The Art and Science of Bow Grip Material
Why add bow grip to your bow? Multiple reasons: firstly, it makes the bow easier to hold. The bassist’s bow hand has two simultaneous tasks: HOLDING the bow against gravity and its own balance point, and producing bow strokes requiring an extremely high level of fine motor control from the muscles and ligaments of the hand. A bass bow has more than twice the weight of a violin bow, so the holding task demands much more from the fingers, arm, and shoulder. The finger pressure required to merely keep the bass bow from falling out of the hand, and keep it in playing position, is contrary to the flexibility needed to produce fine bow strokes, so the bassist is asking the hand to perform two opposite tasks at once.
Adding a soft piece of high-friction material, such as rubber, to the contact area allows for holding the bow with less pressure, resulting in a more relaxed hand that’s more available for fine motor control. The slightly larger diameter of the grip is not only easier to hold securely in position, but the higher-friction material also helps to prevent the thumb and fingers from slipping.
Secondly, adding a piece of bow grip material helps considerably with the balance of the bow. Modern playing standards demand an unprecedented level of agility and clarity on the bass at earlier and earlier stages of study, and the demands only increase every year. Most mass-produced bass bows, and even many bows by fine makers, are COMPARATIVELY tip-heavy, as contrasted with bows that are balanced to maximize the bassist’s agility. The choice of a COMPARATIVELY tip-heavy bass bow is fine for an advanced player who selects it as a specific match for his bass and whose bow control is thoroughly developed, but is no advantage to a student or someone who has no choice of which bow is assigned for him to use. Teachers can identify with the drama when a student arrives, beaming, with a newly-acquired, tip-heavy bow that “makes such a big sound”, and whose bubble is popped with the reminder that a big sound is produced by relaxed arm weight, whereas with a bow like that, the necessary spiccato and sautille will be forever out of reach (and, privately, the teacher doesn’t really want the protracted drama of trying to teach spiccato to a kid with a tip-heavy bow).
A piece of suitable diameter rubber grip material weighs 3-5 grams, and can dramatically change the balance or the PERCEIVED balance of the bow - even when the balance point of a given bow doesn’t noticeably change with the addition of bow grip material to the frog, it will feel more balanced. It’s important not to install too large a piece and add more weight to the bow than necessary, as that causes a reversal of the benefits! Teachers can carefully evaluate the position of the piece of bow grip (on an average bow - this doesn’t work for all) so it’s short enough to remind students not to over-extend the first finger - if the finger falls off the forward edge of the grip onto the stick, it’s over-extended.
Thirdly, bow grip material preserves the contact area of the bow, assisting greatly in preventing wear to the stick, the leather, and the frog.
Doesn’t the thumb leather installed by the maker suffice for balance, padding, and secure grip?
With the exception of a superbly balanced bow by a very top-echelon archetier, no.
You could think of the addition of bow grip material as a performance enhancing accessory, like toe clips on bike pedals and built-in cup holders in your car - though toe clips weren’t part of original bike design, no one in the Tour de France is racing without them. And by all means, you can (theoretically) enjoy a cup of coffee while driving a manual, pre-cup-holder 1960 VW. Many people certainly have done this successfully, but it's nicer to drink coffee than to wear it - enter built-in cup holders. Some contemporary bass bow makers allow for the addition of replaceable bow grip material in the original balance of the bow, but mass-produced bows have little or no fine-tuning for balance. On bass bows, the thumb leather and winding serve as little more than a traditional decoration (this goes double for ‘whalebone’ winding on German bows). To have the traditional items is fine, and there’s no need to alter them in order to use replaceable grip material.
Additionally, wear to the leather, and stretching of the bow hair between re-hairing jobs, changes the balance and can’t be adjusted by the player. Bass bows (as you may have noticed) are extremely destructive to their bow hair! The high strength of the stick causes bow hair to stretch considerably more, and much faster, than on bows for the other instruments. Knowledgeable bow repairmen will rehair bass bows tighter than violin, viola, and cello bows, as hair on a bass bow stretches a huge amount in the first few days after rehairing. The more the hair stretches, the more tip-heavy the bow becomes. With the use of a piece of bow grip material, the bassist can adjust the balance of his bow at least a little bit to compensate.
