May 8, 2018

Bow Technique

The bow has been around for thousands of years and has been used in various ways to draw sound from stringed instruments. Many of the specific bow techniques we use today were invented (or perhaps just given a name by some prestigious performer who happened to be Italian or French) around the Baroque Era (1600 – 1750) when violin, viola, cello virtuosity became more prevalent – maybe even earlier.

What is a Bow Technique?

There are many variables that a performer can change when bowing on their instrument to create different sounds. A performer can use these variables in many different combinations to create different sounds on their instrument. We give many of these combinations different names.

Studying how to effectively use the bow through these techniques is crucial to creating a memorable performance. After all, it is our right hand / bow that actually creates the sounds on the instrument. The left hand (to over simplify it) changes the pitch of the sound that our bow creates. It’s important to know that it is the bow that is responsible for creating rich sounds by changing variables to create varied articulations and dynamics.

Bow Technique Variables

The variables of each bow technique include:

  • Where is the bow placed in relation to the frog or tip?
  • Does the bow stop in between strokes?
  • Does the bow start on or off the string?
  • Does the bow end on or off the string?
  • Is the bow direction repeated?

The following bow techniques produce different articulations of sound. Some techniques (detaché, louré) produce long tones where each note is connected with no silence in between them, while other techniques (staccato, spiccato) produces tones that are short sounding with silence in between notes. Other techniques (marteléaccented detaché) produce a forceful articulation at the beginning of a tone.

Bow Techniques

Bow Technique Sound Created Bow Placement On or Off the String Does the bow stop moving between bow strokes? Variations Notes
Detaché legato, smooth full or partial bows On/On No, bow never stops moving Accented Detaché, Detaché Lance
Staccato short, “staccato” full or partial bows On/On Yes, bow stops motion in between bow strokes
Martelé short, “marcato” full or partial bows On/On Yes, bow stops motion in between bow strokes “Accented Staccato” Bow pressure prior to the bow movement. Pressure is released instantaneously as the bow is quickly drawn to produce a sharp attack. Staccato is a softer version of Martelé.
Spiccato short small at the balance point of the bow Off/Off No, the bow never stops moving Bounced Spiccato, Brushed Spiccato Spiccato passages begin with a Collé bow stroke
Louré / Portato legato, smooth full or partial bows On/On No, the bow never stops moving Repeated same direction bows, emphasizing new note, sound never stops
Collé short small bow, “pizzicato like” On/Off No, the bow never stops moving (but in the air, off of the string) Used to prepare for another bow stroke
Hooked/Linked Bow most often short full or partial bow On/On Yes, bow stops motion in between bow strokes portato, loure Used to maintain a steady dynamic (loudness) on all notes, especially the shorter note value.

Used when two notes are under the same bow but with different note value.

Col Legno short small bow off/off col legno battuto Instruction to strike the string with the stick of the bow, not the hair.
Sautillé short small bow on/on no An oblique force from the hand/arm causes the bow to spring (the hair stays on the string)

Thanks to Jim Kjelland for the jumping off point!

Dynamic Contrast with the Bow

There are three ways to vary how you use the bow to create dynamic contrast on your instrument.

Quiet Sound Bow Technique Loud Sound
Light Pressure Heavy
Slow, small Speed Fast, full
Tip of Bow
Location Bridge
Frog of Bow
  • Pressure between the bow hair and the strings. To get louder using pressure, apply more. To get softer, apply less.
  • Speed of the bow across the strings. Fast, loud notes can be easily played with a fast bow. To decrescendo using speed, go slower and use less pressure. When playing a long note loudly, speed will not help you very much. In this case, change the location of your bow as well (see below).
  • Location of the bow in relation to the bridge and the fingerboard. This also includes to a lesser degree which part of the bow (tip, frog). It is most useful to pay attention to the bow location when playing long notes. When playing a long, soft note, play slowly and near the fingerboard. If the note is short and soft, it is useful to play near the fingerboard, at the tip. When playing a long, loud note, play near the bridge and apply a little bit of pressure (not too much or you’ll sound squeaky). If the note is short and loud, try playing at the frog and near the bridge.

Balancing Pressure, Speed, & Location

This chart shows how to effectively balance Pressure, Speed, and Location to create effective dynamics and portray the composer’s intent in a given composition.

Bass players, take this chart with a grain of salt, as your instrument is a bit different. It still holds mostly true, but generally you use smaller, heavier bows. 

How to Create Dynamics-

How does Location effect Pressure

If you play by the bridge, you must use more pressure. If you use a light pressure, you will create a wispy tone.

If you play by the fingerboard, you must use light pressure. if you use heavy pressure, you will create a crunchy tone and even hit neighboring strings.

How does Location effect Speed

If you play by the bridge, you will need to use a small / slow bow. If you use a fast bow, you will create a wispy tone.

If you play by the fingerboard, you will need to use a fast / full bow. If you use a small / slow bow, you will create a crunchy tone – if any at all.