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.
Fingers On Strings