What does flatwound mean for bass guitarists

Which bass string for which job?

Roundwound, Flatwound, Halfwound ...
by R. Flächsenhaar,

R.oundwound, flatwound, halfwound, tapewound, nickel, chrome, stainless steel, nylon or bronze - bass strings are available in countless designs, types and types. In addition to the player, the instrument including pickups, the amplifier and preamp, they are one of the most important components that can make your sound.

This article is intended to give you an overview of which bass strings are available and how they can sound, so pack your suitcase and set off on your journey to the string wonderland.

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Marcus Miller and Pino Palladino are two of the most famous and influential bassists of our time, but what is the difference between the two, apart from equipment, playing techniques and styles? Exactly, their sound! As already mentioned in the introduction, strings have a not to be underestimated influence on how we sound and consequently also on the sound of these two bass superstars.

While Marcus Miller has a more hi-fi-like sound with brilliant and direct highs, crisp bass and rapid tone development, Pino Palladino is pretty much the opposite for me. At least what his work on the records of artists like D'Angelo, John Mayer or Tedeschi Trucks Band is concerned. Here his sound is more vintage with very few highs, a lot of low mids, and soft bass.

If you look at the strings they use, you can see that Miller mostly uses stainless steel roundwounds - that is, steel strings - while Palladino plays more flatwound strings made of nickel or steel. The difference between roundwound and flatwound strings is that in roundwounds the core of the string is wound with round wire, which means that small notches or grooves are created between the individual wraps, while in flatwounds the core of the string is wrapped with flat wire, which is why a very smooth string surface. Flatwounds are incorrectly referred to as sharpened strings. The type or shape of the wire with which a string is wrapped has a significant impact on the character of the sound.

Image: Lothar Trampert, Blue Note, Fred Less
Image: Lothar Trampert, Blue Note, Fred Less
Image: Lothar Trampert, Blue Note, Fred Less
Image: Lothar Trampert, Blue Note, Fred Less

Roundwounds, for example, usually have a lot of punch at the beginning, crisp bass and very present, bell-like highs and high mids, which, depending on the frequency of playing, slowly fade in a period of between one to three weeks until they almost completely disappear after a long time. The strings are then used, but retain their characteristic, rather metallic sound.

Unless you use coated strings, i.e. roundwounds encased in plastic, which may only lose their brilliance after four to six months and thus have a much longer lifespan.

However, there is a widespread belief that coated strings themselves sound less brilliant than strings without a plastic coating. Flatwounds, on the other hand, are relatively stable in terms of sound behavior and deliver the typically warm, deep-centered and slightly muffled sound from the start. So if you look at the basic sound properties of these two types of strings, you might think that you can recognize them in the respective styles of the two bassists mentioned above.

So you could say that flatwounds naturally sound more vintage, muffled or warm, while roundwounds come across as more open and more sustainable. The thing about the hi-fi sound at Roundwounds only applies if you hear them brand new in a direct comparison to Flats. There are roundwounds made of different materials such as B. Nickel, Nickel Plated Steel or Stainless Steel, all of which have their own and possibly warmer sound patterns.

Stainless steel strings certainly have the most highs and a very metal-sounding basic sound, while nickel strings can sound significantly warmer and darker without losing the typical properties of roundwounds. Even the worn strings mentioned above usually sound a bit warmer than brand new wires, regardless of the material they are made of. That's why I have, for. For example, in a studio session, Roundwounds always used a few sentences, as in the ears of some producers these are in the middle between the two extreme round and flatwounds.

In terms of the production process, so-called groundwounds or half-rounds are actually the middle between rounds and flats. These are normal roundwounds in which the round wire is sanded smooth so that you get a similar feel to playing as with flats, but half-rounds are not quite as stiff as flats, which some bassists like very much. But if you like it ultra-damped, you can also try nylon strings, so-called tapewounds. These strings made of plastic (with a steel core) have the most dampened basic sound of all types of strings on the market. These strings, also known as black nylons, are sometimes reminiscent of a double bass-like tone.

What can also be very important is the string gauge - i.e. how thick or thin the particular sentence you are using is. For example, there are people who say: "The thicker the string, the fatter the tone." However, if one takes into account that z. B. Pino Palladino recorded the 'Continum' album by John Mayer mostly with flats in the strengths .043 .056 .070 and .100, this could also refute this opinion, since a normal set of strings with the strengths .045 .065 .085 and .105, is much thicker. However, when you listen to these recordings, you immediately notice the rich, thick and pumping bass sound. When I look at the different types of strings from a musical point of view, I think that you can basically play any type of string in any context / style.

Image: Lothar Trampert, Blue Note, Fred Less
Image: Lothar Trampert, Blue Note, Fred Less
Image: Lothar Trampert, Blue Note, Fred Less
Image: Lothar Trampert, Blue Note, Fred Less
Image: Lothar Trampert, Blue Note, Fred Less

In this case, only your own imagination is the limit of the possibilities. However, there are classics or combinations of strings and instruments that can lead you relatively easily to the desired sound ideal. James Jamerson's typical Motown sound is best achieved with flatwounds and a precision bass. Or the Marcus Miller slap sound mentioned above, which is always associated with stainless steel roundwounds and a jazz bass. And of course there is Yes bassist Chris Squire, who clearly includes stainless steel roundwounds and a Rickenbacker bass, played with a pick. Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers almost always generates its warmer slap sound from nickel roundwounds.

In principle, the sound character or the strength of a string cannot only be reduced to a specific sound ideal, since a sound - as already mentioned - also includes components other than just the bass used and / or the strings. There is great sounding rock music or heavy metal that was played and recorded with round and flatwounds made of nickel or steel, as well as insanely good sounding soul or hip hop made with the same strings. You can try everything and you are often surprised by results that you cannot foresee. And since you can best judge when you have the sound you want, you shouldn't hold back on experiments on the way to your sound ideal. So have fun on the journey to your own sound!

Another practical tip on the side: Check your bass setup after every string change - i.e. octave purity, snarling when grasping, neck curvature, string position, etc. - regardless of whether you have been using the same brand of strings on your bass for years or constantly using a different one. Also give your bass 1-2 days to get used to the new set and then check the setup - there may be something to optimize.

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From guitar & bass 06/2017

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