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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  1. I used to change the rounds on my Rickenbacker every 8- 10 gigs or so. (about once every 6-8 weeks) for that treble “marbles in a bath tub” clank. I change the ground rounds on my P-bass about once every 12-18 MONTHS! Mostly out of fear I might break a string if I let them go too long.

  2. Man, so many dead string fans in the world of bassdom. I’ve been on a quest as long as I’ve been playing bass – almost 20 years – to find the string that sounds the brightest and stays that way the longest! If I could afford it, I’d change them at least once a month, if not every couple weeks if I’m playing a lot. Viva la zing!

  3. depends on the bass and what I use that bass for.
    upright: every couple of years if needed.
    jazz fretless: when the “mwah” loses its growl.
    6 string: maybe once a year, don’t use it much.
    acoustic: when I can’t figure out if I’m playing E or Eb.
    my main 4 string: back when I gigged a lot, before putting it in its case for the night, I’d change whatever strings I hadn’t replaced due to breakage during the night.
    the other 4s: whenever, they were just back-up basses.

  4. Fender flatwounds – changing only if I break one. this set is with me 2 years :D

  5. After three months round wound string crisp tone and snap ability. It’s the latter that I dislike. When strings get old I usually tend to play harder.

  6. Donald “Duck” Dunn was famous for NEVER changing his strings. He had an old Fender that still had the original strings on it!

  7. I change it when they start to lose sustain…

  8. Just boil them. They sound brand new. I can’t believe no one has mentioned this.

    • I feel like this is partially true. I used to do this a lot, and makes a big difference the first time, but less of a difference the next time, and almost no diff the third. Strings also go dead by being physically deformed by the frets and your fingers/pulling on them – things that can’t be cured by boiling. I do still sometimes soak them in denatured alcohol, which I feel works better than boiling.

    • That’s interesting to note Sean that it had less of an effect each time. It was pretty good for me. And of course by ‘brand new’ I didn’t mean it literally. I might try the denatured alcohol. It’s probably a tad more potent that boiling haha

    • there is a cool site somewhere on the interweb where this guy built a “string cleaning tube” out of pvc and cleans them with denatured alcohol…pretty cool..

    • I think that by boiling them it brings a bit of the initial brightness but I’ve also noticed that after a while it makes them lose life span … I haven’t try with alcohol, but will do for sure.

    • 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

  9. I agree with Rory, when they start to get old just boil them in a pot of hot water and they are as good as new. Just don’t cook pasta with them.

  10. A set of D’Addario flatwounds (or semi-flats) wiped down with a rag lightly dampened with machine oil get me to my deep, warm happy place. I change them when they break.

  11. We spend way more time worrying about our gear than our bass heroes did – they played what they had and what they had was what they could afford, which often wasn’t much. Some of that vintage tone we are seeking was had by using worn out strings, amps, cabs etc. I change mine when I don’t like my tone anymore and keep the set I took off in my case. If I break one, I’ve a broken-in backup that’s already trimmed and coiled – 1 minute change.

  12. The strings in my bass are ’round 10 years old and still sound great…

  13. RotoSound double ball end (45-105) – keep on rocking round about 4/5 years…

    • The Rotosound Wake … I broke 5 rotosound RS 88 round wound bass strings (105-50) at one gig many years ago … on 65 jazz bass … the booze bottles at the bar were all falling off of the shelves and breaking too :-) … such sympathy ! ! !

  14. I change strings when they are too floppy, too dull and too sticky and uncomfortable (I think it’s once a year or maby 8-10 months). Actually, I buy only flatwound or coated strings so the tone of my strings is long lasting ;).

