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The UK brass band I play in is preparing a test piece that features a bowed vibraphone amongst the percussion parts.

We've been using a cello bow, well rosined. But sometimes when you start bowing, nothing happens.

I'd like to know:

  • What is the most successful bowing technique to use?
  • Is there anything we need to do to mechanically prepare the vibraphone for being played with a bow?
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    Check the bar edges are clean - they may get handled and grease from hands will stop the bow gripping.
    – Tim
    Commented Sep 12, 2016 at 12:44
  • Does the composer of this rather oddball piece have any instructions in the score? Commented Sep 13, 2016 at 11:23
  • 1
    Indeed there are some notes about the percussion parts - faber-product-media.s3.amazonaws.com/… but nothing that answers my original questions. Commented Sep 13, 2016 at 12:35
  • I came across this old question while searching for something else. How did this turn out? I also wondered whether a wooden "bow" would work, in a similar fashion to the stick used with a singing bowl.
    – Theodore
    Commented Nov 18, 2022 at 14:53

2 Answers 2

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I'd like to add some experience to the existing answer as an orchestral percussionist with some (controversial) background as a violinist.

Vibraphone bowing is a wide term that is often underestimated by both percussionists and composers. While the basic technique is well known, its practical application requires important knowledge and experience, especially considering the following aspects:

  • the width of the bow hair (cello and double bass bows normally have a wider contact surface);
  • the length of the bow (opposite to the above, violas and violins normally are much longer);

Now, a double bass bow is normally the preferred choice: due to its hair width, it normally makes it easier to actually start the sound, even for inexperienced players. Note, though, that there is no absolute standard size for bows. For instance, double bass bows can have very different lengths depending on the generic style, or their playing philology (for instance, jazz, German classical symphony, or Italian opera) possibly ranging between 60 and 75 centimetres. That's a lot of difference both in length and, then, in mass.

But that's not enough: sometimes you have to play long sustained notes (possibly for multiple bars), and even if you are experienced enough, lots of things may work against you: effective note length, dynamics (possibly to be kept constant and without interruptions), instrument capabilities and overall acoustics.

While the target material (a metal bar, opposed to a string) may be different, the basic concept remains: string players literally spend years learning about bowing techniques, and even if we, as percussionists, rarely need those skills, we cannot ignore the shortcomings of such underestimations.

Interestingly enough, we have a further difficulty; string players normally take aid (hopefully with some awareness) from the weight of their playing: the arm, the bow, and even other aspects related to body movements; lots of important aspects of the bow movements are from top to bottom: gravity (and its awareness) helps a lot, and makes it easier to "add" proper sound to your playing.
Ask a violinist to play the same difficult piece when they're upside down.

Similarly, none of this helps when bowing a vibraphone bar: you have no bow/arm weight to help you, because the bow is always vertical.


There are two main aspects to consider about all this:

  • note attack (when the note can be actually perceived);
  • legato ("slurred") effects, a long note that is consistent in its dynamics and not affected by technique limitations;

For vibraphone bowing, the former is normally a simpler objective: you have to understand the mass of your movements and of the bow, along with the bow "hair width". If you can, take your time to know the instruments (the vibraphone and the bow) and learn how to get the most from them. This will also create further experience and eventually help you in the long run.

As usual, spending time is what you need: studying and experience are your only friends.

Note that, similarly to strings, there's almost nothing you can do to "prepare" the instrument: if the instrument or its strings are cheap and poorly sounding, that's what you get, similarly to a cheap/student/practice percussion instrument.

The "attack" only depends on physical friction capabilities of the material and construction fineness, which is not an aspect that is normally considered fundamental for such percussion instruments. A vibraphone has to primarily "play well" when struck, not when bowed.

For long sustained notes, the problem is still about experience and practice.
A well trained string player is able to almost seamlessly "slur" a very long note even between bow changes, and a percussionist should at least try to do so as well.

You have to learn how to begin a new bow change, meaning that you have to know or understand how you should eventually touch the bar again, in order to avoid its damping and, instead, take advantage of its current vibration in the shortest amount of time possible, so that your new bowing will not break the current sound, but continue it instead.


All of the above requires lots of time and efforts.

If this is the first time you're doing this, don't worry too much, but also take the experience as an important learning point.

If you have enough time, do your studying.

Do experiments. Try different bow grips and body positions. Experience the differences you can apply when starting the bow movement from the tip or the heel.

Sometimes you have to use one bow per hand, but, if you don't, use the free arm as a body lever to apply a better grip, "weight" and control.

If you only need to play one sustained note, consider using two bows (one for each hand).

Based on your experience and capabilities, decide the bow type: as said above, double bass bows are the preferred choice, but if the piece (or playing acoustics) doesn't require too much dynamics, a longer and slimmer bow may be a better choice.

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I am a cellist and do not have experience with vibraphone, but from this video and this website, the following techniques seem to be important:

1: Use a bass bow instead of a cello bow. Bass bows are larger and have more hair, so they will give you more sound.

2: Press hard. The bow needs to be pressing into the metal to grip it— it's not enough just slide it over. Rosin helps with this.

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