Gauge, material, type of winding, coated or uncoated...shopping online for strings or at your local music store can be a daunting task for the uninitiated. Here are some helpful definitions and suggestions that will help you narrow down your options.
The gauge of a string is its thickness (diameter). Presented in thousandths of an inch, when it comes to bass strings you'll see measurements like .045 (G), .065 (D), .085 (A) and .105 (E). To simplify your choices, many manufacturers use terms for sets like "Medium," "Medium Light," "Light," etc. These terms aren't necessarily universal—for example, Ernie Ball's "Medium" might not be the same gauges as Dean Markley's. If you settle on a single brand of strings, like many players do, it will make it easier for future purchases. What you need to pay attention to is the feel you're after, the sustain and the fatness of the tone you get from different gauges. As you might expect, heavier-gauge strings can be harder on your fingers if you play fingerstyle, and they can also make a difference to the playability of your instrument. Keep in mind that if you move to heavier strings, your bass will likely need some adjustment. So don't just go from light gauge to heavy gauge without making these adjustments, or you'll likely encounter buzz, intonation and neck trouble. Bottom line: gauge is all about finding the right balance between playing comfort and a tone you're happy with. Adjust as necessary.
The scale length of your bass is the distance from the bridge to the nut, or the portion that vibrates and produces sound. Most basses have a long scale of 34", however many basses utilize a shorter, 30" scale as well. These are typically student-sized models, but many players have also employed short scale basses for their unique feel and sound. It's important to know the scale length of your bass when purchasing strings, so be sure to look it up or do a quick measurement from the bridge to the nut to be sure.
Bass strings consist of two parts: the core and the winding. These can be, and often are, different materials. Typically the core is made of steel, and can either be round in shape or hexagonal (hex core). A hex core provides for a more consistent winding tension, enhancing sustain and providing better intonation. Round cores are not as common these days, and are associated with more of a "vintage" sound.
Now we get to the all-important winding. If you look at your strings, you'll likely notice ridges all along the length. This indicates a string that is "roundwound," and these are by far more common than their counterparts, "flatwound" strings. The difference is evident in their names--roundwound strings use a rounded wire to wrap the core, while flatwound strings use a flat ribbon of metal around the core, resulting in a string that is smooth to the touch. Tonally, flatwound strings produce little to no extraneous noise as your fingers slide up and down the neck, and aren't as bright as roundwound strings as a result. Because there's less friction, they are also easier on your fingers and your instrument. Although not as popular as brighter-sounding roundwound strings anymore, some players still swear by them. I recommend at least trying out a set of flatwound strings to see if you fall in that camp, but if you're a fan of a bolder, more in-your-face sound (or have to compete with loud guitars), roundwound strings are likely what you'll want. Though flatwound and roundwound are the most common, there are other types of wraps too. Groundwound (AKA half round) strings are a sort of hybrid between flat and roundwound strings, offering a similar feel to flatwound while retaining the tonal brightness and overtones of a roundwound string.
The material for the winding can vary, with each having an influence on the magnetic interaction with your pickups and the tonal end result. Some of the more popular windings you'll come across are nickel-plated steel, nickel and stainless steel, but there are others as well, like D'Addario's EXP REDS that use a copper-plated steel winding that imparts more of an acoustic tone due to the way it interacts with your pickups. By knowing the tonal characteristics of wrap materials, you can better find a string that will suit your sound. Here's a quick overview:
Nickel-plated steel: This common winding produces the bright, lively sound that many bassists prefer.
Pure nickel: Pure nickel windings produce a softer, mellower tone. Often associated with more of a "vintage" sound.
Stainless steel: Stainless steel strings are very bright and responsive to your attack. Due to the hardness of the metal, stainless steel-wound strings can be harder on your frets and your fingers.
In an effort to increase the longevity of bass strings and improve the feel, many manufacturers offer coated strings. These coatings are typically a proprietary compound specific to each company, so they can vary in their feel and effectiveness. Many coated strings do successfully lengthen the life of the strings, however the tradeoff is usually a silky or slippery feel. It's something that many players adjust to in order to save money over the long haul. It's worth trying out a set or two of coated strings to see if they're up your alley.
Hopefully this primer gives you a better idea of the types of bass strings you'll encounter and what each has to offer. As with most aspects of your musical development, experimentation is key, so try a few different types and gauges until you find the strings that are right for you.
Ara Ajizian, Harmony Central's Editorial Director, has been playing bass and guitar as well as singing since he was 18, and soon that love of music combined with a passion for writing; launching what's now a decade-long career immersed in the gear world. He's thrilled to be back on the Harmony Central team after two years as Managing Editor for Musician's Friend covering gear, bands and events and gigging in the Los Angeles area.
