Three bass string types in cross-section. From top, roundwound, flatwound and groundwound bass strings.
You have a few different options when it comes to stringing your bass guitar. Most electric bass players use what are called roundwound strings, but there are other types, namely, flatwound, groundwound (or half-round) and tapewound strings.
Like 90 percent of the rest of the bass-playing world, you probably use roundwound bass strings, but you might find it interesting and useful to try one of the other types sometime and add to your sonic palette. Here then is a primer, starting with our beloved and ever-present roundwounds.
Roundwound bass strings consist of a steel core string wrapped with a round wire, usually stainless steel or nickel; the former being the brightest and loudest of the two. They are by far the most popular bass string type because of their bright, clear sound (think funk and most rock subgenres), but their grinding “ridged” design (which feels similar to the edge of a quarter) means that they wear down frets faster and produce more finger noise than any other type.
Roundwound bass strings were developed by Britain’s Rotosound® company in the early 1960s, at the behest of the Who’s John Entwistle, who sought a brighter, more piano-like bass tone to complement his trebly and fleet-fingered lead bass style. They didn’t really come into widespread usage until the 1970s, but they’ve led the pack ever since.
Flatwound bass strings consist of a steel core string wrapped with a flat wire, which results in a smooth feel and warm, mellow tone (think jazz and Motown). Further, “flats” don’t chew up frets and fingerboards as much as roundwound strings do, which makes them the preferred type for fretless basses.
For years after the commercially successful electric bass guitar was introduced in the early 1950s, flats were the only kind of bass string you could get. Although roundwound strings were developed in the early 1960s, flats dominated popular music through the end of that decade. They subsequently declined in popularity in rock and pop music, but remained essential for blues, country and traditional jazz. They have regained some ground in modern rock and pop, however, as players seek distinctive sounds and as evidenced by recent Fender models such as the Pino Palladino (the Who, John Mayer) and Steve Harris (Iron Maiden) signature Precision Bass® models, both of which come strung with flatwounds.
Groundwound (half-round) bass strings are far less common than the aforementioned, but provide a nonetheless interesting option as a sort of combination of roundwound and flatwound. They begin life as roundwound strings, but are either pressed or ground so that their outer surface is partially flattened, keeping the bright tone but resulting in less finger noise and fret wear.
Tapewound bass strings are yet another, albeit seldom seen, option, with a layer of nylon wrapped around the metal winding wire (which can be either round or flat). They’re easy on the fingers and they produce a softer, darker sound usually considered the closest thing to upright bass sound and feel. If you see a bass and its strings are black, those are tapewound strings.