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All About Roundwound Strings

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all about roundwound strings

All About Roundwound Strings, with GHS’s Jon Moody…

I’ve been wanting to talk about the importance of strings on our overall playing experience and tone. In particular, I’ve been wanting to pick the brain of Jon Moody, GHS product specialist and bassist extraordinaire, to get his take on some of the finer points of bass string design and manufacturing, as someone with intimate working knowledge on the subject. Not only is Jon GHS’s bass string guru, but he is also a heck of a seasoned working player and a fellow contributor to Bass Musician Magazine. I knew a thing or two about bass strings going in, but it’s been really interesting to get his perspective on all things roundwound. And I have to say, with as much attention as we put on our instruments and amps, and even pickups, many players are quick to underestimate the importance of their strings. Even those of us who know that we prefer “nickel” or “steel” strings aren’t always thinking about core material and size, winding/construction type, and other subtle but important aspects that can make or break our comfort and enjoyment on the instrument. Jon was kind enough to humor my inquires, and what follows are his reflections on these topics.

Nickel and Steel

The most obvious thing that comes to mind when choosing roundwounds is nickel vs steel. It’s the main thing we think of in differentiating between rounds because to be fair, it’s how roundwound strings are mainly classified and marketed to us. And for good reason – the outer wrap of the string has a big impact on how a string feels and sounds. But it’s not always quite that simple. Conventional wisdom says that nickel strings feel smoother to the touch, and have a warmer tone, whereas steel has a bit of a rougher, tackier feel and more upper harmonic content, giving it more bite in the upper register and upper mids. However, as Jon puts it: “a lot of the smooth feel comes down to the diameter of the final cover wire. A smaller final cover will feel smoother than a larger one. With that, you can easily make a steel string that is smoother to the touch than nickel, simply by playing with the diameters of the final cover”. Not to mention, that the brightness of a string is also largely affected not only by the outer wrap but the inner windings as well. “A nickel E string (that traditionally has three covers) that has stainless for two and nickel for the final might wind up sounding brighter than a stainless-steel E string with nickel covers and a stainless final.”  

And to make things even more interesting, all “nickel” strings, for example, are not created equal. The difference between nickel-plated steel and pure nickel is significant. As Jon says, “What we typically refer to as “nickel strings” are actually a nickel-plated steel (usually 8% nickel plating, but some use a 5% or 2% nickel plating). Pure nickel gives you a deep fundamental sound and was one of the original string materials used. For those players wanting a more “authentic” sound but don’t want to play flatwounds, pure nickel strings are a good option. The other really popular one is nickel-iron, or Alloy 52. It’s used because of its magnetic properties, which provide more output from the strings to the pickups. A lot of players assume this means that you get a bigger sound from your instrument – which is true! – but I find that with the higher output of the strings, it allows you to play with more dynamics, as the quieter you play, you still retain focus and sound.”

String Core Type and Size

In addition to winding and wrap material, core type has a big effect on the feel of a string, in terms of its flexibility and the way it behaves. You’ve probably seen “hex core” and “round core” on string packaging. Core type is significant enough that GHS even offers their famous Boomers bass strings in both core types, which speaks to the degree to which core type can affect the string. Jon says “a hex core string will “feel” stiffer than a round core string with the same diameter… For tone, I find the round core strings have a slightly softer top end that isn’t pronounced.”  

Beyond the type of core (round vs hex), the diameter of the core material also plays an important role in how we perceive the feel of a string. “The larger the diameter of the core, the stiffer the string will be. This is how you can get a hex core string to “feel” like a round core string; use a smaller core diameter. Conversely, this is how you can make a set of strings specifically designed for down tuning; use larger core diameters. In terms of tone, a larger core tends to favor a slightly bigger sound with more fundamental, while the smaller core gives more flexibility and harmonic content.”