By Craig Anderton
Touch: It’s what separates the great from the almost-great. It’s what every bass player wants, and some manage to find . . . but few have ever really defined. Nonetheless, in addition to the unquantifiable, there is the quantifiable aspect of touch—so let’s investigate.
Tuning is crucial with bass, perhaps even more so than with other instruments, because of the low frequencies involved. A bass is a resonant system, where even if you’re only playing one string at a time, you can’t avoid having occasional, sympathetic resonances from the other strings. Even slightly out-of-tune strings will create slow, rolling beat frequencies. This is very different from, say, guitar, where slightly out-of-tune high notes create more of a chorusing effect; chorusing on a bass robs the part of its power.
CHOOSING THE RIGHT NOTES
One of the great things about bass (or guitar, for that matter) is that you can play the same note in different places on the neck to obtain different timbres. Those who play samplers know how valuable “round robin” note assignment can be, where hitting the same note repeatedly triggers different samples to avoid the “machine-gun notes” effect. Bass has “round robin” assignments too, but you do the assigning.
An obvious example is open versus fretted strings. For example, when going from an A to a D, don’t necessarily go from one open string to another, but play the D on the A string. That mutes the A string so its vibrations don’t interfere with the D string, and the contrast with the decay can shape the sound as well—going from an open string to a fretted string shortens the decay and “closes down” the line, whereas going to an open string leaves the line more “open” because of the extra sustain.
Fretted notes tend to draw less attention in a mix than open strings, and this can also be used to good advantage. During the verse, try playing fretted notes to give more support to the vocals; but for the chorus, use open strings as much as possible.
The distance of the pickups from the strings makes a big difference on how your touch interacts with the bass because pickups follow the inverse square law, where output drops off rapidly with increasing string distance. Placing the pickups further away makes a heavy touch seem more light and the overall sound less percussive, while placing the pickups closer to the strings makes a light touch seem heavier and emphasizes percussive transients.
I have two preferences with pickups. First, I usually set the neck pickup closer to the strings than the bridge (Fig. 1). This isn’t just to balance out levels; I tend to pluck just below the neck pickup, so having it a bit lower accommodates the extra string excursion. Second, I like to angle the pickups so that they’re a bit further away from the lower strings, and closer to the higher strings. I tend to slam the lower strings harder, so this pickup placement evens out the string levels somewhat, even before they hit any kind of amp or compression.
Fig. 1: Where you set the pickup height in relation to the strings can make a big difference in the overall touch.
In any event, if you haven’t experimented with pickup height, spend some time recording your bass with the pickups at various heights. You might be surprised how much this can influence not only your tone, but the effects of your “touch.”
THE TONE CONTROL IN YOUR FINGERS
There are many ways to play bass strings: Pushing down with fingers, using a pick, pulling up and slapping, plucking with the fingers . . . and each one gives a different tonal quality, from smooth and round to twangy and percussive. Match your picking technique as appropriate to the song, and your “touch” will augment the arrangement. You can make your bass lay demurely in the background, or push its way to the front, just by what’s in your fingers.
TOUCH MEETS ELECTRONICS
Touch also works in conjunction with whatever electronics the bass first sees in the signal chain. The bass reacts differently to your touch depending on whether it first sees a straight preamp, a preamp with saturation, a tube amp, or a solid-state amp. I go for a bit of saturation in a preamp (as long as it’s soft, smooth saturation—not hard clipping) as that tends to absorb some of the percussive transients, giving a smoother tone that works well with subsequent compression. But that’s because with the kind of music I play, the bass tends to be mostly supportive. In small ensemble situations where the bass takes a more prominent role (e.g., jazz trios), a clean preamp will preserve those transients better, letting the bass “take over” a bit more in the mix.
If you’re feeding a compressor, its settings have a huge influence on touch. With lots of compression, you can pluck the string softly for a muted tone, but the volume level will still be relatively high due to the compression. Hit the string harder, and if the compressor has a fast attack, the compression will absorb the percussive transient, making the tone more docile. If the compressor has a slow attack, that initial transient will pop through. In this situation, touch doesn’t only involve working with the bass, but with the electronics as well.
Before we sign off, remember this: The bass doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and your touch interacts with every aspect of it—strings, frets, pickups, and downstream electronics. Optimize these for your touch, and you’ll optimize your bass sound.
Acknowledgement: Thanks to Brian Hardgroove, bassist/bandleader for Public Enemy, for his contributions to this article.
Craig Anderton is Editor Emeritus of Harmony Central. He has played on, mixed, or produced over 20 major label releases (as well as mastered over a hundred tracks for various musicians), and written over a thousand articles for magazines like Guitar Player, Keyboard, Sound on Sound (UK), and Sound + Recording (Germany). He has also lectured on technology and the arts in 38 states, 10 countries, and three languages.
