Bassists use different styles of strings and different gauges. The variety of strings is almost endless and I wanted to find out first hand what the benefits of these different string are regarding tone, play ability and their usefulness in group and solo performances
The string that I will be trying are:
Flat-wounds: these strings are unlike conventional round-wounds which are wound with a round wire they are wound with flat wire and have a very smooth, no friction kind of finish.
Steel round-wounds: A string wound with round steel wire. A lot more grip than Flat-wounds
Nickel coated round-wounds: They are wound with a nickel coated wire
Super light gauge steel round-wounds: which are conventional steel round-wounds but are a lot thinner that a regular size.
Each string type will be given the same treatment, they will all be used on my Fender Jazz Bass with both pickups on full volume, I will also try the the strings with the tone fully on and off. The amp that I will use will have all the controls on 50 percent, the volume of the amp will be set at the same point. I will also try an assortment of playing styles on with each string set, I will try it with finger style, slap and with a pick.
Online there are many different articles discussing the benefits and draw backs of each different type of string. The most legitimate looking and helpful ones I've found are from fenderbassplayer.com and frudua.com, the former talks about the differences and pros and cons between flat-wound and round-wound strings and the latter does the same with nickel and steel strings. For a look on light gauge strings the bassist Mark King lightly touches on the topic on a youtube video by TC Electronic.
Round-wounds vs flat-wounds:
Fenderbassplayer.com(nd), flatwound vs roundwounds, describes in extensive detail the pros and cons/different features for both the flat and round wound strings, it also gives some brief history on the strings and its popularity which isn't incredibly relevant to my research but the different string types popularity timeline lines up with when jazz was being overtaken in popularity by rock music, which most likely isn't a coincidence. According to this site flat-wounds were the original choice of string until the 1980's when the round-wounds became more popular 20 years after being invented in 1963. It would have taken a while for round-wounds to get on top because players would need time to get used to them and appreciate them. The slap technique was also starting to become popular around this time, This would be because on the round-wound slap is much more effective because of its lower tension and brighter tone which Fenderbassplayer.com talks about. A big reason round-wounds became more dominant during the 80's would be because the aggressive tone is better suited to the hard rock, metal and punk music which was incredibly popular in that time period. They give a bigger punch than the flat-wounds do and create a strong gritty base for the guitarist to solo over. In jazz and blues and other music genres which are a lot more clean and mellow the flat-wound would be more suited, especially if you wanted your electric bass to more closely resemble the sound of an upright bass. Fenderbassplayer.com also touches upon play ability and how it actually feels to use the strings, they say the the flat-wounds are a lot smoother and have less friction than the round-wounds which would make sense looking at the strings respective designs. So flat-wounds are a less damaging choice for the bass as they wont eat into the fret-board or the frets the same way. The flat-wounds are also kinder on your fingers and don't wear out calluses nearly as much as round-wounds.
Given the descriptions of the bass strings on this website I am not sure which one I'll prefer. I enjoy warm mellow tones that I'd get from the flat-wounds but I also love to slap a lot which is better on round-wounds. I am not sure how difficult it is play slap on the flat-wounds because I have not tried slap on flat-wounds with a suitable bass, I have used flats before but the bass I used just wasn't right for slap no matter the string. So to decide my preferred string I will need to put it to the test and see what suits my taste in tone and my play style better.
Nickel vs Steel:
Frudua.com(nd) has a short article on nickel and steel strings, it really only hits key points and doesn't go into the history like fenderbassplayer.com does. After a brief description of the manufacturing of the strings the review splits into two parts, the first bit focusing on sound and the second talking about the pros and cons of each string. They say that steel strings have "more accentuated upper frequencies and slightly more lows" this is compared to the nickel strings thats sound is more in the mid range frequencies. So the steel strings with their brighter tone and larger range of frequencies suits them to genres like rock and metal where a sharper and more powerful tone is used. The mid range on the nickel gives it a mellow vintage vibe like the flat-wounds are said to have, so they would be more suited to jazz and blues style music. The nickel strings are also less harsh on the fingers having a smoother finish than the steel
I have never tried a set of nickel strings, at least to my knowledge, but by going on what Frudua.com says about them I believe I will prefer them to the steel. The tone that I enjoy tends to be a lot more soft and mid to low range rather that sharp and high. I'm not sure how different the tone will actually be for me because both strings sounded very similar for me during videos on YouTube. My preference may come down to what feels nicer to play.
There aren't many articles that I've found discussing the differences on string gauges regarding bass, but there are heaps of comparisons for guitar. Looking at some vague comments littered through bass videos on the internet and what gauges different bassists use and comparing that to guitar articles you get a pretty good idea of the pros/cons for the different gauges. Mark King, the bassist for Level 42, says that he prefers lighter gauge strings because he can bend the strings and pull them over the nut at the head stock creating a kind of whammy bar effect. Victor Wooten, bassist of many groups, is very technically savvy and does a lot of lead work compared to what a bass player normally does. Given how King and Wooten play the bass it seems that a lighter gauge is their choice because it offers more manipulation of the strings as there is less tension with the lighter gauges, thus allowing them to do more technical stuff in their leading bass work. A heavier gauge string is really handy if the bass player wants a deeper sound or if they want to down tune some of their strings, this would be more common among guitar players but bass players still do it especially in the Metal and Djent genres. Heavy gauge strings are also really helpful if you wanted to down-tune your Bass/guitar.
I've used heavy gauge strings but only because my 5 string bass has its low B string, but because its tuned down it has less tension than if it were tuned to the standard low E. So I am curious to feel how lower gauge strings affect how I play.
The round-wounds that I used were the same strings I had been using for around 8 months, they were still in reasonably good knick so I used them for the experiment. I feel like because of this the strings were more mellow and didn't have the same brightness that a new pair of strings would have. I took this into account when looking at the other strings as these steel, medium gauge round-wound strings were the centre point for this experiment.
I really enjoyed playing with the flat wounds, they aren't as frictionless as I hoped but they were still a lot of fun to play around with.
light gauge strings