority over speed of response and springiness. It sometimes helps to modify the camber. There is then less tension on the hair, which produces a softer sound by increasing the damping effect. Using snakewood with it's greater damping effect could be an alternative.

Book Index