Saturday, June 4, 2011

Violin Bows- Too Tight, Too Loose, Just Right

 Written by Amy Tobin of Fein Violins

When you are learning how to play a bowed string instrument (violin, viola, cello), there are a lot of things about the process that can seem a bit nebulous and mystifying. It can be overwhelming for a beginning student because so much of what we do is seemingly done by feel.

One of those things that seem to be especially difficult to grasp early on is how much to tighten the bow when you play. Today I am going to give you a couple of quick tips to help you with this!

First of all,
let me preface this by giving you a little rhyme that we use in the store. It goes something like this:


The importance of this rhyme is to remind you that you not only need to tighten the bow to tension when you are playing, it is also absolutely crucial to loosen that tension when you pack up your instrument after playing or practicing! In fact, if you don't, you run the risk of warping your bow, at the very least, or breaking it entirely! You can read more about why this happens on our Bow Care 101 blog post.

So now you know, generally, what you are supposed to do, but just how much tension do you put on the bow to play properly and comfortably?

There is a real tendency among newer players to use too much tension on the bow. This can cause a problem for a couple of reasons. First of all, the bow will be much harder to control and make a good sound with, especially as you progress from the basic up bow and down bow. Secondly, too much tension on the bow can actually break the tip of it right off, which, believe me, is definitely something you want to avoid!

So how much tension is enough and how much is too much? A good rule of thumb that I use is a pencil width. If you tighten your bow a bit and can just fit a pencil in between the bow hair and the stick in the middle of the bow, that is enough tension. You can also use your pinky, but in this case, only the tip of your pinky will fit.

Using a pencil to check tension on bow at middle
Using pinky tip to determine bow tension at middle

From there, you might find that you need to adjust the bow SLIGHTLY tighter or looser. You will, however, be in the correct range with your pinky tip or with a pencil.

Once the bow is tightened, if you hold it in your hand, you should see that the hair will be closer to the stick in the middle than it is at either the tip or the frog end. This is exactly how you want it to be! If there is a fairly even amount of space between the hair and the stick along the whole length, then there is way too much tension and you need to loosen it a little bit.

Perfect tension, shown at tip of bow

Perfect tension, shown at middle of bow

Too tight! Shown at tip of bow

Too tight! Shown at middle of bow

Of all things stringed, this is probably the easiest thing to get the hang of, but it also can seem very mysterious at first! And as far as how much to loosen the bow when you put it away, you only need to make sure that the hair seems slack on the bow. No need to loosen it completely or you run the risk of the tension screw unthreading and the frog coming off!

loosened bow shown at middle

loosened bow shown at tip

Added on 7/24/22
As if tightening and loosening one's bow under normal playing conditions was not enough to worry about, humidity adds an unfortunate wrinkle to the entire process. 

If conditions are especially humid, you may find your bow not tightening enough. If this is true, your bow hair has probably stretched out. This may be especially true if you're playing outside or in unconditioned spaces. Notice how the screw pulls the eyelet toward the back of the bow wall-don't keep tightening unless you wish to strip the brass screw and eyelet. Unfortunately, your best bet is to wait until September to get a rehair once humidity reduces. Until then, be sure to store your bow in a conditioned space and consider a second bow. 


  1. OK, having experimented with various bow tighnesses I would definately say that this article is absoluteley correct. But I have had 3 teachers in my life and two were very into early music and they both encouraged a tighter bow, to the extent that the wood was almost straight! I found this annoying but could it be to do with a certain approach that is more authentically baroque? I don't know, this has always mystified me. Or possibly, as I should have memntioned, could it be because I play the viola and the lower strings need a tighter bow to get that gutteral sound?

  2. Thank you for your instruction. I am beginning to play and must do so on my own, for now. Of all the videos I have watched and information I have read, our photos and instruction on the bow is the only one that explains the process the best.
    Now for me to practice, practice, practice.

  3. Perfectly correct, especially when using modern strings.

  4. So would this be applicable to a cello bow? I'm just starting out, and I'm so worried I'm going to somehow damage something...

    1. Hi Nikau,

      This would apply to cello bows or any other stringed instrument bow. This post elaborates more on bow care.

      Good luck with your playing and have fun!

      Martha McDermott
      Fein Violins

  5. Best instructions I have read. Thank you sincerely

  6. I'm really worried if I'm doing this correctly or not. I'm started to learn the bass.

  7. Thanks for the tension guideline. I'm a senior beginner. I was always going a little too tight. Seemed to me too loose I had a tendency of hitting the other strings too easily and too tight the bow would bounce on the string.

  8. I have always played with a slightly tighter bow. About the depth of the
    thumbnail. I was surprised to see Pinchas Zuckerman playing with a bow as loose as I loosen mine. It's made me think again.