Fretless Bass: A Guide for Choosing the Best Strings

Fretless Bass Neck

Q: I’ve been wanted to get a fretless bass recently to expand my horizons, and a question that’s come up in my mind is the type of stings I’d play on fretless. Roundwounds, flatwounds, half wounds… so many to chose from and all with different pros and cons. Right now I play roundwounds. What are the pros and cons for strings on a fretless in terms of tone, feel amd wear and tear on the bass?

A: My initial advice is to simply use whatever strings are most comfortable for you and/or get the sound you want out of the instrument, regardless of how they are built.

Personally, I use D’Addario Nickel roundwounds on all of my basses because I like the tone and feel. The only alternative to that is the occasional use of nylon wrapped flats. I don’t exclusively use them for my fretless, but I have been for the past year or so. There’s something about the feel of them that I like, but they don’t work for much of the work I do on my fretted basses, and I don’t like changing strings constantly. I like the warmth they add to my Zon fretless, so I’ve been using them on that for some time, and I like the combination.

I generally don’t worry too much about roundwounds eating up the neck on a fretless. True, it will chew up the wood faster than flats, but it really takes a lot of playing either way for it to get too bad. Chancres are, the bass might need some work anyway after that many hours under the fingers.

That said, here is a bit of a guide.

Stainess Steel

Steels will be the brightest sounding strings and are also the hardest so they will likely chew up the fretboard the most.

Nickels:

Nickel strings are slightly less “dark” than steel and a bit softer, but they will still chew up the fretboard after a while. I also find that nickel strings grab less than steels on the fingers. They feel slicker to me and that’s mainly why I play them. I bought a pair of nickels and could never go back to steels… steel strings feel like velcro under my fingers now.

Coated strings

Generally, coated strings are a little mellower than steels and nickels tonally, and they also feel a bit slicker. They also tend to last longer.

Half Rounds

Half rounds are round wounds which are ground down a bit, so they are flatter. They live in between steels and flats sonically and wear the fretboard less. Personally, I can’t stand the feel on my fingers, though. You’d have to try them and see how you like them.

Flatwounds

Flats are producer a darker more thumpy tone, and they’re flat! You’ll get more of an old school vibe sonically -depending on the bass, of course – and they don’t gouge the fretboard too badly.

Tapewounds

If you want to save the fretboard, tapewounds are the way to go. I also love the darker, muted sound they produce. Tapewounds are generally steel strings which are wrapped in a flat (black) nylon tape, so they work with magnetic pickups. I also like using nylon tapewound strings on some of my fretted instruments too. Much less string tension with a nice, slick and feel. Most of the people I know who have tried them enjoy them. Robert “Bubby” Lewis turned me onto these strings a few years ago and I love them.

Through my experiences on thousands of gigs and many years of buying different strings to try them out, this is what I have gathered on how different strings feel, sound and react to me and to the bass.

In the end you’ll have to try a few things out before you land on what you personally prefer. It can get costly, so do your research and try an online string resource for some good prices. I used to find great prices through juststrings.com before I had any string deals with anybody (and I have no affiliation with them).

Happy hunting!

As many of you know, I’m not a super tech guy. I’m sure many of you have even more experience with this than I do. If that’s the case, please share your thoughts and experience in the comments.

Have a question for Damian Erskine? Send it to [email protected]. Check out Damian’s instructional books, Right Hand Drive and The Improviser’s Path.

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  1. Thanks a bunch for answering the question Damian!

  2. I like the tapewounds too. Gives the fretless more of a double bassy feel for me. I’ve tried all-metal flatwounds, but have found that they have a heavier feel.

  3. So which string type gives the best “mwah” sound?

  4. Tomastik Acousticore are nylon core covered with brass roundwounds. They won’t work with magnetic pickups but if you’ve got a piezo pickup bass they can’t be beat. They also feel very springy; kinda rubber bandy.

  5. I also like nickel string’s smooth feel. But after some days of serious practice hours, nickel strings seems to wear out pretty quickly. And that worn part really drags my finger down.

