The answers to the first few questions are fairly simple. Though there is such a thing as “synthetic” hair on the market (we don’t recommend it, by the way), most bows are strung with actual hair from horses’ tails. Bow rehairers can choose from Siberian, Mongolian, Manchurian, Polish, and more recently, Argentinian horsehair; according to Joan Balter, a bow maker and repairer in Berkeley, California, stallion hair from Siberia is generally considered the best.
For various reasons, the kind of horsehair used makes a difference in the quality of the final product. Horsehair from animals in northern climates tends to be stronger, which Balter explains is nature’s response to coping with more frigid temperatures. The gender of the horse is also important; stallion hair is preferred because it is generally cleaner than that of mares, which tends to get hit with more urine spray.
Other factors that affect quality are consistency and color. Both players and bow makers value straight hair. “Hairs with irregular structures will cause weird, scratchy sounds,” says Balter. “It’s like hitting a pothole in your car.” Many bow rehairers prefer a white hair, particularly for violins and violas, because hair of this color is usually finer in texture. (There is, however, some disagreement about the extent to which color correlates with textural differences that affect sound.) Many bass and some cello players use the coarser black hair, which some say is “grabbier,” while others opt for a salt and pepper combination.
At the stage when bow makers start working with their clients, an entirely new set of considerations comes into play. “We start to talk about ‘bite’,” says Beckley. “This is a wonderfully subjective thing that’s tough to quantify. I think people’s perceptions of horsehair come from some drawings from the turn of the century, which have little arms and fingers coming out of horsehairs, grabbing onto your strings. When you actually see photos of magnified hair, there aren’t barbs at all. I think bite comes from the hair’s ability to hold rosin.
|Paul Guhn, bowmaker|
Joan Balter says that there are a few things that players, especially beginners, should understand about bow hair. “Often students wait too long to get a rehair,” she says. “When you break a lot of hairs on the playing side, you should get the bow rehaired or it will warp, because all of the pressure is on one side and it pulls the bow around. That can cause permanent damage.” Balter also stresses that dirt and oil are rosin’s worst enemies, so to make a bow rehair last, players should keep the hair clean and refrain from touching it with dirty hands.
For further questions about caring for bow hair, feel free to contact me any time.
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