Get Low: Finding the Best Bass Guitar Strings For the Way You Play
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When it comes time to replace your strings, there are two extreme types of bassists: Those who re-string after every show (or as much as time and budget will allow), and those who just…don’t, ever, until they break. Like Legendary Motown bass player James Lee Jamerson famously said about his unchanged strings, “The gunk keeps the funk.”
But whenever you decide your bass needs a fresh set, replacing your strings can bring new life to an old (or any) bass guitar. It’s all about what works for you, the style you’ll be playing, how often you play, and ultimately, the sound you’re shooting for.
“Thickness of string will become a personal preference over time,” says Craig Lee, bassist for Minneapolis bands Ill-Gotten and 4-Player Co-op. “Generally, the lighter the gauge of string makes for a brighter sound, and heavier gauge creates a thicker sound. You can also consider flat wound strings if you really want an upright bass sound. As you play more,” he says, “you’ll start to figure out where exactly you like your tone [so you] can set up your strings with different gauges, and dial it in.”
Playing style, such as picking, plucking, slapping, or sliding, is another aspect to consider. It’s not just about the sound you’ll get, but the wear and tear on the strings — and on your fingers too. “With different string gauges,” says Lee, “playing with a pick versus using your fingers will yield different results that you’ll feel and hear. I mostly use my fingers to play, and prefer a very flexible string that I can manipulate with bends, strums, slaps and plucks to fully achieve every nuance out of my sound.”
We’ve selected three sets of strings to get you started, from three legendary companies in the world of bass and beyond. All offer various gauges and options to fit your fingers, your bass, and your budget.
And for those beginner bassists just getting started, a final thought from Lee: “If the person has smaller hands, consider getting a short-scale bass. It makes for much easier playing as you learn.”
1. D’Addario EXL160 Nickel Wound Bass Guitar Strings
The D’Addario family are string-making royalty, dating all the way back to 1600s Italy, when strings were painstakingly made with hog and sheep gut. Still family-run, the current form of the company is the world’s largest maker of musical instrument strings, operating and running their own manufacturing plant on Long Island, New York.
The advantage of having their own factory line and machinery gives D’Addario full control over the EXL’s digital precision-winding process, wrapping nickel-plated steel wire for a bright tone, balanced with a tight and booming low end. The nickel feel is softer on your fingers than stainless steel too, without sacrificing any sound quality.
EXL160 is D’Addario’s most popular heavy bass string set, and there’s a legit reason the company has earned the “Player’s Choice” title: the strings are used by countless bassists of all types around the world.
EXL strings fit long-scale basses, with a length of up to 36 1/4 inches, and are available with a variety of options in materials, gauges, and set sizes to choose from – they even provide the tension specs too. But no matter what your sound preference (or even better, if you’re still experimenting with it), D’Addario produces a safely solid string in every style.
PROS: Smooth and easy to re-string your bass with. As a nice bonus, D’Addario’s packaging also reduces waste and provides protection from corrosion.
CONS: If you have a bass that feeds strings through the backside (as opposed to the bridge), some report that the E and A strings aren’t quite long enough to clear the first fret and fall short, leaving the tapered part of the string hitting the top bridge and creating a buzzing noise.
2. Ernie Ball Regular Slinky Nickel Wound Bass Set
Another giant of the string industry, Ernie Ball has been the go-to favorites for a dizzying amount of bands and artists for over five decades. Their signature “Slinky” string starts with a tin-plated high carbon steel core, wrapped in nickel-plated steel, for a resulting sound that’s crisp and bright on the high end, with mids that shine through and a fat, warm low-end that growls without get murky.
The smooth feel means these won’t chew up your fingers, and can even feel like flatwound strings to some players. Another advantage of nickel over steel is that the string itself takes the wear and tear, rather than the frets, whereas stainless steel strings can act as tiny saws that eat at your fretboard, causing expensive damage over time.
These are really well-balanced strings that bring a nice, rich tone to any bass, along with a just-right bite to their sound.
PROS: Great for melodic bass-lines and tapping. Affordable, durable, and easy to re-string.
CONS: Less great for slaps and solos and bending. Go for the Hybrids if you’re looking to “slappa da bass.” Some also report the top strings of this set feeling overly tight when compared with the lows, which can feel too slack and floppy.
3. Fender Stainless Steel Flatwound Long Scale Bass Guitar Strings
The first mass-produced bass guitars in the 1950s were created by Fender, featuring flat-wound stainless steel strings, and they are still widely used today especially on the company’s jazzy J-Bass and P-Bass. The resulting sound is as smooth as the strings feel on your fingers; a nice, warm treble with just the right amount of clean low-end.
No more screeching and scratching either – these strings are known and trusted for reducing the finger friction and fret noise as you slide, solo, and change chord positions. Stainless steel strings also tend to last longer and take lots of abuse before breaking or needing to be replaced.
It’s hard to go wrong with Fender, but it’s all dependent on the style you’ll be playing. Most users say these aren’t meant for rock, as they lack the brightness, and some even say they’re too slack. However, they’re ideal for jazz, R&B, country, even reggae.
PROS: Perfect for long-scale basses that are looking for that smooth punch, and they sound great on a fretless too.
CONS: If you’re looking to rock out, pass these ones up. They lack the growl and attack of the others, and are more meant to produce a bright, clean and clear tone.
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