How to bow a double bass – set yourself up right!

I've taken everything I've learned on the topic and laid it out here for you.

With Jason Heath · San Francisco, CA

The bow can be such a mysterious thing on the double bass, especially when you’re starting out.

To me, the left hand seems so much more objective:

  • You’re either in tune or you’re out of tune.
  • You’re on first finger, second finger, or fourth finger.
  • You’re on the G string, D string, A string, or E string.

The bow is more of a musical paintbrush, and understanding the mechanics of drawing a full, resonant sound out of the bass is a dark magic in many ways.

If you’re a beginner, take heart! Professionals revisit the fundamentals of bowing nearly every day.

Yes, it’s definitely a journey from total beginner to bow fluency, but if you approach it the right way and practice these fundamentals consistently, you’ll definitely make progress.

All of the information in this post can be found in this PDF guide. I hope you find it helpful!

Your #1 Obstacle in Bowing

What strops most beginners dead in their tracks is tension. It’s so easy to let tension creep into some part of your body when bowing, and diagnosing and solving this can quite challenging.

With all that in mind, here’s how I like to approach bowing on the double bass in terms of both mindset and actual step-by-step exercises.

On final word before I dig into the topic: while I teach and play both French and German bow, I’m primarily a French Bowie player. I’m also writing this during the coronavirus pandemic, so I’m stuck at home without easy access to a German bow for demonstration purposes.

Everything I’m laying out here applies to both French and German bow, and I’ve linked up to some excellent German bow-specific resources at the end of this post.

Laying the foundation before picking up the bow

Thinking about the bow and how it interacts with your body and the instrument to produce tone is perhaps the most important aspect of developing your bow technique.

It doesn’t matter what you do in terms of exercises or hours on the instrument if you’re squeezing, forcing, or drifting all over the place. In fact, you’re liable to cause all kinds of problems that are going to be super-annoying to fix in the future!

Here’s a fundamental concept to keep in mind, and it’s one that I’ve heard many times from the amazing bass teacher Paul Ellison:

Your hands should look like your hands.

Paul Ellison

What does that mean, exactly? Well, take a look at how your hands look in everyday life.

Better yet, stand up and let your arms fall naturally to your sides. Take a look at how your fingers and thumb hand naturally.

This is how your hand should look and feel when playing both French and German bow.

Now bring your right hand up, just below your sternum. Experiment with rotating your forearm and observe how your hand retains its shape.

We’re laying the foundation for quality bowing, so this is all important, and you’ll want to do this every day until it’s automatic.

Now, pretend that you’re holding a frisbee in your right hand. If you’ve actually got a frisbee, you can definitely try this with it, but you might want to go outside so that you don’t break anything!

You’re going to throw that imaginary (or real) frisbee to your right. Go through this motion, and observe how your body moves.

Notice that you start by moving your entire torso to the left, then starting the motion with the shoulder and back.

The forearm and hand are actually the last part of the body to move.

Also, notice how your arm naturally extends to finish the frisbee toss and let it release from the hand. You end the gesture with a fairly (but not completely) straight arm. There’s a curved, elegant, and linear quality to this motion, and it’s exactly how we want to feel when pulling our bow across the string.

Establishing a good bow hold

Notice that I didn’t say bow “grip” in the above heading! That’s because there’s nothing “grippy” at all about a quality bow hold.

Before we get into the specifics, think back to how that frisbee exercise. If we held that frisbee too tightly, it wouldn’t leave our hand. If we held it too loosely, we’d drop it on the ground. It’s a great parallel for how we should think about holding the bow.

French bow hold

  1. Take your right hand and turn it palm side up.
  2. Holding the bow in your left hand by the bow screw, lay it into your fingers, with the bow pointing out and away from your body at a 45 degree angle. Your first finger should be on the bow grip, your second and third fingers should rest on or near the ferrule depending on your hand size, and the tip of your pinky should rest on the “dot” on your frog.
  3. Take your thumb and rest it either against the place where the frog and stick other bow meet (professional bow hold), or on the metal ferrule (early bow hold)
  4. Flip the bow to your left and let the hair rest on one of the strings of your bass

German bow hold

Here’s a great step-by-step approach from fellow bassist and educator Doe Dyvig:

  1. Hold your right arm up in the air, with your right hand dangling down, like a zombie in a classic horror flick.
  2. Hold the German bow in your left hand, with the frog point toward the ceiling.
  3. Bring the German bow into your hand. Your thumb should rest lightly on the top of the stick, your first finger should be on the octagonal side just outside of the one your thumb is on (easier to demonstrate than describe!), your second finger should be on the lower outer octagonal side, resting against this and the edge of the frog, your third finger should be fairly free but not curling into the frog, and the tip of your fourth dinger should rest on the ferrule
  4. Bring the bow to the string.

Though the French and German bow holds look different, they both have a lot in common. Like so many things in life, there are countless variations on the basics blow holds I’m describing. What’s I’m showing you has worked for my students, but there are a lot of other ways to approach both bow holds, so leave a comment if you’ve got a different approach!

You want to practice establishing your bow hold multiple times a day, and you want to be hyper-vigilant about staying relaxed and also maintaining these contact points.

