Bass guitar strings and their construction
What’s in a string?
Along with the bass you choose to play, bass guitar strings are the next big factor in creating your sound. Many bassists and guitarists for that matter will spend a fortune in time and money to find which strings will work for them, as trial and error is the only way to know for sure. It’s important for you to understand what sound it is you are looking for in your style.
Below are brief examples of the bass guitar string types available and which genres commonly use them.
A good rule of thumb when thinking about getting new bass guitar strings would be to think of an artist’s sound you enjoy, find which strings they are using and give them a try and go from there. You got nothing to lose and you semi know what to expect them to sound like. There are of course other variables at play in this scenario (amps, pickups, effects etc.) but it’s a step in the right direction.
Bass guitar strings are made of two parts, a core metal said to be a carbon alloy and another metal typically steel or nickel – wound tightly over the core. This is why strings are called wound. As they are wound around the metal core. Changes in the two variables is what gives strings their different attributes.
The most common and inexpensive type of string you will come by. They typically have a round core and wrapped in steel or nickel in a spiral fashion. The name refers to the appearance of the winding, as its round and circular protruding slightly and giving a textured feel. Its design is pleasantly flexible and musically bright. Giving brilliant clarity and sustain which is sought after in almost all modern musical styles.
In the picture above, it shows round wounds protruding from the top, resting on the metal core. These strings produce sought after bright tones.
Commonly found in: Rock, Pop, and Metal, Best remembered for the bright chirpy attack in Punk Rock.
Built to a similar design like the round wounds and sometimes placed on a hexagonal core for extra loudness. Flats wounds have a unique texture and sound to them when compared to round wounds. Whilst rounds will protrude and stick out depending on the core – flats do not.
Flat wound strings have a ribbon shaped winding to them which has minimal gaps giving it a brilliant smooth texture. Because of its design they last longer as less grime and decay can weaken the string. They are smooth to touch and create little noise when changing frets. Their sound is described as smooth, mellow or dark. Perfect for the use of fretless basses or smooth dark genres.
The diagram above shows only a small proportion sticking out with a very tiny gap in-between. It is this combination that makes the flats easy to play and produce its smooth tone.
Commonly found in: Jazz, Reggae, RnB, Blues. Best remembered for music of the 60’s as most bassists used them in that time.
Half wounds / Ground wounds
Half wounds, or sometimes called ground wounds are a compromise between round and flat wounds to give the best of both worlds. The construction of these strings are grounded down partly to take away the protrusion. It will still retain some of the bright characteristics of being a round wound, yet feel smooth and silky like a flat would. Other advantages would be minimal noise when changing frets compared to rounds, hints of a bright character but still retaining some of that smooth damp mellow tone.
The half wounds will be the most comfortable to play as they don’t stick out. Because they have been grounded down they are still built on a protruding bottom half. This essentially means one part of the string gives you the bridge edge and biting sustain while the top is easy to play and darker.
Commonly found in: Disco, Funk, Jazz and Rnb. More suited for players who wish to create volume in the bottom end of the frequency spectrum.
What is bass string gauge?
Bass string gauge refers to the thickness of the strings diameter and it is measured in thousandth’s of an inch. The larger the diameter of the string the thicker and heavier it will be. This will also give more power and sustain to a fretted note, making it louder and cover a wider frequency range. A disadvantage would be because of the larger string sizes it can be harder to press down onto the fret board or bend.
Light, Medium or Heavy?
A standard set of medium gauge bass guitar strings are the best place to start. All string sets are labelled by the measurement of the lowest string. In this case a set mediums strings are labelled as 105’s. Standard sets of medium strings measure as .045 .065 .085 .105 starting from the G string ending with E. Being a medium size you’ll get the best of both worlds. Good sustain and fairly light to bend.
A step down from the medium is the light string set also named .100’s (measured in .040 .060 .080 .100). They are physically easy to play but because of their thin sizes, don’t hold much tone or sustain. They practically easier for new players as there is less string tension when fretting and could transpire well from a guitarist starting bass.
As mentioned above, medium strings are a perfect start for new bass players to get a feel for the tension required to fret notes. This gauge also offers the best in terms of thickness, sustain and tone. There are many different types of bass guitar strings available on the market. As many brands saturate the market with quality, tone and price. The only way to find out for sure is to try them and ask around for opinions.
A popular starting point of medium gauge bass guitar strings are any of the following;
Heavy gauge bass guitar strings are measured .050 .070 .090 .110. Or Extra Heavy .055 .075 .095 .115.
This heavy gauge suits the low key tunings of D, C, B, A and is popular with Metal genres. Heavier gauges are used in this instance due to the tension these strings have and can sustain. Tuning to the key of C on a four string bass with lighter strings will seriously impact the sound of the low E string. The string will become floppy like a rubber band and produce hardly any, if not no clarity or articulation at all.
The heavy sets provide the ability to tune to your low key and achieve sustain, tone and volume. Heavy gauges are a must for all Metal musicians playing this style.
The heavy gauge strings are built for sustain and tone at low tunings. They also provide some serious resonance and volume.
When should I change my strings?
All bass players have their own opinion on when to change their strings and ultimately it comes down to how much you play. If you play round wounds and want a bright tone, the clarity will start to diminish after several hours of playing. Then after a certain point you would change them to get back that clarity you like.
The good news is bass guitar strings last much longer than normal guitar strings do. Hence the reason they cost so much, that and the materials used. Tone is subjective and is up to the player to decide if they want to change or not. For beginners there may be nothing inherently wrong about changing your strings every 6-8 months.
If you are playing on a regular basis it is recommended to change them sooner than that. Depending on your preference of course.
This guide for Bass pickups is part of the Bass Feature series. In this series we dissect the parts of the bass guitar and explain in detail how each part works. When you know and understand how each part works in conjunction of the other, it opens up your imagination to “what if i change this variable”.
Next in this series is the the guide for Bass pickups explained – a guide to pickup types.