Once you have finally gone through the difficult task of choosing the right bass…
The last thing you want is to have to worry about yet another element to choose, such as strings for example…
Which is generally fine, since you can absolutely rock your new bass with stock strings.
But after some time though, you may find yourself wanting something better, or just different.
And for some reason, many bassists out there seem to overlook bass strings…
And the reason why probably lies somewhere between the fact that bass string sets are significantly more expensive than guitar string set…
And the fact that bass players replace their strings much less often than guitar players.
What many bass players don’t seem to realize though, is that the type of strings you choose directly affects not only your sound…
But also your way of playing.
And so there is a thin line between needing to adapt TO your strings, and choosing the strings that are best suited FOR you, and trust me, you don’t want to be doing the former.
So how do you find the perfect string set for:
- You particular bass model
- Your particular playing style
- Your sound
- Your personal comfort
Well, these are the questions I intend to address in today’s article.
Sound good? Then let’s start.
Before considering different brands or type of strings, you’ll need to check out the scale length of your bass, so you don’t end up buying strings that would otherwise be too long or too short.
The scale length is the distance between the string bridge and the nut, as shown in the image below:
- Most 4 string models such as J and P basses are 34″, or “long scale“.
- Most 5 or 6 string models are 35″ or “extra/super long scale“
Short scale (30.0″/30.5″) basses are much less common. The typical example is Paul McCartney’s bass when he played with The Beatles, and they are mostly discontinued nowadays unless you’re specifically looking for one.
The 4 factors affecting tone
There are 5 sound defining factors on a bass string:
So let’s now see each one in more details, starting with:
Just like for guitar strings, there are various gauges for bass strings.
The gauge refers to the diameter of the string expressed in inches. In other word, there are thinner strings, and there are fatter strings.
So what’s the difference?
Well sound, mostly, but also playability:
- Higher gauge strings – produce more low end and are common in metal for example. If your playing involves running accross the fretboard, you might find higher gauges too difficult to play on.
- Lower gauge strings – produce less thump and are common in funk and jazz or for slapping style. They’re also good if you don’t have much ‘finger’ strength.
As for the numbers, there are no set in stone standards and the gauge of each string in a set varies from one manufacturer to the other…
Which is the reason why some bassists buy each one of their string separately when they can’t find a string set with their prefered numbers.
Generally though, here are the numbers you can expect to find in string sets:
- Light – .040/.065/.080/.100
- Medium – .045/.065/.085/.105
- Heavy – .050/.075/.090/.110
- Extra Heavy – .060/.080/.100/.120
Some models even go as high as 125 for the E string (on 4 string basses)… Which is particularly handy for drop tunings in which you have to lower the E string several steps. These tunings are common in metal for example.
On the other end (yes, not hand), some brands such as D’Addario sell an “Extra Super Light” gauge, which provides even easier playability as well as a very bright and “magnetic” sound.
So this is what you need to know about gauges.
All strings are either nickel or stainless steel made, some models use a mix of both these metals, and some use a different metal for plating, such as copper. And so here are the most popular models:
- Stainless Steel – apart from their obvious added resistance to corrosion, these strings have the brightest tone of all strings
- Pure Nickel – warmer sound than steel and somewhat vintage tone, common in funk/jazz
- Copper-plated Steel – produces lots of overtones and harmonics
- Nickel-plated Steel – The most popular choice and a good balance between the brightness of steel and the warmth of nickel
You can hear how all these models compare in the video below:
The takeaway here can basically be summed up as :
- For slapping use steel strings
- For fingerstyle use nickel
Simply because steel has much more attack and highs than nickel, which is generally what you’re looking for in slap.
So, Ideally of course you want to have 2 basses so you can switch from one sound to the other quickly but this is far from being an option for many players.
So if that is your case, you’ll want the most versatile strings you can find, which allow you to play fingerstyle, slap and pick without sacrificing the sound of any of these.
And on that category, most bass players agree that roundwound strings are the hands down best choice.
And so, next up…
Winding is just as important a factor as the type of metal used.
In fact, the winding method shapes the sound of the attack—when the finger or pick first touches the string.
There are 3 types of winding:
So let’s now see each one in more details.
The most popular winding technique of all, roundwound strings deliver the brightest sound of all thanks to their knurled surface.
Developed in the 1960’s at a time where amplified rock bands were springing up like mushrooms, and their sound requiresd clearness and definition in the attack.
Until their invention, flatwound strings were the norm, however, roundwound strings have been sitting on the 1st spot ever since they were introduced on the market.
Worth noting is that they tend to wear down the frets quicker than other types of winding.
But if you play rock, funk or pop, you’ll most likely want to grab a set of roundwound strings.