Tapered Core Strings 

You may have noticed string sets with tapered B strings which claim to result in better intonation, as well as exposed core strings that are often marketed as being more “piano-like” in their tone. These strings have fewer windings at their contact point with the bridge, or in the case of exposed core, are just a thin core material at the bridge. Jon’s take is that “Tapered/exposed core strings allow you to better intonate lower strings. How many times have we bottomed out a B string saddle while trying to adjust the intonation of a new set of strings? The taper/exposed core strings address this issue, while also giving you a slightly brighter sound, more focused overtones, and a different feel. It also facilitates stringing up larger gauge strings in a top-load bridge. There are “full sets” (anything smaller than the D string is usually not tapered as it’s too little)” tapered/exposed core strings out there, but most of the sets you see offered utilize the taper on the B string.” 

String Gauge and Tension

Moving on to string gauge. And man, there are a lot of options here. Light, medium-light, medium, medium-heavy, heavy, light top medium bottom, balanced tension, etc… It can be truly overwhelming. Ultimately gauge preference comes down to feel. Some people prefer lighter gauge strings for their flexibility and enhanced harmonic content. Some players prefer medium or heavy strings either because of the taut feel, or the fuller tone of medium or heavy strings. This is all purely subjective, and usually, it’s pretty obvious to a given player what type of gauge works for you. String gauge and string tension go hand in hand, and if you play with a lighter or heavier touch, you’ll probably have an inherent preference for string gauge.  

Speaking of tension, the seemingly recent trend around “balanced tension sets” with funky-looking nonlinear string gauges, which are advertised as offering more consistent string tension from string to string are becoming increasingly popular with several big brands. I asked Jon about balanced tension string sets: “To a point, balanced gauges have been around for a very long time. If you look at classical strings, they’ve been focused on this for hundreds of years. Strings were originally designed by feel; someone would play a set, say “this string feels a bit stiff,” make adjustments, and move forward. The actual “gauge” of a string wasn’t given that much credence. As long as the set felt even and balanced, it was good. The biggest benefit is consistent tension. If you have a set of strings that is “top-heavy” or vice versa, that can put uneven stress upon the neck and possibly twist it over time. A balanced set of strings provides a consistent tension to the neck, across the entire fretboard. That also translates to the player having an “easier” time (how easy is really up to the individual) as all the strings are responding uniformly under your fingers. However, I think “balanced” string gauges have been weaponized somewhat in the marketing ether. For the record, resources like Tension Guides from string manufacturers are a good thing, allowing players to make informed choices, especially when you’re looking to down tune, or use a non-traditional tuning on your bass. But thinking that a set of strings is “balanced” strictly by a tension guide is only one part of the equation. Something may be balanced on paper, but sound completely awful in context.”

So, what does all this mean? Well, ultimately, and thankfully, the simplest solution applies: If it feels good, and it sounds good to you, it is good! I still think it’s best to use your ears and your hands to decide which strings are best suited for you, but it sure helps to understand some of the design and manufacturing attributes that explain why there are so many options out there. And since it can be a pricey thing to experiment with, it can help to know roughly what you like and don’t like, to minimize costly trial and error. But at the end of the day, the only way to really know what’s gonna work for you on a given bass is to try different strings and see for yourself. 

Big thanks to Jon Moody for lending his experience and expertise here. Keep an eye out for our next installment of this conversation, on the elusive and surprisingly varied world of flatwound strings, coming soon to a fingerboard near you. Play on friends!  

Bass Videos

Interview With Bassist Erick “Jesus” Coomes

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Interview With Bassist Erick Jesus Coomes

Bassist Erick “Jesus” Coomes…

It is always great to meet a super busy bassist who simply exudes a love for music and his instrument. Erick “Jesus” Coomes fits this description exactly. Hailing from Southern California, “Jesus” co-founded and plays bass for Lettuce and has found his groove playing with numerous other musicians.

Join us as we hear of his musical journey, how he gets his sound, his ongoing projects, and his plans for the future.

