Words/Dragonetti bows and me (part 1)

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© Peter Morgan 2016


Dragonetti bows and me (part 1)

The first time I heard about Dragonetti bows and indeed heard of Domenico himself was when I was working with a showband from Doncaster on a summer season in Guernsey circa 1976.

The band was pretty dreadful but the season was a lot of fun, I could write an entire book just on this summer season. Along with my best friend the drummer Tony Balch, I was sacked and reinstated three times for various rock'n'roll related activities. Actually I think I will write that book, at a later date, much later probably.

I was playing bass guitar on this gig, (my wonderful 1961 Fender P-bass, which I wish I still had). It was shortly after my first double bass lesson with Joe Mudele, I had also taken my first double bass with me. My plan was to be a double bass player by the time I returned home. I wanted to be Stanley Clarke or Chris Laurence, either would do.

I had my Simandl, a French bow and of course a stool, since Stanley and Chris both played sitting down. I sat down like a cello player because I thought Chris played like that, of course he doesn't. I had seen him several times with Harry Beckett and just loved his playing.

My bowing was definitely not happening, I sounded like a dying sea creature of unknown origin, my flat mates in London had told me so, using rather unkind language. The biggest problem was that my thumb kept collapsing, it really hurt. I have double jointed thumbs and that just wasn't helping. I tried everything, I copied any photo or drawing of a French bow hold, all with no success.

I was sitting in the grounds of the hotel complex where I was working, describing my my problems to Chris Haskins. He was the bass player with the Rod Mason jazz band, also working at the hotel. Chris was a great bass player and knew his stuff. "What you need Pete" he said, "is a Dragonetti bow". My life changed in that moment.

"Pardon"? I said.

He described the grip, the way my thumb could be free and showed me that Mister Simandl himself played this way. I was entranced and fell in love with this man Dragonetti and his bow. I resolved that when I returned to civilisation I would procure a Dragonetti bow. However Chris didn't explain the difference between a modern German bow and what is broadly known as a Dragonetti bow these days. He also didn't tell me that the Dragonetti bow was extinct!

Although I didn't realise it, this was my first experience of the myriad of underhand bass bow descriptive terms ....

“Oh, I see you use the Viennese/Dragonetti/German/Butler/Simandl/etc/etc method !! 

I'm still not sure if Chris was describing a modern or older style underhand bow, because even now some people describe modern bows as Dragonetti.

By the way I loved that Chris Haskins on this gig wasn’t even playing a double bass. He was using a Fender and making it swing in a traditional jazz context, a thing that a lot of players at this time were trying to do, me included. He really made it work, it was totally convincing.

On my return to London I found an authentic Drago bow surprisingly easily, my friend, the soon to become famous violin maker John Dilworth, was a student at the Newark School of Violin Making and for a small sum sold me a beautiful hammer head bow that he had restored. I still didn't know about modern German underhand bows.

I wasn't working on double bass yet. My plan to be Stanley or Chris seemed to be more difficult than I had imagined, but I loved my bow and I found it cured my thumb problems, also it was way more intuitive than my French bow. I loved the way it balanced itself without any intervention from me. I loved the really deep frog which seemed made to measure. I adored the workmanlike utilitarian feel of this bow. Disaster struck when this this lovely old bow was destroyed, of course it was my fault (I still have the frog to remind me of it). Amazingly I simply walked down the road and bought another one, from John Lodge who had a local violin shop. He had two Dragonetti bows hanging on the wall, the one I bought and a TUBBS !!! Needless to say I couldn't afford the Tubbs but it was so amazing to see it hanging there with its fixed frog. I was truly hooked on these bows and beginning to understand that unlike violin bows there were unlimited patterns to them.

My new bow was harder to play than its predecessor, but I loved it nevertheless and I still own it. It is quite a rarity but unfortunately not in great order these days. I was now playing double bass and using my Dragonetti bow on gigs, I remember I did a small tour of Scotland with George Chisholm and this bow. Shortly after this unfortunately for me and my development, I discovered the MODERN GERMAN BOW. It really meant that my passion was diluted and distracted for some years. I played this kind of modern bow for a while but it never felt right, it took me ages to get back to Signore D.

But I did, almost overnight I put my modern bows aside and only took Dragonetti bows out to work. Now I play nothing but original Dragonetti bows. I have a collection of various ancient underhand bows and use them all. They are of course not all Drago bows but somehow that is what we all call them. I buy them wherever I can find them and whenever I can afford them. My most exciting find was was a fixed frog very short and lightweight genuine Dragonetti pattern bow. I bought it for £8 on eBay and found it advertised in the cello section. It plays beautifully.

I am self taught and my bowing is primitive and limited, but these bows talk to me. I can express myself with them and through them. They somehow have a humanity that I don't find in modern bows.

I still fantasise about that Tubbs though, or was it a Dodd? It could have been either or both of them from what I have read.

Read more in ..... Dragonetti bows and me (part 2)