Strings 101 - A Guide to Bass Guitar Strings
Posted by Rothko and Frost on March 29, 2014
Like electrics, bass strings come in a wide variety of types and gauges. Something else to consider with bass strings however is whether you want strings that are roundwound, flatwound or halfwound, which refers to how the strings are wound and constructed. These 3 winding options each have their own distinct disadvantages and advantages.
Roundwound strings are incredibly bright sounding and are perfect for players who incorporate a lot of slapping into their style.
In contrast, flatwound strings aren’t designed with slapping in mind but are great for punchy Motown/Stax- like sounds.
Halfwounds are a compromise between the two types, incorporating the best elements of both.
Gauge means thickness: the higher the gauge the thicker the string. Most string manufacturers refer to a pack of strings via the gauge of the thinnest string. So, in the case of a pack of medium bass strings, they would be known as 45s, based on the thickness of the G string (.045in).
One thing to bear in mind is that if you’re restringing a bass guitar with a thicker set of strings your bass may need a new set-up from a dedicated instrument technician to prevent your neck from warping and potentially cracking from the tension of a thicker gauge. Also, always double-check your bass’s scale length matches (or is under) the scale length of the strings that you are considering purchasing to ensure the strings aren’t too short for the bass.
There are a growing number of bassists who, influenced by the playing style of James Jamerson (the session bassist on numerous Motown records – he played on over 30 number ones) and several others, do not change their strings at all. While this seems economical, there are a plethora of disadvantages to this, notably the lack of any tone other than very dull treble or bass. This is due to the fact that, as strings age their more complex tones start to degrade to the point where they are non-existent and you are left with quite a hollow, dull-sounding tone. But the most problematic issue is the decline in quality of intonation (pitch accuracy) and tuning stability, two crucial aspects of bass playing, especially when recording in a studio.
Heavy gauge (thicker) strings tend to have a fatter, lower-end tonality. They also have better tuning stability and could allow you to have a slightly lower action than thinner, lower-gauge strings. It does take quite a lot of practice to master the feel of higher gauge strings though, which is something to take into consideration if you are planning to move up a gauge.
Light gauge (thinner) strings are much easier to play, especially if you’re a fast player or play high-tempo music. Thinner gauge strings are also easier to perform various bass techniques on, such as slapping, vibrato or tapping. There are some downsides with thinner gauge strings, primarily a lack of core bass tone compared to thicker gauge strings, as well as an increased likelihood of string breakage.
Medium gauge strings are a good middle ground, incorporating some of the better aspects of each gauge into one string set.
Typical gauges for bass string sets are as follows but this can vary slightly between brands:
Extra light gauge strings (35s): .035 (G), .055 (D), .075 (A), .095 (E)
Light gauge strings (40s): .040 (G), .060 (D), .080 (A), .95 (E)
Medium gauge strings (45s): .045 (G), .065 (D), .085 (A), .105 (E)
Heavy gauge strings (50s): .050 (G), .070 (D), .090 (A), .110 (E)
Extra heavy gauge strings (55s): .055 (G), .075 (D), .095 (A), .115 (E)