Isn’t all of this just for French bows? It can’t be of any use on a German bow.
Actually, bow grip on a German bow can assist greatly with balance (though German bows have less tendency to be made tip-heavy) and in preventing slippage of the thumb and fingers. Additionally, the strategic positioning of the grip material can be a great pedagogical aid, reminding students to keep their index and middle fingers curved, so the bow is resting on these two fingertips, and the fingers are not flat against the underside of the stick. This is such a common beginner mistake that it’s nearly ubiquitous, so the teacher can easily position a piece of bow grip material so when the two fingers are properly curved, they are touching the grip, and if the student forgets and reverts to flattening the fingers, they will protrude past the grip onto the stick. Usually, on German bows, thin-wall rubber tubing is preferable, as it has to stretch more to be installed over the tongue of the frog, and it’s not desirable to add excess diameter to the top of the stick, where the thumb rests. It can also be folded back on itself to create a little ridge at the forward end, providing even more control of the position of the bow within the hand.
The most commonly-available commercial bow grip material is latex tubing. It’s installed on the bow by completely backing out the adjuster screw, carefully tipping the frog out of the mortise, and sliding the tubing over the stick to a spot out of the way of the frog. Once the frog and screw are back in place, the tubing is forced backward over the tongue of the frog. This process is greatly facilitated by using corn starch inside the piece of tubing to reduce the friction of installation. The use of soap is equally functional, initially, but then causes the accelerated deterioration of the rubber tubing, shortly turning it into a green, greasy, disgusting mess! Quantum Bass Center supplies inexpensive, bevelled pre-cut pieces of natural rubber tubing in swanky concert black, pre-loaded with corn starch for easy installation. It’s recommended that you change the tubing whenever you have your bow rehaired, as it does break down, wear through, and start to get sticky. It’s most functional at rehairing time for the repairman to cut off the old tubing and install a new one.
Of course, if you have an allergy to latex, or to corn starch, these materials won’t work for you. One of our clients substituted a silicone grip from a pencil! We have also had great success using athletic tape/tennis racket grip tape, creating a custom-shaped wrap. This material is hypo-allergenic, available in black, and slightly tacky, providing actually PHENOMENAL grip and comfort, but it doesn’t last nearly as long as rubber tubing. As it needs to be replaced as frequently as once a week, it’s something the bassist would need to learn to do on his own rather than take it to a shop, so QBC has never tried to offer it as a service. We’ve also seen self-adhesive moleskin used, which is a nice, thin, accessible, hypo-allergenic material sold in drug stores for foot care.
What size do I need/who can benefit from bow grip tubing?
These are malleable materials, and the length of tubing that works best for your bow is determined mainly by the limits of your patience in taking the tubing off, trimming it, and re-installing. We can confidently say that as an enhancement to playing comfort and finesse, it’s certainly worth trying by all French and German bow bassists. Our observation is that a large majority use some type of grip material. A few try it, then decide they don’t care for it. A number of others simply have never tried it, as they either weren’t exposed to an easy way to try it, or didn’t realize the addition of grip material isn’t destructive to the traditional leather and winding. Such a majority of students benefit from holding the bow with less hand tension that bow grip material is something we wholeheartedly recommend to string teachers to install on all their classroom bass bows, and the bows their students practice with at home. Additionally, the subtle reminder of correct bow hold, while less specific and bulky than bow hold trainers, can be very helpful in classroom situations, when the teacher can’t constantly correct each individual student.
If you've never tried a bow with rubber grip, stop by QBC (or the online store) today!
Articles on basses, setup, technique, teaching and more, by Quantum Bass Center staff and guests