Bobby Vega: Strings and Things, Part II

September 15, 2015

Some people ask how often they should change strings. As soon as you don’t like the sound you’re getting out of your bass, it’s time to change ’em. On the Shark Bass, I change my strings before every show; that comes to about every three-and-a-half hours of playing. One gig equals seven to nine hours of practicing: The difference between practicing and playing is that on the gig, I play with adrenaline, so after a high-energy show, my strings have dents the shape of the frets, and they can no longer handle the stress of bending, stretching, and intense vibrato. After that, my articulation—my phrasing, chords, and single notes—is not all there, so my expression and all-around tone suffers, which affects what I hear and how I play. If I don’t change my strings before a show, they would break or start to unravel by the second set of the second show. I have a 1958 Fender Precision. When it came to me, it had round-wounds, and it didn’t speak to me.

I also have a 1955 Fender Precision that came with an old set of La Bella flats, and at first, it didn’t speak to me, either. So I took the set of La Bella flats and put them on the ’58 P, and mac and cheese—that bass came to life! It sounds like Carl Radle on “Bell Bottom Blues” or Chuck Rainey on “Until You Come Back to Me.” Oh, and by the way, a set of GHS Brite Steels makes the ’55 Precision get up and do the boogaloo. It might be the best bass I have!

I took the ’58 Precision to the Canadian Rockies Bass Bash to give a sound demo. The first day, I had the set of La Bella flats on it, and I played old-school licks and grooves. It was hard to play, but it sounded great. The next day, I put on a set of D’Addario EXL170 nickelwounds and played old-school licks and grooves with a twist and then some. The roundwounds gave me more harmonics and had a different sustain that allowed me to do bends and play different kinds of vibrato. The La Bella flats allowed me to play with a specific style and sound, while the D’Addario nickels inspired me to play in other ways, with a different sound.

I once played a G&L 1000 that sounded so good I bought it right then and there. Later on, however, after I changed the strings, the bass lost that sound. I tried lots of different strings, but I couldn’t get that sound back, so I put it in the closet. Years later, I met and talked to Leo Fender at a NAMM show (yes, that Leo Fender—it was like meeting and talking to Yoda). I asked him about the G&L, and he said that he had designed it to use GHS Hex Core strings—the pickup, magnets, wire, and strings were made for each other, for a specific sound. After that, I went home and bought a set of GHS Hex Cores, and man … that sound was back!

Those strings were a big part of the design of that instrument’s sound. That experience taught me what a difference the strings make, and how they shape and inspire the way we hear and play. Strings are a big part of your sound, and they are a big part of your tone. May the groove be with you.

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