Fretless Bass: A Guide for Choosing the Best Strings
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.
Steels will be the brightest sounding strings and are also the hardest so they will likely chew up the fretboard the most.
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.
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 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.
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.
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).
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.