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Bass Strings: To Change Or Not To Change

Bass Strings

For years, bass players have debated the concept of changing strings and most people have asked the same questions: Doesn’t it change the sound of the instrument? Does the funk disappear? How can someone get good tone playing strings that are a year old? Don’t you know that (insert famous bass player) never changed his strings? Don’t you know that (insert other famous bass player) changes his strings every few shows?

In many ways, the concept of when to change strings is just as important to a player’s sound and approach as the type of strings they decide to use. Plus, legends, anecdotes, superstitions, and myths circulate the bass player community regarding curious methodologies… never, ever changing strings, boiling strings and re-using them, rubbing a day-old slice of pizza over the strings, sprinkling the strings with baby powder and rubbing it into the creases, and who knows what else.

So, what got me thinking about this? Last Friday evening, something came over me… maybe it was the fact that I had recently played a handful of basses at the NAMM show with nice, fresh strings, or maybe it was because I felt as if I need a bit of change in my life. In any case, I decided that it was time to break open a fresh pack, rummage around for my string cutters, and embark on the journey. Clearly, I know how to let loose, party, and have a good time on a Friday night.

The inspiration for changing strings simply had to do with, well, lack of inspiration. I am a true believer in having some “gunk and funk” on your strings, especially for that dark, old-school tone, but I also know that strings have a lifespan and that the lifespan is dependent upon many variables. Some of these include (but are not limited to): how frequently you play, if your hands tend to sweat when you play, if you pick up your instrument without washing your hands, if you wipe your strings down before or after you play, if you use some kind of fretboard lubricant, if you’re a very aggressive or very light player, and, the all-important variable… how you like your tone. When it comes to my strings, I notice when they just don’t feel right. When they seem sticky, stale, and uninspiring, then I know that it’s time.

DISCLAIMER: Changing strings is completely based upon personal preference. That said, here are a few different viewpoints on the subject and some good suggestions for knowing when you should (or when you shouldn’t) change the strings on your bass.

So, rule of thumb number one: if you’re not happy with the feel of your strings, change them! As I mentioned before, there are many things you can do to change the feel of your strings once you put them on…. Some people suggest the “French fry” method to add some grease, but I prefer a more organic approach: practice, practice, practice.
Elaborating on the “lifespan” concept, the more experience you have with your strings, the more you’ll realize how they change over time and how that impacts your playing.

Here’s an example of the lifespan for my strings:

Stage one: Brand new. Ew! They’re too bright for my taste and too metallic feeling. I momentarily regret my decision to change the strings when I play along to some old blues tunes… I long for my old tone and the inherent nastiness of the old strings. I consider only playing Duck Dunn and Jamerson lines on the new strings in order to infuse them with soul (crazy? Perhaps…). Then, on a whim, I play a couple of slap licks and realize that it sounds great! Time to bust out the disco ball.

Stage two (roughly 4-6 weeks later): Finally breaking in. I’m not convinced that intentionally rubbing grease into my strings is the way to go, so, I’ve gotten used to the idea that it takes a little while before I’m happy with my strings. The initial brightness has disappeared and the strings feel more comfortable. Slides, bends, and chords sound great and feel easy… bass solo, please!

Stage three (anywhere between 2 and 7 months): These are my strings and this is my sound. I get the tone I want, the strings feel the way I want, and I’m generally happy with my instrument. I tend not to notice the strings very much, which is a good thing.

Stage four (the hero’s downfall): Different tone when slapping, popping, or using a pick (not necessarily bad, just different). I revisit my Staple Singers collection or play some Joe Osborn lines without having to do much tone shaping, but I do have the sense that the strings are feeling grungy.

Stage five: That’s it. I’m done. Time for a change!
That concludes the basic evolution of my strings… I know what to expect when they’re brand new, when to be content once they’ve broken in, and when to give up on them when they’re past their prime. Some players like to change their strings every few weeks or after just a few gigs, especially if they prefer a brighter tone that cuts through the mix. On the other hand, some people believe that the tone of their instrument and the tone of their strings is one and the same. They purposely don’t change the strings because they don’t want to lose “that sound” or because they’re superstitious or nostalgic about the instrument. There’s nothing wrong with any of these approaches.

Hence, rule of thumb number two: if you’re unhappy with the dull sounding tone of your strings, then go ahead and change them. But, if you’re getting the sound you want and it’s your tone, then there’s no reason to make a change.

Also, if you’re the kind of person that hates the sound of new strings, remember that the bass and amp gods have given us tone controls for a reason. You can compensate by rolling off some highs and boosting the low end if they’re too bright. Remember that your tone shaping comes from a few different places (your fingers, your bass settings, your amp settings, the room, etc.) and that you have all of these at your disposal.

And finally, remember that sometimes, you just have to do it. Here are a few scenarios that call for an immediate string change:

You try out a new set and decide they’re just not for you. I suggest a 30-day trial period to let them break in a bit, unless you absolutely hate them the second you put them on.

