‘Orchestra’ vs ‘Solo’ bows
Is there really a difference between the two? Do you need to have two different bows? The answer is a resounding ‘maybe’. To put the end of this story at the beginning, you can use any bow that works for your playing and gets the sound you want and the bow strokes you need. The end. The rest is additional details...
Virtually all bows, with the exception of a very few modern bows made on commission, are just made to play the instrument, and are not constructed for exclusive ‘solo’ or ‘orchestral’ playing. The current vernacular describing a given bass bow as one or the other is completely subjective - but what are the characteristics of a bow that would lead to these categorical descriptors?
Firstly, weight. It’s often said that a heavier bow must be an orchestra bow, ergo a lighter bow must be for solo playing. Not necessarily so. There are many bass bows weighing below 130 grams that will pull a sound that will fill a hall, and are extremely articulate with the defining orchestra strokes, while there are bows over 145 grams that are so well-balanced they don’t feel heavy, and produce the nuanced legato and wide range of dynamics that are critical for good solo playing.
The degree of stiffness of the stick is the next most-referenced property of a bow that gets it described as solo or orchestral, and this does have some accuracy regarding what the bow can successfully be used for. A very supple stick can simply not have enough resilience to play an accurate staccato or orchestral spiccato, and would not be a good choice for orchestral playing. There are even players who don’t know they’re struggling to develop these strokes because their bow is incapable, even if it was very expensive or from a famous maker. However, a bow that’s too supple for a solid staccato or spiccato is not necessarily a “solo bow”. It might be simply not a good bass bow, or not suitable for your repertoire. By extension, a bow might have too much camber or stiffness to produce a sophisticated legato, and therefore not a match for Romantic solo literature or Bach - but might be described as a ‘solo’ bow by a player whose taste in solo pieces requires sautille and barriolage.
A very large factor in whether bassists describe a bow as ‘orchestral’ or ‘solo’ is whether they have just learned they need a new bow! E.g., their teacher has (quite rightly) informed them their current bow isn’t good for essential orchestra strokes. The student, having not yet developed a nuanced way to evaluate bows, begins thinking of, describing, or advertising the bow (which may be their beginner or even fiberglass bow) as a ‘solo’ bow, rather than one that simply should be replaced, or become their backup. Simplifying the advice to acquire a better bow that will produce orchestral strokes to an ‘orchestra bow’ can result in a bias that’s quite limiting when the player is shopping. He may not know to be open to trying out all bows that can expand his playing possibilities, and end up with a “very orchestral”, heavy, stiff bow that then creates a need to replace the bow he thought of as his ‘solo’ bow further down the line. Alternatively, the forward-thinking player tries out every bow, considering what the benefits may be.
Additional reasons a given bow develops a reputation as either ‘orchestral’ or ‘solo’ include what it was used for by its former owner, and as a comment by someone trying it out. A player could hand back a bow remarking “it’s not what I’m looking for - it might be a good orchestra bow, though”, and the salesman repeats the descriptor to others. It must also be noted that the bow hair is an enormous factor in the way a bow plays - a bow that is stiff and hard to control for legato bow changes might be significantly tamed by installing finer hair that has more stretch, and a bow that is a little bit mushy might just produce a perfectly good spiccato if coarser hair is installed. This can’t be determined as just a guess, however - it would need to be looked over by a good bass bow person. It also can’t be underestimated that one of the biggest factors in playing an orchestral stringed instrument is managing your aging bow hair, from the day it’s rehaired. Nothing stays the same from day to day, and it’s never predictable. The state of the hair has everything to do with how a bow plays on a given day, so it might be good for playing Strauss or Wagner when it’s newly rehaired, and frustratingly unsuitable two months later.
Do you need separate bows for your orchestral and solo playing? No, it’s not that categorical - the primary factor is your current stage of technique; secondly, that any bow you use is high-quality and responsive. A bow with specific characteristics can absolutely help you develop a technique that you were unable to play. That ability then stays with you as you play on other bows. Different bows certainly offer you different dimensions and colors - choices to optimize which bass and which strings you’re using, and the repertoire you’re playing, but not restricted to whether it’s orchestral or solo literature. Good bows can incentivize you to grow into them. As a student, begin with a quality, responsive bow of medium weight that (most importantly) is not tip-heavy. Play all the good bows you are able to, every chance you get. You may end up very well-served with just a couple of bows, or you may collect a variety, lighter and heavier, more camber and less, depending on the demands of your repertoire and your vision for expressing yourself musically.
Articles on basses, setup, technique, teaching and more, by Quantum Bass Center staff and guests