  15. GUILT drives my need to change strings. I do love the shimmer of brand new roundwounds, and the ones I use (GHS Bassics) settle down after a few weeks, then stay the same FOREVER But after a while I just begin to feel guilty about not changing them. Seems to take about a year, so I guess I change my strings once a year, whether they need it or not…

  16. In the late 70′ I played in a progrock semi “Yes-tribute” band. New Rotosounds EVERY WEEK! I damn near went broke….

  17. Phil Chen has a p bass that has 40-year-old Labella flats on it.

  18. A set of Elixirs costs $80 in New Zealand. And there’s not a lot of shops around. I take the approach of soaking my strings in denatured alcohol.

  19. Fretless strings last longer. Frets wear into the string which affects intonation.

  20. Ken Smith (Slick Rounds?) Ground Wound Rounds user here. My hands stay dry and I wipe the strings down after each use. I have soaked the E string in Denatured Alcohol after about four months because it was sounding a bit dead compared to the others. I’m about a once a year out of guilt changer!

  21. I haven’t changed the strings on my Lakland in over a year or my G&L for over two years. This isn’t down to preference, it’s down to being poor – fortunately I like a deep sound and can make it work with the right EQ. Would love some new strings though

  22. A new set of D’Addario flatwounds (or semi-flats) wiped down with a rag lightly dampened with machine oil gets me to my deep, warm happy place and keeps me there for a while. After about a year or so, when I condition my fretboard, I’ll wipe them down with a little denatured alcohol. I only change my strings when they break.

  23. I change the strings whenever I manage to rip one of them. Which happens unfortunately fairly regular :D

  24. Flats? when they get really gunky feeling or worn. Rounds-when they sound dead to my ear Not a fan of aggressively bright strings though.

  25. With a Rickenbacker, I have to change my rotosounds just over every month or so, whenever the brightness goes, or I forget my bass in the cold, make sure that never happens! Something with the rickenbacker really hates old strings.. My P-Bass usually gets the old Roto’s, and it sounds great with them!

  26. I put Elixir strings on my bass about seven years ago. I can’t kill them, no matter how hard I try. They’ll probably outlast ME.

  27. I change em’ as often as I can afford!

  28. I use flats, and keep them forever.
    and a cleaning every so often.

  29. Isn’t it relative to the sort of sound the individual bassist in question is going for?

  30. Try this next time you change your strings.
    1-Grab the 4th by the ball bearing and bite it.
    2-Let the string hang down and touch the floor.
    3-Shake your head.
    You are welcome!

  31. I try to change every 6-8 gigs.bright strings are part of my sound.i don`t relie on string to give me the feel or attitude I need to perform;my heart and experience gives me that.my heros changed there strings quite often.they brought experience to the table…not dead strings on a bass unless the job called for it.but, to each is own….right?

  32. on the fodera – every three days. One the P-Bass every 5 years….

    • Damn,every three days you change your fucking strings! shit man ill take the old ones off ur hands for ya! lol ….what do you do with the old ones anyways?

    • Old P Basses … Never … 30 years to 50+ years … (not played everyday) … 59 Rosewood with heavy flatwounds and rubber strip mute under bridge cover = The Real Deal Original Fender Sound … 55 P with original super heavy guage Fender strings (maybe 110 – 50) = The Sound of Thunder ! ! !

  33. Fodera bare-core or Thomastik Superalloy Super Long every 4-6 months on the Foderas. Love ’em both, the Foderas start out a bit brighter and age nicely, the Thomastiks start out a little darker and have a nice slinky low-tension feel. Right at about 6 weeks they (either one) are PERFECT, they’ve stopped stretching for the most part, still have some pop and they still intonate well, and I can play with a lot of sustain or mute them a bit and get a touch of the old Motown depending on touch.

  34. last strings were 6yrs old. love the tone , new strings are like finger nails on the chalkboard to me…lol.

  35. Usually after I break a string. Best deal on the planet –> D’Addario Electric Bass Twin Pack XL Environmental Regular Long,.050 -.105, EXL160TP –> 2 Sets for $20.86 At http://www.juststrings.com/dad-exl160tp.html.