As you start you get better, you’ll realize that, like an expert chef or tennis player, there are a ton of slight variations within this basic bow hold, and you may alter your approach slightly depending on what kind of musical requirements a piece has.

Getting your basic bow hold established and ingrained in your muscle memory is key for making progress. Use a mirror and really geek out on all these little details. You’ll be glad that you did so down the road!

Bow games

We want our bow to feel like a natural extension of our arm, and a good way to develop this is to practice a few “bow games.” These may seem a little goofy at first, but they’ll go a long way toward developing comfort and ease with the bow.

Here are a few of my favorites, and there are a good 15-20 others that I use occasionally with students:

1 – Stir the pot – With the bow tip pointing straight up, imagine that you’re stirring a big cauldron and that your bow is a giant spoon. Make big circles, small circles, and everything in between. This is great for developing flexibility and comfort, and also for understanding how the shoulder works when bowing.

2 – Cast the fishing lure – Pretend that your bow is a fishing pole and that you’re sending that finishing lure out over the water. Bring that bow back and send that imaginary lure out in front of you, being careful to not drop the bow, of course! This is great for developing the “finishing stroke” needed to complete a down bow.

3 – Windshield wipers – This one is simple. Point the bow straight up in the air, then flip it to the left, right, left, right, etc. This is great for developing forearm motion and understanding how torque works in bowing.

One cautionary note about bow games: we don’t want to practice our bow hold in playing position (with the stick parallel to the floor) without it resting on the string. We never actually need to hold the bow in the air like this—it’s always going to be supported by the string.

While bow games are awesome for developing strength and comfort, we want to be careful that we’re not holding it horizontal or we risk developing tension and all kinds of strange bad habits.

Final step before bowing the bass

Now we’re going to… pluck the bass.

I know, you’re itching to make a sound with the bow, but trust me, we’re almost there, and we’ve got a new exercise to get the weight into the string so that we can get a good sound.

Splat

Think back to that frisbee exercise.

We’re going to take the same principles, but we’re going to apply it the other direction now.

With your bass in hand but without your bow, follow these steps:

  1. Let your right arm dangle by your side.
  2. Using your torso and shoulder to initiate the motion, bring your right hand up over the fingerboard and “splat” your hand against the strings.
  3. Feel the weight of your arm sinking into the fingerboard. Notice the latent powdery that you have when you engage the entire arm and torso.
  4. Using all of that arm weight, pluck the D string. Notice how open and resonant the sound of your bass is, and also how wide and free the vibrating string is. This is what we seek to emulate when bowing.

Making a sound with the bow

OK—it’s bow time! With bass and bow in hand, follow these steps:

  1. Do everything in our pizzicato splat exercise, but with the bow in hand, landing on the D string. You want to hear a satisfying “click” when the bow lands on the string. Try to land with the hair flat against the string or with the sticky slightly angled toward you.
  2. If your bow bounces around on the string, that’s a sign that you’re not releasing all your weight into the string. With German bow, you may need to change your bow hair angle slightly more so that you’re not playing with entirely flat hair. Practice the motion until it feels pretty much like the motion you did when playing pizzicato.
  3. With all that weight loaded onto the string, try wiggling the string back and forth. It’s almost like the bow is a giant sticky finger that’s holding onto the string.
  4. Pull the string slightly to the right, then release the string and move the bow about 1/4 of its length to the right. This direction is called down bow. Make sure that you’re pulling the bow perpendicular to the string at a 90 degree angle. Using a mirror for this is super-helpful.
  5. If you grind yourself bowing another string in addition to D, don’t worry—this is normal. In fact, bowing two strings is actually a technique you’ll use in the future called double stops. Notice if you’re hitting the G string or A string in addition to the D string, and adjust your angle accordingly.
  6. Practice this sequence several times: splat, engage, release. When you’re comfortable, move on to the next step.
  7. Now do the same thing, but after going 1/4 of the way out (down bow), you’re going to come back to where your started. This direction is called up bow. You now have two notes, one down bow and one up bow.
  8. When you’re comfortable with that set of two notes, try stringing together four notes, then 6, 8, and as many as you can do. Stay in that lower part of the bow for now.

Top three bow pitfalls to look out for

Like many things in life, bowing is kind of simple but also quite challenging to master.

Here are the three most common mistakes and what you can do to fix them:

  1. Not using a straight bow – This is why using a mirror when practicing is so helpful. Make sure that you’re always at a 90 degree angle from the string. Without doing so, your whole technical foundation will be on shaky ground. You just have too be vigilant and always checking in with yourself about it.
  2. Not fully engaging the string – It’s so easy to let this one slide. Be totally focused on getting the fundamental out of the string. Unlike the other bowed string instruments, it’s really easy to not fully engage the string and to skate across with a wispy sound. Always keep going back to that splat exercise with your arm, plucking the string and also splatting with the bow.
  3. Holding tension – Bass takes strength, and it’s common for beginners to try to force things rather than using their natural body and arm weight. Always be going back to those away-from-bass exercises and bow games, and transferring that learning over to the bow.

Next steps

Hopefully this post has got you up and running with making some basic open string sounds. I’ve taken everything covered here and put it into a PDF for your reference as well.

Obviously, this is the tip of the iceberg when it comes to bowing. Keep digging in here to learn more!

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