Video: A Brief History of Guitarists Using Violin Bows

"The bow has become a go-to technique for me for playing guitar," says Sarah Lipstate, the composer and film maker. She creates one-woman guitar soundscapes as Noveller and has appeared with Iggy Pop, in his arthouse mood on last year's Free album. "The bow has influenced the type of guitar that I play and how I approach composing," she says, "and it seems to make its way into almost every piece of music I write."

Jimmy Page (1967). Photo by: Bob King / Redferns. Getty Images.

Talk of playing guitar with a bow will cause music fans of a certain temperament to think immediately of Jimmy Page, on stage in his pomp with Led Zeppelin, bow in hand, Les Paul slung low. But Mr. Page was not the first to consider the potential for taking an apparently simple piece of classical kit to a willing electric guitar.

That honor goes to Eddie Phillips of The Mark Four. In the mid-'60s, Eddie was looking for a way to keep a drone going on his low E-string while he hammered-on a solo with his left hand on the other strings.

First, he tried sawing a string with a hacksaw from which he'd removed the blade and added a taut guitar string. That seemed pretty good, until at one gig he noticed some kids in the front row pointing at his guitar and laughing. "I looked down, and I'd worn three or four massive grooves in the bottom horn of my 335 from the ends of the saw," Eddie tells me. "Oh no! What have I done? So that obviously wasn't going to work."

Next, he went to his local music store in northeast London, bought a violin bow, and tried that. Not great. Jack Jones, the Mark Four drummer, said he'd heard you had to put rosin on the bow. Eddie went straight back to the store for a block of solid orange stuff with a whiff of pine.

Once a bow is treated to some of this rosin, it has the right amount of "grip" for the strings, as Eddie discovered. "I tried it, and to my surprise it actually worked," he says. "OK, it didn't do the guitar a great deal of good—but it didn't wreck it like the hacksaw. It did the job. And then I found you could turn the bow over to play it almost like a bottleneck, if you could get it right. It was all hit and miss. It was the kind of thing where one night it would be great, and the next night you gave up on it."

Eddie Phillips playing a violin bow on The Creation's "Making Time"

On stage, The Mark Four played an extended version of Bo Diddley's "Mona," where John Dalton (later of The Kinks) would put down his bass and get on the drums with Jack to belt out the Bo Diddley rhythm. "That was a really great platform to do the bow work," Eddie says, "because Spud, the rhythm guitarist, would just bash away on the chord, and there was nothing in the way for my bowed guitar. It would really cut through."

Click to browse violin bows on Reverb. Photo by Guitar Audio.

A guitar is not a violin, you'll be surprised to hear. So the absence of a violin's arched bridge means a guitarist with a bow who wants to play single notes is usually limited to the outer two strings, but double-stops and chords are available with a bit of practice, as Eddie discovered.

"Yes, I'd use it for chords, too, all the strings—I'd play rhythmic patterns with the bow on the strings," he recalls. "I loved to do things like that on guitar that weren't normally done. People were still happy to play guitars in the normal way, which is OK, but I was always trying to do something a little bit different. It all added to our reputation as being this slightly off-the-wall band."

The Mark Four morphed into The Creation and signed to Planet, a label Shel Talmy set up after parting company with The Who following a disagreement. Eddie continued to use his bow, often in combination with his notable use of feedback, as on the 1966 Creation single "Making Time."

"We came out of that mid-'60s mod raving explosion on the London scene, just a mad, mad time," Eddie says. "When I picked up the bow, you'd see the audience thinking oh, what's going on here? And you'll notice now in the online videos of the band that I removed the pickguard from my 335, because I had to make room for that downward stroke of the bow. Anyway, it was all part of this big fantastic thing that was going on. I tried to give it what I thought it needed."

The Creation never quite earned the fame they deserved, but it seems Jimmy Page certainly noticed Eddie's application of the violin bow to the electric guitar. The first recorded evidence of Jimmy using a bow comes with the brief solo on "Tinker Tailor Soldier Sailor," a July '67 Yardbirds B-side (and also a track on the Little Games album).

Led Zeppelin - "Dazed and Confused" (Live at Madison Square Garden 1973)

The bow became a more important fixture with Jimmy's next band, however, the mighty Zeppelin. Following the sessions for their first album that included his use of bow and Telecaster in"Dazed And Confused" and "How Many More Times," he told Melody Maker: "I use an ordinary violin bow on the guitar, given a little more tension on the horsehair than one would employ for violin playing, plus lots more rosin. It gives an infinite variety of sounds, ranging from violin to cello and from a whistling wind to a Boeing 707 taking off."

When Jimmy picked up the bow on stage, it certainly provided visual drama, and "Dazed And Confused" provided a live showcase for the style, as seen in the footage of the band at London's Albert Hall in the opening weeks of 1970. Jimmy was nonetheless keen to underline the musical importance of the technique. "When I use a violin bow on guitar it's not just a gimmick, like people think," he told Chris Welch at the time. "It's because some great sounds come out. You can employ legitimate bowing techniques and gain new scope and depth."

Other guitarists have since dipped into the scope and depth offered by a bowed guitar, including Colin Muinzer of Cruella de Ville and Jónsi of Sigur Rós. Nigel Tufnel of Spinal Tap ditched the bow and used the violin to scrape his strings, but that's not widely recommended.

Sarah Lipstate uses a bow for some of her Noveller solo work, and following Noveller's 2015 album Fantastic Planet she was invited to tour as part of Iggy Pop's band. "I'm proud of my bowed guitar work on the track 'Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night' that I wrote for Iggy," she tells me. "I'd stumbled on the idea of a violin bow back when I was living in Austin for college. A friend had given me an eBow my freshman year. His uncle had given it to him and he thought it was boring, so he gave it to me."

Noveller - "Gathering the Elements" Live at Royal Albert Hall

The eBow is a small handheld device for guitar, originally introduced in the '70s, that electronically induces string vibrations, potentially creating endless sustain. Sarah experimented with it, making four-track recordings of layered guitars. "So the next year, when I was browsing a vintage guitar shop and saw a violin bow hanging on the wall, I got really excited about the idea of creating that sustained eBow sound using the real thing."

Any tips for budding bow users? "Use rosin on your bow," she says with a smile. "I use a carbon fiber cello bow now, and it works really well for me. I wrecked so many bows in college by accidentally leaving them in the car. The Texas heat will warp a wooden bow in a heartbeat. I also lost a wooden bow after it was swept off a music stand by the tail of a giant T.Rex puppet. Carbon fiber is more durable!"

The guitar's body shape is a big consideration, Sarah says. "Offset guitars bow really well for me because I primarily bow the high E-string. For that reason, I find it's almost impossible to bow a Strat. My Jazzmaster is the perfect body shape for accessing notes high up on the neck where I tend to do most of my bowing. There's always rosin residue around the 19th fret of my Jazzmaster."


About the author: Tony Bacon writes about musical instruments, musicians, and music. He is a co-founder of Backbeat UK and Jawbone Press. His books include The Gibson 335 Guitar Book, The Ultimate Guitar Book, and Electric Guitars: Design And Invention. Tony lives in Bristol, England. More info at tonybacon.co.uk.

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