Banjo Hangout Logo
Banjo Hangout Logo

Premier Sponsors

Banjo Lovers Online

Discussion Forum

Want to hide these Google ads? Join the Players Union!

 All Forums
 Playing the Banjo
 Playing Advice: All Other Styles
 ARCHIVED TOPIC: Bowing on the 5 -tring

Please note this is an archived topic, so it is locked and unable to be replied to. You may, however, start a new topic and refer to this topic with a link:

Devon Wells - Posted - 04/09/2007:  03:20:36

Been experimenting lately with bowing on the old banjo. I borrowed a mini (I think about 3/4 size) bow from an electric guitarist and I'm liking some of the sounds I'm getting.

I've never played a bowed instrument so my technique is more than a little cave man-esque. Found that it works best if I stick to the 1st string as my banjo and bridge are flat as Saskatchewan and therefore accessing other individual strings is ne impossible. Worked out a few fiddle tunes in G (Irish Washerwoman and Blackberry Blossom to be exact) that I can finger on the one string and bow with a primitive 'back forth' motion.

Wondering if anyone might have tried this kind of thing also and might have a tip or two on bowing technique. Right now I'm holding the bow towards the far end and making contact with the string about a 1/4 inch from the bridge. Hand gets achy fairly quickly but that may be just that it's a new movement for me.

Anyway, let me know if you have anything to add.

NINJO - Posted - 04/09/2007:  10:53:47

Ben Krakauer from Charlottesville, VA can bow the banjo. He teaches at the University of Virginia, you may be able to track him down throught he school webpage.

The best picker is the one having the most fun.

Tim2723 - Posted - 04/09/2007:  10:57:55

Hi Devon,

There's a lot of cool and strange effects you can get with a bow on instruments not normally associated with the technique.

As well as experimenting with the violin bow, there are also three neat things to check out.

Do a search for 'bowed psaltery' The instrument uses a small straight bow that is useful. It can be purchased separately from most dealers.

Usually on the same sites that offer bowed psaltery you'll find a device called a 'Jim Bow' that is becoming popular with hammered dulcimer players (check around the dulcimer sites). They are a handle with a curved piece of Nylon rod that acts as the bow. They look like a pastry cutter. The curved shape allows you access to the inside strings.

There is an electrical device called an E-Bow. It's basically a small hand held electromagnet that rock guitarists mess around with. It vibrates the strings by creating a magnetic field. Pretty cool.

Good luck!

You don't have to be loud. Just be so good that everybody shuts up and listens.

Tim2723 - Posted - 04/09/2007:  11:10:55

Oh yeah, and your question about bow technique. Try bowing closer to the neck, even somewhat on the neck itself. Hold the bow overhand (like a cellist) and don't be afraid to hold the banjo between your knees like a cello. Try tilting the bow slightly in your hand so the the 'leading edge' of the hairs contact the string rather than the flat of the hairs. A bow imparts tremendous energy to the strings compared to a pick, and you have to control that or the strings just vibrate wildly. When you bow near the bridge, you're actually sending some of that energy into the wood and directly to the head. Tilting the bow reduces the energy and lets you move away from the bridge where other tones can be found. Because the plane of the strings is flat, you can also have fun bowing full chords, which is something the fiddle can't really do too well.

You'll probably find that the sound is nicer on the plain steel strings. If you look at fiddle strings you'll see that they are made very differently from other strings. The heavy strings are 'wrapped' rather than 'wound' which gives all the strings on a fiddle a smooth surface. Violin bows really aren't made for the rough wound surface of banjo strings, but don't let that stop you from experimenting. It can be a bit hard on the bow hairs though. The design of the Jim Bow accomodates that by replacing the fragile hairs with solid Nylon so that it works with the wound strings of the dulcimer, and that's really the tool for the job if you can get one.

Have fun with it!

You don't have to be loud. Just be so good that everybody shuts up and listens.

Edited by - Tim2723 on 04/09/2007 11:24:30

Tim2723 - Posted - 04/09/2007:  11:37:46

And again, oh yeah. (Sorry guys, I'm just trying to be helpful and I keep thinking of more stuff!)

The cramping in your hand is pretty normal when you're learning something new. Remember, there is no wrong way to hold the bow for what you're doing. Try holding your thumb on the frog of the bow (the part that slides back and forth when you tighten the hair). Your hand is more open that way. You can even go ahead and just hold it in your fist if that's comfortable. There is no wrong way, there's just the fun of experimenting.

You don't have to be loud. Just be so good that everybody shuts up and listens.

