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Bass Strings: Tips for Finding the Right Sound

bass strings

This week’s column comes thanks to a question from Maria G.

Maria asks:

I’m a pretty new player, but I’m not happy with my upright bass strings. I know I need something different, but there are so many different kinds of strings out there I don’t know where to start. They are also expensive (!) so I can’t really experiment like I would like. I play mostly pizz. Can you offer any suggestions?

I get this question often from young players. Most of them are looking for me to tell them “get brand X” and send them on their way. I generally do give them a recommendation to them based on their needs and desires, but I always make it part of a bigger discussion on how to find the right strings for their needs.

Most strings are made of metal, gut or synthetic material (nylon, etc.):

Synthetic Strings:

Unless you are playing rockabilly, psychobilly or bluegrass, you will probably want to avoid these strings. They tend to have very little sustain and work poorly with the bow, when they work at all.

Gut Strings

These can be popular with pizz. players (jazz, rockabilly, bluegrass, etc.) but they are very expensive and somewhat temperamental. If you are an “early music” performer, then of course you will use these.

Metal Strings

Most commonly, however, bassists use metal strings. This is true for orchestral players, jazzers, and on and on across the realm. These strings will all have some type of core, unique to the brand, with a metal wrap of some sort. As such, nylon or other synthetic core strings with a metal wrap would classify as “metal” for our purposes.

Every line of upright strings will have a different set of strengths. Most strings that work well for pizz. playing are weaker as an arco string, and vice versa. In my experience, even those strings which are marketed as “hybrid” or “do it all” strings tend be stronger in one area and weaker in another.

The effectiveness of a certain string for pizz. or arco is an area of opinion and will be related to your playing style, the sound you are looking for, and your specific bass. As a result, you may find that assertions of “good for arco” or “good for pizz.” may or may not be accurate when you put the strings on your bass. This is how it sometimes works. A certain brand of string may sound fantastic on one instrument, and awful on another.

But I can’t buy a bunch of strings!

Most of us are not independently wealthy, and strings currently run about $100 to $300 US for a 4-string set. My top D strings costs $100 a piece… wholesale. So how can we avoid dropping a small fortune to find the best strings for our bass? Without a little luck, I don’t know that we can. However, these tips might help increase our luck:

  1. Some retail merchants will provide their assessment of the strings online. If they are a store run by bass players this can be a good source of information on whether a string will work for you. Some merchants just reprint the promo material of the manufacturer, so be wary.
  2. You can also ask your bass player friends about Brand X. They will give you their opinions. Much will be conflicting, but some information is better than none.
  3. Find local bassists and see how Brand X sounds on their bass. Take mental or written notes.
  4. You can also go into your local luthier and play their instruments with an ear toward assessing the strings on them. If you do this, I would advise you buy your strings from this luthier when it comes time.
  5. There are A/B video comparisons of some brands on YouTube. Check them out.
  6. Get in contact with other bass players pursuing the same search and work out string trades. Trade a set of strings you tried and don’t like for a set they tried and don’t like.
  7. If you are exceptionally picky about your sound (and I think you should be) then don’t discount the viability of mixed sets. For example, you may use one set of strings on your top strings and another set on your bottom.
  8. It should be mentioned that many brands tend to “mellow” over time. I would suggest up to a month of playing on new strings before you make a final decision.
  9. Ultimately, you will be dropping some cash on strings during your lifetime. Consider it a long term search and budget accordingly.
  10. If you listen, your bass will tell you what strings it likes.

Photo by Fergus Currie

Dr. Donovan Stokes is on the faculty of Shenandoah University-Conservatory. Visit him online at www.donovanstokes.com and check out the Bass Coalition at www.basscoalition.com.

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