Ringing Strings Bowed Psalteries
handcrafted by Rick Long
2-2-15 New series of bows available. I call them Featherweight Bows. Scroll down to past the first section of bow ordering onfo to read all about them.
2-1-15 I have updated the psaltery bow page. A new way of ordering the bows plus information on a new design change for the matched pairs. Scroll down the page to learn more.
I have built and played the bowed psaltery for over thirty years now. I have experimented with a lot of different bow types and the materials to use for hair. Here's what I have concluded.
The brand of synthetic hair I use is best for psalteries with plain steel strings, most soprano psalteries fit into this category. Very smooth sound and no adjustment of the hair needed, because it is a synthetic. Very good string vibration and overall just a good material. These are a little over 14", though the actual usable length of the bow hair is right at 13".
For psalteries having wound strings, I use black horsehair. It is a coarse hair and is just right for the best sound on those rough wound strings. This being said, I have noticed the black hair will smooth out over time, so they will work with plain steel strings, if you would prefer horsehair. These bows are a little under 16", but the usable length of bow hair is about the same as the synthetic haired bows, at 13". That extra length is for the sliding piece I use to adjust the tension on these bows. Horsehair will react to humidity changes and will also stretch over time. This is why the adjustment is needed. I have also started using some white horsehair. I actually don't hear or feel a lot of difference between the white or black hair.
So you see, the playing length of the hair is the same on the two types of bows. That 13" may sound pretty short to you. A common misconception is that you need a longer bow to hold out the long notes or drones. That falls back to using the proper technique while playing. Rushing through the bow stroke is never a good idea. Any note you hold out, the bow stroke should be fairly slow and controlled. It is time well spent, to work on your bowing technique.
My bows are also extremely light in weight. A lighter bow is much easier to maneuver around on the bowed psaltery strings. A violin bow is heavy, but that is needed on a violin, you stay more in contact with the strings all the time you are playing. On a bowed psaltery, you are constantly lifting and moving to the various notes you need. A heavy bow will slow you down.
The key things are to have a lightweight bow, not too long, and the proper hair to give you the best sound.
My bows are designed for playing a bowed psaltery. Some folks say a fractional violin bow is good for playing the psaltery. The problems I have found are that they are not comfortable to grip, except at the base. That round shaft is not friendly to any kind of comfort when gripping it. A violin bow is designed to use it's weight to keep the hair in contact with the strings. The opposite is needed for playing a psaltery, unless you are planning on playing the same note, you must lift the bow to move to the next notes of a song. Depending on the tempo of a song, that could happen very quickly. My bows are designed to have a nice flat area, that extends to about half the length, to give you an easy and comfortable gripping surface, in many different places along the length. Google search this phrase "violin bow makes my hand hurt" and see all the hits from folks that are experiencing pain from playing the violin. It's a poor design and choice for playing the bowed psaltery. There's no need to ever be in any kind of pain or discomfort when playing your psaltery. If there is, you aren't going to want to spend much time playing.
The wide surface of bow hair, on a violin bow, is not ideal for playing the psaltery. That extra width causes you to make an extra effort to be accurate, and that extra effort can have an effect on playing tunes at a faster tempo. You only have a small area between each hitch pin to bow the string. In trying a violin bow, I quickly found out it is very easy to end up with the hair split between two pins. You never want that to happen. Some folks will also try to say a violin bow will give you better tone or volume. This is simply not true. The rosined bow hair is causing the friction needed to make the string vibrate. Varying the pressure with the bow is how you regulate the volume, and is one of the best things to learn when developing your bowing technique. Using this technique to range from a feathery light touch to the max volume your psaltery is capable of. How a psaltery is constructed will be what determines the final output of tone and volume. Mastering that technique is well worth spending the time to practice. A fractional violin bow will be heavy, even the 1/16 size is heavier than any of the bows I build. That weight works against you, when your skills develop into playing faster tunes. It can lead to your playing sounding sloppy. In playing a violin, you mostly stay in contact with the string. On the psaltery, you are constantly required to lift the bow to move onto the next notes of a tune. A lightweight bow shines here.
Click on the picture to the left to enlarge it. You can see more detail and also have a good idea of the size of the two types of bow I make. My bows are really light in weight, they range from 1 to 1.3 oz each, depending on the wood. A lightweight bow is desireable for playing the psaltery. Your movement needs to be efficient. A heavy or long bow can hinder that and cause sloppy technique.