Edited by - Tim2723 on 04/09/2007 11:43:10

Devon Wells - Posted - 04/09/2007:  12:55:56

Tons of thanks for all the info and advice. I will almost certainly pick up a Jim Bow. I'll also try holding the bow on the frog (great word) and closer towards the neck.

A good friend of mine actually has an ebow which I had never given much thought to trying on the banjo but now I will.

Also, checked out Ben Krakauer's MySpace page and the guy is great. I remember reading an article about him a while back in The Banjo Newsletter. Didn't hear him bowing on his MySpace song but his picking is monstrous. I'd sign up for a few lessons with him if he was a wee bit closer or I could afford going out there.

Really appreciate the posts.

RyanHerr - Posted - 04/09/2007:  13:34:25

You can hear some bowed banjo palyed by Jayme Stone on his group Tricycle's album Emerge and See. I don't remember exactly which songs have it.

Question for Tim2723: It's not clear to me from your posts whether you have a JimBow or you've heard of it and are suggesting it as a good idea to try.

If you do use it yourself, do you use rosin? Any tips or tricks for the best results? I emailed its creator a few months ago and he said he hadn't tried it on banjo but guessed that the string tension on a banjo wouldn't be high enough for optimal results.


Ronnie Ramin - Posted - 04/09/2007:  13:46:08

I saw Bela use an E-Bow once at a concert. He used it on the lead in to one of the songs off the 3 Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest Album. I'm not sure if he used it on the Studio recording though. At the time I thought it was an electric razor : )

Devon Wells - Posted - 04/09/2007:  18:12:47

Originally posted by RyanHerr

You can hear some bowed banjo palyed by Jayme Stone on his group Tricycle's album Emerge and See. I don't remember exactly which songs have it.

Thanks for the tip. I checked it out and I believe the songs with bowed banjo are 'Emerge and See' and 'The Roads We Know'.

I had heard Stone before and really like his playing. The bowed banjo on those tunes is pretty wild. It sure doesn't sound like a violin or any other bowed instrument I'm used to hearing. Don't know quite how describe it...sort of thin and piercing but in an appealing way (at least to my ears). Makes me think of the oboe or even a harpsichord or clavichord if you chopped off the attack and put in oodles of sustain.


Tim2723 - Posted - 04/09/2007:  18:25:59

Hi Ryan,

While the Jim Bow is designed for the higher tension strings of the hammer dulcimer, I use it on my lap dulcimer and have experimented with it to varying degrees of success with mandolin, banjo, and guitar. It isn't really designed for any of those of course (but then again, neither is a violin bow), but it does work better only in that the curved shape works with the flat plane of the strings. It also generates far less energy than the normal hair bow. It works especially well on the mandolin because of the string tension, double courses, and spacing. You rosin it just like a regular bow, but the movement is mostly in the wrist rather than forearm. It takes a little practice, but it's fun. I use standard (read cheap) light violin rosin, although I think the manufacturer suggests a dark rosin to make it more sticky. I doubt it will ever take the place of good picking technique, but it's just a kick to mess around with.

P.S. I couldn't get it to work at all on my ukulele. I think it has to do with the Nylon strings or something. There isn't any resistance. The strings are too flexable.

You don't have to be loud. Just be so good that everybody shuts up and listens.

Edited by - Tim2723 on 04/09/2007 18:32:23

Devon Wells - Posted - 04/15/2007:  00:30:01

Here's a link I found to some bowing tips...

Obviously these bowing tips aren't intended for banjo but helpful all the same.

I've been experimenting with the bow and the advice I've recieved on this forum and here are some of my observations:

1. Tilting the bow makes a BIG difference

2. Not putting all my weight on the bow all the time makes a BIG difference.

3. As far as I can tell the sweet spot for bowing on the banjo is about one and a quarter inches from the bridge. I realize this goes against common violin bowing wisdom where the sweet spot is closer to the neck but I have found when I inch towards the neck I lose sound almost entirely. I think this may be because the banjo strings don't hold as much tension as violin strings and therefore close to the bridge where the string is more taut the bowing works but nearer the neck where the string is floppier it don't.


jeffsbanjer - Posted - 04/15/2007:  09:07:09

Hi there.. I made a 5 string gourd cello/banjo for Roger Landes approx two years ago. It sounds amazing.. it does have a radiused fingboard and bridge. .. it also has NICE gut strings... what tone... he is now selling it to get a shorter scale one I believe.

Jeff Menzies

John Kavanagh - Posted - 04/19/2007:  14:35:30

Tony Trischka bows his banjo on the Psychopgrass album Like Minds, the cut "Third Stone From the Sun". a Hendrix tune. It sounds...weird but good.

-JK don't mean a thang,
if it ain't got that twang.

Hangout Network Help

View All Topics  |  View Categories