Bowus Family

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For years we wanted a bowed instrument to play,  but nothing we could find seemed to quite suite our requirements.
We were after a biggish instrument with a comfortable untwisted playing position that we could play while seated cross legged, which ruled out all of the violin-cello family, while the ethnic bowed instruments we encountered were either too small or had too many sympathetic strings.
Which left us no choice except to create our own.   (Our basic principle is that there’s no point building an instrument we can  buy.  For example, why build a guitar,  when we can purchase one that’s better than anything we could possibly make?)
But since neither of us had ever owned or played a bowed instrument, before launching into some complicated construction, it seemed wise to test our basic understanding of the situation.  So from scraps of hardwood and hardwood plywood,   we threw together “Ektara”, the one-string test model shown at right
Playing Ektara gave us a first taste of the power of the bow, and more importantly, it convinced us that with our evolutionary approach there was no reason to worry about the proverbial difficulty of learning to bow.  Since we were not trying to reproduce some specific established sound,  there was no way to make a mistake, and right from the beginning we could enjoy ourselves.   To be sure some sounds we produced were more gracious and pleasing than others,  but none were wrong. ( Practice )
However we were dissatisfied with Ektara’s small thin tone (like a no longer young bumble bee),  and therefore we decided to build an instrument with a proper sound box.  The result was “Dotara” which in Hindi is the general name for a two-string instrument.
Except for the finger board and the piece holding the pegs,  it’s entirely constructed from scraps of hardwood plywood given us by a friend when we had just recently returned to the U.S. and were at our very brokest.  We made the body a truncated pyramid because that was the biggest sound box we could make with the scraps he gave us, and because we knew it was a shape that would be strong even though it’s very minimal internal frame was also made of thin plywood.  For rigidity we made the neck an I-beam.
The bow we used was made for playing the Indian sarangi and our strings are gut ones made for the same instrument.

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The music you’re hearing is played with two of the bowus family instruments described on this page.  ( You can listen to the rest of the instrumentals and songs on our most recent CD by going to our Work In Progress Frozen mp3 Blog. )
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Bowus – Bowus :  A Bass Bowus, Dotara duet
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For years we wanted to play a bowed instrument, but nothing we could find seemed to quite suite our requirements.

We were after a biggish instrument but one which we could play while seated cross legged, so this ruled out the cello and string bass.  Nor did we want to end up with the damaged left ears and out of whack necks which afflict all too many violin and viola players.  While as for ethnic bowed instruments, the only ones we encountered were either too small or had too many sympathetic strings.

Which left us no choice except to create our own.  ( Our basic principle is that there’s no point building an instrument we can  buy.  For example, why build a guitar when we can purchase one that’s better than anything we could possibly make? )

ektaraBut since neither of us had ever owned or played a bowed instrument, before launching into some complicated construction, it seemed wise to test our basic understanding of the situation.  So from scraps of hardwood and hardwood plywood, we threw together “Ektara”, the one-string test model shown at right.

Playing Ektara gave us a first taste of the power of the bow, and as importantly convinced us that with our evolutionary approach to music there was no reason to worry about the proverbial difficulty of learning to bow.  Since we were not trying to reproduce some specific sound, there was no way to make a mistake and right from the beginning we could just enjoy ourselves.  To be sure some sounds we produced were more gracious and pleasing than others, but none were wrong.  ( Practice )

However we were far from satisfied with Ektara’s small thin tone ( like a no longer young bumble bee ), and so we quickly started working on an instrument with a proper sound box.  The result was “Dotara”, which in Hindi is the general name for a two-string instrument.

We built it when we had only recently returned to the US and were very broke ( Doing Music Differently ), so except for its finger board and the piece holding the pegs, our dotara is entirely constructed from scraps of hardwood plywood that were being thrown out by a friend.

dotaraIts body is a truncated pyramid because that turned out to be the biggest sound box we could make with the specific scraps he gave us, and because we knew it was a shape which would be strong even though its very minimal internal frame was also made of thin plywood.  Since its neck too was mostly crafted from the same plywood, for rigidity we designed it as an I-beam.

