Butter Strings: A Guide to Finding the Best Bass Strings for You
Q: What’s the best way to smoothen up my playing? I notice that a lot of bass players play like the strings are made of wool. I play a basic 4-string Cort G-series model, but I always get the feeling the strings are way to hard/high to play smoothly, or when I lower them, they make a lousy sound because they touch the frets higher up the neck (around fret 12 and higher). I can’t really find a balance between the two (especially for the E- and A-string). I figure I should buy new strings, but I have no clue where to start. Any ideas?
A: This is something that’ll take some experimentation. You’ll need to discover what combination of string gauge, tension, material and height you prefer. This, of course, could also require a fair financial commitment until you get it right.
Here’s my list of suggestions for finding the strings that suit you:
- Search out various bass forums and read articles of the players you admire, paying special attention to the players who have the tone and general approach you prefer. But remember: using the same strings won’t make you sound like them. But it is a good start.
- Try a lot of basses in music stores, via friends and reseach the gear played by the players you admire. Everyone is different, but I have no qualms about letting someone try my bass after a show if they ask. Some bassists may not be into it, but it couldn’t hurt to ask. Just be respectful and it’ll likely be cool.
- When you do buy a set of strings, adjust your action. Then live with that action for a bit, and play it a lot. Many things may not make themselves apparent to you immediately. For example, when I change my action, I often won’t know if it’s really set up right until I play one gig with it. I’ll go through a wider range dynamically on a gig than I will at home and I’ll sometimes discover that my action may be too low to really dig in, or too high to play fluidly at high-speed.
- While some guys do play with incredibly low action – like Hadrien Feraud or Matthew Garrison – the majority of guys actually keep their action a bit on the high side because a) it’s easier to get a sweeter sound out of a note when the string is free to vibrate fully and without hitting other frets, and b) wooden necks do move a bit when you travel and change climates, and we often just kind of get used to keeping it a little higher so we don’t fret out (and so we don’t have to futz with our instrument before every gig).
- Nickel strings are less sticky than steel ones. I was a steel string guy until a tried Nickels. I left them on for a few months and when I went to switch back to my normal steel strings, they felt like velcro. I couldn’t play as fluidly because my fingers felt sticky on my right hand.
- A little grease goes a long way! Have you ever seen someone wipe their face or nose while playing? It sounds kinda gross, but this is usually not just someone wiping the sweat away but, rather, someone lubricating their fingers with a little bit of face grease and/or sweat. It really does make your fingers glide more across the strings.
- Paying attention to the height of your pickups is also important. Often times, I’ve adjusted my bass only to realize that I wanted lower action, but not on the fretboard. Rather, I was wanting the lower action for my plucking hand. After adjusting it back to where it was and then playing with the pickup height, my bass felt great again. I only keep about 1/4? in between my pickup and string. If your pickup won’t adjust properly or won’t go high enough, you can often take off the strings, unscrew the pickups, put a little foam underneath and reassemble. This will give the pickup more upward pressure and can allow you to adjust the pickup properly, if you were having problems.
- Lighter string gauge = less tension = easier to play. Too light, though, and the strings might be too floppy to articulate with your right hand (and the thinner the string gauge the thinner the tone). You need to find a balance here. I tend to go the med/light route.
- Nylon wrapped strings are pretty great! There are a few companies that also make nylon wrapped bass strings (you likely won’t see them in stores but you can find them easily online). The upside? They are quite slick to the touch, have a great deep sound, have a very loose tension. I really like them for certain applications. Also, on a fretless, they won’t scratch up the neck at all and sound fantastic.
- If you like a bright attack or slap, nylon strings likely won’t be for you. They are steel strings, wrapped in nylon and provide an old-school muted sound (kind of like flat wounds but they feel way better to my fingers). The downside? They are more expensive and harder to find.
- Coated strings are something else worth exploring. I’ve found that many of the brands feel a bit slicker to the touch than uncoated metal strings.
Personally, I use D’Addario Nickels 95% of the time. But I’m still experimenting with the perfect gauges. I’ve been trying to balance my upper register with my lower register so, on my 6 string, I’ve tended to get a thicker gauge C string and a lighter gauge B string.
My current gauges are:
- B = .135
- E = .100
- A = .080
- D = .065
- G = .045
- C = .035
That’s basically the XL170 Nickel set from D’Addario. I also like the XP170 coated strings from D’Addario as well as their tape-wound strings. I’ve played these so long now, they feel like home.
Again, I’d experiment with various brands and find what works for you. Lobella is the only company I know of that makes Nylon (or tape-wound) strings for 6 string basses. A lot of guys like DR strings. Before I tried D’Addario, my favorite strings were actually the Fodera strings which I used to buy online.
You might also try finding a good luthier or repair guy and having them do a setup for you.
Now, all the above covers an approach to finding the right strings. But you did ask about playing and indicating how some make it look effortless. This goes well beyond strings of course. This requires thousands of hours with the instrument in our hands.
Strings are a small part of the equation, the setup a slightly bigger part of the equation, but the majority of it is the amount of time you spend gigging and shedding.
As the instrument becomes a part of you and your muscle memory, your preferences will become clearer but nothing makes you feel more comfortable on the instrument than years spent with your hands on it everyday.
Readers, what’s been your approach to finding the perfect strings for you? Please share your story in the comments.
Photo by Wim Boshoff