    Steel strings feels rough at first. But when it’s broken in, it feels much more smoother. And stays in good condition for a pretty long time. (No noticeable wears and rust and etc…)

    Since I don’t like to change string often and I don’t mind old string’s sound (actually I like it), I prefer steels.

  6. The SIT Silencer strings are worth trying on fretless not a flat or a round some where in between. While I like the Silencers on fretted and fretless on my own fretless I have DR Sunbeams once they loose their initial brightness they are perfect.

  7. D’Addario XL round-wounds. Great sound. Cheap enough you can buy a few packs and be fresh for every gig.

  8. I got those black bass strings by roto sound pretty awesome. they look bitchin!

  9. Damian, I agree that half-rounds have a feel way out of proportion to both what you might expect and compared to their sound. BUT, you should try Labella’s quarter-rounds. They sound and feel closer to a flatwound, but when they’re new-ish you can still get a decent amount of “bright” out of them when you need it. Eventually they pretty much sound like flatwounds, but I think they still have a little more give than equivalent gauge flats.

  10. I have a set of Tomastik-Infeld Jazz Flats on my MiM Jazz bass, and I love them. Still sound great after 5 years+. Great Mwah tone, but also that huge reggae thump. Also sounds great to roll off the low end and use a pick for that pre-Entwhistle 60’s bass tone. The bass came with Fender flats which were as stiff as rebars. I re-used them on a different, fretted bass, tuned them down C#, and the G-string, now tuned to E, was still stiff as nails.

  11. I rebuilt an old Teisco short-scale and made it fretless. Purchased some D’Addario tape wound to replace the Fender roundwounds. It gives my bass a nice, mellow sound. Not bad for a dumpster dive recovery.

  12. I like Thomastik Enfield stainless flatwounds on my Rob Allen fretless. They have a silk wrap between the flat cover and the core. Great feel and a really nice blooming mwah sound.

  13. I’m a big fan of the Fender 9120M tape wounds on my fret less. If you crank up the treble the tap harmonics really pop out. I’ve tried the flat wounds and rounds( all kinds) but the tape wounds hit my mmmmmm spot.

  14. FLATWOUNDS – ARE THE BEST FOR ME.

  15. I always get the cheap nickel strings, coz in music school I played all day everyday, and I just couldn’t afford anything else. Gary Willis’s book 101 bass tips, says “put a set on your fretless, and when they wear out, boil them, bake them, and put them on your fretted. They won’t have fret marks.” I once got a free set of half rounds, and I loved them, but I haven’t been able to find that string again. (plus if they cost more than $12 I won’t buy em.) Also having a coated or finished fingerboard is a MUST. I had a dean fretless that just got destroyed in less than a year. There is youtube vid of a kid putting a finish on his neck, makes it look so easy.

  16. You didn’t mention pressure wounds. Pressure wounds sound similar to nickel round wounds but are smoother under your fingers and better for fretless fingerboards. They don’t “stick” to your fingers like ground wounds or half rounds, and they sound and feel great. GHS makes pressure wounds, Ken Smith calls them “Compressors”, and SIT’s version are called “Silencers”. The GHS and Ken Smith sets are nearly identical but have different colored silks, and Ken Smith’s have tapered B strings while GHS do not.

  17. jus take jaco’s instruction … it’s a (lil) work … totally do-able’ …and you can use your roundwoundZ’ ;0

  18. steve

    stings? Chancres? Stainess? Spellchecker?

  19. Mike

    Do you recommend a certain string for fretless to get more funky tones, even when doing a little popping and snapping?

  20. Craig Pearce

    Thanks guyz! Needed input, as I just purchased a Fender Jazz fretless off Market Place. I paid 350$. Played three times. Came with a Road Runner, Avenue series gig bag. Beautiful to play and gaze at. Thanks again for your help! You got my e

  21. Paul Abrahams

    I’ve been playing for 50yrs. Though Tape wounds are nice they don’t handle digging in. They tend to choke out and the bottom blooms. I prefer Sunbeams or Nickels for playing live. For recording and playing at home the Tapes are more controllable.