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How to choose a nyckelharpa bow

As discussed on the opening page of this section, there have been many popular bow types over the years. Some have passed the test of time and will continue to endure. Others– not so much.

If you are lucky enough to live near (or can visit) other nyckelharpa players, they might let you try out their bows to see how they feel. This is the most valuable thing you can possibly do in your search for a new bow. Nothing can replicate the hands-on test of a bow– how it grabs the strings, how it reacts to different pressure and speed, and how heavy or light it feels in your hands.

Once you find the bow style that fits your needs, you’ll encounter the next big question.

How to determine the optimal length for your bow

The rule of thumb is to measure your forearm and hand–put your elbow on a table with your arm and hand pointing up and measure from your elbow to the tip of your longest finger. This provides you with a good starting point.

Some nyckelharpas come with bows already, and sometimes they are not particularly good. If you’re lucky, the builder will ask you for your arm length (as above) when you order a harpa. Regardless — you can easily buy a bow separately. Once you’ve played awhile, you might discover you would prefer a longer or shorter bow than the one you’ve got.

‘But it’s a lot shorter than a violin bow!’

If you play the violin, you may be especially concerned about the length of a bow. Indeed, it’s very important: the length pre-determines the amount of sound you can get from any one bow stroke. A true artist may need and use every inch of that bow length to achieve the sound they’re after.

But the thing to remember is, the nyckelharpa is played with a completely different hold than a violin. If you’re new to the nyckelharpa, imagine playing a guitar with a violin bow. You’re happily playing along when — whoops, there just went your nose!

You can get by with a slightly longer bow than your arm measurements may indicate. But know what you’re getting into beforehand. The perfect length bow is manageable, maneuvers easily, and has the right balance of weight. You can push the limits a bit, but once you get too far, you will find the bow to be working more against you than with you.

For those true artists out there– you will get the hang of your nyckelharpa bow quickly. You can use the same concepts as with violin (pulsing, backbeats, staccato, etc). You’ll get used to the shorter length you have to work with, and figure out the best spots to change directions. The truth is, very few violin players really make use of 100% of their bow anyway!