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David Zimmerman: The Bamboo Bow Man of Montana
Bob Buckingham
2012-02-28
David Zimmerman lives with his wife Janet in Pony, Montana, nestled in the Tobacco Root Mountains…  Living a back-to-the-land, homesteading lifestyle, they built and live in a cordwood house, and David makes his bows in the straw bale shop that they also built. 

What got you interested in bows and playing the fiddle?

I started playing the fiddle when I turned sixty [he’s now sixty-seven]. My wife, Janet, had been to the Montana Fiddle Camp a couple times and had so much fun that she thought I should go, too! She encouraged me to buy a cheap fiddle, saying that even if I never played again, it would be worth giving it a try. In fact, she created a monster –– the fiddle has taken over my life! I fell in love with the instrument and play several hours a day if possible. Last winter I was elected President of the Montana Old Time Fiddlers - District 3, so I’m doing my part to get ever’body fiddlin’. “Old time” is a favorite genre for me but I’ll try to play any kind of music. Western swing and Gypsy music are great.

Over the years I had built a number of instruments, (four mandolins, one hammered dulcimer, a lap dulcimer, and assorted small thumpers and tooters) so I naturally started tinkerin’ with my fiddle to make it easier to play and sound better. Soon I was buying, selling, rebuilding, and rehairing, fiddles and bows. Folks ask if I build fiddles, and I haven’t, yet. The bow project was more interesting to me, especially when I realized the environmental and structural advantages of bamboo.


Since I have been playing the fiddle, I have a new appreciation of the value of music. I believe that it’s not only fun, but is good for your physical, mental, and spiritual health. It’s well known that kids are able to learn better when music is a part of their education. And new studies indicate that all of us benefit from exercising our “grey matter,” at any age. I am convinced that my brain is working better since taking up the fiddle. Playing music also infuses your body with good vibrations, stimulates movement, and promotes circulation. Musical interaction, with fellow musicians and friends, certainly improves and expands our social life. To “How long ya been playin’,” I reply, “Took up the fiddle when I turned sixty,” and this will often get back: “You mean it’s not too late for me?” I tell everybody that it’s never too late, that the fiddle will make their life longer, healthier, and more pleasurable. So, in the end, and to the end, fiddle music is fun and “goooood fo’ya’.”

How long have you been making bows?

I built my first bow about four years ago.

Where did you learn the skill of bow making?

I am basically self-taught, although I did a fair amount of research through books, the web, etc., and had a lot of help from Glenn Brackett [see below].


What factors led you to consider bamboo? Were they environmental, economic, or a combination of these?

There are a number of factors. I have some good friends who build bamboo fly rods –– Jerry Kustich and Glenn Brackett at Sweetgrass Rods here in Montana –– and from talking to them I thought that the very properties that make bamboo a preferred material for fly rods would apply directly to violin bows. Strength, flexibility, stability, and a lively nature indicated real potential for bamboo for violin bows. Glenn Brackett is an internationally known and respected master fly rod builder, and he has been very generous in helping with the development of my bows.

The environmental aspect is certainly a large part of this effort. Bamboo is a very sustainable material. Many tropical woods are endangered, certainly pernambuco, which is listed in the Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).

As for economics, bamboo is an inexpensive material compared  to pernambuco. Its use does require more labor, so that factor is not a large consideration.


How does bamboo compare to pernambuco and carbon fiber as bow material?

Naturally, the player’s perception is a subjective matter, especially regarding tone production. I have had these bows tried by serious musicians in multiple genres and feedback has been very good. I believe that bamboo has the good tonal properties of fine wood, and the stability and durability of carbon fiber.




David can be reached at P.O. Box 253, Pony, MT  59747; (406) 685-3481; email: zmail@tssmt.net

 

[Bob Buckingham fiddles, teaches, and writes in the Upstate of South Carolina.]

[For the full text of this article and more information on working with bamboo as a bow-making material, purchase the Spring 2012 issue, or subscribe to Fiddler Magazine!]