For all that we obsess over the types of woods used in our instruments, the different pickups, the tones we dial into our amps and the microphones we use to record, there is one single factor which is often overlooked but which can have a profound impact on our sound.
Strings are perhaps the single most important factor in defining our sound. The impact on the brightness of the tone, its clarity, how playable the instrument is and how reliable it is in a live setting.
Admittedly, bass players tend not to have to change strings as often as our six-string counterparts, yet that in itself makes it even more important that we are aware of the different options available to us when you consider how long you’ll potentially be using them. To help, we’ve put together this bass guitar string guide, which will hopefully remove some of the uncertainty when it comes to selecting your new bass strings.
Types of strings
Although they look pretty identical from a distance, there are indeed a few different ways bass guitar strings are constructed. The different variations will all have their own characteristics, and will find favour with musicians perhaps looking for specific tonal qualities.
Most popular are roundwound strings, whereby a round wire is tightly wound around a ‘core’. These strings offer brightness over everything, and offer perhaps the clearest approximation of your guitar’s tone woods. Over time the brightness will fade, and there’s also the potentially unwelcome finger noise to consider. This is where you move from fret to fret without fully lifting your finger from the board, causing a high pitched noise which can easily ruin an otherwise clean recording.
Flatwounds employ a similar construction method, but are wound with a flat wire instead and produce a less in-your-face tone, perfect for jazz and blues. Perhaps less common are groundwound, which are essentially roundwound strings which are pressed or ground to produce a slightly flattened surface. These strings offer a best-of-both-worlds balance between tonal brightness and reduced finger noise.
As well as different methods of construction, bass strings come in a few different materials. Each has its own benefits and limitations, and will usually find favour among musicians of different genres. For example, metal players usually prefer the resilience and durability offered by pure stainless steel strings, while musical styles which require a more mellow tone will gravitate towards pure nickel. Most common are the nickel-plated steel strings, which combine elements of the two aforementioned materials and offer a good balance of clarity and life-span.
Factors for choosing new strings
The first consideration when choosing new strings should be for the particular tone you’re looking for. As discussed above, flatwound pure nickel strings probably aren’t going to work if you’re playing death metal, just as stainless steel roundwounds will potentially dominate the mix of a jazz trio, and not in a good way.
Also, you’ll need to consider the lifespan of your new strings. For the touring musician, will you be changing every show, or are you looking for strings you can effectively ‘set and forget’? The sound of any string will deaden over time, causing the tone to become dull and lose clarity, so factor that in when deciding how often to change.
It’s worth noting that a deadened sound isn’t necessarily a bad thing; for vintage soul, blues and jazz musicians, this effect can actually be positive as the tone will be more low-key. Perfect if you’re the kind of band where the bass is used to ‘fill out’ the sound, rather than lead it. This may or may not be linked to ego, but bass players aren’t always noted for their egos…
Finally, keep in mind that a set of new bass strings is also more expensive than a set of equivalent guitar strings, so you’ll need to cut your cloth accordingly. As with many things, you get what you pay for too so stick to brands like D’addario or Ernie Ball if you’re looking for reliable quality.
How often should you change?
This is potentially a moot point, as the required qualities of a set of strings will differ from player to player. There are however certain things which apply to everyone, not least the potentially harmful effect of using a set of strings constantly without changing them. You see, the more you use the strings, the more they accumulate sweat from your fingers which can in turn start to corrode the frets or, worse still, impact on the wood on your guitar’s neck. This process is intrinsically linked to how often you play the instrument, and in what conditions. If you’re gigging three times a week in hot sweaty clubs and pubs, then perhaps a monthly change at the very least is in order. If, on the other hand, you play less regularly and the bass never leaves your bedroom/studio/rehearsal space, then you can probably leave it a bit longer.
And, of course, there is the tonal impact of old strings vs new strings. If you’re consistently looking for that sparkly clean sound which comes from a shiny new set, then by all means change them when you hear the sound start to dull.
Hopefully this guide will help you decide which bass guitar strings are best for you, and will enable you to weigh up the potential benefits and longer term considerations when it comes to choosing your next set.