Bass Guitar – 4 or 5 strings, or more?

The idea of a bass instrument is to get low notes. That’s pretty obvious. At first, in the case of stringed instruments like the bass viol (viol family with the sloped shoulders), the idea was to ‘double’ the bass part that the cellos were playing; hence ‘double-bass’. And as with other members of the violin/viol family, the bass-fiddle or upright-bass has four strings.

A Louder Double-Bass

And when upright-basses were taken into the pop music world, they came along, originally with four strings as well, tuned pretty much the same. But there came a point where more volume was needed, especially in noisy, people-packed venues. Someone, according to online resources, a certain Paul Tutmarc, created an electrified bass-guitar, though Leo Fender came up with a better one in the 50s. Again, it had four strings and was tuned like the four bottom strings of a standard guitar.

This type of instrument could be electrified and amplified and was able to keep up with amplified electric guitars and loud drums in dancehalls and theaters. Still, it kept its ties to the traditional 4-string arrangement. Hundreds, thousands of songs, albums, singles had that thumping sound included in their arrangements and there seemed to end to what it could do. Solo pieces were written for it (Portrait of Tracy, The Fish (Schindleria praematurus)) and the most popular hits of all time were pretty much covered by those four low-toned strings.

The More the Merrier?

Guitarists wanted to get in on the low-toned action and at some point, 6-string bass-type instruments like the Dan Electro UB-2 (more of a Baritone Guitar than actual ‘Bass Guitar”) appeared. Then Fender brought out the Bass VI, the Bass V, and things started heading toward more and more strings. Rickenbacker’s 4008, Hagstrom with their 8-string monster (doubled-courses like a twelve-string guitar), and on and on.

Interesting stuff, but here’s where my own, personal opinion comes in…

Keeping in Tune with the Covers

Nowadays, at least since the 80s, there’s another ton of tunes that have the sound of 5- and 6-string basses (with either a string reaching below the traditional low-E string, or a string above the G-string) incorporated into them. Maybe it was professional jealousy, but with the quickly burgeoning use of synths in the 80s and those nice, low, thick electronic tones, electric-bass players wanted in on the action. Whatever it was, that low-B string started showing up in lots of places.

And if you’re covering those songs, you pretty much have to have a five- or six-string. I mean, you could do it with a 4-string, tuned normally, or do like I did for Love Is A Battlefield and have an extra base with the low string tuned down to D, but…easier when the instrument matches the music.

But when you’re trying to come up with an original bass-line for an original piece of music…

Watch Out!

Sorry, didn’t mean to shout. But when you’re noodling around on bass, trying to invent a part that’ll fit an original song, humming to yourself in the kitchen while waiting for the grilled cheese sandwich to come out right, remember that having an extended range bass (a six or seven or eight string), will cause you to come up with ideas you wouldn’t have normally come up with. It’s a case of the instrument starting to dictate what the music should be. This is not a bad thing generally, getting a nice modern sound, but maybe it’s because I’m old-school; I grew up absorbing a certain sound from the music and songs that I loved (or even didn’t) and removing the limitations of a standard four-string electric bass seems somehow…counter-intuitive. It’s almost like having the chords telling you what melody will wind its way through them, rather than coming up with a great melody and getting the chords to fit. Small point, maybe, but I don’t believe I’m the only one who can tell when the chords or melody were written first.

So…

If you’re learning and playing cover-songs in which an extended-range bass was originally used – get an instrument that’ll match; no way around it. However, if you’re writing original songs and starting to write original bass-lines, then at least have it in the back of your mind that having those extra strings and notes available will cause you to come up with bass-lines/melodies of a more modern feel. If you’re going for a 40s, 50s, 60s and 70s flavored tune though, pick up a four-string bass and go for it: sometimes restrictions make you come up with stuff you never knew could be there.

Rick
Fingers On Strings

rick@fingersonstrings.com

Shopping for Bass Guitar Strings!

A Few Good Tones – Bass Guitar Strings

There’re only a few good sounds you really need when you’re learning how to play bass guitar, and a lot of that has to do with how hard you play, where you pluck the strings (near the bridge or nearer the neck), whether you use fingers or a pick, and just listening to the other musicians in the band or on your favorite recording, and trying to fit in – volume- and tone-wise.

Strings, of course, make up at least a third of your sound; maybe a fourth. Tone starts with the fingers or flat-pick to set the strings vibrating, which in turn causes the bridge to conduct those vibrations into the body of the instrument; while over on the other end of the instrument the nut feeds that same vibration down the length of the neck to vibrate sympathetically with the body. In the middle somewhere are the pickups, being driven by the metal of the string core and windings passing through its magnetic field – creating an electric current – which then passes through the output jack, on to the amplifier to be made louder before it hits the speaker. Piezo pickups work similarly but create the signal from the pressure variations in the substance of the piezoelectric material as the strings vibrate against it.