  36. I can’t stand dead strings but then again I have alien-acid sweat so a set may last two weeks on my Modulus or NS2.

  37. I recently tried boiling some grungy, skanky strings. I’d say they got 80% of their life back. I’d probably opt to just get a new set, but in a pinch, boiling is a pretty viable solution.

  38. I’m surprised such a simple consideration for guitarists is such a hot button for us bassists. I think the only right way to do this is to do what works best for YOU – and unfortunately, a lot of what we learn as disciples of the low way is by trial and error. me, I change my strings as often as I can afford, but I play a somewhat lead style, so the brightness is a part of my thing. however, I also sweat like niagra falls when’s I play, so my new strings are corroded and dead long before they are nice and fat and boomy….with all that said, if I had a p bass I’d never change the strings!

    • “if I had a p bass I’d never change the strings” Newb question: why not? Thanks in advance for whatever info you can impart.

    • The P-bass sound is kind of a dead, dull thump , so a fresh and bright string doesn’t really help. That is NOT an insult, I love my P-bass. I named it Forrest, bonus points if you know the origin of the nickname.

  39. Great article, hits it right on the head!

  40. I have a bass that I bought used in a Seattle guitar shop in 1982 and it still has the same strings on it. They manage to stay in tune pretty well, but I don’t worry about the sound because I never plug it in. I bought that bass when I was in the Army for the sole purpose of having something to practice on in the barracks without worrying too much if it got stolen. I left my good bass at home.

  41. I do like a nice bright roundwound, and after trying Rotosound(nothing dies faster), Ken Smiths(Fret destroyers), Daddario (Break Fast), Fender Nickles (High Tension) and many others, I found GHS Boomers have the best sound, durability, and are easy on the frets. I change them as often as necessary to keep the fresh tone. Then I bought a Jazz Bass with these horrible Fender Flats that I liken to re-bars. Bought a set of Thomastik-Infeld Jazz Flats. These are about 6 years old now and I will never change them. I don’t play fretless often, but these strings are incredible. I ended up recycling the Fender Flats on a bass tuned down to C# and the G string STILL has high tension!

    • I like your analysis of the various brands! Well stated , and so true. I’ve had the same strings on my ’58 P so long I can’t remember what kind they are! I’ve had GHS on the Pedula for around 5 yrs or so..no need to make a change yet.

    • I kept going back to boomers as well. i loved the sound of rotosound supers (what they’re calling piano-wound) but constant breakage was a real problem – especially considering the cost!

  42. I had a friend who was a jeweler and she let me use her ultrasonic cleaning machine a couple times as a test. I coiled the strings up and dropped them in for about 30 minutes. I swear, you wouldn’t be able to tell they were not new. Of course, I don’t have access to one of those machines, so boiling has always been my go-to to get another “life” out of a set, which lowers the string cost significantly…

  43. I’m a flats player, so string changes only occur if they break. The dead thump to me is a slice of fantastic.

  44. Changes strings pretty irregular 1-2-3 Month mostly because of laziness and money, Tend to gravitate to nickel round wound since tend be appear slightly more rounder but still got lot of Zing that I need for PunkRock style bass riffs.

  45. DR High Beams (roundwounds) on my fretless electrics, changed every couple of weeks under heavy use and practice. Chews up the fingerboard as time goes on, but it’s THAT sound.

  46. I sweat like mad.. so once a month for me. Will usually boil them if I’ve got a gig and no new strings, and my bass is sounding like crap.

  47. Not unless I break a string, I never change them.

  48. Just leave them in alcohol for 12 hours. It’s better and safer than boiling them.

  49. 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.

  50. 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

  51. 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).

  52. Chris W

    I have kept the same strings on my 1978 Fender Precision Bass for about 20 years, and everywhere I played people said my Bass sounded great…I actually cannot remember what brand they were because it was so long ago ( Daddario maybe? I can’t remember)…………