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Rosin: what's it all about? Tips and tricks!

Not only strings are available in every colour nowadays, the same goes for rosin. What should you look for in a good rosin, and how do you choose the right one for your instrument?

What is rosin?

Rosin is also known als colophonium or colophon. There are roughly three types of rosin:

  • Talloil rosin: a side product of paper production. This kind of rosin is usually used in cheaper rosin blocks for starting students.
  • Wood rosin: is gained from dead tree stumps.
  • Pine rosin: this is what is usually used for most rosins for strings instruments. It's juice that is gained from living trees, normally from pine wood trees and conifers (or a mix of different types).

In order to obtain a rosin block, the harvested rosin is cooked and purified a number of times, and possibly some extra ingredients are added, such as beeswax. Next, the rosin is dried and polished before it finally ends up in your violin or cello case. Every kind of rosin block has its own (often secret) mix of rosin types of different types of trees and additions.

How does rosin work?

Ever tried to bow your strings with a freshly rehaired bow? You'll have noticed that there's barely any sound from your instrument!

The horse hair from your bow is too smooth to get a grip on the strings to make them vibrate. That's where rosin comes in. Rosin makes sure the surface of the bow hairs gets somewhat sticky. If you bow across a string, then you're actually continuously creating a tension between the bow hars that are sticking to the string because of the rosin, your pulling power, and the moment where your pulling power becomes to great and the bow releases the string, making it vibrate. Bowing is thus a continuous sticking and releasing of the bow hairs.

Which kinds of rosins are there?

Nowadays there are so many kinds of rosins that you might not be able to see the wood from the trees (pun intended)! Luckily there are some guidelines that can set you off in the right direction.

First of all the price of the rosin can already tell you a lot. Maybe a classic one, but it's reality.

  • Cheaper rosin blocks were usually produced with a less refined production process. The resulting rosin is less for instance less pure. This can make these types of rosin create more dust, with a less pure sound as a result. They can be interesting and sufficient though for starting musicians.
  • More expensive rosin blocks are more pure and usually produce less dust. They allow for a more complex sound than rosin blocks that are less pure.

The colour of rosin indicates a lot as well. The colour can vary from very light, over amber, to dark.

  • Light coloured rosin is usually harder and sticks less than dark rosin. This creates less grip from the bow to the strings, but it allows for a smoother sound.
  • Dark coloured rosin is usually softer and sticks more. The result is that the bow hairs have more grip, but the sound is more grainy.
  • Amber coloured rosins (with a red shine) are in between light and dark coloured rosins and they try to find a balance between both characteristics.

Aside from the colour you can also check if there are additives in the rosin, usually metals. The idea is that these additions change the way the bow grips the strings, and thus the sound quality. Classic additions are:

  • Gold chips: produce a warm, clear sound.
  • Silver chips: create a more concentrated, bright sound.
  • Copper chips: create a warm, velvety sound, and are usually applied in rosins for fractional sized instruments for students.

What to look for when choosing rosin?

The search for the perfect block of rosin is in the end very personal. But following points can help you limit your choice:

  • Instrument: every kind of rosin can in theory be used on every kind of instrument, except for double bass rosin. Double bass rosin is almost syrupy and it's not a good idea to apply this to your violin bow. The general rule is: the "higher" the instrument, the lighter the rosin. Violin players usually prefer lighter rosin, because there's no need for extra grip and a smoother sound is preferable. The opposite goes for cello players (and certainly double bass players): they usually prefer darker rosin for extra grip on the thicker, lower strings.
  • Climate: in warm, humid climates it's more interesting to use lighter rosin, because dark rosin melts quicker and might clutter. But in our regions this is luckily rarely a problem.
  • Playing style: if you have a "heavy" bowhand and like to put enough pressure by yourself, than a dark rosin with a lot of grip is probably overkill. The opposite goes when you prefer a lighter playing style. In that case the extra grip from a darker rosin might come in handy.
  • Dust formation: some rosins leave behind more dust on your strings (and instrument) than others. This allows for more grip, but it can also be disadvantageous it the dust accumulates quickly. Some types of rosin create, as an extra selling point, less dust, which allows for a clearer sound. But usually they are also more expensive.
  • Addition of metals: as discussed earlier, the addition of metal chips can positively influence the sound quality, depending on the kind of metal.

Hoe vaak en hoe veel moet ik hars aanbrengen?

How often you apply rosin is often a personal choice. But there are some guidelines.

In first place this is dependant on the kind of rosin you use. The general rule is: the softer the rosin (and usually the darker), the less you have to apply. Usually a couple of bow strakes are sufficient (except when you have brand new bow hairs). Double bass rosin is a typical example: it needs to be applied very sparingly. The often used rule that you need to apply rosin before every study or playing moment might therefore be an exaggeration.

It's important though that you clean your instrument and strings after every playing session. This prevents rosin dust from accumulating.

In any case it is better not to mix different kinds of rosin. This "pollutes" your bow hairs and can be disadvantageous for the sound quality. In an ideal situation you change rosin type after a fresh rehair of your bow.

Final thoughts

Rosin is, just a strings, unfortunately not an exact science, and in the end a very personal choice. It pays to experiment with some extreme forms (e.g. a very light and very dark rosin) to get to know your preferences, where possible, of to exchange experiences with your fellow musicians. Good luck in your search!