Lately, I`ve been listening to some guitar players who use violin bows. This got me thinking, can you play the bass guitar with a bow as well?
Personally, I`ve only tried to play the bass with an Ebow. Thus, I had to reach out to some double bass-playing friends for this one.
Luckily, they could answer my questions about playing the bass guitar with a bow, with one of them even having tried it at one point.
Below, I`ll go over whether playing a bow even is possible. Then, I`ll cover how to go about it if you decide to give it a try. Lastly, we`ll look at how to set up and play your bass guitar with a bow, so that it will sound good and not feel too cumbersome.
Can you play bass guitar with a bow?
While you cannot play the inner strings on a bass guitar with a bow, it is possible to bow the outer strings and thus use the instrument to some extent. It will however produce a vastly different tone than a double bass, and it will not sound pleasant with roundwound strings.
One of the differences between double bass and bass guitar is how the strings are mounted on the instruments.
The strings on the double bass curve at the bridge, which makes it easy for a bow to reach each of them. The strings on the electric bass, on the other hand, are flat.
As a result of this, you cannot use a bow to play the middle strings. This is because the bow will touch the other strings and produce unwanted sounds regardless of how you position it. Thus, you cannot reliably use a bow on the A or D strings on a 4-string bass guitar.
You can however play the outer strings of the bass. As a result, when bowing a bass guitar, you will essentially be playing a 2-string instrument. This holds true for 5 and 6-string basses as well, as the middle strings will be equally out of reach.
Alternatively, you can opt for an Ebow. This is a device that is held similarly to a pick, but it creates a bowed sound instead of a plucked one. While marketed towards guitarists, it works equally well on the bass. It also enables you to play the middle strings, as opposed to a traditional bow.
It is thus both easier and more convenient to play bass guitar with an Ebow than with a double bass bow. Ebows are available on Amazon, and I recommend them to anyone who is serious about producing a bowed sound, rather than trying out a bow as a fun experiment.
How do you bow a bass guitar?
The electric bass was modeled after the double bass, and the instruments share many similarities. Thus, when attempting to bow a bass guitar, you can model your technique after double bass players.
A key basic concept of playing double bass with a bow is to have a slight bend in your elbow and to keep your wrist relaxed.
Keeping your arm completely straight will negatively impact both your tone and your control of the instrument. Your wrist should lead the bow in a natural and fluid motion, which will be difficult when it is tensed up.
To keep your bowing fluid, do not grip the bow hard. It should be able to rest in your hand, without you having to use force to keep it there.
I also recommend sticking to bowing a single string at a time. As you can only bow the two outer strings on the bass guitar, switching between the two will be difficult. The two outer strings also differ significantly in pitch, with the E and the G being tuned an octave and a minor third apart on a 4-string.
Therefore, it will be a lot easier to play meaningful melodies when sticking to a single string. It will also be a lot less demanding in terms of control and technique.
What strings to use for bowing a bass guitar?
It`s preferable to opt for flatwound strings when playing the bass guitar with a bow.
Roundwound strings are not typically used by bowed instruments. This is because they will produce a tone that sounds screeching and unpleasant when bowed.
Furthermore, more rosin will build up from bowing roundwound strings than flatwound strings.
Rosin is what enables a bow to grab the strings and produce its bowed sound. It`s natural for some of it to loosen when bowing strings. However, it can be a pain to clean it off your bass guitar, as it can seep into the pickups and electronics.
Thus, if you’re not currently using flatwound strings, I recommend restringing your bass before attempting to bow it. This 105-85-65-45 string set is versatile and balanced and will be suitable for anyone who wants to try out bowing their bass.
Another option is to think way outside the box. Charles Berthoud put cello strings on his bass, which sounded great. This made the bass sound like a string ensemble instrument when bowed, and like a bass guitar when plucked.
Bowing an electric bass can produce a unique and pleasant sound with the right strings and technique. It can however be cumbersome, as you will not be able to bow the inner strings of the instrument.
If you want to reliably get a bowed sound from your bass, I would use an Ebow over a bow. This is because an Ebow will both be easier to use, and enables you to reach all of the strings on the bass.
Regardless of whether you use a bow or an Ebow, opt for flatwound strings over roundwound strings. If you want to get experimental, you can also opt for strigs intended for other instruments, such as the cello.
Related reading: Bass Guitar VS Cello
Ultimately, I think bowing the bass guitar works best as a fun experiment. It can be used on songs to add variety and uniqueness, but relying on it as your main form of playing the bass will feel limiting.