Given that there are hundreds of different bass strings on the market, finding the right set for you can be a little overwhelming at times.
However, this needn't be the case.
There are a few simple principles about the way strings are constructed, what they are made of and the thickness of the string itself that will help you understand roughly what a string will sound like before you hear it and this will help you make a better decision every time.
So whether you want to get an aggressive tone for your metal band, a deep mellow tone for your Motown tribute show or you just have a sound in your head and you want to know how to make it, learning how the differences in the way a string is made will help you develop your instincts and become a much more aware bassist.
How Strings Are Made
Let's start first with how different strings are constructed.
Most of the bass strings you see on the market today are built in a somewhat similar fashion.
First, the core of the string is made. Often this is made of steel.
Next, a material like stainless steel or nickel will be wound around the core of the string and it's this material (also known as winding) that will dictate whether the string is a "round wound" string or a "flat wound" string.
So, what's the difference between the two?
With round wound strings, the winding is itself, round. This rounded winding gives the string a much brighter and more aggressive sound. You'll also notice that they feel slightly rough to touch because you can feel the grooved texture that the round winding creates.
To contrast, the winding with flat wound strings is flat. This means that the winding locks together as it winds around the string to create a surface that's much flatter.
Flat wound strings will sound much mellower and have more of a dull "thump" sound to them (similar to that of an acoustic double bass) which is excellent when used on a P-bass. If you want to hear how this sounds then take a listen to Pino Palladino's classic bass work on D'Angelo's "Voodoo" album.
So are these the only two options?
Not at all.
Many manufacturers offer "half wound" strings now which are a hybrid of flat and round wound strings.
You can also get tape wound strings which are similar in construction to other types of string but instead of having a metallic winding they have a length of tape (often nylon) wrapped around the core.
These strings are said to have the closest sound to a double bass and whilst they aren't a very common choice for a lot of bass players, they still do make a great sound.
Now that we understand how strings are made let's see how the materials they are made from can change the sound.
How Material Affects Sound
First of all, let's look at stainless steel.
Steel strings give a very bright sound. They naturally produce a lot of top and low end which is great for those that want to play with a scooped mid sound because the strings will naturally complement this sound.
Nickel strings won't give as much low end but they do create more warm mid-range in the tone. Often you'll hear bass players describe this as giving the bass a more "old school" tone.
Whilst steel and nickel are the two most common options they aren't the only ones on the market.
D'addario has been making chrome strings for a long time now that provide a rich, smooth and warm low end. Their chrome flat wound sets create a very surprising level of detail in the sound without sacrificing the characteristic thump.
And, as we've already talked about, you could look at tape wound strings as a further alternative.
Bass String Gauges
Our final point of consideration is the overall thickness of the string itself.
This is known as the string gauge.
If you've ever looked at a pack of strings and seen a large number like 035 or 130 on the side of the packaging then this number is referring to the string gauge.
But what exactly does the number mean?
Simply put, the higher the number, the thicker the string will be.
This will have an effect not just on the sound of the string but also on how it feels to play.
Starting with sound, we know that a larger number on the string gauge (known as a heavier gauge) will sound bigger, thicker, fuller and fatter. The reason is that, since all sound is vibrating, a heavier gauge string will have more mass that it can vibrate with and use to create a bigger sound.
Thinner or "light gauge" strings will do the opposite and create a smaller sound.
At this point, you might be thinking that heavier is always better. Well, it's not that simple.
Whilst heavy strings sound bigger, they are also much harder work to play. There's more string mass to move with your fingers so you might get tired more quickly.
Lighter strings are usually favoured by fast players like Janek, Victor and Tony Grey because they're easier to play at fast speeds.
But the comparisons don't stop there. The gauge of the string will also affect what kind of action you can have on your bass.
If you were unaware, "action" refers to how high above the neck the strings are.
Many bassists like a low action because it's easier to play but some prefer a high action for the purer tone it gives.
If you want a low action then you'll need heavy gauge strings because heavy gauge strings can sit closer to the neck whilst light gauge strings can't get as low.
How To Choose Bass Strings
Hopefully, these tips have helped you think a little more abstractly about the strings you want for your bass. However, if you hear someone play and you want to replicate their sound then try to use the points in this post as a checklist.
Does it sound like they have a lot of low end? Maybe they have steel strings.
Does their tone sound aggressive or mellow and dull? Do they have rounds or flats?
Is there a lot of weight to their sound? Perhaps they use heavy gauge strings.
By having this knowledge you can start to inform yourself about how to create a sound by asking yourself these questions and then you can, hopefully, be closer to building a sound that you like and one that is truly your own.
Bass String Review Video Playlist