String Gauge vs. Speed

Bass Strings

Q: I had a major breakthrough in part inspired by our visit. For the first time in years I’m playing normal, not light strings. I guess I thought all the pro virtuosos used G=40 strings. Victor does I think. Anyway when I stopped feeling like that was my path I tried the stiffer strings and paradoxically I can play faster on them. I can slap em too. And all my basses sound meatier with them. I think the easier playing has to do with their tightness. My right hand doesn’t have to chase them around. They don’t go awol flopping this way and that. It’s makes the biggest equipment difference I can remember in ages.

A: While not a question, you bring up a topic worth starting a conversation about.

There are so many types of strings, different gauges, materials, etc… that it can be daunting (and expensive) trying to find what suits your style and feel preferences.

Like you, as a young player, I thought that the lighter the string, the faster I’d play. Of course, I was young, I didn’t know what kind of sound I wanted, so tone wasn’t even in my thought processes yet. I just wanted to blaze. And, like you, I eventually discovered that there is something lost and gained with both light or heavy strings, and many points to balance in between.

Higher tension, thicker gauged strings:

You are right. More tension actually makes it easier to play fast because you don’t have to fight the string with regard to the amount of “give” it may have. This is why it’s also easier to play fast back by the bridge as opposed to closer to the neck. More tension = less resistance. Thicker strings also tend to have a thicker tone although string type and materials plays a major factor in that as well.

Lighter gauged strings:

Lighter strings tend to be more expressive (depending on your playing style) because they have more give and lend themselves to bending, expressive vibrato, slapping…

These days, many string manufacturers are helping players strike a balance by experimenting with different shapes and thicknesses at the core of the string. D’Addario Flexsteels and Dunlop Super Brights are just a couple of examples of new variations on a theme in the attempt to bring a wider variety of feels, tensions and intensity (brightness) to our string choices.

And more:

Of course, there are also flats, nickel, stainless steel, half-rounds, round wounds, tapered core, nylon wrapped, stainless steel/nickel coated… the list goes on and on.

And, while we’re at it, here’s another column which focuses different types of strings and what to expect!

I’d love to hear what you players out there use and why. Personally, I love the feel of the flex-steels but tend to prefer the feel of nickel strings, so I often bounce back and forth. I also tend to use a medium/medium light gauge string and, on my 6, simply use the thickest C string I can find with the thinnest B string as I’ve found that my sound tends to be more balanced that way across the fretboard. Please share your thoughts 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. Activeeq

    My favorite strings until they were no longer available were the “superwound” 30 to 90. The tension was less fatiguing and the exposed core offered a very rich sound, despite less mass. It was a Ibanez Rb 650 that I believe came stock with Dimarzio PJ. It was a happy “system,” maple fret board, a flattering choice on the tone cap and a pick up mix pot.

  2. Tzalaran

    i’m one of the few bass players i’ve talked to that will only use extra heavy gauge strings. i love the fat thump they give when i pluck them and i don’t have to worry about breaking them nearly as much (yes, breaking strings has been a massive problem for me on my six string that came with light/medium gauge strings that i never got around to replacing with xtra heavies).

    if i started to get into tapping more, i would then use a lighter gauge string, as i’ve found that mine do not work well in tapping (this combined with the high action i use make tapping on my main bass frustrating at the least). lighter gauge strings and my fingerstyle playing i have to pluck near the bridge just so i know where the string will be, they rotate around too much near the neck for me to strike them consistently there.

    but my main reason is still just the heartwarming thump heavies give…

  3. MikeyOnBass

    Man, I love the feel of a NEW set of Flex-Steels; but at a certain point something changes in their feel and tension. As of now though, I am trying out the brand new NYXL (hope that’s right) and I LOVE them. I received a ton of complements on the tone of my Lakland w/new NYXL’s the other night. Even the other band’s bassist (Fender Jazz w/Rotosounds) was complimenting my tone. SCHWEETNESS !!!

    • MikeyOnBass

      P.S. For tonal reasons on my E string, I’ve been using 45 – 100 for over a decade now.

  4. Geri O

    For as long as I’ve been playing, I’ve used the Ernie Ball Slinkys 50, 70, 85, 105, and for the last few years, the Power Slinkys which are the same gauge, but with a .135 B string. They just suit me in every way. They feel great, last a reasonably long time, and sound great. Not as teeth-chattering bright right out of the package, but they retain that brightness for a good long time.

  5. marvin

    I’m not the typical bass player – I slap, tap, and play chords. I tend to favor light gauge Rotosounds (40-95) because of their bright, cutting tone. It’s my personal belief that thinner strings are much more expressive. Plus, they suit my playing style better. Some people feel that lighter gauges lack in the tone department, but I think that good sound comes with good technique, which in turns comes with playing a lot.

  6. Jonathan Coates

    I have tried almost every strong guage from 100-40 to 120-50 (four string, tuned E-G). I’m the end, I have found that the basic 105-45 gives me the best balance of thump and overtones, and I am able to get a more expressive vibrato.

    On my 6-string, however, I use the super-long pink DAddario prosteels, because the sound pretty good, and they are easy to find.

  7. I use 90 – 40 gauge D’Addario’s or Rotosounds on my Fender Jazz and Fender P basses. On my Dimension IV HH I use Thomastik – Infeld 107 – 47 and they feel like lights. I prefer suppleness as oppose to the thicker gauges, as I use vibrato, but also prefer the feel of the lighter gauge.

    As you mentioned, it was daunting and expensive finding the strings that fit me, but it was totally worth it, because I don’t have to think about it anymore.

