Bass Strings

-Finding The Best Bass Strings-
Tips for Beginners and Advanced Bass Players

I have purchased numerous basses, and have changed and replaced so many different styles, brands, and types of strings on each one of them that I could almost write a book on my endeavors – well, maybe not a book, but at least a blog post on it..….

Having played guitar since 1961, I have always been one (after I matured as a guitar player and had a decent paying job) to replace stock strings on all of my new guitars and basses because,.. lets face it,… like anything else on a stock instrument, strings are “typically” the cheapest component on the new instrument that can be replaced on your own – unless you’re attaching a “Skull and Crossbones” (or similar type) sticker to the guitar body ’cause it damn sure makes you PLAY BETTER!!. You can however still rock out on your bass with stock strings (as long as you do have that cool sticker for everyone to look at) – I’m not saying that they all have to be replaced as soon as you bring your newly purchased bass to it’s new home or anything, I’m just saying that it’s just something that I personally prefer to do – probably attests to the reason I have a dresser drawer full of new/slightly used bass strings…. There will however come a time though, that you may find yourself wanting something better, or maybe just different because,… well,… “The damn thing just doesn’t sound as good as it did when it was brand new!”…. On a side note… I use to use THIS excuse all the time to replace bass strings until my wife began to realize that my idea of “Changing bass strings” actually meant the purchase of another new bass…

For some reason, there are bass players who seem to overlook experimenting with, or replacing their bass strings…. The reason why probably lies somewhere between the fact that bass strings are way more expensive (especially when it involves the purchase of another new bass) than guitar strings which probably plays into the fact that bass players don’t replace the strings on their bass quite as often as their guitar player counterparts. What many (particularly beginner) bass players don’t seem to realize though, is that the type of strings you choose, directly affects not only your sound…. But also how you play! …… (Certainly more so than that Skull and Crossbones sticker)

This is one important factor that I have learned over time – especially with the bass. I tend to play many different genres of music, and the genres that I enjoy most (and the different songs within those genres) have such diverse tones and attack styles that just “one” set of strings for all doesn’t work on everything – at least for me…. Note: I think my wife finally realized that after the purchase of my fifth bass.. – but “that’s” another story!!. Granted, I do have one bass that is my “Go To” bass for many of the songs I like to play, and the strings on it are “MY” personal preference for playing “MOST” of my music – however, they are not the “Easiest” to learn playing a song with – (more on this later). So, after spending thousands of dollars in basses, and thousands more on bass strings, I have realized that there is somewhat of a “choice” that needs to be made between….

  • Do I “adapt” to my strings
    – or-
  • Do I choose strings that are “adapted” to me

So how do you go about finding the perfect strings that are:

  • Best suited for the “Bass” you’re playing
  • Best suited for the “Style” of music you’re playing
  • Creates the best “Tone” and sound that you’re after
  • Are the most “Comfortable” for you to play

First Off, there are a few important factors pertaining to the construction of a bass string – all of which have an effect on how the string works, plays, feels, and sounds.

  • Gauge
  • Metals
  • Winding
  • Core
  • Coating

As I mentioned earlier, I have purchased many different types, gauges, and brands of bass strings, and have also kept notes on most that I have bought and installed on my different basses. Some sets have been installed on several different basses at different times, and some have even been “mixed” with other different sets when I was experimenting with different tonal qualities.

On a side note here, I have found that if I purchase a new set of strings that I have never tried out before, I will purchase Them from Amazon since Amazon with take returns on strings…. I have already taken back several sets that I have purchased, installed, tried out, removed, repackaged, and returned because I didn’t like how they sounded or worked for me.

1. Gauge

Just like for guitar strings, there are various gauges for bass strings. The gauge refers to the diameter of the string in inches (or “thousandths” of an inch). Sound is the one thing that a strings gauge corresponds with, but it also is a major factor in the “playability” of the bass.

  • Higher gauge “Thicker/Fatter/Larger Diameter” strings – produce more “low/bottom end” and are common when playing rock/metal/country styles of music.
  • Lower gauge “Thinner/Smaller Diameter” strings – produce “less thump” and are common in funk and jazz, or for slapping style. They’re also easier to play if you don’t have much strength in your fingers.

As for the numbers, there are no set in stone standards and the gauge of each string in a set varies from one manufacturer to the other… Which is the reason why some bassists buy each one of their strings separately (or mix and match sets as I have done) when they can’t find a string set with a preferred gauge thickness.

On a side note here, beware that changing between thicker and thinner gauge strings, you may need to pay some attention to the saddle grooves in your basses nut. I’ve had to file some grooves larger to accept larger diameter (gauge) strings, and have also replaced nuts and refiled them to accept smaller diameter (gauge) strings.

2. Metals

All strings are either made of nickel or stainless steel. Some use a mix of both these metals while others may use a different metal for plating, such as copper.

  • Stainless Steel – apart from their resistance to corrosion, these strings have the brightest tone of all strings
  • Pure Nickel – create a warmer sound than steel and have a bit of a vintage tone
  • Copper-plated Steel – known for overtones and harmonics
  • Nickel-plated Steel – The most popular choice and a good balance between the brightness of steel and the warmth of nickel (My personal preference)

With strings, the type of metal in the strings would probably be more related to the playing style being used.

  • Slapping,….. steel strings may tend to be the better choice simply because steel has much more attack and highs than nickel, which is generally what you’re looking for in slap.
  • Fingerstyle,….. nickel strings may tend to be the preferred choice since its those “lows” and “thumps” that you’re looking for.

So, in a perfect bass players world, you want to have at least two basses on hand so that you can switch from one style of play to the other very quickly,……. but this is may not be an option for many players.

