Strings are the biggest factor on how a bass sounds and plays. With a properly set up bass and good set of strings, you’re all set to start your journey on the upright bass.
Strings come in a wide variety of materials and design. These difference greatly affect the overall sound that you will get. For beginners on a starting budget, the choices are more limited, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t get good strings at that price levels. It’s always best to start out with a good set of strings and then move from there.
It would take a book to cover the topic of strings, but there are some general knowledge that would be useful for any bassist to know.
Strings are basically comprised of two components, the core and the windings. Cores and windings vary depending on what the string manufacturer is trying to achieve in sound and feel. The core runs along the inside of the string, while the windings is wound around the outside of the string.
The way the two interact with each other is more than the sum of each part. This an oversimplification of the roles of the core and winding, but here are some generalities just to get your feet wet on how they work. The core has greater effect the flexibility, sustain, and tension of the string while the windings affect the sound (especially how bright or dark it sounds), thickness, and feel of the string. To give you an appreciation of the complexity of creating a string, consider that it generally takes a string company an average of 5-10 years of experimentation to design a string. String makers have said that award winning winemakers have it easy, that’s how painstakingly difficult it is to design a good string.
Cores are the most common differentiators between strings. They can be categorized as steel, gut, or synthetic. Steel cores are usually stranded wire rope, gut are made of animal guts and synthetic is a general category for any core that is non-metallic.
Windings vary a lot. They can be alloys (mixture of different mentals), nickle, silver, copper. chrome, nylon, tungsten, gold, or pretty much anything under the sun.
Thickness and Tension
Some strings only come in one thickness and tension, while others come in light, medium, heavy (Respectively called weich, mittle, stark for German strings). Thickness and tension is usually used synonymously when it comes to string gauge. Between two gauges of the same string: the thicker the string, the higher the tension. There is no immediate correlation between tensions between different brands and types of strings. In other words, a medium gauge Helicore is lighter in tension than a medium Spirocore.
Medium gauge is the most common choice for beginners. Light gauge is also good for those who want strings that are easier to bow and finger. The problem is that it’s a give and take; lighter strings will not sound as full and deep as mediums. They also are quieter than mediums. Sometimes a bass will actually sound more open and respond better with lights than mediums, others might respond better to mediums and heavy strings.
At this point as a beginner, the middle ground medium gauge is ideal. You can adjust from there if you feel the need to try a different gauge in the future. This is the way most bassist experiment with strings anyhow. If they find a string that they like, they’ll usually try other gauges to see how it feels and how their bass responds.
Bass String Suggestion for Beginners
Strings can vary widely in price depending on brand and materials used. Buying $500 gut strings is a waste of money if there’s no specific reason that you need them. More expensive doesn’t equate to better strings in terms of quality, sound or longevity. When you are a beginner, you’re just getting started with intonation, consistency of sound, and form. Since you will be working on the basics; decent, consistent, reliable strings are what’s needed.
There’s plenty of time to try strings. Most bassists constantly try different strings to find that string that they love. Don’t spend too much time, money or brain power obsessing over it at this point, a reliable and easy to play string is what you need to get you started.
For students that want are studying jazz and orchestral. If you have a choice of strings, I recommend that beginners start with D’Addario Helicore Hybrids, which are steel strings. I generally recommend them because they are affordable, good quality and last long, so I consider them the best entry level string by far. They aren’t the best strings in the world, by far, but they are a great strings to start with and a great value. They are easy to bow with (arco) and for pizz. If you’re on this site, you probably aren’t considering playing with a bow, but it’s a facet of bass playing that everyone should consider as not to limit themselves on the instrument. Your bass instructor will likely want you to spend time using the bow to help you work on your intonation and to make sure it’s part of your arsenal. I’ve had many students who wanted to learn pizz only who quickly grow fond of using the bow also.
Sometimes a bass already comes with strings. You’ve probably already spent a good deal of money on buying a bass so at this point; if it can stay in tune, you can start your first year on them. If you’re renting, a store should not object to your request that they put D’Addario Helicore Hybrids because they are very reasonable in price. Many of you have heard of a popular string; the Thomastik Spirocores. I like them a lot, but they are very difficult for beginners to do any bowing on. A beginner will not play or sound any better on Spirocores than Helicore Hybrids, plus Spirocores cost more. If you’re curious about other strings, just wait for now, your money can go towards better things such as lessons, books, and maintenance.
Strings for Magnetic Pickups
Most people use piezo pickups. If you are using Fishmans, Underwoods, The Realist, Balsereit or any other similar pickups, then they are piezo pickups. Any string will work with these pickups. If you are using magnetic pickups such as the String Charger or Biesele, then you can only use steel core strings. Magnetic pickups will not work with gut or synthetic core strings.