A Cable Is Not Just a Piece of Wire . . .
By Craig Anderton
If a guitar player hears something that an engineer says is impossible, lay your bets on the guitarist. For example, some guitarists can hear differences between different cords. Although some would ridicule that idea—wire is wire, right?—different cords can affect your sound, and in some cases, the difference can be drastic. What's more, there's a solid, repeatable, technically valid reason why this is so.
However, cords that sound very different with one amp may sound identical with a different amp, or when using different pickups. No wonder guitarists verge on the superstitious about using a particular pickup, cord, and amp. But you needn't be subjected to this kind of uncertainty if you learn why these differences occur, and how to compensate for them.
Even before your axe hits its first effect or amp input, much of its sound is already locked in due to three factors:
We'll start with cable capacitance, as that's a fairly easy concept to understand. In fact, cable capacitance is really nothing more than a second tone control applied across your pickup.
A standard tone control places a capacitor from your "hot" signal line to ground. A capacitor is a frequency-sensitive component that passes high frequencies more readily than low frequencies. Placing the capacitor across the signal line shunts high frequencies to ground, which reduces the treble. However the capacitor blocks lower frequencies , so they are not shunted to ground and instead shuffle along to the output. (For the technically-minded, a capacitor consists of two conductors separated by an insulator—a definition which just happens to describe shielded cable as well.)
Any cable exhibits some capacitance—not nearly as much as a tone control, but enough to be significant in some situations. However, whether this has a major effect or not depends on the two other factors (guitar output impedance and amp input impedance) mentioned earlier.
When sending a signal to an amplifier, some of the signal gets lost along the way—sort of like having a leak in a pipe that's transferring water from one place to another. Whether this leak is a pinhole or gaping chasm depends on the amp's input impedance. With stock guitar pickups, lower input impedances load down the guitar and produce a "duller" sound (interestingly, tubes have an inherently high input impedance, which might account for one aspect of the tube's enduring popularity with guitarists).
Impedance affects not only level, but the tone control action as well. The capacitor itself is only one piece of the tone control puzzle, because it's influenced by the amp's input impedance. The higher the impedance, the greater the effect of the tone control. This is why a tone control can seem very effective with some amps and not with others.
Although a high amp input impedance keeps the level up and provides smooth tone control action (the downside is that high impedances are more susceptible to picking up noise, RF, and other types of interference), it also accentuates the effects of cable capacitance. A cable that robs highs when used with a high input impedance amp can have no audible effect with a low input impedance amp.
Our final interactive component of this whole mess is the guitar's output impedance. This impedance is equivalent to sticking a resistor in series with the guitar that lowers volume somewhat. Almost all stock pickups have a relatively high output impedance, while active pickups have a low output impedance. As with amp input impedance, this interacts with your cable to alter the sound. Any cable capacitance will be accented if the guitar has a high output impedance, and have less effect if the output impedance is low.
There's one other consideration: the guitar output impedance and amp input impedance interact. Generally, you want a very high amplifier input impedance if you're using stock pickups, as this minimizes loss (in particular, high frequency loss). However, active pickups with low output impedances are relatively immune to an amp's input impedance.
So what does all this mean? Here are a few guidelines.
Taking all the above into account, if you want a more consistent guitar setup that sounds pretty much the same regardless of what cable you use (and is also relatively immune to amplifier loading), consider replacing your stock pickups with active types. Alternately, you can add an impedance converter ("buffer board") right after the guitar output (or for that matter, any effect such as a compressor, distortion box, etc. that has a high input impedance and low output impedance). This will isolate your guitar from any negative effects of high-capacitance cables or low impedance amp inputs.
If you're committed to using a stock guitar and high impedance amp, there are still a few things you can do to preserve your sound:
Before closing, I should mention that this article does simplify matters somewhat because there's also the issue of reactance, and that too interacts with the guitar cable capacitance. However, I feel that the issues covered here are primarily what influence the sound, so let's leave how reactance factors into this for a later day.
Remember, if you axe doesn't sound quite right, don't immediately reach for the amp: There's a lot going on even before your signal hits the amp's input jack. And if a guitarist swears that one cord sounds different from another, that could very well be the case—however, now you know why that is, and what to do about it.
Craig Anderton is Executive Editor of Electronic Musician magazine. He has played on, mixed, or produced over 20 major label releases (as well as mastered over a hundred tracks for various musicians), and written over a thousand articles for magazines like Guitar Player, Keyboard, Sound on Sound (UK), and Sound + Recording (Germany). He has also lectured on technology and the arts in 38 states, 10 countries, and three languages.