For years we wanted to play a bowed instrument, but nothing we found quite suited our requirements.
We were after a biggish instrument we could play seated cross legged on the floor, which ruled out the cello and string bass. Nor did we want to end up with the damaged left ears and out-of-whack necks that afflict all too many violin and viola players. While the ethnic bowed instruments we checked out were either too small or had too many sympathetic strings.
To our ears sympathetic strings add little more than a powerful non specific ambience. If they make the sound richer it’s only in the sense that 50 violins have a richer sound than one, and like with the violins they actually mask the subtleties of what’s being played.
Which left us no choice but to create our own. (Our basic principle is there’s no point building an instrument we can buy. Why build a guitar when we can purchase one better than anything we could possibly make?)
But since neither of us had ever owned or played a bowed instrument, before launching into such a complicated construction project, it seemed prudent to check out our basic understanding of the situation. So from scraps of hardwood and hardwood plywood, we threw together “Ektara”, a one-string test model.
Playing Ektara convinced us 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.
However we were far from satisfied with Ektara’s small thin tone (like a no longer young bumble bee), so we quickly started work 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 were beyond broke and had only recently returned to the US, so except for its finger board and the section holding the pegs, our dotara is entirely constructed from scraps of 3/16” and 1/8” hardwood plywood that were being thrown out by a friend.
Its body is a truncated pyramid because that was the biggest sound box we could figure out how to make with the specific scraps he gave us, and because we hoped it was a shape which would be strong despite having only a very minimal thin plywood internal frame. Since most of its neck was also crafted from the same flimsy material, for rigidity we designed it as an I-beam. (Thin pieces of hardwood would have been better for both frame and neck, but they were beyond our budget.)
Our Dotara is strung with thick rough gut intended for the Indian Sarangi, and at first like Ektara we played it with a Sarangi bow (both bow and strings brought back with us from India). But the bow never felt quite right, and when we recorded Sweet Heresy we switched to a lighter, longer, easier to tighten modern viola bow.
Dotara’s strings stay tight because they’re wound around wooden pegs with tapered tips that can be jammed into tapered holes. However since we tapered both pegs and holes without specialized tools, their fit is less than perfect. So the system works only because we keep the strings looser than those on any conventional string instrument.
At first this worried us because it made it more difficult to control the sound, and even when one gets it right, loose strings are never as loud.
But the more we listened the more we came to appreciate Dotara’s warm soft breathy tone. For one thing since we only play in our totally quiet home, a quiet instrument is just fine. And also when we record Dotara, it is of course amplified, and then its lack of volume matters not at all.
As for the difficulty of controlling the tone, well we came to see this as an advantage since rather than being able to dominate Dotara, it forced us to learn to make music with the sounds its loose strings wanted to make. Also that its amplified ring lasts almost forever (Bass Bowus’ ring lasts forever…) makes it unsuitable for the practiced precision demanded by most conventional music, that too guided our music into unexplored regions.
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 three years later we plunged into construction of 8 ft. long. “Bass Bowus”.
We gave it a single string so our poor little brains could concentrate on just bowing without having to worry about complicated fingerings. This turned out to be a happy decision. Not only did our bowing technique quickly improve, we also discovered extraordinary sounds were waiting to be coaxed from a single very loose 8 ft. long string….
As an unexpected bonus, 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 discovering 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.
We continued doing it that way right up through the end of recording Work In Progress, but with a mental note 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 them, we kicked ourselves for having waited so long. Compared to ungainly piles of books, the new stands were 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 asking them to serve as supports. They’re our most important intellectual friends and clearly it was more than a bit disrespectful to use them for anything but reading.
The Bowus neck stands are simply put together from triangles of 5/16” plywood glued to short lengths of 2×4. They share the same basic design as the stands we built to hold the noses of our dynamic mics against the instruments. But the necks sit on the tops of the vertical 2×4’s, while the microphones rest across notches cut in the plywood. Both types of stands are triangular like the sound boxes of Dotara and Bass Bowus, and used with them they make cool looking Bauhaus style kits.
Bass Bowus like Dotara is built largely of 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. However 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.
Still it was worth it. When we’re on and Bass Bowus wants to cooperate, it may be the most magical of our instruments.