Why I hold my bow on the frog
In my last post, “Old Dubuque,” the camera angle of the video happened to show how I hold my bow with my thumb directly on the bottom of the frog. That’s kind of unusual, among fiddlers I know anyway, and it’s something I’ve thought about a lot, so I thought it might be an interesting subject for a blog post. Here’s a short video where I show how I hold the bow. The tune I’m using to demonstrate is “Art Wooten’s Hornpipe,” and I’m planning on doing a full post on that soon.
Most fiddlers I know out here on the west coast hold their bows on the stick, above the frog—I suspect mostly because that’s the way Tommy Jarrell did it. That’s why I used to hold mine that way, anyway. Sometimes classical players are baffled by this, but there really is a point to it: as all old-time players know, when you’re doing lots of rocking across the strings, the way you do in the so-called Round Peak style, your hand doesn’t have to move as far if it’s closer to the fulcrum point. It’s physics, man! When you’re “choked up” on the bow, you can accomplish with a flick of the wrist what would take a huge arm movement if your hand was down by the frog.
As I started appreciating notier fiddlers and watching how they played, I noticed many of them held their bows right down at the end, with their thumbs on the flat part of the frog. So I tried it. When I first started learning those notey Bob Walters tunes, I was struggling a bit to play them at square-dance speed, and the new bow-hold somehow helped me fit all the notes in cleanly.
When you do it, it seems natural to raise your elbow and turn your hand sideways a bit. That puts more weight on the string, but without any real extra effort, since the weight comes from your whole arm. I found that this helped me keep the pressure on, so the notes were more connected. It also lent an undefinable quality of momentum–or, as I sometimes call it, “torque”–that felt really good. I think that happens because there’s more distance between where you’re holding the bow and where the bow contacts the string. The elbow gets involved more. It works as a kind of counterweight, moving the opposite direction of your hand. You can really use this to great effect.
The hold is a bit extreme, and it limits your ability to vary the bow pressure, since you’re farther away from the bow’s balance point. But subtle dynamics aren’t really a part of traditional fiddle music, so I think you gain more than you lose. And Kenny Baker, who always played with his thumb on the frog, is widely admired as having the most graceful bow arm in bluegrass. So subtlety is possible with this grip.
Cyril Stinnett is a great example of how it works, and he’s well-documented on video, thanks to Bill Peterson and Dwight Lamb’s new DVD. Even though he plays upside down (left-handed, but with standard-strung fiddle), you can see how efficient his hold is. Notice how his hand is sideways, with the side of his very first finger bone on the stick. Again, it’s extreme, compared to “proper” classical technique, but it’s very common, and it’s perfectly adapted to this kind of music: I’m convinced that Stinnett could not sound this good with a classical bow hold. I think the technical term for what he’s doing is the “old-man fiddle claw” (I just made that up). I’ve found at dances it makes it a lot easier to play fast. It somehow limits the range of your hand’s motion just enough so that you can loosen up your wrist without flopping too much, if that makes any sense. Also, his thumb is straight, maybe even arched back a little, not bent forward. I tried it the bent forward way for awhile, and found it very unstable and tiring.
Turns out that the pdf liner notes for The Champion have an old newspaper photo where you can see Bob Walters is holding his bow in a very standard classical way. He’s definitely not putting his thumb on the frog: you can see the back corner of the frog just under his third finger (I’ve added a red arrow pointing to it). But that’s okay. Contrary to what you might think, I don’t want to be exactly like Bob Walters–honest. His sound is definitely my ideal, but at some point you have to find your own way. The thumb-on-the-frog bow grip is authentic to the region and has been helping me play Bob’s tunes. So give it a try, let me know what you think.