On Horse Hair and Bows
Horse hair is used to draw a sound out of a string bass when using a bow. There are two different colors of hair used on a string bass bow: black and white. Traditionally and therefore most commonly, bows are rehaired with natural white hair. In a self-fulfilling cycle no one requests another color hair and therefore other colors are unavailable. This hair comes from the horse's tail. The horse does not need to be killed to obtain its hair. The hair is clipped from a live horse; black hair from a black horse and white hair from a white horse. Sometimes the supplier will bleach yellow or brown hair white in an attempt to make it more appealing to the buyer. This bleaching process makes the hair brittle and less effective. Bows should always be rehaired with non-bleached hair. Black hair is considered generally more course than white hair. Neither is better, it's a matter of the player's choice. Horsehair of the highest quality can be found in both black and white. Sometimes players like to get a 'salt and pepper' rehair which is a blend of the white and black hair. Usually this blend is about 75% white and 25% black hair. Recently we have been getting requests for white hair dyed various colors which we've done without any problems. It's along the lines of the contemporary style of human hair dyeing.
Horsehair magnified reveals tiny scales that actually grab the hair. Rosin is applied to stick to the hair while making those scales stand up. These hooks in conjunction with rosin are perfect for grabbing, holding and then releasing the hair. Hair alone, without rosin will not grab the hair sufficiently. A commercial nylon hair is available but I don't recommend it. Rosin on materials other than horsehair tend to cake up. Many experiments have been made to find 'better' alternatives to horse hair but none have stuck! The venerable Homer Mensch told me about experiments with many different metals as horse hair substitutes. The thought was that with metal strings why not use metal strands instead of horse hair. None of these were as good as natural horse hair. Even makers of fiberglass, graphite and carbon fiber bows prefer horse hair. So far, no one has created anything better.
Most of the good hair these days comes from China or Russia . It seems the best hair for bass bows grows in cold climate areas. In these areas the horse hair grows thicker and longer to protect the horse from the cold. The longer the hair the better selection for the bow rehairer. He or she can pick the best section of hair within the length. The hair should have some elasticity to it. When pulling the hair between two hands the hair should stretch some before breaking. Brittle hair will not last as long nor will it have the 'feel' of more pliant hair. The section being used on the bow is called a hank. In the case of white hair, the end that is darker is the end furthest away from the horse's rear. It's the part that is stained with insect entrails, dirt and manure. The scales tend to point toward this stained end. Many bow rehairers place the lighter section of hair toward the tip to get a greater attack on the down bow which will then be against the direction of the scales.
The hank is knotted with string and rosin or glue at both ends and then suspended between the tip mortise and frog mortise by wood plugs. It is important that the hair is spread across the entire mortise openings so that a wide a band of hair contacts the string. An additional spread wedge is used at the frog under the ferrule to maintain the hair width when tightening the bow hair to the proper tension. The hair is loosened and tightened at the frog by a screw and eye system that allows the frog to slide along the side of the bow stick with the eye inserted in the mortise in the stick. Because the hair stretches over time and the bow bends, it is important that the eye just clears the end of the mortise to allow maximum movement in the direction of tightening the hair. If the hair can't be adequately tightened once the eyelet has transversed the entire mortise, the back of the mortise can be damaged in an attempt to make the hair tight enough.
Each player has particular tastes and needs when playing with a bow. The rehair and selection of bow should reflect these requirements. For example, Edgar Meyer likes to have his bow hair extremely tight and his bow stick has no camber or arch to it. In this case it is very important that when rehairing this bow that the eyelet is just clearing the front of the mortise so that the hair can be tightened along the entire mortise.
Edgar has a very unique but extremely effective approach to the bass that is opening new technical and lyrical possibilities that heretofore weren't imagined. Here are a few thoughts on his bow that Edgar shared with me:
"There are three things I like about this bow: (1) The thing I like very best about this bow is that it starts the string quickly. If I can start the string quickly the rhythm is more effective.(2) It has a very specific tone--it's midrangy. This is good for lyric playing and clear playing.(3)The small tip with no camber: it is a German stick with a French frog. The hair is extremely tight. The stick is strong. The tip still has alot of power, like a German bow. The hair never touches the stick [because the hair is so tight]. While playing extreme dynamics I would be in the wood if I played bows with normal tension.
General observations from Edgar Meyer regarding bowing are, "I prefer a bow that doesn't do anything on it's own. If it comes off the string, I do it. Spicatto is much harder to control rhythmically and therefore hard to deal with in reactive situations. I use cello rosin on my small [Italian] instrument. I push a little harder and go closer to the bridge. Smooth bow changes [re:specific classical study of] can be overrated. You need to do what the music requires. A variety of articulation is required which could range from stiffness to fluidity for any part of the arm or hand."
To hear this incredible musician I highly recommend his recording of the Bach Unaccompanied Cello Suites on Sony Classical #SK89183. It's lyrical perfection.