All About Flatwound Strings…
Without further ado, here is part two of my conversation with GHS’s Jon Moody (View part one here >>> All About Roundwound Strings). In this article, we are going to focus on the finer points of all things flatwound strings. There is a lot of mystery and misconception on the topic of flats; primarily that they’re just for vintage/old-school tones and fretless bass. In reality, there is a pretty wide range of instruments, styles, and techniques where flatwound strings can shine, depending on how they are used and towards what goal. In the last couple of years, I have personally developed a much broader understanding of all of the different ways I can use flats to achieve particular tone goals. At the moment I have a set of flats on my 33-inch scale six string, take that Motown purists!
Keep going to read Jon’s answers, and comments which are italicized.
What are flatwounds and how did they first come about?
Perhaps the biggest question about flats is how they differ from roundwound strings, which are generally more common among electric bassists these days. The main difference, and what gives them a different feel and sound is the difference in cover wire used in the outer wrap. A flat ribbon wire is wound over the outer ring and then polished smooth. As for which one came first, the flatwounds were here before the roundwounds for bass. As to HOW they came about…. I believe that Rotosound Swing 66s were the first roundwound made for bass.
Are there advantages to flatwound strings?
Flatwounds are very different from Roundwounds and carry their own set of pros/cons to them. For example, a lot of people claim the long-lasting tone of a set of flatwounds as a plus. But those same people say you need to “play in” a set of flats for a couple weeks/months to open them up.
One thing to note about flatwounds. They seem to be one of the few sets of strings that can vary widely depending on the manufacturer. A set like D’Addario Chromes will sound much brighter and different than GHS Precision Flats, and yet they’re both flatwound strings. It’s common to see players use different sets of flats, to match the tonal flavor they’re going for.
Are flatwounds just for Motown/vintage-style players or instruments?
Haha no, but that’s what it’s mostly associated with since that’s what music was being created with them. You can play flatwounds in whatever style of music you’d like. There are even some players that’ll slap with a set of flats.
What are some of the newer and more interesting versions of flatwounds and how did they come about?
A “more interesting” version of flatwounds would be the Ernie Ball Cobalt flats. By using a different material, they created a set of strings that feels like flatwounds but is bright and lively like roundwounds.
Another interesting set would be the Thomastik-Infeld Jazz Flats. What sets these apart is that they’re made from the slant of a double bass string, so they are VERY different from everything else on the market. They have a very low tension feel and speak very evenly across the fretboard. The only concern many have is that the price is easily twice as much as other options.
Are flatwounds easier on the fingerboard and your fingers?
Yes, absolutely. Because flatwounds have a smooth surface, they’re not going to be as rough on your fingers or your fingerboard, which is why the typical recommendation is to put flatwounds on a fretless if you’re starting out.
However, keep in mind that in general terms a vibrating metal string is still going over a wooden fretboard. In the construction world, that’s called a saw. There will always be markings and things from using strings of any kind on a fingerboard. Do not let that be your only concern when choosing strings.
What are tape wounds and what are they for?
Tapewounds are made by wrapping a nylon material over the string, and then polishing it smooth. This final cover beefs up the gauge, but because it has so little mass, doesn’t affect the tension of the string, resulting in a set of strings that are high in gauge but very low in actual tension.
As for what they’re for, that’s a great question! Tapes have a softer, subdued high end with a roundish tone. The low tension also gives them a more tubby type of initial attack, which many players equate to what an upright bass might sound like. That’s usually why you’ll see a lot of people recommend using tapewounds for an upright-vibe on an acoustic-electric bass.
Why do flats feel like they’re higher tension/stiffer?
The reason is the final cover. Flat ribbon wire lays on the string much like a row of bricks. And because each of the winds lays (mostly) flat against each other with little/no gaps, it creates a string that is harder to get to vibrate and press down to fret.
Now, what most people forget is that with a stiff set of strings (like flatwounds), it is possible to lower the action more than with a typical set of roundwounds. Not only will this make the strings feel less stiff (since they’ll require less force to fret), but it’ll make the bass, as a whole, much easier to play.
Do all flats have more fundamental to their sound than roundwounds?
By and large, yes.
Who are some of the more famous players who use flats (and maybe some that are surprising given their style or sound)?
James Jamerson is usually THE standard. But there’s been Pino Palladino, and a bunch of others. I don’t know of many that are “exclusive” flatwound users. Most players have a bass with flats in their stable, as it’s a great tonal addition to anything. My favorite is Steve Harris, rocking a set of flats with Iron Maiden for all these years.
What is the ratio of round to flat sets that GHS sells?
Prior to the last five years or so, I would’ve guessed it around a 25:1 ratio. But with the resurgence of more vintage-inspired sounds and music, it’s probably gotten to something closer to a 12:1. I don’t foresee flatwounds ever surpassing roundwounds in sales, but they’re not going anywhere.
Big thanks to Jon Moody for answering all of my questions and more. You can find Jon all over social media, and when he’s not working as GHS’s Artist Relations and Brand Development guru, he’s playing a mean bass. Check out his music and his personal webpage at justmoody.com