This article is about the differences of roundwound and flatwound strings of the bass guitar. If you’re interested in the different types of bass guitar, see our article here. If you’re interested in learning how to play bass, or play better you can check out our courses section.
For bass players, there are two basic choices for strings: roundwound and flatwound. Typically, most bass guitars come equipped with roundwound strings; however, there are some important differences between each type of string. Understanding these differences will help you decide which string type is best for your playing goals.
What are the differences between roundwound and flatwould bass guitar strings? Roundwound and flatwound bass strings each produce a unique tone. Flatwound strings have less sustain and emphasize the fundamental of the note; whereas, roundwound strings sustain more, and produce more mid and high range frequencies.
Let’s take a look at nine important differences between roundwound and flatwound bass strings.
The most important difference between roundwound and flatwound strings is their unique tone quality. And, since tone plays such a large role in music making, finding the right tone for your playing is important. Generally speaking, roundwound strings will be brighter sounding with a well defined mid-range and punchy lows.
Conversely, flatwound strings will be more low end oriented with mild mid and high range frequency focus. The flatwound string sound resembles the sound of an upright bass. For reference, flatwound strings were the first type of strings used on the electric bass; therefore, this sound is associated with the “vintage” sound of recordings up to the 1970’s.
Starting in the 1970’s, with the introduction of roundwound strings, the era of the “modern” electric bass sound began. Practically speaking, our ears, most likely identify the bass sound with the sound produced by roundwound strings, due to the fact that most of the music we have listened to since the 1970’s is characterized by this tone; of course, there are exceptions.
Flatwound strings have less sustain than roundwound strings, this is not necessarily a good or bad characteristic, it just is an important difference. Let’s unpack this phenomenon a bit. The low frequencies produced by the bass have a longer sound wave and produce fewer sound waves per second than higher frequencies. If low frequency sound waves are stacked on top of each other, the result is a muddy and unfocused sound. (This is why playing chords on the bass does not have the same result as playing chords on a guitar.)
The traditional upright bass and the electric bass, strung with flatwound strings, mitigates against this problem; the bass tones do not sustain as long and therefore produce a more defined bass accompaniment. The style of playing, especially in early rock and roll, typically used a type of walking bass to outline the chord progressions of the song. Flatwound strings, used in this early style, produce the fundamental note of each chord without the successive notes of the chords being “muddied” by the previous notes; this is due to the limited sustain of the strings.
However, the same effect can be achieved with roundwound strings; but, more left and right hand muting is necessary to obtain the same sound. Alternatively, modern styles of music make use of the extra sustain offered by roundwound strings to create distinctive bass parts.
#3 String Noise
Flatwound strings produce less string noise than roundwound strings due to the design of the strings. Roundwound strings have small gaps between the windings of the round outer coil; this can produce a noticeable sliding sound when moving from note to note.
For certain styles of music, e.g. rock, metal, etc. this is generally not an issue; however, for other styles, e.g. jazz, acoustic, music where the parts are exposed in the mix, and for recording, this can be problematic. In this case, flatwound strings have an advantage.
#4 String Tension
Flatwound strings hold more string tension than roundwound strings. More string tension increases the amount of pressure the fingers need to use to push down the strings. In other words, your finger and hand muscles will need to work harder to produce the tone than when using roundwound strings.
This can lead to muscle fatigue when playing for extended periods of time. Of course, with time your hands will accommodate this difference, but it is something to be aware of if you are accustomed to playing with roundwound strings.
There is a considerable price difference between flatwound and roundwound strings. Flatwound strings are typically twice the cost of roundwounds. Ideally, having a second bass to try flatwound strings, is a good way to go. It can be expensive to try flatwound strings, only to find that they are not working for you, and then restring your bass with a new set of roundwound strings. That could be a $60 round trip! If you only have one bass, you may want to borrow a bass with flatwound strings to try it out first.
#6 String Longevity
Although flatwound strings cost twice as much as roundwound strings, they last much longer. Without the small grooves for dirt and grime to gather, flatwounds will hold their tone and last longer than roundwounds. This offsets the increased cost of flatwounds; over time, their cost is equitable, if not more economical, than roundwound strings.
#7 Response To Effects Units
Due to the physical construction of roundwound strings, more overtones are produced from roundwound strings than from flatwound strings. (This is why they sound different.) Effects units take an original signal and alter it before outputting the new signal. Consequently, the sound of your bass with flatwound strings, as compared to the sound of your bass using roundwound strings, will sound different when using the same effects.
This can be an opportunity to develop some new bass tones just by using different strings. Ideally, it is a good idea to A/B this process, by having two basses. And, of course, if the basses are different, which presumably they are, some of the tonal variety will have to do with the bass itself. However, using flatwound strings can give your effects pedals a new dimension of sound possibilities.
#8 Playing Experience
Roundwound strings are more abrasive on the fingers because of the tiny grooves that exist between the string wraps. Whereas, the lack of gaps, which produces a smooth texture, are more finger friendly. However, most of us “cut our teeth”, so to speak, on roundwound strings and are unaware of the difference. (This is all we know.) But, if you are used to playing roundwound strings, flatwound strings may feel “slippery”. You may even find that you are sliding past the frets, because there is less resistance against your fingers.
Add to this, the higher string tension of flatwounds, and you may feel like you’re playing an entirely different instrument. On the other hand, some “old timers” that I know, will not play roundwounds because of the “roughness” of the string. Of course, they are used to the increased tension and are comfortable with it. So, for them, a bass with roundwound strings is a foreign instrument. However, understanding these differences and why they exist, can help you to play through the initial awkwardness of the new string type.
#9 Instrument Wear & Tear
Due to the increased abrasive nature of the “grooves” on roundwound strings, as compared with flatwound strings, potentially, they can wear down the frets sooner than flatwound strings.
However, this is not something to be overly concerned with; because, most basses use roundwound strings and the frets have been designed to handle them. Also, finding the tone that inspires you to play, and works for the music you are playing, is more important than fret wear on your instrument, which can be repaired if necessary.
As bass players, our role is to find the right tone, groove, and notes to support the music we are playing. Having the option of a flatwound sound and roundwound sound is similar to a carpenter with different tools in his tool box. To that end, I would recommend working towards the goal of having both options available to you. Practically, this would mean having at least two basses. Experiment with both sounds in different musical settings and find the right tone for that particular moment or recording.
About the author
Scott Zimmerman is a professional music instructor with over twenty years of guitar performance and teaching experience. Scott holds a Masters Degree in Music Education from Peabody Conservatory.