Posted by: Jon | December 5, 2006

Choosing the right bass strings

– Jon ChemaErnie Ball

Few things have a bigger impact on the quality of a bass guitar tone than the strings. This fact is especially true if the strings have been used for some time. As bass guitar strings age, their sound becomes dulled by corrosion, oxidization, and good ole’ grease from your hands. You might not notice the gradual decline in sound, but rest assured; it’s happening! When you change to a new set of strings, you may be stunned at the sudden improvement in sharpness and clarity of tone. I have been wowed on numerous occasions at the difference a new set of strings can make. New strings are also easier on your hands. So how you may ask, do you choose the right pack of strings off that monstrous string wall when you visit guitar center? Read on to find out!

When choosing electric bass guitar strings, the name on the label doesn’t matter as much as the type of string. There are many bass guitar string brands–including Alembic, D’Addario, GHS, Elixir, Ernie Ball, Fender and RotoSound, to name a few–but the technologies used to produce them are similar. Since differences in tone set one string type apart from another, it is useful to know about the types of strings available and the effects they produce. I personally love GHS strings, as they are made in Grand Rapids, MI and seem to be soundly constructed. GHS for me gives a more punchy crisp sound, but is also able to hold the low end down. Whatever the case for bassists, the challenge is to find the right type of string that you like! Below I listed a few types of strings.

Nickel-Wound Strings
As the name suggests, these strings are constructed with a nickel-plated steel wrap. Many rock bassists prefer nickel-wound strings, as they tend to deliver a clear, captivating tone. I personally use Nickel-wound-strings as I mainly play more of “Rock” music genre.
Stainless Steel Strings-
Another type of string you will find on the market is stainless steel strings. You may want to choose this type for two principal reasons. First, they feel smooth to the finger, making them ideal for long gigs and marathon studio sessions. Second, finger noise is reduced with stainless steel, a preference in sound for some bassists. Stainless Steel strings also hold out better to corrosion, and will not rust.
Flat-Wound Strings-
Flat-wound bass strings are popular among players for their deep, smooth and pounding tone. Many players will use Flat-wounds on fretless basses, to give them a mellower upright bass sound. Flat-wound strings are specially wound and polished to give the effect of a smooth surface. Another variation on string winding comes in the form of half-round bass strings, which are ground down partially, providing a compromise between round-wound and flat-wound strings. This half-round treatment provides some of the brightness of round-wound strings and some of the comfort and depth of tone of the flat-wounds.
Other things to consider-
Special treatments and processes are also applied to bass strings to enhance their performance and life-span. For example, some manufacturers treat strings in a liquid nitrogen bath, which is claimed to extended string life and help the strings stay in tune over long periods. I personally think that the treatments are just a gimmick, however many bassists claim they work. Bass strings are also sold by gauges. These may include but are not always limited to; Extra Light, Light, Medium Light, Medium, Heavy, Extra Heavy. Really the light you go on the spectrum, the brighter your sound will be, and the faster your action. The heavier you go, the “bassier”, your sound will be and the slower the action. I personally play Mediums and Medium lights, as I have found them to be a great balance between the two sides.

Whatever the case, choosing the right bass string is really all about personal preference. Below I included a chart to help you choose the right strings based on the genre of music that you will be playing.

Music Genre:

Rock >>>>>>>>>> Medium Nickel-Plated, Stainless Steel

Metal
>>>>>>>>> Extra Heavy, Stainless-Steel, or Nickel-Plated

Jazz
>>>>>>>>>>> Medium Round-Wounds

Country
>>>>>>>> Medium Hybrid Half Wounds, or Round Wounds

Funk
>>>>>>>>>> Extra Light, Nickel Plated

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Responses

  1. Jon, I have a friend who swears by boiling his strings, have you ever heard of that? Old rock friend, think he might still be imbibing in some illegal substances…

    • I have boiled my strings before.it seems to clean them and shocks them back to new I use Rotosound 66 105-45

  2. Hi mate, I came across your blog. After reading your profile I understood that we are similar in spirit and priorities. I am from tiny Malta Europe. Have a look at my blog. Peace to you mate. Hilary.

  3. I have never heard of that tunz4jesus. Sounds like your friend may have been trippin’ when he said that. lol. I would imagine that “boiling” strings would ruin them.

