Using a guitar bow, or the bowed guitar technique is a cool way of getting some crazy sounds. Read our guide on how to use a violin bow on guitar and start making some cool riffs!
It's not as easy as it may look...but if you love what bands such as Led Zeppelin, The Creation and Sigur Ros have done in the past with the bowed guitar technique, the violin (or cello) bow can be a great trick to add to your repertoire!
Sure...an eBow is a really cool effect that we recommend to any guitarist interested in further sonic explorations of their instrument. However, using a violin bow on guitar to achieve the bowed guitar sound can result in some really great sounds, and be much more challenging and rewarding.
Besides, playing an actual violin bow on guitar looks really cool onstage, too!
What equipment do you need to play violin bow on guitar?
Basically, there's no "correct" way to achieve the bowed guitar technique as a violin bow is not meant for guitar anyway, but in summary you'll need 3 things to get the sound:
An electric guitar (they sound better bowed compared to acoustic.)
A bow (Note: You will need rosin.)
An amp with some nice distortion & reverb/delay effects - can be built-in effects or pedals.
Here's how you actually use a violin bow on guitar & get the bowed guitar technique
In summary, here's how you actually use a violin bow on guitar
Once you have all the equipment above, you need to adjust your shoulder strap so that the guitar comes down below your stomach.
You want to TRY and hold the bow the same way you hold it as if you were playing the violin so try and extend your finger across the bow. However, you're fine to play it however you want - this is not the same as playing the violin.
Set your amp to a regular clean tone with possibly just a little bit of distortion, with added reverb/delay for best results.
Slide the bow across the strings (you’re sliding where you’d normally pick.) Don't worry - it may take several times for you to get a vibration as you need to let the rosin 'bed in' with the bow.
Play around with the amount of pressure you place on the bow until you find the 'bite' and the bow starts vibrating the strings properly.
Bonus tips on using a violin bow on guitar:
It may also take you a while to find a comfortable position. You want to avoid hurting your wrist at all costs.
It’s hard to play chords with a bow, so we recommend open tunings. You could make an entire 4-minute song based off of G and A with a bow.
It’s also hard to hit higher notes above the 12th fret without it sounding scratchy. So try and stay further towards the head stock.
We recommend watching our PMT College video for technique inspiration - obviously a Gibson or Epiphone Les paul sound incredible:
Watch: How To Play Guitar With A Violin Bow
Our resident PMT College Tutor, Leigh Fuge from MGR Music offers some practical advice.
Before You Start – Rosin The Bow
Before you can start getting crazy with your bow, you need to apply rosin to the bow. Rosin creates friction between the bow hairs and the strings. This is what causes the vibrations that sound the notes as the bow is passed over the strings. It helps grip the strings. A bow without rosin will just slide over the string without making a sound.
There is no right or wrong way to set up your tone for bow playing, however a great place to start is with lots of reverb and lots of delay. Reverb and delay will add a haunting and ethereal quality to the bow playing. It will make the sustained notes ring and bounce around and create some wonderful soundscapes.
You can play with a violin bow on any guitar you want, but it is noticeably easier on a guitar with a carved top, like a Les Paul. It works on flattop guitars like Teles or Strats, but it is trickier as you have less of an angle to approach the outside strings.
To use a bow, you run the length of the bow hairs along the string. The best place to start is near the bridge of your guitar where the strings have some more tension. As you pass the bow, it vibrates the string. The slower you move the bow, the more the note sustains.
As you change notes with your fretting hand, it’s good practice to move the bow the opposite direction. This creates an alternate picking style motion with your picking hand, using the bow.
You can create a sense of tremolo picking by using the tip of the bow. Using small hand motions, play quick up and down bow movements which moving notes around on your fretting hand. This is a technique that works well if you want to add some melody to your soundscape. Take scale notes from a specific key and map them out along one string.
You can also use the bow to strike the strings while holding chords. This creates some very interesting textures and sounds great with lots of reverb and delay.
