Bass String Guide


What to Look for When Buying Bass Strings



As stated in the home page, the character of a string is primarily based on the winding (roundwound, flatwound, etc.) and the material used. We will explain the most common materials and windings, which probably account for 95% or more of every bass sound you have ever heard.





Roundwound Strings


Roundwound strings involve a metal wrapping, generally made of stainless steel or nickel, around the core that is not ground down or smoothed out. You can actually feel the rough, metallic ridges in these strings when you touch them. They represent a more modern sound, but are capable of producing a wide range of tones that are distinctive to many styles of music. They are probably the most commonly used types of strings today.

Roundwounds produce a very wide range of frequencies. They carry much more of the high end- where words like brightness, clarity, even metallic or "clanging" come in, and have a longer sustain than more "old school" bass sounds- which more often came from flatwound strings or upright bass. 

These high end frequencies are strongly emphasized in the clear, percussive effect of slapping and popping in players like Victor Wooten, Marcus Miller, Larry Graham, etc. - roundwound strings are critical to this sound and this evolution of bass playing.

Jazz bassist Jaco Pastorius had a legendarily expressive sound, which was the result of roundwound strings singing directly against the wood of his fretless bass. I strongly recommend listening to him for countless reasons- here is one place you can start.

Roger Waters of Pink Floyd, John Entwistle of the Who, Geddy Lee of Rush , Chris Squire of Yes All and countless others used roundwounds and took full advantage of their bright, full sound.

Note that the metallic ridges in these strings are inherently tougher on frets and fingerboards (particularly on fretless,) as well as your fingers, so be sure to keep an eye out for any wear. This will vary greatly depending on how hard you play, the particular type of string and construction of your bass-- if you start to see any problems or have any concerns with your instrument, take your bass to a qualified luthier who can give you sound advice as well as correct any problems. If you start to have problems with your fingers, which is quite common in new players or those who have always used softer strings, take a break and allow them to heal which will develop a callous.

Of course, "roundwound" refers broadly to this type of string construction, and there are many varieties of brightness and character within this family. One of the most important factors is what the winding is made of. As stated earlier, they are typically made of either stainless steel (brighter) or nickel (more mellow).

Stainless steel


Stainless steel roundwound strings fall furthest on the bright, "metallic" end of the sound spectrum. You often will hear the buzz, grit, clang (or whatever you would like to call it) in the sound, which is desirable in many styles. Observing the comments of numerous players online and offline, the consensus seems to be that stainless steel are the clearest, brightest strings out there. They often increase the perceived volum output in sound from the bass, but also tend to be more rough on the fingers and instrument.

The aggressive, cutting, sound in hard rock and metal is generally the sound of stainless steel roundwound strings played aggressively with a pick.

Bassists Brian Bromberg and Steve Swallow (an excellent bassist, and probably the most successful ever at utilizing electric bass in hard-swinging modern jazz contexts) also use stainless steel strings made by LaBella.

Nickel


Nickel feels a little softer on the hands and has less of the metallic high end treble in the sound than steel strings. This also equates to less finger noise coming through and a smoother, mellower sound than steel while still falling on the bright/clear end of the spectrum.

Victor Wooten uses nickel roundwound strings.



Flatwound Strings


Flatwound strings are very smooth, with a much darker, muted or "dead" sound, and generally more low-end "thump."

One of the best examples of the flatwound sound is from 1960s Motown, particularly that of bassists James Jamerson and Carol Kaye. Flatwounds are also popular when looking to emulate the attack, shorter sustain and essence of a more old-school upright bass sound.

Though it is promotionally geared towards GHS brand, this video from bassist Dave Pomeroy is great for explaining not only flatwound strings, but all sorts of information that will be extremely useful to you on your string quest. The rest of the videos will be featured as well.

Halfwound / Groundwound Strings


Halfwound or groundwound strings are a nice compromise between round and flat. Halfwounds are essentially roundwounds that are partially ground-down and smoothed out, to providing a middle ground between brightness vs. deadness in sound, and metallic roughness vs. smoothness in feel.



Nylon / Tapewound

Much less common these days than flat or roundwound, a few companies including Fender, GHS and Rotosound make a "tapewound" string out of Nylon- they are actually even darker and warmer than most flatwound strings. They are more common on acoustic bass guitars or basses that use a piezo pickup system, and are often used when a player is looking for something closer to an upright bass sound. If you have ever seen black strings on a bass, that is likely Nylon- the exception being DR Black Beauty roundwound strings. Paul McCartney used them on Abbey Road, for a sonic reference. See the article "About Nylon Tapewound Strings" in the articles section of this site for more info.



What are "Taperwound Strings"?