  4. I’ve heard of stranger things before… 😉

  5. actually eddie van halen boiled every set of strings for like 20 minutes before putting them on. that is a documented fact. i don’t know if it affects tone.

  6. Wow, thats insane, I would be curious to find out exactly how boiling affects tone.

  7. hey all, form what I’ve read it’s a pretty bad idea to boil bass strings. Here’s the link.
    http://www.tunemybass.com/strings/boiling_bass_strings.html
    the recommendation is to use denatured alcohol, with no water in it. hope that helps.
    good post btw!

  8. I’ve been boiling strings for years and what it really does is bring back the brightness you get when you first buy them. It’s ALMSOT as crisp as a new set, BUT it tends to last a bout a week and they’re right back the way they were. If you’re really low on cash go ahead, if not, you’re probably better off just buying new strings.

    As for guitar, I never noticed much of a difference boiling them, other than that my high E always became brittle and snapped off… Maybe Van Halen used military-strength strings, or maybe he just never boiled the high E, I dunno. 🙂

    Oh, and I’d also like to add that steel roundwounds sound pretty dang bright, and roundwounds in general allow you to play faster, as there’s no ‘drag’ on your fingers.

    • Is it best to remove the strings from the guitar before boiling them?

      • Don’t tell me that you boiled them together with your guitar?

      • haha this cranked me up.

  9. Anyone try those new ProSteels? I was using them for a while because when they are new they really give you the “piano tone.” But is it just me, or are these strings really abrasive? They also seem to wear out faster than other brands.

  10. This is a great acticle which I would reccomend others to read. Since it is so good, I would like to offer my little additon. I am the loony that swears by nylon strings. They have a small cult following in jazz, rockabilly and country for their very smooth, mellow, dark tone that can mimick an upright. They are soft on your fingers, easier to bend/choke and never corrode. I have experimented using them beyond their usuall tonal area with general sucsess, but you really have to squeeze punch out of them with your tone settings and hardware.

  11. I’m also a boiler of Bass strings. I add a little vinegar too. The mild acid helps get out all the grease, sweat and dead skin caught in the strings. I only use it when the strings are pretty much dead but I want to squeeze one or two more gigs out of them. I never do it to new strings. As Justin says, the strings die again about a week after boiling them. I’ve tried boiling 2nd and 3rd times but never had good results.

  12. I’m a string boiler as well. I’ve routinely eked out 10 years (yep… 10 years) on a set of strings by boiling them every year.

    Boil them 5 minutes or so, then dry thoroughly with a lint-free cloth. After they’re dry, wipe ’em down with some denatured alcohol and reinstall.

  13. It is no gimmic. It is metallurgy. It does have an effect.

  14. Also, use a greace cutting soap, like Simple Green, or Windex. Then use a tooth brush, or air from a compressor to remove the losened dirt.

  15. Boiling does work. However, eventually you will need to replace the strings because they get torn up where they are wound to the tuning heads. Can someone recommend a good sounding, long-lasting string for me? I have the DR Coated strings and the bright sounding tone only lasts about 2 weeks. (I play 1-2+ hours a day). I need something cheap, that sounds good for slapping and popping and lasts at least a month.

    • I would highly recommend GHS bass boomers for the tone you are after. They are brighter strings and seem to be very durable, and for the price, you CANNOT beat them. Made in the USA (actually in my home state of MI) and you can get a pair for about $18-25 if you shop around.

      Hope this helps!

  16. I have tried boiling strings, but the effect is just not the same as new strings. They do sound bright for about an hour though.
    I.M.O. for brightness nothing beats Dean Markley Blue Steel’s!

  17. hillsong

  18. lecrea

  19. Totally wrong on the stainless steel analysis. Stainless strings have a rougher feel than Nickel, not smoother and you get more finger noise, not less. They are brighter than Nickel, eat frets more quickly and you can sometimes hear the string clicking against the frets.

  20. How do Rotosound RS88LD’s figure here, as they are nylon covered flatwounds surely they would not suffer from corrosion and aging like ‘exposed’ strings! I have some NOS Rotosound RS88LD’s i.e twenty years old but never used, would these have degraded in any way?


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