Try It Out
There are no real rules for doing this. It’s a really creative way of playing with textures and sounds that you cannot access with conventional guitar playing methods. Using a bow is a great way to break out of typical guitar playing and take your sound somewhere else.
Experiment with different amounts of delay and reverb, and even bring other effects into the mix if you want to see where else it can take you
Professional guidance can make all the difference to your development. Head over to mgrmusic.com and find a great teacher in your local area today. We have a great network of teachers around the UK from Swindon to York.
Jimmy Page Style Bowed Guitar
Jimmy uses a load of distortion - usually tube style with a treble boost in combination with a delay pedal. He also hits the strings for added effect.
Vibrato: Yes, you can do it. It’s difficult, but it can be done.
String bends: You can even bend the strings
Hammer-on’s / pull-off’s: Hammer ons and pull-offs sound great
Hitting the strings: Hitting the strings with some delay gets you that awesome Jimmy Page Sound.
Play around with other guitar techniques as well. You may end up with a cool new sound!
Usually, it’s easier to do power chords. But there's no list of what works with a bow and what does not. You’re gonna have to figure that out by yourself.
Jónsi "Sigur Rós" Style Bowed Guitar
As you can see in the videos below, Sigur Ros vocalist Jónsi uses a huge amount of delay and reverb when plauing with a violin bow on guitar. This is a great way of getting some seriously ethereal sounds.
If you want this sound, you'll need a little bit of overdrive as well as the reverb turned up and some delay set to lots of feedback.
Important points to remember when using a violin bow on guitar
Cleaning: You'll need an old rag! Get a cloth rag (preferably cotton) and wipe your strings. You need to do this after every time you play with the bow. Guitar strings weren’t made to have rosin on them- and if you want to play Metallica later on, you don’t want sticky strings. So wipe them down with a dry cotton rag.
Rosin: All you need to do is apply it to the bow. You don’t need to place it in water or chip pieces of it off. Just slide it across the hair of the bow. (About 14 slides will do for guitar.) You’ll need a lot of rosin to make the strings vibrate. The actual amount of rosin needed may increase depending on the type of your strings and whether or not the rosin 'sticks' and stays on. Just rub some on, try the bow, then add more when needed and you feel the bow 'biting' the strings.
Bow: Try tightening it to the highest it can go without ripping the hair. You don’t want it too loose, and you don’t want it too tight- so somewhere in the middle there- have it firm, that's all.
Delay & Reverb Effects: Reverb and delay are essential for getting that ethereal bowed guitar sound. You also need a little bit of distortion. Just turn up the feedback on your pedal and add a little bit of drive/distortion. Experiment with effects, but you may get the best results by using the bow and only one pedal, depending on the drive qualities of your amp. We recommend the BOSS DD-3T Digital Delay or a RE-20 Roland Space Echo Tape Delay / Reverb Pedal.
Strings: Because the Bow basically rubs on the strings to produce a noise, older the strings the better, as older strings lose their smooth texture due to the constant picking and strumming. Also using a cleaning solution for the strings before playing with the bow will help you A LOT.
Learn From Bowed Guitar Pioneers: Yes, you may want to play like Jimmy Page. That’s cool. But he wasn't the first nor the last to use a violin bow, so besides Jimmy Page, you may want to check 60's freakbeat combo The Creation (Eddie Phillips was the first guitarist to use a violin bow) and Sigur Ros.
I want the bowed guitar sound with the actual bow
If you don't want to actually carry around a violin bow or cover your strings in rosin, then an EBow is a great option.
Unfortunately, PMT currently does not sell individual violin bows. However, we do sell EBows which can produce the same effect as a violin string, cello or flute, as well as being portable and easier to use to get the same desired effects.
An EBow is powered by a small 9-volt battery which produces an infinite sustain by using a magnetic field that vibrates the strings.
Playing the EBow requires holding it directly above the strings, playing over the pickups will increase the volume of the effects and give you a crisper sounding tone. Moving away from the pickups give you a more mellow tone, more like a hollow body electric!
If you're in the market for a violin bow for your guitar (looking at you Jimmy Page fans!) then the EBow is certainly worth looking at.