Photo, Bob Forte

Visit Online

www.lettucefunk.com
IG @jesuscsuperstar
FB@jesuscoomes
FB @lettucefunk

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Working-Class Zeros: Episode #2 – Financial Elements of Working Musicians

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WORKING-CLASS ZEROS With Steve Rosati and Shawn Cav

Working-Class Zeros: Episode #2 – Financial Elements of Working Musicians

These stories from the front are with real-life, day-to-day musicians who deal with work life and gigging and how they make it work out. Each month, topics may include… the kind of gigs you get, the money, dealing with less-than-ideal rooms, as well as the gear you need to get the job done… and the list goes on from there.” – Steve the Bass Guy and Shawn Cav

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This Week’s Top 10 Basses on Instagram

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TOP 10 Basses of the week

Check out our top 10 favorite basses on Instagram this week…

Click to follow Bass Musician on Instagram @bassmusicianmag

FEATURED @foderaguitars @overwaterbasses @mgbassguitars @bqwbassguitar @marleaux_bassguitars @sugi_guitars @mikelullcustomguitars @ramabass.ok @chris_seldon_guitars @gullone.bajos

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New Album: Jake Leckie, Planter of Seeds

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Planter of Seeds is bassist/composer Jake Leckie’s third release as a bandleader and explores what beauty can come tomorrow from the seeds we plant today. 

Bassist Jake Leckie and The Guide Trio Unveil New Album Planter of Seeds,
to be released on June 7, 2024

Planter of Seeds is bassist/composer Jake Leckie’s third release as a bandleader and explores what beauty can come tomorrow from the seeds we plant today. 

What are we putting in the ground? What are we building? What is the village we want to bring our children up in? At the core of the ensemble is The Guide Trio, his working band with guitarist Nadav Peled and drummer Beth Goodfellow, who played on Leckie’s second album, The Guide, a rootsy funky acoustic analog folk-jazz recording released on Ropeadope records in 2022. For Planter of Seeds, the ensemble is augmented by Cathlene Pineda (piano), Randal Fisher (tenor saxophone), and Darius Christian (trombone), who infuse freedom and soul into the already tightly established ensemble.

Eight original compositions were pristinely recorded live off the floor of Studio 3 at East West Studios in Hollywood CA, and mastered by A.T. Michael MacDonald. The cover art is by internationally acclaimed visual artist Wayne White. Whereas his previous work has been compared to Charles Mingus, and Keith Jarrett’s American Quartet with Charlie Haden, Leckie’s new collection sits comfortably between the funky odd time signatures of the Dave Holland Quintet and the modern folk-jazz of the Brian Blade Fellowship Band with a respectful nod towards the late 1950s classic recordings of Ahmad Jamal and Miles Davis.

The title track, “Planter of Seeds,” is dedicated to a close family friend, who was originally from Trinidad, and whenever she visited family or friends at their homes, without anyone knowing, she would plant seeds she kept in her pocket in their gardens, so the next season beautiful flowers would pop up. It was a small altruistic anonymous act of kindness that brought just a little more beauty into the world. The rhythm is a tribute to Ahmad Jamal, who we also lost around the same time, and whose theme song Poinciana is about a tree from the Caribbean.

“Big Sur Jade” was written on a trip Leckie took with his wife to Big Sur, CA, and is a celebration of his family and community. This swinging 5/4 blues opens with an unaccompanied bass solo, and gives an opportunity for each of the musicians to share their improvisational voices. “Clear Skies” is a cathartic up-tempo release of collective creative energies in fiery improvisational freedom. “The Aquatic Uncle” features Randal Fisher’s saxophone and is named after an Italo Calvino short story which contemplates if one can embrace the new ways while being in tune with tradition. In ancient times, before a rudder, the Starboard side of the ship was where it was steered from with a steering oar. In this meditative quartet performance, the bass is like the steering oar of the ensemble: it can control the direction of the music, and when things begin to unravel or become unhinged, a simple pedal note keeps everything grounded.