The bow on the left is my adjustable horsehair bow, you can have either white or black horsehair. There is a slider in the notch at the large end, just slide that back under the hair to increase the tension. The bow on the right is my synthetic hair bow. No adjustment required, the tension will stay put on it. The synthetic hair isn't affected by humidity.
I am leaving this picture up for the size comparison between the two types of psaltery bows I make. Scroll on down to see the design change I am making at the tips of the bows.
I have changed the way I will offer my bows for sale on the website. I'll show you the types of bows with the kinds of wood I can make them from.
Here are how they are priced -
Single bows designed for synthetic hair are $20 for walnut, maple or cherry. If you specify a figured wood, like a figured maple or the curly golden raintree you see below, they are $5 more. On these bows the hair tension is not adjustable. They are the ones with a rounded bottom on the large end, like the maple pair in the second picture down.
Single bows designed for horsehair are $25 for walnut, maple, or cherry. Figured woods can be requested. Add $5 for figured wood. The horsehair bows are like the walnut pair to the left, flat bottom on the large end with a notch to park the adjuster.
Bow pairs are available in any of these woods. They will match in color, size, and weight. The walnut pair to the right are a matched pair. Remember the single bow like the walnut pair is $25, so that pair is $50. The maple pair in the second photograph is $40, remember that style is $20 each.
Any that you order will only take a couple of days to complete.
Shipping for bows in the US is $6.45 for USPS Priority Mail. International shipments will need to be calculated.
A new design feature for the matched pairs is to have the knot for the bow hair recessed, at the tip of the bow. This completely gets that little knot out of the way. There is one technique in double bowing, where those little knot would cause you to get your bows tangled. That is the technique where you alternate each bow for each successive note. In perfroming this technique the tips of the bows cross very closely together when reaching for the next note. Just a little problem that needed a solution. This is what I came up with. Not all the single bows will have this recessed knot. If you are buying an extra bow with double bowing in mind, you need to specify that you want it.
Matched pair of walnut bows for horsehair
Matched pair of maple bows for synthetic hair.
These are the woods available for the $20 synthetic and the $25 horse hair bows. Matched pair are double that - $40 and $50.
This is just one of the figured woods I have available for bows. Add $5 for each bow.
Brand New for 2015
Here's a pic of a synthetic hair featherweight with hair and all. It weighs .4 ounces. That's less than half an ounce.
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Yes, you are seeing that correctly. A pair of my bows designed for horsehair being weighed on my postal scale. That's one ounce for both. In comparison, a pair of my walnut bows in the same size weigh in a 2.6 ounces. That is still lightweight, but not as light as the Featherweights.
The secret is in the type of wood they are made from. It is a rather plain grained wood that is super stable and very strong for it's weight. I have always known it as Paulownia. Other names are Royal Paulownia and Empress Tree. It grows right here in Tennessee, but is not native. The story is that the seed pods were used as a packing material in shipments from Asia. Here is the description of the history from Wikipedia -
"The soft, lightweight seeds were commonly used as a packing material by Chinese porcelain exporters in the 19th century, before the development of polystyrene packaging. Packing cases would often leak or burst open in transit and scatter the seeds along rail tracks. The magnitude of the numbers of seeds used for packaging, together with seeds deliberately planted for ornament, has allowed the species to be viewed as an invasive species in areas where the climate is suitable for its growth, notably Japan and the eastern United States."
I have had a small supply for many years, I just hadn't used it for anything. Boy was I surprised when I tried some for a psaltery bow. I was amazed at how strong it is. I had assumed it wouldn't stand up to the tension from the bow hair. To hair a bow I have to really put some tension on the hair, so that I end up with the proper tension when I'm through. This is no problem for the paulownia.
I believe these to be the lightest psaltery bows available anywhere. I have been using them for a few months now. They took a little getting used to at first. Now they are what I use most of the time. I still have my figured maple bows in my case, and do still use them at times, but the more I use the featherweights, the more I like them.
They are still my standard lengths for my adjustable horsehair bows (a tad under 16") and my non-adjustable synthetic hair bows (a tad over 14"). Both end up with a usable hair length of just over 13".
Price is the same as for my figured wood bows. $30 each for the horsehair bows, $25 each for the synthetic hair ones. A matched pair is $60 and $50. Just email or call to tell me what you want. I already have several blanks cut out, so just a couple of days to complete and get them on the way to you.
As I mentioned before, the grain is pretty plain and close to the same color as maple. I don't use any kind of stain anywhere on my psalteries, but I may need to make an exception for these. I will be experimenting to see what I can do to make these darker and a closer match for walnut. They work fine as a match for maple, as is.
Here's a closeup of the Paulownia --------------------