So, if having only one bass to use, you’ll want the most versatile strings you can find…. Ones that will allow you to play both fingerstyle, or slap and pick without sacrificing the sound of any of these….. And on that note, “most” bass players (myself included) would agree that Nickel Plated Steel strings are the better “overall” choice when it comes to metal construction material.

3. Winding

Different String Windings

Winding is just as important as the type of metal used. The winding method “shapes” the sound of the attack (when the finger or pick first touches the string). I have (and still) use all of the three different types of windings with the strings that I use on my basses. There is another called “Tapewounds”, but I have never used them before so really can’t talk too much about them.

  • Roundwound (Rounds)
  • Flatwound (Flats)
  • Halfwound (Halfs)

1. Roundwound – “Rounds”

The most popular winding technique of all, roundwound strings deliver the brightest sound of all due to their completely round surface. Roundwounds were developed in the 1960’s when amplified rock bands were becoming popular, and their sound required a clear defined attack. Until their invention, flatwound strings were the most commonly used due to their use on the Double (upright) basses that were used prior to the full evolvement of the electric bass. Once the round wound strings began showing up however, more and more players began using them.

There is a downside to using round wounds though…. They have a tendency to wear down fret wires much quicker than any other types. However, if you play rock, funk or pop, you’ll probably wanna throw on a set of roundwound strings and deal with the fret wire issue at a much later date (maybe never for some of us – myself included). On a side note… With round wounds being the most versatile string to use, they are most often advised for beginners. Most of my bass’s are strung with rounds…

2. Flatwound – “Flats”

Flatwounds are the way all strings were wound until roudwounds hit the market. They’re still the second most popular type of winding technique today. Flats tend to produce a mellow, round sound and are basically the type of strings used to play jazz. Although I don’t play jazz music, I do love the tones and sounds I get from them when I’m playing some of the old country classics or even some of the old Motown hits from the 60’s. They’re also often used on fretless basses because they don’t wear down the fret board as much as roundwounds do. On a side note…. You can make roundwounds sound a bit like flatwounds by putting foam under the strings next to your bridge…. I have used this technique frequently, and have even placed foam under the Flatwound strings in order to better replicate the tones of a double (upright) bass. However,….. you CANNOT make flatwounds sound like roundwounds.

3. Halfwound/Groundwound – “Half’s”

These strings are basically half roundwound, half flatwound. I have another one of my basses strung with these type strings and basically enjoy the best of both worlds… They are first manufactured as regular roundwound strings but are then pressed (or ground/polished) on only one side so as to flatten it, resulting in a flat side on the outer surface, and a roundside against the inner core. The goal of these style strings is to keep the bright sounds of roundwound strings while easing up on fretboard wear. However, with anything that is developed to hit the “best of both worlds”, they do not perform to the “Top or Best” tonal standards of either roundwound or flatwound strings…. It’s kinda like back in the 60’s and 70’s when you just couldn’t decide on whether to purchase a new truck or a new car so….. you ended up purchasing either an El Camino or a Ranchero…. On a side note…. An additional benefit that I have found useful is that these type strings make learning a new song much easier (on my fingers and my fretboard) since they do have the feel of flats (although a bit “sticky” at first), while still providing me with most of the harmonics that I would get from rounds. Since I tend to practice playing and learning songs more than I actually do recording them, they are much easier on the wear and tear of my fretboard.

4. Core

String Cores

Underneath the outside surface of the string outer winding is the “core”. There are two types of cores used in bass strings:

  • Round Core, 
    – or –
  • Hex Core

The major difference between these cores is the “tension”. Hex core strings are much tighter than round cores due to the distinct points of contact that the outer windings have when they are wrapped around the hex shaped inner core. These “points of contact” provide a positive “grip” on the outer winding eliminating any additional movement or slippage between the core and the outer wrap. This process helps to strengthen the tension of the string and allows them to be the better choice for slappingtapping or an other kind of “percussive” (slap da crap outta dem strings!) style playing. On the other hand, round core strings are looser and are ideal for rock or metal since there is full surface to surface contact resulting in less tension between the outer winding and the core.

In terms of physics, a hex core has more mass than a round core, which is the reason why the the tension of the strings ends up being quite a bit higher. On a side note – When I replaced a set of round core strings with hex cores on one of my basses that I was setting up, I had to tighten the truss rod on the bass since the tension of the hex core strings were much higher than the round cores that I removed.

5. Coating

Coated Strings

Coated strings were first introduced on the market by Elixir in 1997. Today, most all string manufacturers have at least one option for coated strings. The major advantage of coated strings is the added lifespan you get out of them. They will last MUCH longer than uncoated strings. The coating also provides a different, more “clean” feel to the strings while at the same time preventing any unwanted finger grime (gunk) from collecting between the windings resulting in dull or “dead” sounding strings. On a side note…. James Jamerson did not like changing bass strings and was known to say, “Without da gunk, you loose da funk!”.

This leads into the other big difference that the coating provides….. the sound/tone. Coated strings sound totally different compared to uncoated strings, since they have the ability to block “overtones”. Hmmm… Could it be that James Jamersons’ “gunk” was actually one of the very first “coatings” used on bass strings??

I guess this pretty much sums up what I have learned from purchasing, replacing, and trying out different styles of bass strings…. I didn’t wanna go into any detail as to what “brands” I prefer to use and tend to stay in the “mediocre” bracket cost wise…. Truth is, you do kinda get what you pay for, but unless you’re a full fledged gigging or studio bass player – OR – a multi-millionaire, I wouldn’t spend enormous amounts of cash on an expensive gold plated set of any kinda bass strings. Hell, on the “Gut Bucket” bass that I built and used for a song I used a damn 1/8″ steel braided cable for the string!! Think it cost all of about $0.39…. And it sounded GREAT!!

Keep on Thumpin’!
Lanny

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