Roundwounds or Flatwounds

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.

16 Comments

  1. Jonathan Grove on March 31, 2021 at 3:03 pm

    I actually do a hybrid set up with flats on the low EA and rounds on the DG so I can slap when I want but maintain low end.

    I love how easy it is to install your bridges BTW!

  2. Matt on March 31, 2021 at 3:04 pm

    loving flatwound tone! started using mine as a way to reduce a hot pickup, but loved it so much they’re now standard across by quiver! Woody, deep, but still punchy with hotter pickups

  3. Deeve on March 31, 2021 at 4:01 pm

    nice idea for a change, but my bass is only 15 yrs old, so the strings aren’t ready for changing yet

  4. Stan Piaskowski on March 31, 2021 at 5:54 pm

    Half Wounds should also be included in this discussion.
    I once heard Bobby Vega state that each bass will dictate to you what strings to use on that particular instrument. Have fun – enjoy your musical journey! 🎸😎

  5. Gary Blankenship on March 31, 2021 at 6:05 pm

    Round wounds be my thing…

  6. Erock on March 31, 2021 at 7:32 pm

    I’ve been digging the flat wound for a few years now.
    There’s a different friction between the flat and round wound, sliding and fingering.
    For me, the flats are the jam.

  7. Steven Walzer on March 31, 2021 at 8:01 pm

    Tried Flats and didnt like them went back to rounds ….

  8. Ed on March 31, 2021 at 8:57 pm

    I like both!

  9. Ruben Ruiz on March 31, 2021 at 11:28 pm

    I use flatwounds on my carvin fret less bass. It gives the bass that muaw sound. You can give your fret less more effect with flatwounds. On the other hand round wound strings can give your bass that growl sound

  10. Tom on April 1, 2021 at 2:51 am

    I’ve noticed the difference in the feel as well, and I use flatwounds mainly on the fretless bass, because I like how it sounds when sliding up or down to the notes

  11. N.M.A. on April 1, 2021 at 3:57 am

    You are a “roundwound loyalist by default”, but probably not truly of your own volition.

    For the dinosaurs who still forage in real music shops, in the flesh, looking for flats to graze on, they will starve to death.
    There is a dearth of flats in the brick-&-mortar stores — full stop. Despite there being a broad selection of flats provided by the manufacturers (if you believe the magazine adverts and online reviews), you will be lucky to find a set of flats of ANY type (chrome/nickel/tape/etc) by whatever brand. If you DO find flats, the selection will be limited to one, maybe two types/brands and most certainly Murphy’s diktat will be played out as some Music-Empire mind-trick: “These are not the flats you’re looking for … buy rounds and go about your business … move along.”

    I have yet to walk into a shop and find Ernie Ball Cobalt Flats. They exist, so I’m told, but all I’ve found is ghostly conjecture: “Our other shop has them” and I assure you venturing across town to the other shop is fruitless — “Oh the computer says we have some, but we don’t”. “We can order them in, it’ll take six months” — Those are actual quotes, none hyperbole.

    Sorry, blithely optimistic staffer, I won’t be around these parts in six months, and no I don’t want your rat-chewed dropping-infested manky Chromes you’ve “kept in stock” after mistakenly ordering them more than a decade ago from the almighty Fender.

    From the moment of Cobalt Flats’ introduction, as described they held the promise as the ultimate string of my dreams. My desire was thus sparked to hand hard currency over to an individual behind a counter and in return receive a small square package of Cobalt potential. This thirst to get some in hand, direct from a human being and not through a series of anonymous shipping transactions, soon blossomed to become a Quest. Carried across Asia and throughout North America, yet stymied at every turn the Quest turned Crusade.

    My bass remains strung with roundwounds *for years* by default, NOT entirely by choice. My Crusade across time has become an Obsession, and the only thing worse than continually being thwarted would be … to choose defeat and snatch a set from the Web’s ethers only to find Ernie Ball Cobalt Flats are … not, my Holy Grail.

  12. Michael Selvey on April 1, 2021 at 5:16 am

    Flatwounds FTW! Early in my bass guitar experience, I tried a set of Fender 9050 flats…….WHEW~! Price, Tone, Feel, Durability………what more could you want? Almost ALL my bass guitars now sport these, with the exception of my hollow-bodies. They benefit with a flats that are a little lower tension. For those applications, the TI Jazz Flats are phenomenal. IMHO, of course!

  13. William Walls on April 1, 2021 at 10:13 am

    Each has its place. I do have round wounds on my bass…

  14. Josef Szaday on April 1, 2021 at 4:15 pm

    How about Half-Rounds?

  15. Jim Bonnell on April 1, 2021 at 6:38 pm

    As a builder and repairman Ive suggested flat wounds to a few customers who had never tried them. All but one person loved them and felt they would most likely stick with them.

  16. Charles D on April 2, 2021 at 4:49 am

    I have been playing Fretless for about a year or so now and LOve the Feel…after all the research I’ve done on classic bassist like Carol Haye…I had to finally try Flats …since I found they are used on almost all the old hits I grew up on….(also they were played with a pick ) and as you said they are SMOOOTHh…it feels as if you glide over the fretboard and make slides effortless..the sound is rich and boomy …maybe tooo muddy for some …but I LOVE it….as far as for heavy rock…When played with a pick…I felt like it eaisily carried through the mix…however when I switched to my FenderJazz with Roto Rounds..the Rock Growl and Bite was definitely more defined..for me Gotta have One of each type strung up from now on…

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