The two trio tunes on the album are proof that the establishment of his consistent working band The Guide Trio has been a fruitful collaboration. “Santa Teresa”, a bouncy samba-blues in ? time, embodies the winding streets and stairways of the bohemian neighborhood in Rio de Janeiro it is named for. The swampy drum feel on “String Song” pays homage to Levon Helm of The Band, a group where you can’t always tell who wrote the song or who the bandleader is, proving that the sum is greater than the individual parts. Early jazz reflected egalitarianism in collective improvisation, and this group dynamic is an expression of that kind of inclusivity and democracy.

“The Daughters of the Moon” rounds out the album, putting book ends on the naturalist themes. This composition is named after magical surrealist Italo Calvino’s short story about consumerism, in which a mythical modern society that values only buying shiny new things throws away the moon like it is a piece of garbage and the daughters of the moon save it and resurrect it. It’s an eco-feminist take on how women are going to save the world. Pineda’s piano outro is a hauntingly beautiful lunar voyage, blinding us with love. Leckie dedicates this song to his daughter: “My hope is that my daughter becomes a daughter of the moon, helping to make the world a more beautiful and verdant place to live.”

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Bass CDs

Debut Album: Nate Sabat, Bass Fiddler

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Debut Album: Nate Sabat, Bass Fiddler

In a thrilling solo debut, bassist Nate Sabat combines instrumental virtuosity with a songwriter’s heart on Bass Fiddler

The upright bass and the human voice. Two essential musical instruments, one with roots in 15th century Europe, the other as old as humanity itself. 

On Bass Fiddler (Adhyâropa Records ÂR00057), the debut album from Brooklyn-based singer-songwriter and bass virtuoso Nate Sabat, the scope is narrowed down a bit. Drawing from the rich and thriving tradition of American folk music, Sabat delivers expertly crafted original songs and choice covers with the upright bass as his lone tool for accompaniment. 

The concept was born a decade ago when Sabat began studying with the legendary old-time fiddler Bruce Molsky at Berklee College of Music. “One of Bruce’s specialties is singing and playing fiddle at the same time. The second I heard it I was hooked,” recalls Sabat. “I thought, how can I do this on the bass?” From there, he was off to the races, arranging original and traditional material with Molsky as his guide. “Fast forward to 2020, and I — like so many other musicians — was thinking of how to best spend my time. I sat down with the goal of writing some new songs and arranging some new covers, and an entire record came out.” When the time came to make the album, it was evident that Molsky would be the ideal producer. Sabat asked him if he’d be interested, and luckily he was. “What an inspiration to work with an artist like Nate,” says Molsky. “Right at the beginning, he came to this project with a strong, personal and unique vision. Plus he had the guts to try for a complete and compelling cycle of music with nothing but a bass and a voice. You’ll hear right away that it’s engaging, sometimes serious, sometimes fun, and beautifully thought out from top to bottom.” 

While this record is, at its core, a folk music album, Sabat uses the term broadly. Some tracks lean more rock (‘In the Shade’), some more pop (‘White Marble’, ‘Rabid Thoughts’), some more jazz (‘Fade Away’), but the setting ties them all together. “There’s something inherently folksy about a musician singing songs with their instrument, no matter the influences behind the compositions themselves,” Sabat notes. To be sure, there are plenty of folk songs (‘Louise’ ‘Sometimes’, ‘Eli’) and fiddling (‘Year of the Ox’) to be had here — the folk music fan won’t go hungry. There’s a healthy dose of bluegrass too (‘Orphan Annie’, ‘Lonesome Night’), clean and simple, the way Mr. Bill Monroe intended. 

All in all, this album shines a light on an instrument that often goes overlooked in the folk music world, enveloping the listener in its myriad sounds, textures, and colors. “There’s nothing I love more than playing the upright bass,” exclaims Sabat. “My hope is that listeners take the time to sit with this album front to back — I want them to take in the full scope of the work. I have a feeling they’ll hear something they haven’t heard before.”

Available online at natesabat.bandcamp.com/album/walking-away

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