Double Bass Strings

13 Mar
March 13, 2012

Strings are one of those things that are difficult to describe and prescribe, especially when we don’t get to see the instrument or the player in person. There is a lot hype surrounding strings in the form of advertising, endorsements (meaningless if you ask us) and self-proclaimed experts who are convinced they know what you need. The big problem with strings is that they are part of a complex equation that is your total instrument and playing style including your bow and amp rig, so these other important factors have to be considered when selecting strings. Fortunately we can make some generalizations to help guide us toward certain strings and this is where having a lot of experience with strings comes in handy. 

There are a number of constructions materials and methods for making strings, here is a basic summery that covers most:
-Steel rope core with metal windings.This generally is how good quality all metal strings are constructed. A variety of metal alloys and winding patterns are used to give the string its unique character and bowing or pizzicato tendencies.
-Steel wire core (solid) with metal windings. Solid steel core strings are usually cheap sets that are extremely stiff and lousy sounding. You will often find these types of strings on new student grade instruments
-Steel rope core with synthetic windings. There are only a few strings with this type of construction that we know of. These types of strings are often used for slap playing because the synthetic exterior of the string sounds a little more fat when it smacks the fingerboard. Synthetic exterior strings don’t usually bow well if at all.
-Steel wire core with synthetic windings. We believe the only one made like this is the LaBella Deep Talkin’ series. They are stiff because of the solid core but sound bright even with the synthetic exterior. Again, not bow compatible.
-Synthetic core (either monofilament or rope-like) with metal windings. This type of string is becoming increasingly popular. Generally speaking, they are a little more pliable feeling under the fingers than steel core strings yet offer powerful, full sound. Often described as more “gut like” than steel although we’d say they’re more “steel like” than gut.
-Synthetic core with synthetic windings These are sold as gut imitation strings and have about the same tension as gut. Some sets sound awful, you could probably use a clothes line and get similar results. Some are okay.
-Plain gut (no windings)
-Wound gut with either metal or synthetic windings

String terminology

The strings listed here on our site are all orchestral tuning unless specified. Solo strings are tuned up a whole step and are intended to be used with sheet music that is written for solo tuning. You read the notes as you would with orchestral tuning but what you actually hear is a whole step higher in pitch. This is also referred to as scordatura tuning. Tuning the bass a whole step up gives it a brighter solo voice that lends itself to playing solo work. You should never attempt to tune an orchestral string up to solo pitch. You could permanently damage or break the string.

Low B strings are for use as the fifth (lowest) string on 5 string basses. Long E strings are intended for four string basses that have a fingered or mechanical C extension.

A word on string gauges

Unlike electric bass strings, the diameter of double bass strings is not specified by measurement. Rather, generic terms like light, medium or heavy are used. These terms mean little in terms of actual string diameter.

String sizes (lengths).

All strings listed are intended for basses with string lengths from roughly 38″ to 43″ which covers 5/8ths to 7/8ths size basses. If you have a bass smaller than 5/8ths (less than 38″) you may need to use a set of strings intended for 1/2 or 1/4 size basses. Your options will be quite limited if this is the case < as many of the string makers out there don’t make small scale strings.

Gut Strings: it’s a love-hate thing.

There is something about gut that is inimitable and that’s why folks still use gut strings these days. Gut strings were standard equipment on basses well into the 20th century. They are actually made from the small intestines of livestock (not cats). For bass strings sets, the G and D strings are usually plain gut and the A and E are usually wound with silver or copper wire. Gut is extremely temperamental. It’s expensive, has a alarmingly short life span and goes wildly out of tune, especially in hot, humid weather. BUT, it also has a sweet, punchy sound and an irresistible feel for pizz. In addition, they are very low tension thereby reducing stress on the top plate and fingers. They are popular for jazz, slapping and period instrument performing. Listen to any vintage jazz, bluegrass, rock-a-billy or country record and you’ll will be hearing gut strings on the bass. A few good examples: just about any pre 70’s jazz recording, early Elvis (“Heartbreak Hotel”) and early Roger Miller (“King of the Road “).

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