Choosing strings for your Bass can be quite stressful! Strings have a massive impact on your tone, and on your wallet too. Understanding the difference between string types involves lots of factors, far too many for one post anyway, so this post will focus on the underlying design of the strings, and the major string types.
There are two (or three) main types of string:
- Round wound – The most popular these days.
- Flat wound – Common in the early days of bass.
- Ground wound, half-wound or Semi-flats - Which fall somewhere in between.
Bear in mind here, I am just talking about the basic way that the strings are ‘built’, but that is a good place to start in understanding strings. All wound (i.e. Bass) strings are made by holding a central strand of wire straight, then wrapping one or more layers of additional wires around that core wire. If you have have never done so, it is worth taking a close look at each end of one of your bass strings.
This will start to make more sense then. Roundwound strings a wrapped with a round wire. Flatwound strings are wound with a flat ribbon wire. This gives each its distinctive look and feel: Round wound are ‘ribbed’, while flatwound are smooth to the touch.
If you have ever seen a double-bass, you’ll have seen flatwound strings. That is also how I tend to think of the flatwound sound – a little duller and more ‘thuddy’, with a shorter sustain. That might sound unattractive to some of you, but if you are trying to recreate that motown James Jamerson sound, you’ll want to be whacking a set of these on your precision bass.
While roundwound strings get duller with age, flatwounds maintain their tone and seem to last almost forever. Flat wounds also don’t produce the fret noise (and squeaks) that a new set of round wounds do. Again, according to taste, this may be a plus or a minus.
Round wound strings come in two main variants: Hex core or round core. Hex core strings, as the name suggests, have a hexagonal core that the outer wire is wrapped over. These strings have a ‘conventional feel’. Roundwound strings are made this way, as there are slightly cheaper and easier to produce.
Round core strings use both a round wrap and a round core. These are harder to produce, feel more flexible and have a clearer tone. They also last slightly longer, but are usually higher priced.
As previously mentioned, flatwounds produce more of an upright bass sound, at least to my ears. They are idea for use on fretless bass, since their smooth outer causes much less wear and tear on the fretboard.
Half-wound or Ground wound
These little fellows sit in the middle ground (no, that wasn’t a pun). They start life as a roundwound string, but then have the outer wrap ground down to produce a slight flat on the outer surface. Half flat, half round – hence the name. Neither man nor beast as it were. They are a great compromise for a modern fretless sound, giving much of the roundwound sound, but with a physical structure that is more gentle on the fretboard.
Beyond these basic structures, there are all sorts of coatings. For example, you can find nylon coated strings, as well as a number of other coatings – a topic for a future post, as is a discussion on the types of material used.
One last consideration on the basic structure of the strings is scale length. While you don’t see many short scale basses around these days, a long scale bass can be anything from 32 inches to 36 inches long. If your bass has through-body stringing, you’ll need even longer strings. There is little more frustrating than buying a set of strings and finding that they aren’t long enough – I’ve been there!