  8. LGT

    I’ve only used standard gauge strings for my entire playing career with the exception of a 50 on the G string from when I went through a phase of breaking 45s. I did just order a set of rotosound funkmasters though, which are 30-90. I’m a big fan of Geddy Lee’s tone on Power Windows, so I’m hoping to get a bit of that vibe with my Modulus.

    • MikeyOnBass

      Geddy was using a WAL Bass for the Power Windows album. Or so I believe he has stated in several interviews. I was always drawn to the drums and bass in Big Money behind the guitar solo, or break down section of the song. Good stuff… good memories too. Ha

  9. Anaughtybear

    I use D’addario ECB81 Chrome flatwounds, tuned BEAD. It’s quite comfortable. I suppose it’s a combination of my body being 40 years old and a change in personal style, but this is the best combination I’ve tried.

    I used to use heavy roundwounds in my idiotic youth, before I realized your string gauge and how hard you pluck has nothing to do with how cool you are.

  10. Sandy Winnerman

    String tension and tone are also dependent on scale length and even wood combinations. For instance, I have two similar Fodera Standard 5’s. One is a Ying Yang with ash body, ivory wood top, maple neck and ebony fingerboard. The other is an Emperor Standard Special with a korina body, redwood burl top, maple neck and maple fingerboard. The body shapes, monarch v. emperor, are slightly different but both have the same scale length 34″ 24 frets, neck, nut and bridge dimensions. Funny thing is the the YY sounds, plays and feels better with light gauge strings .40-.120 and the Emperor is better with heavier strings .45-.125. I’ve tried flip flopping this arrangement with disappointing results on both basses. So, for me, it’s a matter of what gauges/tensions work best on each instrument. I’ve tried round and hex core along with other variations and I find the hex cores work best for me regardless of gauge.

  11. Marco

    I prefer really high tension strings. They make me play more easier on them, cause I tend to not dig in that hard into the strings. Therefore I have more control over my sound and volume.

    As Flatwounds I use they really heavy LaBella Original 1964 “Jamerson” Set.
    As Rounds I use the LaBella Deep Talking Bass Strings. They tend to sound a little metallic at the begining but really nice hight tension.

  12. Martin

    Daddaro Exl160. Tried hexacore, the 66’s, laBellas, Sliknys, always with mixed results.I’m tuned DGCF (one step lower) on both my MM fretless and Pbass. All around good strings with good vibe, strong feel, long life and not expencive. Used them for all kinds of music. On the fat gauge, high tension side.

  13. Dwight Mabe

    I used Rotosound for a very long time but their quality began to suffer back in the 90s. I switched to DR and have used Nickel Low Riders pretty since. About a month ago, I tried a set of rotos again and was quite disappointed. They were uneven and inconsistent, and difficult to keep in tune. Back the DRs now – much better.

  14. Brett

    A few months ago my daughter did a school science project and chose to look into the relationship between string gauge and sustain. There is a thread on this, with some results etc, on TalkBass at this link.



  15. David

    I play a 6 string, and a variety of music styles. I don’t use a pick. I find that a medium set where g=45, and c=30 is best for me. I don’t like the lighter set. It feels a little too spaghetti like for me. And since I play a six, it is easier to find. Flex steels is a good option. So is GHS medium set.

  16. alot of bass players today are introducing a lot of string rattle and frett buzz to their sound because of the lower string heights they are using. The highpoint of most luthiers of quality instruments, is the promise of no fret noise or buzzing at the frets. an awesome height is 32nd of an inch from the 12th fret. but people have begun to ignore that. especially for slap style, and they sound awful in my opinion. no new string gauge will help them if they ignore the specs of their instruments that are stated by the luthier. do you hear stanley clarke with string noise, jaco pastorious, james jamerson? the bass players and guitarist of real music never had a string gauge problem, because they new the specs on their axe. today’s musicians are show and tell, and rather be seen than heard. no string gauge without proper adjustment is gonna change a bad ear.

  17. Dave

    Three months ago I broke the bank and tried a set of Elixir Stainless Steel light gauge strings and have been super happy with the sound. Really bright, articulate tone with as much pop as I want whenever I need it but nice lows as well. I jam with two different bands and they all want me to keep using them. Before that I had tried DR, Super Slinky’s and Elixir nickel plated.

  18. I’ve been using D’Addario 45-105 Tape wounds on my base for years. I’ve never really liked the sound of the metal string tap on my frets when I slide or fret a note and I don’t like that zipper sound you get when you slide while using metal strings. I know the tape wounds are metal wrapped in nylon. When I found the tape wounds all that noise went away and now I get a nice clean deep tone. I constantly get compliments on my tone and the overall sound from my bass. I also use, just as a fun string on my practice bass the DR neon 45-105 strings. They are a round wound, which I don’t really like the feel of, but they still have that coating that that tends to deaden that metal on metal sound. So if you are looking to get some nice deep thumps out of a medium gauge string, I would highly recommend tape wounds.

  19. Michael

    Awesome post as I’m working through this now- I’m doing shows in the fall that require a set of 3 Rush tunes – Tom, Limelight and uggg YYZ – now that I have YYZ down – I’m practicing it on all of my basses to see what the best results are – the easiest ironically is on my pbass with flats – I’m using.super light Boomers on my Sadowsky Jazz – the bass I’m going to use that sounds the most like the track – yin and yang in all things I guess

  20. Ken Harris

    Great discussion! Personally, I’ve always preferred heavier gauge strings. I’m a bass player and I certainly want to sound like one. I use elixir strings . The feel good, have proper tension ( for my taste) are smooth to the touch and last a long time.