Not to shoot an arrow, but to excite the string of a musical instrument.
It’s got to be one of the most primitive things on earth. Just a stick with some hair stretched over it. Yet, for a musician, the choice of a bow is almost as important as the choice of an instrument; which is just about as important as the choice of spouse. Like spouses, you pick a good bow and keep it a lifetime. You grow attached. You know how each other will respond in almost every situation. Once you choose a bow you may admire other bows from afar – you might even try another bow for a moment – but you typically don’t go shopping for a bow again. Ever.
So why would this matter? Well I’m on the search for a bow. In October I was doing a gig in New York at the Carlisle Hotel and forgot to bring my bow with me. Yes it was a jazz gig (generally not requiring a bow), but a few song had been arranged to feature an arco bass (bass played with a bow. This arco has nothing to do with the gas stations). So I called home and asked my bow be shipped to me from Los Angeles. Unfortunately, it was not packaged securely. It did arrive, but it arrived in pieces. No repair was possible. I wanted to cry. I became a widower that morning.
But the show must go on, so I’m back on the market for a bow. How do you find a bow these days? The dating game is all new to me again. I don’t know where to go because the places I used to frequent are long gone. Of course, all the best bows are one-of-a-kind, handmade masterpieces. At this stage there are not many left on the market. (Though I did see a gold digger on Ebay for $22,000. I’m leaving her alone.)
I’m fortunate to live in a large city, so I have a few local choices. (So happy I don’t live in Casper, WY.) I visited Stein Music in Hollywood where I bought my bass decades ago. Gary was kind enough to show me several bows. I played a few, but really wasn’t sure what I was looking for. I remember thinking, “I wish I had my old bow. She just fit me perfectly. She was just what I needed.” However, having to perform that evening, I chose the best bow I could, put her in a new case, and took her home.
Unfortunately, three months later, try as I might, we just never hit it off. I can tell she’s a very fine bow – of good character. Her stick is straight and strong and long like I like them. Her horse hair is full. She’s got all the functioning parts, but she’s just not doing it for me. I’m unable to play as I’d like to play without thinking about how she’ll respond. I don’t have the sense that this will improve with time. I don’t like the thought of divorce, but “separation” is less final.
So back to Gary yesterday. This time I am more specific about what I’m looking for. Gary brings out a half dozen or so for me to try. One by one I draw them across the strings judging their responsiveness, richness of tone, tamber, draw length, etc. I like the second better than the first. The fourth better than the sixth, and so on. Finally I settle on a racy bow with black hair. She’s shorter than I typically prefer, but I’m almost instantly able to deliver a quality sound with her that I can’t with the other bows. This is promising. Not sure that I want to buy yet, Gary gives her to me on loan.
I’ve only got an hour or so with this new bow before the gig. Yes, it’s a jazz gig. No, I’m not likely to be called on to deliver much arco bass, but I’m anxious to see how “Miss Thing” and I will get along. I spend an hour just trying to see what she can do; introducing her to my strings and trying to learn where she sounds best. I’m feeling better, but I don’t think I’m ready to play this bow in public yet.
So we get to the gig. I throw the New Lady into my quiver just in case, and we’re off. The musicians are feeling each other and the band is smoking. The audience is with us too. The music feels as good as it sounds. There’s space for a few bass solos, which it take pizzicato. I try to vary each solo employing a new theme or technique each time for variety. As we reach the last song of the evening I can feel from the type of song and the generosity of my bandmates that there would likely be a space for one last bass solo. This is a perfect spot for an arco bass solo. With each note the solo space draws nearer. Sure, a bowed solo would be perfect, but look who I have with me. How will she respond? What if we crash and burn together? Could it ruin the entire evening?
In the end, I believe it was my confidence in myself, more than my confidence in this new bow that caused me to pull out the bow and set her on the strings. With a deep breath I prepared for the moment of truth which had now arrived. I pulled down on my arm to press the bow into the string (a precursor to sounding a note). I closed my eyes to focus. It was not or never. Just as I pulled the bow across the string, BAM – it happened.
The most glorious, rich tone came from the bass. I was saved!
The solo wasn't perfect, but I was able to play the full solo thinking of the musical concepts that I wanted to convey rather than the limitations at my fingertips. With that evening behind us, I’m looking forward to working with this new lady; understanding how we can be a team. The jury is still out and she’s still on loan. She’s still shorter than I like them, but other bassists do well with shorter bows. Perhaps I can give on this preference if I’m getting the other support that I need. So, we’re moving ahead a day at a time. Wish us well.