Roundwounds or flatwounds? As a bassist, this is a question I often find lingering in the back of my mind whenever I spend a little too much time poking around a guitar shop. Most bassists are aware that they have a handful of options when it comes to string types, but it’s fair to say that the majority of us usually end up sticking with the reliable, standard medium-gauge nickel-plated steel roundwounds that have become accepted as the default in modern music. This is a pretty understandable impulse; bass strings tend to last longer and stay in tune better than most other stringed instruments, which, at least for me, means I don’t really think about my strings very often, and when I need to replace them I kind of just want to get it over with with as little hassle as possible so I can go back to not thinking about them.
For pretty much my entire time playing bass I’ve been a roundwound loyalist by default, but a little while ago a friend bought me a pack of Ernie Ball flatwounds as a gift, and this week I finally got around to stringing them on to see for myself what all the fuss is really about.
The difference I noticed most immediately was the actual feel of the strings, the way my bass felt to play. Maybe that seems a little too obvious, but even before any differences in sound the biggest change to me was the tactile sensation of the strings under my fingers. As you probably know, flatwound strings are much smoother to the touch than roundwounds, and in particular sliding between frets is practically frictionless, to the point where it actually took me a few minutes to adjust.
Of course, there was also a pretty notable difference in the actual sound of the strings as well, most notably in the attack. To tie this to an interesting bit of musical trivia, it actually used to be flatwound strings that were the accepted standard in the music community (after all, those thicker-gauge strings were originally developed for fretless upright basses, whose necks would have been mercilessly gouged-up by roundwounds). However, by the early 1970s, bassists in more forceful, aggressive rock and funk bands were developing playing techniques that didn’t lend themselves to a more subdued tone, and many bassists in all genres now had to play using stage amplification to massive crowds, where without a brighter, crisper sound they’d end up totally buried in the mix. Roundwounds alleviated both issues, giving a sharper, more metallic treble response and emphasizing more aggressive play styles like tapping and slapping (both of which were just starting to become widely-known at this time). Using flatwounds on a modern electric bass hearkens back somewhat to the original upright basses, lending some of the bassy warmth and round, rich tone to the more sharply defined sound of a fretted bass guitar.
All in all, I’m definitely enjoying playing with my new flatwounds, but to be perfectly honest I can’t say I’ve been converted. It’s a cool change of pace to work with a more restrained, subtle sound, and on a purely tactile level they’re a joy to play, but ultimately they just don’t satisfy my inner rocker quite the same way, and their noticeably higher price-point means I’ll likely be switching back to my trusty roundwounds when the time comes again to restring my bass. Still, I see why some players swear by these strings, and as with any element of music, different scenarios and tastes lend themselves to different equipment.