Using a Violin Bow on Guitar: The Origins of Bowed Guitar

bowed guitar

Bowed guitar is one of the more unique and interesting applications of guitar to come out of the 20th century. Frequently used for soundscapes and sound effects, it can create a wide variety of sounds that you just can’t get any other way. It’s a technique that many guitarists like to keep in their arsenal, even if it isn’t something they use regularly.

But where did bowed guitar come from? Who decided to use a bow on a guitar, an instrument not meant to be bowed? And where does one even start if they’d like to try it out? We’re going to answer all those questions in this blog. 

Origins (It Wasn’t Jimmy Page)

First, let’s start with the history. Where exactly did bowed guitar come from? While most associate bowed guitar with Jimmy Page and first heard it on Yardbirds and Led Zeppelin albums, Jimmy Page was not the first to use a bow on his guitar. That honor belongs to a different British guitarist of the 60s. 

Eddie Phillips of The Creation was actually the first guitarist to use a bow, as far as we know. He first started doing it in 1963 with The Mark Four, which eventually turned into The Creation. According to an interview from 1988, Phillips said feedback inspired the idea of using a bow. He wanted to make his guitar sound different from everything else and do something that was against the rules of guitar.

While Phillips may have been the first to bow his guitar, Jimmy Page made it something that everyone knew about. In 1967, just a year after The Creation’s Get Back, Jimmy Page could be seen using a bow with The Yardbirds. And soon after that, Page was using a bow for certain Led Zeppelin songs as well. 

With Jimmy Page using the bow, it became an iconic technique. Jimmy Page is one of the most well-known guitarists of all time, and Led Zeppelin is one of the most important and popular rock bands of all time. So it’s no surprise that many young fans would see Page’s use of a bow and be inspired themselves. That led to a whole wave of other guitarists using a bow in their music. 

Modern Bowed Guitar

Lots of guitarists have used bows over the years, including people like Roger Waters, Steve Vai, Mike McCreedy. However, we’re going to focus on some of the ones that have made it an integral part of their sound. 

Sonic Youth guitarist Lee Ronaldo is known for his unique tones, sounds, and soundscapes, and—you guessed it—he uses a bow somewhat regularly. Ronaldo’s bow usage isn’t surprising, and it fits perfectly with Sonic Youth’s noisy nature. He uses it to create intriguing and odd sounds, which are a great match for his style and music.

Another popular user of a bow is Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood. Greenwood is known for being an unconventional guitarist, using all sorts of techniques, pedals, and gear to create the iconic sounds he is known for. Among those techniques is bowed guitar, which features prominently on both Pyramid Song and Burn the Witch. Greenwood has also utilized bowed guitar in some of his movie soundtracks as well. 

And of course, the story of modern bowed guitar wouldn’t be complete without mentioning Jónsi of Sigur Rós. No guitarist is more associated with bowed guitar than Jónsi, as it is a key part of his sound and Sigur Rós’ music. The atmospheric and stunning soundscapes that Jónsi is able to coax from his guitar via a bow/ebow are truly one-of-a-kind. 

Outside of these three though, plenty of other guitarists use bows. They are most commonly used for intros, outros, and soundscapes though, and aren’t a regularly used thing. Still, bowed guitars can be heard on records every single year. Bowed guitar is particularly common in the soundtrack world, as bowed guitar is great for creating eerie or soothing atmospheres in films. 

Why Use a Bow?

So all that said, why would you want to use a bow? Well, the answer is pretty simple—it’s different and sounds cool. That’s really all there is to it. Bowed guitar sounds like nothing else, and sometimes it’s exactly what you need to get the sound you’re looking for. 

In terms of what it’s good for, bowed guitar admittedly isn’t the most versatile thing out there. However, it still does have some variety. The most common use is to create big, drawn out, atmospheric sounds. Think Jimmy Page on Dazed and Confused or Johnny Greenwood on Burn the Witch. This works great when you want to add some atmosphere or mood to a track, particularly in an intro, outro, or jam. 

The other common use is to have fun rhythmically. Eddie Phillips used the bow this way, as did many others. It can be an intense sound, but it can work great when a song needs some aggressive rhythmic play. Bouncing or drawing the bow in staccato rhythms is a great use for the bow, especially to give a song some extra edge or energy. 

Also, it’s worth mentioning that the guitar is not designed to be bowed. Instruments like violins have a much more curved fretboard, meaning the strings aren’t as flat across like they are on a guitar. This means that playing individual strings on the bow (except the two E strings) is near impossible. However, it can also be used for chords while bowing all of the strings at once. 

Getting Started With a Bow

If you want to get started using a bow on your guitar, there are a couple options available to you. First is the traditional method of using a regular old violin bow. This is what Eddie Phillips and Jimmy Page did, as well as others. But if you go this route, there are a few things to keep in mind. 

You need to use rosin with a bow, or else it won’t bow across the strings properly. That’s not a huge deal, but you’ll likely end up with rosin on your guitar and fretboard. So you’ll have to keep an eye on it and make sure to clean your guitar regularly. 

The other thing to keep in mind is that bows break. Horsehair, which is what is commonly used for bows, doesn’t last forever. Many bows are also made of wood, meaning they will warp and break. You can get carbon fiber bows to mitigate this though, and they are much more durable. 

Your other option is to use an ebow. The ebow isn’t truly a bow, but it is essentially an electronic simulation of that. It creates a magnetic pulse that interacts with the pickups and strings to create a sound very similar to a bowed guitar. However, the ebow has its pros and cons. 

Ebows are much easier to use since you just gently hold it over the string you want to bow. They are also more consistent since there is less variation with your technique, which makes them great for live performances. Ebows also let you bow on any individual string you want since you can just place it over a string, including all of the middle strings. 

On the flipside, they can’t be used for multiple strings. That means no chords. You are also limited when it comes to rhythmic play since ebows have a slow attack. Real bows are a lot more versatile when it comes to playing rhythms and coaxing specific tones and sounds out of your guitar.

Ultimately, both of them are a great option. It just depends on how you plan using the bow, what sounds you’re looking for, and whether you want to invest all the time it takes to master using a real bow.

To Bow or Not to Bow

While the bow may not be as well-known as wah pedals or Marshall stacks, it is an iconic and essential part of guitar history. From Eddie Phillips and Jimmy Page to Jonny Greenwood and Jónsi, the bow has been used by lots of incredible musicians to create memorable and iconic songs. 

The bow can be a great addition to your sonic palette, and it can be a very inspiring technique for guitar. If you want to get started using a bow yourself, pick up a real bow and some rosin or an ebow. Try it out and see what happens—you just might make your next masterpiece with the help of a bow. 

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