Fingers (or plectrum) – strings – material of neck and body – pickups – amplifier. Well, that’s five portions which make up the sound, but close enough.

But listen to your bass guitar unplugged; just the physical tone of the strings vibrating through the neck and body of the instrument: the basic, elemental sound it makes and how it vibrates in your hands, up your wrists and arms and against your chest. Like with any other stringed instrument, there’s a lot you can do to make different sounds: pluck toward the bridge and get thinner, tighter notes; pluck towards the middle of the strings to produce a warmer, fatter, mellower tone; pluck harder or softer to increase or decrease volume. And, surprisingly (or not), these differences are translated through the neck and body and into the pickups – magnetic or piezo.

Pick That Up, Put That Down – Pickups

But in ancient times – the 1960s through the ’70s – there weren’t many, if any, pickup-specific manufacturers offering as wide a range of replacement and souped-up pickups as there are now. If a pickup went out, you could take your bass to a local shop and have them find an original factory replacement, or a used one, or perhaps have the pickup rewound. Luckily pickups rarely died, but even when the new, improved, higher-output-low-noise pickups became available, there was the cost. I just couldn’t afford to go experimenting around, changing pickups in and out all the time, so original pickups were the way I, and many others, went.

That still left, however, the strings….

String That Thing

As mentioned before about these long-gone days of yore, there also weren’t as many string choices for the electric bass player as there are today: flat-wound, tape-wound, and…that was pretty much it. Pyramid, LaBella, Fender and Rotosound those were some of the brands. Now we have ground-wounds, half-flats, the wonderful (and by now standard) round-wounds, and any number of combinations and innovations thereof, with coatings and finishes, this metal and that alloy. And with the addition of bass-specific compressors and limiters, distortions, overdrives and chorus units (still one of my favorite effects for bass) amp- and cabinet-modeling software, new and vintage physical amps and cabs, the choice – and range of tone – has never been wider.

Still, as with any guitar, the fundamental sound comes from strings vibrating through the body and neck of the bass guitar. And it all boils down to two types of strings: the flat-wound, and the round-wound.

As might be guessed, the flat-wounds are basically made up of a solid-wire core, steel, like piano-wire steel. This is then wrapped with a flattened wire to produce a smooth, non-ridged surface. The strings sound warm, thumpy, with none of the higher, crisper upper harmonics created by their round-wound counterparts. It’s just the nature of how the flat, almost tape-like metal of the wrapping interacts with the round core. You can hear it unplugged, as well as when plugged into your bass rig.

On the other hand, round-wound bass-guitar strings are constructed of a thinner round-wire wrapped around a round piano-wire steel core. I think the crisp, edgy, bright and clanky tones they produce have to do with the way the round surfaces of the wrapping wire touches and moves against itself along the length of the string, in almost the opposite way the flatter edges of the flat-wound strings’ wrapping interact to create the duller, thumpier
sound. Imagine holding two one-inch diameter pipes alongside each other, side by side, and rolling them against each other. Then imagine holding two one-inch thick bricks edge to edge and trying to do the same; the pipes move and roll against each other easily, whereas the bricks want to remain level.

Of course, it’s not something you can see happening with the actual flat- or round-wire wrappings, but you can instantly hear it in the tone.

Which then, should you try?

Way back when, a set of bass strings was pretty expensive – at least twice the price of a pack of guitar strings and most times more. But even now, buying a new set of bass guitar strings isn’t something one does every other Friday. As someone with little cash at the time, it was tantamount to my buying new tires for my car once a month. Oh I was religious about making sure to wipe the sweat off the strings after practice or gigging, sometimes boiling them in a pot of water with a couple of drops of Dawn Detergent added to refresh them (not all that effective), but I just made do with what I had.

So I’d buy new bass strings only when I really had to; like after more than one would break (each being systematically replaced by members of the carefully-cleaned previous set), and the sound began to be noticeably different between the newer and older strings.

Best practice was to ask questions and find which set lasted longest, weren’t too stiff and thick to play comfortably, then stick with that brand: something playable, reliable, easy to get at any retail store. This was way before the Internet, so there weren’t reviews and customer ratings and having things delivered by FedEx or UPS.

