The variety of strings is almost endless and I wanted to find out first hand what the benefits of these different strings are regarding tone, playability 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 than a regular size.
Round-wounds vs flat-wounds:
Fenderbassplayer.com(nd) shows that 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. 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 cleaner 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.
Nickel vs Steel:
Frudua.com(nd) has a short article on nickel and steel strings, it really only hits key points. 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
There are not many articles that I have 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.
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.
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. They were also surprisingly good to slap with and will probably be my new choice of string. They definitely needed a work as now about a week later after putting them on the strings have become a lot nicer an easier to play with. They sound less mellow and deep than I anticipated and aren't to easy to tell apart from the round-wounds unless I put the tones to the extremes of the bass and treble.
The company that sent me the Nickel strings with two E strings instead of and E and an A string meaning that I couldn't use both of them with out the tone sounding beyond dreadful. So I ended up using a steel A string so I could actually play something audible. This ended up being quite handy as I could quite clearly hear a difference in tone. Although its not easy to hear in the video the nickel as I found in person was much sharper than the steel but I personally feel that this would be because the steel strings that I used were half a year old and had very little life left in them. Otherwise I didn't see feel much of a difference, to pick between them you would need to be very picky about the sound you wanted and how the strings feel.
light gauge strings
The light gauge strings were very nice to use, because of the lighter gauge they needed a lot less tension which was very obvious to me when I was playing. There strings also had a very bright sound and were very easy to play. They would be great for beginners as it takes less toll on the fingers and you don't need to apply nearly as much pressure on the strings.
All the strings worked perfectly fine as expected, the main difference between the strings was their play ability. I found it quite difficult to tell the difference in tone but there is enough that it could alter a very picky persons preference. Steel round-wounds are a perfect middle ground and will continue to be the most popular string. Flat-wounds are more mellow and are perfect for jazz and people who like more tension in their strings. Nickel, I find, is very similar to steel and it would only be different for hardcore tone junkies. light gauge is a perfect string for beginners because of the less tension and also great for experts and lead players as it opens up the amount of techniques they can to their playing arsenal because the stings are looser and easier to manipulate.