Unwinding The World Of Bass Strings

FORGIVE THE PUN, BUT LET’S admit it upfront: We bassists can get very attached to our strings.
By Chris Jisi ,

FORGIVE THE PUN, BUT LET’S admit it upfront: We bassists can get very attached to our strings. Even in the bass guitar’s early days, with limited string choices and development, this was the case. Witness L.A. session legend Joe Osborn, who had a Jazz Bass strung with his beloved LaBella flatwounds stolen. In panicked response, he took out an ad that read, “Keep the bass, just return the strings!” These days, with seemingly unending options in construction, gauges, alloys, and even colors, it can be quite a challenge to navigate through these numerous spirals of sound to find the set that suits your bass and your style. A look at the key components is good place to begin.

Although it’s the furthest from your fingers, all string makers acknowledge that a good string starts with a good core wire, and most companies wind their strings with the core tuned at or near pitch. Other factors include a hex core (hexagon- shaped), whose six corners help hold the wrap wire in place, versus a round core, which eliminates any air pockets around the core. The more common hex core is said to give a deeper sound and greater tension, while the round core is brighter and more flexible. Similarly, a larger core wire makes for a stiffer string with a bigger sound and more sustain, while a smaller core wire promotes brightness and flexibility. As for the handmade- versus-machine issue of the ’90s, most modern strings are made using a combination of the two, where the wraps are applied by hand (a hand-operated manual machine) and then an automated machine takes over, insuring quality control to the wire feed.

The inner wrap of a string, which goes over the core, varies from steel to other alloys, but it’s the outer wrap that determines whether a string is flatwound, half-wound, or roundwound. Flatwounds have had a decade-long resurgence, as both the hip hop/R&B and rock worlds have adapted “old school” mindsets. Flatwounds generally feature a flat stainless steel outer wrap—black nylon tapewound is also available—and produce that cherished, fundamental thud, with little sustain or overtones. If you play numerous basses including a vintage axe, stringing it with flats is a good sonic choice. Half-wounds, groundwounds, or pressurewounds undergo various manufacturing processes that result in a compromise between the smooth feel of flatwounds and the brightness or roundwounds. In addition to less hand and fret-wear, the tonal results may be to your liking. Finally, roundwounds remain the best-selling electric bass strings, and still come in stainless steel or nickel-plated varieties. Stainless steel is noted for it’s bright, focused, cutting, high-output sound, while being hardest on hands, frets, and fingerboards. Nickel-plated is noted as being warmer, fatter, more midrangy, with less wear on hands and instrument.

Oh, the things we’ve done to our tone ropes in pursuit of the ultimate string. Dean Markley’s Cryogenic freezing, introduced in the early ’90s, delivered on claims of better tone, intonation, and longer life enough that mutliple manufacturers used the process. Elixir’s coated strings that seal out dirt, sweat, and other corrosives emerged a decade later, resulting in noticeably increased string life. Studio players liked how the coated strings reduced pinging and finger noise, while fretless players dug the darker sound, smooth feel, and minimal wear on fingerboards. Numerous companies got onboard, all of them coating the outer wrap of the string with corrosionresistant material. Coatings have also helped in the production of gold, bronze, and new alloy strings, and of course are the source of colored strings.

Whatever your string choice, a little preparation and maintenance goes a long way. While bass strings don’t break at nearly the rate of guitar strings, having an extra set in your gig bag is a given, as is a cloth to wipe down your strings after each set or at least after each gig (be sure to get under the strings, especially in the area where you pluck). Other essential tools to carry are a string winder—which fits over the tuning keys and is a big help when changing strings—and a string clipper. As a rule of thumb when putting on a new set of strings, extend each string beyond its corresponding tuning post, make a right-angle bend in the string, and clip off the excess string beyond the bend.

Whether you choose flatwounds, halfwounds, or roundwounds, finding the right gauge and tension overall and from string to string is essential. Heavier gauge strings derogatorily referred to as “telephone poles,” may be big on tone but more difficult to navigate. On the other hand, lighter gauge strings may set your fingers flying, but have less low end and bend too easily, giving your bass more of a baritone guitar feel. Standard gauge sets often do the trick, but check out artist signature sets, too, as they usually come in custom gauges that the players have arrived at through daily use. And some companies will even sell you individual strings, allowing you to create your own set. Another key factor is the tapered-core or bare-core string, which is exposed at the point where it goes over the string saddle. On many sets this only applies to the E and B strings (if you play a 5- or 6-string). Benefits are said to include increased tone and tension, and lower action. So take a deep breath and relax; remember, the best part of string selection is the opportunity to dramatically improve your sound for just $30. Shop around and keep this thought in mind: The perfect string is not unlike the perfect bassist: they both need to have a great sound and a great feel.