French or German Bow?

Most students begin their studies with whatever style of bow their teacher uses. This is fine. Some people think that the student should be given the choice. However, I’m not sure if the student can make a truly informed decision. There was a great article on choosing a bow in American String Teacher by Dan Swaim. He talks about the length of the students arm impacting bow choice, among other factors. He recommended French style for shorter arms and German for longer arms.

French is easier to teach in a classroom setting because in the public schools because classes are often mixed and basses often get put with cellos. So this saves the educator time. Also many string teachers are not bassists (one reason for this publication) and therefore only know French since this is what the other string instruments use, albeit with slight variations.

When I began playing the bass in high school I was taught with a French bow. I wasn’t even told there was a German bow and didn’t see one until college. I played French bow up until my late twenties and then started learning the German style. Since then I’ve completely switched to German and never looked back.
French tends to be easier to do a spiccato bowing, and for general flexibility. With the German bow, it is very easy to a large sound right away. Endurance is also easier with the German. This is not to say that certain things are not possible with each bow. Both styles can do everything; it’s just some tendencies of each bow. There have been great players who play both styles of bow.

However, do some research first – my teacher (Greg Sarchet of the Lyric Opera) has a hold which is slightly different than most method books. Rather than putting the frog in the crotch of the hand by the frog, rest it at the thick skin at the bass of the fingers. This way it is an extension of the arm and hand. Great flexibility will result.

Tone is easier to produce with the German bow. I find that almost everything is easier with German – keeping the bow straight, accents, etc. and even teaching it to young students is easier! The only issue I had was keeping the stick from bouncing near the tip, but with practice this can easily be overcame.

So, French or German bow? Let the student’s arm and hand (NOT THE STUDENT) decide. Let them try both. Perhaps even teach them both. Rather than force a decision, let a decision emerge as to which style the student should play. My experience has been that German works better for about 70% of students. But I would be doing a disservice to that other 30% if I didn’t let them try French.

3 comments

  • I am a pianist and I find the science of bowing and bow very interesting.I agree with you that the student should learn both french and german bowing.It stands to reason that one does not know when you might have to use either of the two.Then of course lets not forget the issue of what kind of horse hair on the bow. Louis of ST Thomas.

  • People often overlook the importance of the bow when in actuality it’s as important or more important than the instrument. And I agree – bow hair is another long discussion. When getting a rehair done the musician is often asked what country of origin would they like their horsehair since climate affects the thickness and coarseness of the hair.

    Thanks for reading and posting!

  • From an experiended Bassist point of view, I would like to further encourage a new or advancing student to try both, but do not base your final decision on what is vogue or chic. It is truely as personal a preference as a toothbrush or handgun (My apologies to the gun shy).

    Many, partial to one or the other, brag of it’s power or finesse. These attributes are based solely on the user and how comfortable you are with your control.

    If asked, my personal preference is the French and it’s application. I am an older Bassist (6’2″, 210, 3/4 size Gamba corners, for curious sorts) and am prone to fatigue. For me, again, personal preference, I experience less fatigue with the French

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