The Basics of Rosin: What to Buy and How to Use

Today is the day! A brand, spanking new bow in your hands, ready to channel the depths of emotion you so long to express. Finally, after months of anxious anticipation while saving up the money and finding the right bow, the time has come. You, the bow, and your instrument are finally united to create aural beauty that no words can match.

The bow touches the string. Wait… There’s no sound. Okay, let’s try that again. You press harder, and still nothing. What’s going on? This “broken” bow is gliding over the strings like an ice-skating champion, hardly making a sound or ripple in the process. Unfortunately, all romantic notions and excitement of string playing have just been temporarily crushed by a lack of rosin.

Rosin is the magic ingredient in a plethora of situations. Ballet dancers rub it on their slippers to reduce onstage slippage. Gymnasts powder their hands to improve grip. Drag racers rosin the starting line to enhance traction. Baseball players and bowlers dust their hands for better ball control. So, what’s the low-down with string players and rosin? Let’s take this topic back down to the fundamentals to fully understand why rosin can be considered a string player’s most important accessory.

What is Rosin?

Petz Soloist Cello Rosin

Petz Soloist Cello Rosin

The formal definition, according to Don Michael Randel in The New Harvard Dictionary of Music, is “a hard, brittle substance derived from oil of turpentine. Rubbed on the hair of the bow of a stringed instrument, it leaves a white, powdery deposit that helps to create the friction required to set the strings in motion when the bow is drawn across them.”

The more accessible answer is that rosin is that rock-like thing string players rub on their bow before they play. When rubbed on a bow, it leaves a white powder on the hair that helps grip the string and make it vibrate. It also helps eliminate squeaks and bow slippage.

Why is Rosin Necessary?

The answer involves looking at how the bow creates sound on a string. To make sound, the string has to vibrate. What causes the string to vibrate? Once the bow is pulled with enough force to overcome the friction, the string vibrates and sound is made. Without rosin, there wouldn’t be enough friction to overcome, resulting in no vibration and no sound. It would be like skating on freshly paved ice. Rosin helps create the friction necessary to vibrate the strings.

What is the Best Technique for Usage?

The best time to rosin the bow is after taking it out of the case just before playing. In some cases, rosin may need to be reapplied again, but in general, this pre-playing routine will be enough for a good day of playing.

Once out of the case, make the sure bow is tightened appropriately before rosining. Hold the bow by the frog, not touching the hair. Rub the rosin along the flat of the hair, all the way from the frog to the very tip.

Keeping a microfiber cloth in your case is a must, so you can wipe off the residue from the instrument and bow after each playing session. String cleaners can also be used, if need be, but if rosin dust builds up on the instrument, bring in the instrument into the shop for a professional cleaning.


How Often Do You Use Rosin?

While the general recommendation is 5-6 swipes across the full length of the bow, there are varying opinions. Andrew Fein of Fein Violins says, “I do not rosin my bow every time I play. I really find that, unless I am playing incredibly aggressive music for a lengthy concert or rehearsal, rosining my bow every few times I go to play is enough.”

Johnson String recommends says that rosin usage “depends on how often you play and for how long. If you play daily for over two hours, you may need to rosin your bow before each session with three or four strokes. If you play less than an hour a day, you may not need to rosin your bow for several sessions, until you feel and hear the bow hair beginning to slip from the instrument’s strings while you’re playing.”

Each player may find a variation of the general 5-6 swipes that works well. A sign of too little rosin is squeaks or slippage, which means you should add a little more rosin to the bow. If rosin is coming off in clouds of dust or there is an overabundance of residue on the instrument, it is a sign of too much rosin. Back off on the rosin usage until you find the right amount. In the case that the bow is being rosined to abundance but you still encounter slippage, it might be time for a bow rehair.

Light & Dark Rosin: What’s the Difference?

D'Addario Natural Rosin Light & Dark

D'Addario Natural Rosin Light & Dark

Rosin-making can be shrouded in mystery. As explains, “Each manufacturer has his very own specific procedure to make rosin which he protects as a strict secret. As a consequence, all rosins today differ in quality and impact the bowing technique and the sound color of an instrument immensely.”

While mystery formulas and a plethora of products doesn’t make players’ choices any easier, all rosin can be divided into two categories: light or dark. In general, light rosin is harder and creates a smoother sound. Violinists and violists tend to use light rosin. Dark rosins are softer and stickier, making it better for cellos. Double bass tends to use the softest, darkest rosin in order to grip the thicker strings better.

What Rosin Should I Use?

Players tend to deviate from tradition as needs, preferences, and different playing situations present themselves. Orchestral players tend to favor less sticky rosin than soloists. Further, concert hall performances tend to favor harder rosins and softer rosins generally find a home in recording studios.

If you’re using gut strings, a softer rosin is generally favored and steel strings are more easily played with a hard, dry rosin. And if you’re factoring in climate or seasonal weather, harder rosin works better in hot climates and softer rosin is preferred in cold climates. If you happen to be allergic to dust, there are actually hypoallergenic rosin formulas.

Where Should I Start?

Super Sensitive SS911 Light Rosin

Super Sensitive SS911 Light Rosin

Especially with beginners, the enormous amount of options makes it difficult to know which rosin to buy. Johnson String recommends to “ask your teacher for a recommendation and pick a popular, reliable brand. As times goes on and your skills improve, start experimenting and you’ll begin to hear and feel the differences that a specific rosin can do for you.”

Inexpensive rosins can work well for beginners, so don’t feel that it is absolutely necessary to buy more expensive cakes, such as Andrea Rosin. It will also afford you the chance to make mistakes, such as dropping and cracking it, that sometimes come with experience. Then, if you decide that a brand is not blending well with you, you’re not out too much cash.

Just as ballet dancers, baseball players, bowlers, drag racers, and gymnasts have all gotten their rosin rituals down, with enough experimenting, bow users eventually find theirs. Good luck on your quest to master this magic ingredient in string playing.

Rosin Shop Now

Photo from Wikimedia Commons

comments powered by Disqus

Reverb Gives

Your purchases help youth music programs get the gear they need to make music.

Carbon-Offset Shipping

Your purchases also help protect forests, including trees traditionally used to make instruments.

Oops, looks like you forgot something. Please check the fields highlighted in red.