You break a string… go ahead and replace the set (unless they’re pretty new to begin with and you feel as if you only need to replace the one that broke).

You pick up a bass that has been sitting in the basement for years and the strings have rusted over. As a teacher, I’ve had students show up to lessons with strings that were so rusty that I had to ask their parents if they’ve recently received a tetanus shot.

You finish a practice session, look down at your hands, and they’re black or brownish red (gross). Sometimes, strings just happen to get funky (the bad kind of funky) and it’s worth it to wipe them down or change them.

You’re new to the instrument, have never changed them before, and have an opportunity to learn how to do it during a lesson or clinic. When I began playing bass, I was afraid to change the strings, simply because I didn’t know how… once someone guided me through the process, I never thought twice about it.

So, folks, there you have it. It’s up to you to decide how to maintain your instrument. Whether you want to change your strings the 3rd Thursday of every month or every 15 years, that’s your modus operandi. Bass strings aren’t particularly cheap, which is why some people don’t like to change them often; but, in the grand scheme of things, a $30 set of strings is a small price to pay to have the tone you want and to be inspired by the sound and feel of your instrument.

What about you? What’s your routine for changing your strings? Tell us about it in the comments.

Ryan Madora is a professional bass player and educator living in Nashville, TN. In addition to touring and playing sessions, she fronts an original music project, The Interludes and teaches private lessons. Visit her website to learn more about her music or to inquire about lessons.

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Share your thoughts

    Michael Stoneham

    Boiling strings actually damages the core making it brittle and more prone to braking. When i herd abut boiling stings amd did some research I heard that boiling strins damages the inner core of the strings making them brittle and thus more prone to breaking. I will never do this

spinetingler

In the 80’s I changed strings a couple of times per year (mostly because I was playing with a pick and would break them). Now I mostly play a Dano bass that still has the strings it came with in 2002. 95% of the time it’s still in tune when it comes out of the case, too.

Doug Brunelle

Everyone has their own preferences for sound, but I think we, as professional bassists, need to have the flexibility to play many different styles of music, and get the tone needed for the various styles. Some groups I play with wander over several genres; everything from old-school blues and standards, to hip-hoppy, funky stuff. I might be walking fours on a jazz tune here and slapping a line on the next song.

Obviously, your equipment should be flexible in regards to sound; one approach is to have different basses, each set up for a particular sound – use one bass with bright, light-gauge round-wound strings for slapping, and another bass set up with flat-wound or tape-wound strings for a more mellow tone. I have two basses, but I haven’t used them both much on gigs (yet, anyway).

The approach I’ve found to be easier than using multiple basses on the gig is to use a bass that is set up for slap-style (round-wound strings), and use the tone controls on the bass and/or amp to adjust the tone. If I know I’m going to be playing strictly jazz or old blues, though, I will often use my other bass, which has flat-wound strings and I have a foam damper placed under the strings at the bridge. This mellows the tone further and shortens the note decays slightly for getting closer to an upright bass sound. If I had an upright bass, obviously I’d consider that for jazz gigs- it’s the traditional sound (and look!) for that style of music. So my “catch-all” bass is not optimal for jazz and old-school rock or blues, but with the tone controls I can at least cover all bases with a minimum of equipment.

By the way, I saw some discussion in this thread about various ways to clean bass strings to restore them. I’ve tried boiling them also, with so-so results. Here’s what I found works really well. And, it’s easier- you don’t have to take the strings off the bass! Look at the following video, and try this procedure. I’ve done it on my bass, with round-wound strings, and I can verify that it works, and works well! The strings are much brighter and cleaner sounding after doing this- it’s almost like magic. Obviously, the more crud you have on your strings, the more difference you will notice. Link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s8OYeN9mAL4

Brandon Miller

Personally, I find electric bass and upright bass to be two very different animals:

Electric: I change them as soon as I can’t get a treble sound from the strings without having to crank the treble on the bass or the amp. I’m very much from the school of thought that the sound comes from your hands. If you’re destroying your hands to get the sound you want, well… there you go.

Upright: The two best bass tones in my book right now are John Patitucci and Christian McBride, I say this because they cut through the ensemble. You hear their accompaniment rather than it being an effect. They also have massive low end which is the necessity for the bass. A lot of guys in New York go for high action with gut strings, which to me sounds like talking with a hand over your mouth. I would much rather have the brightness of new strings with the option of dialing back the treble, so I prefer newer strings. I play upright A LOT in live settings for extended periods, so I suppose every 3-4 months ends up being the investment.

That being said, the above can cost anywhere from 300-400 ever four months (US dollars), which can be a considerable amount of income (that’s also if I’m using the strings longer than I’d like), but it does help with maintaining a consistent tone. The only thing I’ve found that remedies that attack on your wallet is keeping the fretboard and strings clean. Rubbing alcohol helps as does lighter fluid (obviously be careful not to smoke around the bass if you’re using this method).