Let’s talk bass strings. While the subject is seemingly simple, sometimes the choices aren’t. There are many different manufacturers and they each produce several different types of strings. So which ones do you choose?
We’ll set aside the different brands for now, and take a look at the different types…and for the sake of simplification; we’ll start with the basic sub-genre: round wound and flat wound.
Round wound strings are the brightest sounding of the two, and the ones you are most likely to find stock on the basses in your local music store (and your on line music store). The wire wrapped around the core of the string is round (hence, round wound) and forms a tight continual spiral up the core for nearly the entire length of the string.
Just as a bunch of pipe laid side by side, each coil of the wrap touches the one next to it…but the surface is bumpy. This can be slightly rough on un-callused fingers and frets alike.
Close up of round wound strings.
There can also cause extraneous “string noise” when changing positions, when one’s hand is sliding on the string. This is more abundant and obvious when the strings are brand new, and less so as time wears on.
Since the construction of these strings is similar to wound piano and acoustic guitar strings, they tonally share some of those characteristics. If you’re seeking piano-like fundamentals or higher-frequency harmonic complexity these strings would be for you.
Most metal, funk, R & B, rock, and progressive jazz players use round wounds. For those that incorporate slapping (or want to), they are almost a “must have.”
The wrapping on these strings is…well, flat. Imagine a thick ribbon being wrapped around a pole in a spiral and you’ll have the basic image of how these strings are constructed and what they look like.
Since there are no ridges, the strings have a smooth, comfortable feel, and they produce a mellow, round tone.
Close up of flat wound strings.
The elimination of the ridges greatly reduces the “string noise” mentioned above. It also reduces the amount of high harmonics as found on round wound strings. The end result is a greater emphasis on the fundamental note.
Since flat wounds use the same construction as acoustic bass strings (of the orchestral variety, also known as: the double bass, upright bass, bass viol, string bass, doghouse bass, bass fiddle, etc.) these are the strings that allow the electric bassist to more closely approximate its acoustic cousin.
For this reason, flat wounds are favored by those styles of music where one might also see an upright bass, such as traditional jazz, country, and bluegrass. But the low fundamentals these strings produce also make them the choice for music where upright basses are not all that common, such as reggae. Flat wounds were commonly used by Paul McCartney for most (but not all) of the Beatle’s recordings.
There are acoustic bass guitars, which, interestingly, are typically strung with round wound strings. When strung with flatwounds they take on a more convincing upright bass tonality.
The next level of consideration for bass strings would be the type of metal or alloy used for the wrapping. These include stainless stee, nickel plated and pure nickel.
Stainless steel provides a strong bright tone and the pure nickel is less bright than the stainless steel, but still brighter than flatwounds…even though almost all flatwounds are stainless steel. There the difference is tonality is based off of construction rather than materials used.
As strings get played and exposed to the elements (including, but not limited to; heat, cold, humidity, sweat, and dirt) they tend to lose their initial brightness. Some players like their strings to sound brand new (or at least newer) all the time.
Manufactures got hip to this jive, and offer strings that are coated with a polymer or other material. This coating protects the metal of the string from being exposed to the elements listed above. In addition, the coating fills and seals the grooves and spaces between the strings, so there is typically less string noise.
Some coated strings are indistingishable from non-coated strings. Others, like this, are bright or even day-glo colors.
Since these strings sound “new” longer, many bassists feel they can go longer between string changes. This fact and the extra step in manufacturing make these strings more expensive than their non-coated counterparts.
There are also tape wound strings, which shouldn’t be confused with coated strings. The tape on these strings (usually black in color), is designed to change the tone of the strings: the idea is making them sound more “old school” or closer to that of an upright bass.
Close up of black tape wound strings.
Most manufacturers offer at least the basic styles of strings in the various materials. As can be expected, the quality of better known respected brands is usually higher than off-brands and imports. To some degree, one type and material set of strings by one manufacturer can sound different than the same strings from another…though bias, prejudice and physiological conditional may be determining factors.
With the many different manufacturers and types of strings the choices may be overwhelming, as exhibited by the photo from the online string company I use (http://sfarzo.us/Home.html).
Bass strings are not inexpensive and experimenting between different brands and types can be price prohibitive; so companies such as these can help take some of the sting out of the equation as you search for the perfect fit. Plus they are well-stocked for all types of basses; including both long and short scale necks, five-string and six-string basses, and the beast know as the 12-string bass.
In the future we’ll examine these other style of basses more in-depth.
Finding the correct strings for you and your bass may require some trial and error, and due to the expense may take several months. But they are few things in life more satisfying than when you find the perfect fit.