Thing is, my first two basses came with flat-wounds: my Sears Silvertone Violin Bass, and a couple-three years later, the Ampeg Dan Armstrong Lucy Lucite. I played the Silvertone for a couple of years without changing strings; I was just happy to have an actual bass and not a guitar with the top two strings removed. But then there was this whole Rolling Stones thing, and Wyman with his space-age clear bass guitar, and that was wonderful. It was only later when I heard of Jaco that I heard also of round-wounds, and that was really the first set of bass strings I ever bought.

I believe they were the Rotosound 66M Swing Bass strings because of the shorter scale-length of the Lucy Lucite. It was a voila! moment. I was so pleased with the sound that later on, with my Rickenbacker 4001, the only thing I did was ascertain the scale-length, before heading out to buy a set of Rotosounds for it

Then there came years of playing guitar exclusively, for which I finally settled on the D’Addario brand, and when I needed replacement bass strings, I simply stayed brand-loyal to D’Addario.

Fast forward a decade or so when I started home recording – especially wearing headphones – and bass-guitar tonality really started to become a prime focus.

Now here’s the thing: when using round-wound bass-guitar strings, you can always turn the tone-knob down to roll off the highest frequencies. We’re talking non-active pickups now. But with the highs rolled off it still sounds
like bright, crisp round-wounds with the highs rolled off, if you know what I mean. A dull version of something bright; like trying to darken an over-exposed picture in Photoshop.

This is just fine for most applications – rolling the highs off – especially when playing live, but you really start to listen more when laying down a track (over and over and over again). And since I’d just gotten my Rick 4001 burgled, I decided on a Jay Turser JTB2B Beatle Bass as a replacement.

Funny…it arrived strung with generic round-wounds!

First thought was: ‘Flat-wounds.’ On this planet, in this reality, it’s a no-brainer: Beatle Bass with flat-wound strings. I looked them up, found who played what, got scale lengths, gauges, etc. The Pyramids were way too expensive, the Rotosound
Tape-wounds were…I don’t know – not the right feel; a little too thick, as well. But right in the middle, with a light-gauge offering was Rotosound and their 77M set.

I have to say that that was the perfect, most inspiring combination: the Turser Beatle and the Rotosound flat-wounds. Even with the tone controls all rolled up, there was that semi-bright thumpy sound which wasn’t anything like round-wounds with the treble rolled off. The sound also had a great deal to do with the fact that the Turser was a short-scale bass (or medium, depending on which string company’s chart you look at) and the combination of lighter strings of a shorter scale length really gave an almost upright bass sound. Or at least a Beatle-esqe sound, which, I found, was good on just about anything I wished to record.

It just sat nicely in the mix, in other words.

By that time I’d also acquired a Squier P/J and an Essex 5-stringer. The Essex (or SX) was strung with round-wounds (D’Addarios, then Dean Markley Blue Steels) because I wanted a growly-clank to cover what the Rick 4001 would’ve done in rock-ish compositions. I strung the Squier
with D’Addario Nickel-Wound XL round-wounds, but quickly changed them out for a set of Rotosound 77’s when my enjoyment and appreciation of the flat-wound sound really took hold.

That’s pretty much where I left off, though I have to add that the Dean Markley’s for the 5-string were a one-off; I just wanted to see how much better they’d be than the D’Addarios.

Which, at least for my recording applications, weren’t much.

What Makes You Smile?

As far as brands and types of bass guitar strings, you can find any number of discussions – many times heated – on various boards and blogs on the web, touting this brand or that as being the absolute best, the longest-lasting, having the best tone, sound, and etcetera. Same with amplifiers, bass cabinets, speakers, cables, software, FX pedals or boards or modules.

Thing is, you can toss all that out when starting out: it still comes down to the basics of what kind of music you like playing or playing along to. Do you enjoy the thick, mellow thumping of an upright bass viol, or the crisp clanking in a speed-metal or prog band? What bass sound do you
connect to? Which makes you go whoa…? What sort of bass string feels good against your fingertips, and makes you smile a little without realizing it?

Flat-wounds. Round-wounds. That’s what it comes down to.

And if you like both, well…looks like you’re going to be a bassist with at least two bass guitars in your inventory.

Rick
Fingers On Strings

rick@fingersonstrings.com

What Are The Best Guitar Strings?

Once, while chatting with someone about music in general, and guitar in particular, the subject of blues guitar playing – and players – came up. And along with this, the late electric blues guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughan was mentioned.

This in itself wasn’t unusual: SRV was a giant amongst blues guitarists and more particularly those playing electric blues. The person I was talking to said he’d been learning a few riffs and patterns from one of Stevie’s songs, which I said was a great place to start, but the thing that caught my attention was the way the person admitted confidentially – almost apologetically – that he still wasn’t able to play the riffs and patterns with the thick, heavy-gauge strings SRV commonly used.

