My Incredibow violin bow

I began my learning curve with the violin some 32 years ago. At that point I had been playing mandolin for eight years. It was a natural move, as the violin is tuned the same as a mandolin (for that reason many fiddlers also play mandolin, and vice versa). But there are two critical differences: on a violin there are no frets, so you have to use your ear to play with good intonation; and it is bowed rather than picked. The first difference wasn’t as big a problem for me, as my first instrument was trombone, which like the violin doesn’t have built in stops for the notes. So as a trombonist I had developed my ear for intonation. For me the bowing was the bigger challenge, one that I am still working on mastering after all these years.

I started out with a borrowed fiddle and bow, then got my own about a year later, an inexpensive but lovely old, rebuilt violin which I played for about seven years, at first with a heavy wood bow, then after a couple of years with a slightly lighter fiberglass bow. I didn't know any better, and I guess I did okay with what I had. My second fiddle, an antique violin which I bought from a friend in 1991, had a much sweeter tone and was a beautiful instrument, save for a large crack down the front, which had been repaired, but poorly, significantly reducing the volume. As part of the deal my friend threw in a really nice wooden bow, which at 59 grams was much lighter than the ones I had before, granting me greater freedom, with my playing improving substantially as a result. That was the only bow I used for the next sixteen years, on three different acoustic violins—the cracked antique; then an old, barking loud but structurally flawed Czech violin that I traded the cracked one for in 1994; then a beautiful handmade Chinese violin (which I still play) that I traded the Czech for in 2003—as well as on a solid-body Avatar electric violin that Michael Kovick built for me in 1993. The bow has been rehaired twice.

Incredibow
Incredibow
Wood bow
Wood bow
Chinese handcrafted violin
Chinese handcrafted violin
Avatar electric violin
Avatar electric violin

The Incredibow

About ten years ago, when I lived in Kansas City, I knew a fiddler who had just acquired an Incredibow. He raved about it, and let me try. I was amazed at how light and responsive it was. Two years later I bought one (online, directly from the makers), and have been playing it exclusively since—up until this past week anyway.

The Incredibow differs from typical violin bows in several respects. First, the carbon fiber stick has an outward rather than the traditional inward bend. From what I can gather this is off-putting to many fiddlers, as is the shape of the frog, which also differs from a standard bow. The tension is fixed, not adjustable like on a traditional bow. The hair is synthetic polymer rather than horsehair, and does not break with playing (I have had my bow for nearly 8 years and have not broken a single hair, with frequent, hard fiddling). Finally, the ‘no frills’ Incredibow that I have is featherweight, between 30 and 35 grams. These differences affect both the handling of the bow, and the sound that it produces. For me the first thing I noticed was how much freer my playing became, owing to the bow’s lightness and excellent balance. Staccato playing and playing rhythm close to the frog came much easier for me with the Incredibow. But the main thing was that I began playing more spontaneously, without thinking about bowing, and using the bow in new ways, often improvised on the spot (as if the violin was playing itself!).

The second thing I noticed was that the tone produced by the Incredibow was different. When I first heard it I was skeptical—it was noticeably thinner, and when the bow lacked sufficient rosin, a bit ‘squeaky’. But then, after I got used to it and optimized the rosin, I found that the Incredibow drew a tone that had a pleasing character of its own. I have the same impression as another reviewer, who noted that the Incredibow seems to evoke the tone of the violin alone, rather than the tone of the violin being bowed. The tone is significantly ‘brighter’, but nonetheless mellifluous when played with the right touch. And on the low end of my fiddle the Incredibow produces a ‘hollow’ (echo-y) tone that sounds really good in old time music.

I think what I dig most about my Incredibow is that it allowed me, to a greater extent than before (and maybe even for the first time), to become one with the violin. It made me a better fiddler.

So, what happened this past week? For the first time in years I took my old wooden bow out and began playing. I was surprised to find how easy it was—I was able to do pretty much everything on the fiddle that I have been doing with my Incredibow. And I have to say: I really like the darker tone produced by the wooden bow, even prefer it. One thing I noticed with the wood bow is that my bowing arm gets tired faster, and when it does my playing tends to get sloppier. But I’m guessing that with time that will improve as I get back in shape using that bow. And the upside is that the added weight, when mastered, can actually be used to good effect.

So I think I will go back to playing with my wood bow whenever the situation calls for it. Owing to the darker, richer tones it produces, it's the bow of choice for purely acoustic situations (including practicing at home, and performing with a microphone), as well as for recording. I’ll continue using the Incredibow with my Avatar electric, and also when I gig with the acoustic using a pickup (I use a Cherub piezoelectric violin pickup, which sounds great as piezo pickups go), as I don’t hear much difference in the amplified sound produced by the two bows, which I attribute to the fact that subtle acoustic tonality is always lost with pickups. In fact, I think the Incredibow produces a somewhat better sound with the Cherub pickup, which is so sensitive that it tends to distort the darker tones produced by the wood bow.

Bottom line: if you can get comfortable with its unusual appearance, feel and sound, the Incredibow offers new freedom of playing and a new tonal palette. I recommend it for anyone who can't afford a high-end wood bow, which can cost in the many hundreds to thousands of dollars. The Incredibow helped me become a better player, and I am pleasantly surprised to find that this transfers back to my old wood bow.

The difference in sound produced by the two bows can be heard in the following two recordings (made with the same fiddle):

With Head in Sand (recorded in 2004 with my wood bow)

Flight Response (recorded in 2009 with my Incredibow)

Of the two bows, which sounds better to you?

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