In fact, being the most versatile strings, roundwound are often advised for beginners
Flatwound are actually the way all strings were wound until roudwound appeared. They’re still the second most popular type of winding technique today .
They produce a mellow, round sound and are basically the typical jazz strings.
They’re also often used on fretless basses because to don’t wear down the fret board as much as roundwounds.
Now, something worth noting is that you can make flatwound sound like roundwound with some techniques such as palm muting or even putting foam into your bridge…
But you CANNOT make flatwound sound like roundwound.
Anyway, watch this video for a good comparison between flatwound and roundwound strings:
These strings are basically half roundwound, half flatwound. They are first manufactured as regular roundwound strings but are then pressed on only one side so as to flatten it, resulting in a flat side, and a roundside.
The goal of this process is to keep the brightness of roundwound strings while easying up the stress on the fretboard.
So in terms of sound they’re very similar to roundwound, with the added benefit of not wearing out the fretboard as much.
4. Taperwound/Exposed Core
Not to be confused with tapewound strings, which use a thin nylon film around the string…
“Taperwound” strings taper the bottom end of the string, meaning there’s no winding whatsoever on this part of the string.
The idea behind this process is to provide “more sustain and intonation” accordind to Fender, which “results in quick response with a clear, distinct sound, ideal for bass solos.” according to the brand LaBella.
Basically think more high end.
Now, there is very little material on this type of strings but it seems most bassists who have tried them all agree that they are great to play on.
Beneath the winding lies the core of the string. The string core can either be:
- Round Core, or…
- Hex Core
On the image on the right you can see how it looks from a cross-section view.
The main difference between both core types is the tension.
Indeed, hex core strings are much tighter than round cores, which makes them ideal for slapping, tapping or an other kind of “percussive” playing.
On the contrary, round core strings are looser and are ideal for rock or metal for example.
In terms of physics, a hex core has MORE mass than a round core, which is the reason why the the tension of the strings ends up being significantly higher.
Some bassists that switched from round core to hex core even report that they had to tighten the truss rod in order to make the bass playable.
Got it? Moving on…
Coated strings were first introduced on the market by the company Elixir in 1997.
However they’ve been so successful ever since, that the company decided to expand their product to other stringed instruments, including bass.
For a detailed look at these strings, check this article out:
Nowadays though, almost all string manufacturers have at least 1 coated option.
And the major advantage of coated strings is undoubtedly the added lifespan you get out of them. They will last you MUCH longer than uncoated strings.
The other difference is obviously the sound. They sound dramatically different compared to uncoated strings, mainly because of their ability to block overtones.
Check out this video to hear this difference for yourself:
The Top String Sets by Brands
With so many factors coming into play, some brands started shining in one particular type of string, such as Elixir who are known for their coated strings.
- Roundwound EXL170 – (Amazon/B&H/Thomann)
- Nylon Tapewound (coated) – (Amazon/B&H/Thomann)
- Flatwound – (Amazon/B&H/Thomann)
- Flatwound/Medium Gauge – (Amazon/Thomann)
- Roundwound 5 string bass set (Nickel) – (Amazon/B&H/Thomann)
2. Ernie Ball
- Regular Slinky Nickel Wound – (Amazon/Thomann)
- Slinky Cobalt – (Amazon/B&H/Thomann)
- Regular Slinky Flatwound – (Amazon/B&H/Thomann)
- Flatwound 5 Strings Set – (Amazon)
- Super 7250’s (Roundwound stainless steel) – (Amazon/Thomann)
- Stainless steel flatwound – (Amazon/Thomann)
- Super 8250’s (Taperwound) – (Amazon/Thomann)
- Black Beauties (coated) – (Amazon/Thomann)
- HI-Beams Steel (Brightest sound) – (Amazon/Thomann)
- Neon (multi-color strings) – (Amazon/Thomann)
- Lo-Rider (hex core) – (Amazon/Thomann)
- Marcus Miller Stringset (Stainless Steel) – (Amazon/Thomann)
- Nickel Super Bright – (Amazon)
- Flatwound – (Amazon)
- Boomers (Nickel Roundwound) – (Amazon/Thomann)
- Precision Flats (Stainless steel flatowund) – (Amazon/Thomann)
- Boomers 5 Strings – (Amazon/Thomann)
- Flatwound Stainless Steel (Low Gauge for Hofner Beatle Bass) – (Amazon/Thomann)
- Original 1954 (Flatwound Stainless Steel) – (Amazon/Thomann)
- Flatwound (vintage sound) – (Amazon/Thomann)
- Nickel Plated Steel – (Amazon/Thomann)
- Stainless Steel – (Amazon/Thomann)
- Stainless Steel (5 string bass) – (Amazon/Thomann)
So there you go guys, The Ultimate Guide to Bass Strings.
Hopefully I’ve answered all your questions.
‘Til next time.