It took me a moment to nod and sort of commiserate with him, but…the one thing that came to mind – which I didn’t mention due to how earnest this fellow was – was the focus on duplicating one particular aspect of Stevie’s setup instead of going for all the rest; the actual feeling, the passion, the fluidity and absolute command of the instrument.

True, I never heard very much of this guy’s playing – just a few tidbits on an acoustic guitar – but still; it was putting up an extra barrier when none really was needed.

In the late 60s to early 70s, several string manufacturers began putting out lighter-gauge string packs due to players like Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page and others. Everyone was doing crazy string bends, wide vibratos and lighter strings made that possible. Common string sets before that time were based on what acoustic guitars were strung with: .012 .016 .025 .032 .042 .054 – thinnest to thickest, or 1st-2nd-3rd-4th-5th and 6th strings.

At first, electric sets were based on these or similar gauges as well, but then legend has it that a few players somewhere began substituting thinner, unwound banjo strings for the top two or three strings of their guitars and things evolved. And when light, extra-light and ultra-light sets became available commercially, the rush was on.

It may not seem there’s much difference between a .012 high E string and a .008 high E, but there is. Of course, they would break that much easier, but to be able to bend notes easily and with facility was the main object. There were, and are, enough things to fight against while playing the guitar, and removing one of them made all the difference in the world.

Of course, thinner strings sounded, well, thinner, when used on an acoustic guitar, and the volume would be a bit less, but it was the era of the solo electric guitarist and it was all about fast riffs and complex scales and feel.

I remember my first set of Ernie Ball Extra Slinky strings, gauged .008, .011, .014, .022, .030, .038. It was a revelation. I thought they were the best strings in the world. I’d been fighting with strings starting off in the .012 range, struggling with them and I only wished they’d made these strings sooner. It would’ve made being a beginning guitar player much easier on the fingers.

And…there was no problem with ‘tone’ as that fellow I was talking to mentioned,  because the tone in those days – and these days as well – come from the pickups, the effects pedal arrays, the type and power of the amp and the kind of speakers.

And of course, how loud you play. There’s just nothing like speaker distortion, I can tell you; different from overdrives and preamp stages, fuzz-boxes, distortion pedals and everything else. There’s a certain authority with pure speaker distortion that just gives you the chills.

But getting back to strings: I figured why torture myself struggling with thick gauge strings? As time went on, I eventually worked up to .009 sets, then .010 sets, and then went to .011s for a short while before returning to – and staying with – .010s.

Nice round number. I also settled on the D’Addario brand because at the time they were competitively priced and seemed not to break as often. And believe me you don’t want a string to break when you’re playing a Stratocaster with a standard vibrato bar; especially when you’re onstage, in the middle of a song.

And not only that, but they were, at least for me, a good crossover for my acoustic guitars as well.

It’s to the point now where you can get an acoustic starter guitar pack (or electric) for less than two hundred dollars US; complete with soft case, tuner, extra strings, guitar strap, etc. Usually the strings that come with these starter guitars are the medium-light .012 sets – standard for full scale acoustic guitars. But it’s also at a point now where you can buy .010 sets just about anywhere online or at a local music store for cheap, and give your fingertips a break. The strings that came on the guitar are most likely quite old by the time it ships, so a change would be good anyhow.

If you’re not familiar with changing strings and there’s a local music store nearby, you might take your newly-purchased starter guitar there (or buy one there to begin with) and have one of the employees change the strings out to lighter gauge. Just watch the store person doing it, ask questions – such as how much string you leave after you run it through the hole in the tuning head (pull it hand-taught, pinch it an inch beyond the peg and push it back that same inch to give slack enough to wind), and you’ll be set to go.

And while you’re at the store, ask the repairman to check the truss-rod adjustment. That’s a whole thing in itself, but if you mention it to the guy, he or she’ll know what you’re talking about and maybe let you see how it’s done.

Like I alluded to earlier, there are enough things to work through when first picking up the guitar (or any instrument where your fingers come in direct contact with the strings), and something as easy to fix as replacing stiffer strings with softer ones, shouldn’t be overlooked.

 

If you ever need a hand with something or have any questions or comments, feel free to leave them below.

Rick
Fingers On Strings

rick@fingersonstrings.com

This Is Mine! I Can Do This!

I think there must’ve been a point when I had the above realization when first starting out on guitar. Looking back over the years, I can see where that might have come from – and where it still comes from.