We strung our dotara with thick rough gut intended for the Indian Sarangi, and at first like Ektara we played it with a bow also meant for that instrument, but now we’ve switched to a lighter, longer, and easier to tighten viola bow.

Dotara’s strings can be tightened because they’re wound around wooden pegs whose tapered tips are jammed into tapered holes.  But since we tapered both the pegs and holes without specialized tools their fit is less than perfect.  This means the pegs hold only if we keep the string tension much lower than that of any conventional string instrument.

At first this worried us because bowing such loose strings yielded a thin unstable tone without much volume.

But soon we came to prefer Dotara’s breathiness to the more uniform sound one can produce with tightly strung strings, and since we only play our music in our totally quiet home environment ( Performance ), a soft sounding instrument was just fine.  Then once we started playing it amplified, not only did its lack of volume matter even less, we were also bowled over by the instrument’s unanticipated rich and persistent ring.  ( Our Recording )

Plus over time we realized the difficulty of controlling the tone was actually an advantage since it put us in the position of having to cooperate with the instrument rather than of being able to dominate it.  That is we had to learn to make music with the sounds our loose strings wanted to make.  ( Practice )

Anyway Dotara turned out to be so much fun we started wondering what it would be like to play a larger bowed instrument with a deeper more resonant tone, and this prompted us to design and build “Bass Bowus”, an 8 ft. long instrument with only a single string.
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bass bowusb

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We gave it just a single string so our poor little brains could concentrate on bowing without having to also worry about complicated fingerings.  This turned out to be a happy decision since not only did our bowing technique quickly improve, but also because we discovered there were extraordinary sounds waiting to be coaxed from a single very loose 8 ft. long string…..

And though this had not been something we expected, adding Bass Bowus to our ensemble of self-made instruments also changed the way we played Dotara.  Initially we’d held it like a small cello, but after realizing that Bass Bowus’ horizontal position encouraged us to play more cooled out music, we also started resting the end of Dotara’s neck on a pile of books.

horizontal dotaraWe continued doing it that way right up through the end of recording Work In Progress, but we always had it in mind that some day we would find the time to build proper wooden support stands for both of our bowus family instruments.  Of course when we finally did get around to making one for Dotara, we kicked ourselves for having waited so long.  Compared to an ungainly pile of books, the new stand was much more stable and a whole lot less bother to set up.

Also most of our books are used and have challenged bindings so we felt terrible about asking them to serve as supports.  Living as we do in the middle of nowhere they’re our most important intellectual friends and clearly it was more than a bit disrespectful to use them for anything but reading.

Since the stand for Dotara was such an obvious improvement we went ahead and built a similar one for Bass Bowus.  Both are simply put together from triangles of  3/8” plywood glued to short lengths of 2×4, and since they share the triangular shape of the sound boxes, they look very good.

Also since these neck stands have the same basic plywood triangle and 2×4 design as those we built to hold our dynamic mikes against the instruments, when we play them amplified and use both types of stands, they look like a set.

The difference is the necks sit between the plywood triangles, while the microphones rest across notches cut in their truncated tops.  ( Microphone Placement )

adotara neck standdotara mike stand

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But back to Bass Bowus.  Like Dotara, it’s built largely with hardwood plywood.  In fact the bottom of its neck and the top of its body and tail are a single piece cut from the length of an 8 ft. sheet of plywood.  But unlike Dotara its sound box has a proper frame of oak.

Since once more we made the sound box a truncated pyramid, the pieces for its oak frame don’t have rectangular cross sections, and ripping them to the proper shapes with our skill saw was far from easy.

Nor was it straight forward to correctly cut the compound angles needed to fit the frame pieces together.

In fact as you can see from the following pictures, for folks working without a shop and proper tools, building Bass Bowus was an altogether nasty job of carpentry.
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