Choosing the Right Bass Strings

Bass Strings

Photo by David Jones

Q: I’m making a custom 5 stringer tuned from E to C. It’s a 34 inch scale and the string spacing are 18mm. What strings are recommended, and what gauge are preferred to get both tighter E and a great high C? I’m used to nickel medium gauge. My luthier promised me it wouldn’t have a floppy C, but I want to make myself prepared if I encounter that, since it’s a 34 incher. What do you recommend?

A: There are a few things that change along with the scale length of your instrument, tension being one of them. However, you are more likely to notice “floppiness” in the lower strings than the higher strings.

A longer scale length results in two noticeable things to me.

  • 1a: A tighter feel in longer scale lengths
  • 1b: More “play” in the strings (i.e.: a looser feel, especially in the lower strings) in shorter scale lengths
  • 2a: A tighter, clearer sound (think chime and piano clarity, especially in the harmonics) in longer scale lengths
  • 2b: More warmth or “fur” in shorter scale lengths.

I don’t think that you need to worry about anything being “too floppy” in a 34″ scale length. It will still be fairly tight and clear and, likely, more comfortable to play in the lower register (to my hands) than a 35″ or above (yikes).

I’m actually about to receive a 6 string from Pete Skjold that has a 33″ scale length. We’ve discovered that 33″ has just the tiniest amount of natural distortion (for lack of a better term) and adds some warmth and growl to the sound. I’m oversimplifying, I’m sure but as the strings vibrate at 33″ or below, there is the smallest bit of string-hitting-fret rattle that I actually like (the growl) as well as the shorter scale length resulting in a warmer tone.

Changing the scale length can change the tone of an instrument quite a bit as the harmonic relationships and overtones all shift. This is why longer scale lengths have more pronounced harmonics (more chime and clarity).

I’ve always found 34″ scale length to be perfectly clear and 100% playable with regard to tension, however I really love the feel and warmth of shorter scale instruments. I’ve tried 35″ and 36″ and found them to be both uncomfortable because of the length and far too clear for my tastes, sonically speaking.

Now, the gauge of your strings also plays a huge role in the tension of each string, as well as the sound. 34″ shouldn’t give you any problems with regard to “floppiness,” but you can always slide the flop-factor either way by using larger or smaller gauge strings.

Larger scale strings have more tension and produce a thicker sound. Smaller gauged strings will add more pliability but sound less full. I’d start with your usual set of strings and then experiment with a smaller and thicker gauge in order to find your own sweet spot.

In a nutshell, and to put your mind at ease, I’ve never met a 34″ that got too floppy in the C string (or E string for that matter). And any well built 34″ should be fine with a B string as well. Any well built 33″ should be fine, really. It’s a matter of degrees and taste.

You might try detuning your current 35″ down a half-step and you can approximate the shorter scale length to see how it feels and sounds to your ears? Best of luck!

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. Anaughtybear

    There should be a strings of the month club, since there are so many different types. You can’t even wager a guess what they will be like until you get them on and play. I adore D’Addario Flatwound Chromes. They are even, smooth, warm and surprisingly punchy. Fender Flats, in comparison, are uncomfortable and chalky feeling. I don’t even want to think about those copper strings for acoustics. They feel like rubbing your hands on a rusty cable.

  2. youngjr1

    Here’s another thing to keep in mind, in general, regarding longer scale instruments and string gauges (as explained to me by a master luther): If you like super low action, then switching to lower gauge strings can be preferable, particularly depending on the makeup and stability of the neck woods. This is not just because the strings have a smaller diameter, but because lighter gauge strings result in less less tension on the neck, and this means the truss rod doesn’t have to be tightened as much to counteract the tension from a heavier gauge string…equaling a straighter neck relief and thus lower action. Just one more thing to consider, depending on your set-up preferences.

  3. I currently own a Ibanez BTB 33 and it has excellent tension across all strings. In fact, the C string is probably one of the warmest/fattest that I’ve heard. I think any well crafted bass can be playable regardless of scale. My string of choice is actually LaBella White Copper Tapewound. Warm clear sound.