Bass Strings 101
Expand your sound beyond roundwound with this fast bass string primer.
By Jeff Owens
Like most of the bass-playing world, you probably use roundwound bass strings, but you might find it interesting and useful to experiment with other types, such as flatwound, groundwound (or half-round) or tapewound strings, as a possible addition to your sonic palette.
And to help get you started here's a primer to the not-so-wide world of bass strings:
The most popular 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 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 Steve Harris (Iron Maiden) signature Precision Bass models, which comes strung with flatwounds.
Another, albeit seldom seen, option are tapewound bass strings, which are made 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.
Groundwound (or Half-Round)
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.