See, it’s about control, about being in control of something. About being in control of anything actually, because of how out-of-control life seems sometimes. And I don’t mean out of control like going over the edge or losing it; I mean, life just goes and most times there’s a feeling of helplessness, of a lack of power to affect things, to change things, to make things happen. Out of control. Out of my – our – personal input.

I think the first time I felt in control, was, interestingly, not when I first plucked a guitar string and caused it to make a sound. It went back before that. There was a time I used to race bicycles; not the Tour de France sort of racing, but simply going fast. And not in competition against anyone. I’d walk my bike for an hour or two up this mountain road (I wasn’t strong enough or devoted enough to ride up the hill to test my endurance and my fitness), and when I made it to the parking lot of the scenic lookout at the top of the mountain, I’d wait a few moments to cool off and catch my breath, then start back down this sweeping, fast, curvy, two-lane paved highway to the bottom.

Luckily, though it was well maintained and paved, there was little traffic, so the road was most times wide open; a single car passing by perhaps every five or ten minutes. I’d try to time it so no cars or bunches of cars were passing by, then would start off, just to see how fast I could go on the downhill straights and around the fast, sweeping turns. I believe the road was called Round Top Drive, and though it was only 2.7 miles long, it was all downhill and fast. That was the whole point.

But more to the point was the fact that I was in control. If I messed up, I could get injured really badly. These were the days before good guardrails and having to wear bike-helmets and padding, and there was the real possibility of crashing over the top of the low, white-painted wood guard-railing and sliding a couple hundred feet down the mountainside. But I was in control. It was my skill, my barriers – seeing where the point was where I’d actually scare myself and pull back.

Control.

Two hours of walking my bike up the mountain, followed by two or so minutes going back down as fast as I could. But those two minutes were worth it. And it wasn’t just adrenaline; it was the focus, the idea that it was just me doing this. Coming up against my own personal barriers, using my skill, my own daring, and knowing that whatever happened, it was up to me. It was completely and utterly stupid, but for those two or so minutes, there was total focus, self-responsibility; my choice, with nobody telling me I had to do it.

Optional fright, but being ‘in the zone’ as I later learned it was called, was like nothing else.

Fast-forward a few years and enter music.

I can do this. I’m making the sound. I’m deciding to do it, to work at it, to repeat it till I get it right. No parents telling me to practice; in fact, one of them disapproving of the whole I wanna be a rock star thing. But it didn’t matter because this was something I could do.

Me, personally.

Like pushing the ragged edge with my little 3-speed standard bicycle (didn’t even have a 10-speed with the down-curved handlebars), and seeing 45 mph on the cable-connected speedometer next to my nose as I leaned down tight.

I delved into the guitar and music in general. I don’t want to go so far as to say music became an obsession, but there seemed no limit to this huge, vast realm of music; my own burgeoning skill being the only thing holding me back. It was fascinating. It was mathematical to someone who was poor at math. It was a goal.

Of course it became frustrating, but even then, it was still mine. Mine to achieve or to fail at. My responsibility. Under my own control. I think that was the attraction, the force behind the untold hours of practice, making mistakes in my routines, learning better ways, listening, playing along with LPs, playing scales, recording myself on reel-to-reel tape recorders.

Okay, so maybe a touch obsessive. But it was my own obsession. I only wished I had started earlier. I found I could hear things in my head that I wanted to bring out, to play, but I couldn’t. Another frustration. But then there came the idea of learning music, being able to jot it down in standard notation, and eventually that happened – with me majoring in music at the local college.

Mine. This was something I wanted to do for no other reason than to do it for myself.

I think the hardest part was, after learning how to learn, was patience. With myself. There’s nothing worse than getting impatient with yourself, and I was totally guilty of that. And still, at the end of the day, even the impatience was my own – to deal with.

Then, years later, after all the work, and my starting to play professionally, I met up with another roadblock: I realized I wasn’t, and had never really been ‘talented.’ A small point perhaps – especially after working really diligently at it for so long – but there was a certain point, beyond which I could no longer progress. I could write songs, put pieces and parts together, knew about voice-leading and voicing of chords, various ‘feels’ and styles, music theory up to Webern and Schoenberg (not in depth, but in an introductory, comparative way), and got an appreciation of Early Music – John Dowland, Gregorian Chant – Crumb and Cage, as well as Satie and Bach. But I found I would never be like them. Not at any level even closely approaching them.

This also I had to finally own. It was mine as well.

It didn’t stop me from going along my own personal path however; being as good as I could be, even with the limitations.

I think maybe that’s the whole point….

 

If you ever need a hand with something or have any questions or comments, feel free to leave them below.

Rick
Fingers On Strings

rick@fingersonstrings.com