How Different Hair Types Influence a Bow's Sound and Feel

Take a closer look and listen to your bow hair

 

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Photos courtesy of Michael T. Sowden & Sons

As a player of a bowed stringed instrument, at some point you’ve needed to have your bow rehaired. Most of the time, musicians just take their bows to the closest violin shop without thinking about the source or type of hair that will be used. But there are differences in bow hair—with names like stallion, mare, Mongolian, Siberian, and so on—and those differences can have an impact on your playing and your sound.

Just how different are those various types of bow hair? And how do the characteristics determine the quality of hair that goes into your bow?

First, a few basic facts about the origin and nature of horse hair.

How Hair Is Graded

Regardless of the hair type or source, the most important factor determining the quality of bow hair is how well it has been sorted, or graded. Only a relatively small number of hairs from each tail are suitable for bow hair. The grading process involves pulling strands of horsehair through human fingers to feel the thickness, roundness, stretchiness, and strength of each hair. Hairs that are kinky, vary in thickness, or have knots, splits, deposits of crud, or other defects get sorted out and saved for use in paintbrushes. Sorting is done by hand which is an expensive, labor-intensive process. This helps to explain prices that can vary anywhere from $75 to more than $600 per pound wholesale: less expensive grades of hair are sorted “en masse” to eliminate only the most obvious bad hairs, while the most expensive bundles have been carefully selected.

The final grading of the hair is done by the bow maker at the time of the rehair. The rehairer may eliminate as much as one-fourth of the hair in a bundle in order to end up with the most consistent ribbon of hair in a bow.

Where Hair Comes From

Horsehair for bows comes from several regions in the world—most notably Mongolia, Siberia, Argentina, and Canada. Even though hair is sourced from different places around the world, the vast majority is shipped to northeastern China for processing and sorting in Hebei Province, near Beijing.

Traditionally, the regional or country-of-origin designation of bow hair has identified not only where the hair actually came from, but also significant characteristics of the hair. However, with increasing globalization of local industries, the same country distinctions are now used to describe different properties of hair, and not so much where the hair actually originates. So, the bow maker or rehairer has almost no way of knowing the actual origin of bow hair due to the way hair is bought, processed, and bundled in China. Few hair processors have direct relationships with those who raise the horses, as most hair is purchased at large wholesale auctions in bales and pallets weighing more than 50 pounds.

Oftentimes, horsehair from different sources is blended or mixed to provide a superior, uniform product.

Further Resources

Know Your Bow Hair

Even though hair is associated with country of origin, the identification and marketing of hair is based primarily on its thickness, but also on its color, elasticity, and shape. The major types of hair and their general characteristics are:

Mongolian Tends to be slightly finer than other hair. This is probably the most popular and widely available hair for bows.
Siberian Slightly thicker, but more elastic (slightly stretchier) than Mongolian hair. This additional elasticity can be good for climates that have extremely low humidity, which causes hair to contract more.
Canadian Grayer in color, slightly thicker, and more elastic than either Mongolian or Siberian hair.
Argentinian The coarsest of all the white bow hair types, has more color drift than other hair, and is more oval-shaped than round. This hair is commonly used in bows of cellists, bassists, and aggressive players.
Black The thickest and strongest of all bow hair, but tends to get a “grittier” sound to it. This hair is used almost exclusively for bass bows.

Mare vs. Stallion Hair

Similar to country-of-origin designations, bow hair is advertised and often sold as stallion hair or mare hair. However, due to the way hair is sorted and processed en masse, there is little, if any, differentiation and few ways to determine the gender of the horse from which the bow hair actually came. For practical purposes, what is sold as stallion hair is often whiter and slightly thinner than mare hair (and more expensive), while mare hair is a bit thicker and more aggressive than stallion hair. “Color drift” is the industry term that describes the variation in color from one end to the other in a bundle of hair. The whitest hair, with very little color change throughout the length, is often bundled and sold as stallion hair, while hair that has more color drift to a darker color is sold as mare hair.

String players often associate quality with the color of the hair. The white or light tan color that is seen in bow hair is the natural color, but color alone does not indicate the quality of the hair. The whitest bow hair is often of the highest quality, but it is also true that off-white hair can be well-sorted and of the highest quality. Nonetheless, whiter horsehair with less color drift is often preferred by string players, even at a premium price.

Because of this color preference, some processors will bleach the hair to lighten the color. However, bleaching damages and weakens the structure of the hair. Most rehairers and violin shops would never knowingly offer bleached hair, but it is on the market. So, how do you recognize bleached hair? One way is if the color is white uniformly throughout the length of the hair. Another clue is that bleached hair breaks much more easily than non-treated hair.

How Hair Affects the Sound

The quality of the hair has a direct impact on what players notice when they get their bow back from a rehairer. If you’ve ever noticed that something just wasn’t right with the hair, chances are there were problems with inferior hair due to poor sorting. Some rehairers sort more carefully than others. Players may notice that sometimes hair doesn’t last long or won’t hold rosin. Other times, if the hair is inconsistent in diameter, it will result in loose bow hairs and produce a grittier sound. And a player may observe that some hair stretches more than others. Another observation regarding poor-quality hair is that it tends to sound scratchier than higher quality hair.

You might notice minor differences in the way your bow feels and sounds with different hair (see “Know Your Bow Hair”). The most noticeable change is usually the aggressiveness or the “bite” of the hair on the strings. There is also a difference in the low-level surface noise that the hair makes (often referred to as the “scratchiness” of the hair). Coarser hair tends to be more aggressive on the strings and will produce more surface noise than finer hair.

And then there is the relationship between bow hair and rosin. The application of rosin will dramatically affect the feel of the bow and sound production. Even with the many different types of bow hair, it’s actually the amount and brand of rosin, and not the hair, that has the greatest affect on the feel of the bow and the sound that it pulls from an instrument.

In the end, opinions from players, rehairers, and bow makers differ as to which type of hair is the best. But as a player in search of a bow rehair, the main thing to look for is a good result. Ask around for recommendations from other players. Getting your bow rehaired need not be a complicated process, and most rehairers are happy to answer questions about the hair they use. The most important thing is to take your bow to an experienced and trusted professional who uses high-quality hair—one who knows what type of hair works best for the climate and the clientele.

*This article appeared in Strings October 2010
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