Do not get confused between Nylon Tapewound, which is an actual winding type, and taperwound or tapered, which is something that could technically apply to any winding or material type. A string that is "taperwound" gets either progressively, or suddenly smaller as the string gets to the bridge (where the strings rest at the bottom of the bass.) The idea is that more, or all, of the core wire is making direct contact with the "saddles" at the bridge.

If you have ever looked inside of a piano, you will see that string is very thin (just the core) at the end, with the full thickness of the winding appearing after the saddle. Take a look at the picture of the strings on these LaBella SuperSteps for an example:

LaBella SuperSteps

The effect of this tapering is a longer sustain and a brighter sound.


String Gauges


String gauge, for the purposes of what matters to 98% of us players, refers simply to how thick the string is. The diameter is measured in inches. A very standard middleground is .105 for the E string and .45 for the G string- any names such as "light," "extra-heavy" etc. are assigned by the makers and are not industry standard markings, but the measurements in diameter are almost always clearly marked on the packaging.

In general, the thicker the string, the fatter and more low end in the tone, but this also will increase tension and require more endurance to play. If you are going for more of a James Jamerson sound (the "motown sound" of the 60s,) go for thicker strings with higher action. If you are going for a Victor Wooten sound, think a little thinner.

If you like to tune your E string down to D, definitely go for a thicker string.

Lighter gauge strings are very popular in players who use a lot of slapping/popping.

If you are unsure about what to go for or do not want to worry yourself with this- and you are far from alone-  go with what most brands will call their "medium" gauge, which would fall within the standard .105 E string to .45 G string range as a starting point. One of the benefits of a site is that you can find some very cheap sets of strings in order to test a few different sizes and see if you really fall in love with the feeling of thicker or thinner strings. If you have never experimented with this, you may be surprised how much of a difference it can make for you. If you have the option, go to a music store or local musician who may have basses strung differently.


Scale Length


Scale refers to the distance between the bridge (where the strings rest at the bottom of the bass) and the nut (where the fingerboard meets the headstock)

Most basses are 34", though 35" is not uncommon for 5 or 6 string basses.

The string length for these standard basses (which you most likely have) is referred to as long-scale -- this can be confusing, as it sounds like it refers to some sort of special, extra-long bass- but no, long-scale is the norm.. much like the vast majority, if not all, acoustic upright basses you have ever seen are actually "3/4 size" basses.

Long Scale (MOST COMMON) - 34"
Super / Extra Long Scale - 36"
Medium Scale - 32"
Short Scale - 30"

Some basses like Steinberger, the Hofner Beatle Bass or Fender Mustang, require short scale strings. A quick google search of your particular bass should answer the question if you have any concerns, but chances are you have a "normal" bass that requires long-scale strings.



String Tension


Tension, or how stiff or loose the string feels, is determined by a variety of factors.

Gauge - Thicker strings have more mass and therefore more tension, but it is only one of the factors in the overall feel-- two different brands the same size can and will have different tensions, and even one brand with the smaller gauge could feel more tense after the other components come into play. However, if you are dealing with the same type of strings on the same bass, buying a thicker set will = more tension,

Scale Length - Longer scale = more tension. The same brand of strings will feel more or less tense if the scale length is longer or shorter.

String Height or Action - Higher string height or "action" will make strings feel more tense. This can be adjusted by adjusting the truss rod and changing the height of the saddles on the bridge.

Core - A string with a "hex" core will have more tension than one with a "round" core. The core is the wire in which the wrapping (nickel, steel) etc. wraps around, "hex" or "round" refer to the shape of that wire and thus how the contact with the string is made.


Sorting through the brand names


You will encounter a lot of catchy but ambiguous names for strings, which can be confusing especially if you have already decided on what type of general string you want (flatwound for instance).

Visit the "Strings by Type (Winding / Material)" to see all strings of a particular variety-- for example, all the flatwound strings from various companies with descriptions.

If you have a brand you are interested, click on that brand on the right menu to get an overview of the strings that the company makes.

Buying Strings


Strings can be an expensive experiment - hopefully this site can largely narrow things down for you in terms of what you are looking for. You never know for sure what a string is going to feel/sound like to your own hands/ears, so try to get your hands on them via a friend, fellow bassist or music store.

eBay links are included for strings on this site as you can often find a very good deal- sometimes you can find ridiculously inexpensive single strings or slightly used, which can be a good way just to get your hands on them and feel their character. One of the most useful things for me personally was getting my hands on several sets of used strings and being able to find out what type of tension / winding etc. felt good to me, then buy the right new strings.

If you have any concerns or suggestions, please contact us through the link on the top menu.