Despite impacting the sound and feel of their instrument, bassists often overlook the importance of bass string thickness.
Therefore, I decided to write this guide to tell you everything you need to know about it.
Chances are that you`ve heard that bass string thickness is all about preference. While this is largely true, it can be hard to know what string gauge to choose when you haven`t tried them all.
Because of this, I`ll show you what difference string gauge makes. I will also show you in what scenarios you might find a heavier set fitting, and when you might prefer a lighter set. This way, it will be much easier to choose a set of strings that fits your preferences, genre, and style.
Do strings make a difference on bass?
The thickness of bass strings will affect both the sound and playability of a bass guitar. The wounding and material of the strings also make a big difference in how easy the bass feels to play, and the overall tone of it. Thus, bassists often carefully select strings that fit their personal style.
When bass players talk about strings, they generally mention 2 things about them: The gauge and the wounding.
The gauge refers to the thickness of the bass strings. Wounding refers to how the string is winded over its core. The reason gauge and wounding are the most discussed part of strings is that they have the biggest impact on the playability and tone of a bass guitar.
To give you a better idea, here are just some of the ways bass strings can make a difference:
|What`s affected||How it`s affected||What affects it|
|Tone||Bright Sound vs Dark Sound||Wounding|
|Playability||Ease of fretting strings||String gauge and string tension|
|Slapping||Ease of slapping and popping strings||String gauge|
|Low-end frequencies||How boomy and bassy the tone is||String thickness|
|Muting||Ease of keeping unplayed strings from ringing out||Wounding|
|Brightness||How bright and clear the strings sound||Build material and wounding|
|Bending||Ease of bending strings||String gauge and string tension|
|Sustain||How long strings are able to ring out||Wounding and string gauge|
|Intonation||How likely you are to run into intonation issues||String thickness|
|Beginner-friendliness||How demanding the strings feel to play for a beginner||String gauge and wounding.|
What gauge string should I use for the bass?
A medium gauge set of .105-.050 gauge strings makes for a balanced and well-rounded set of strings for a 4-string bass. Heavier sets such as .110-.055 resonate more and have more noticeable low-end frequencies, whereas lighter sets such as .095-.040 are easier to fret but have less noticeable bass frequencies.
Furthermore, you want to pick a set of strings based on what tuning you are going to play in.
In most genres, bassists stick to playing in E standard, meaning their strings are tuned E-A-D-G. Thus, you have some flexibility in how heavy or light strings you want to use.
Sets with an E String in the .115-.090 range will generally work, but going any heavier or lighter than this means it will likely feel too sloppy or too tense. To learn more, check out this bass string gauge chart I made.
Lower tunings such as A standard, require completely different string gauges to get the right amount of tension. For example, a balanced set of strings for A Standard has gauges of ~.145-.075. Thus, be mindful that the rules change completely based on what tuning you play in.
Another thing to consider when looking at the thickness of bass strings is your plucking style:
- Fingerstyle: Fingerstyle players have a good bit of flexibility in what bass string thickness they can opt for. The main thing to consider is that heavier strings can feel more draining on your plucking hand. While you will build stamina over time, longer sessions can thus feel more demanding when starting out with a heavier set.
- Pick: If you play the bass with a pick, you also have a lot of flexibility in what string gauges to choose. In genres where picks are common, such as rock and punk, bassists commonly opt for lighter strings for a brighter sound. Thus, if you are looking for a gritty punk tone, I recommend a set that`s on the lighter side.
- Slap: While all basses can be slapped, it is a best practice to choose a set of lighter strings if you are intending to slap and pop. Heavier strings can be slapped too, but they are more demanding on your fingers. Furthermore, heavy strings produce a warmer tone than light strings, which is generally not what you want when slapping the bass.
Are thicker bass strings harder to play?
In general, thick bass strings take up more space on the fretboard and can be more demanding on the stamina of your plucking hand. While this can make it harder to pick and mute strings, the higher tension can also make the strings easier to fret, which can make thicker strings easier to play.
If you tune down to the lowest possible bass tuning, the sheer size of the strings will make playing more demanding. The strings will have an insane amount of tension, which can make them easier to fret, but the instrument will be overall more demanding to play.
If you stay in E standard and use a light set of strings, the strings will have a low amount of tension. This makes fretting them feel less smooth and slightly more difficult. On the other hand, you will have more space on the fretboard which will make playing easier. The strings will also feel less demanding to pluck.
Thus, thicker bass strings are not strictly harder to fret than lighter strings. Some bass players even find heavier strings easier to play overall.
“I need a set of strings that isn`t gonna fatigue on me and go dead after a couple of takes or i the middle of a set. That`s important, you know, especially for people that, you know, can`t afford to buy a new set of strings every 3 days, every week or two.”Mike Dirnt of Green Day – 2017 Ernie Ball feature
Therefore, it is best to experiment with what type of strings feel the most comfortable to you. String thickness makes a difference in how difficult a bass feels to play, but it does not come down to thicker=harder.
Do heavier bass strings sound better?
As a rule of thumb, heavier bass strings sound more bassy, warm, and resonant than lighter strings. While many bassists prefer the sound of heavy strings, using them for their tone is ultimately a stylistic choice and lighter strings are often used both for their tone and playability.
Bassists looking for a hard-hitting metal bass sound often opt for heavy bass strings. This is because the resonance and low-end heavy sound of thick bass strings help metal bassists sound as heavy as they do.
Bassists looking for a fuller, warmer, and resonant tone can also benefit from using a heavier string set. This sound can be fitting for ballads or for jazz, especially if the bassline consists of many sustained notes.
For a brighter sound and a less pronounced low-end, lighter strings are a more fitting choice. A tone of this kind will be better at cutting through the guitars and be heard in the mix. Thus, the tone of lighter strings tends to fit well into genres like funk, punk, and rock.
As you can tell by now, there is no universal answer to what bass string thickness is the best.
After playing for 15 years, I have however found that this is a good thing. I used to be overwhelmed by the difficulty of choosing the right wounding, gauge, material, and manufacturer. Nowadays, I think of these as an arsenal of tonal choices that can be used to help attain the perfect tone for a specific song or style.
If you are unsure where to begin, you will rarely go wrong with a medium gauge set of ~.105-.050 gauge strings, with an added .130 if you play a 5-string. This string thickness is a great place to start and makes for a risk-free set that will work in all genres of music.
If you play a heavy sub-genre of metal, you can safely start off with a heavier set. This holds especially true if you are looking to tune down your bass. You can find guides that go into string choice for alternate bass tunings in my list of tuning guides.
Opting for a lighter set, such as ~.095-.040 makes sense if you are mainly intending to play slap. It is also a fitting choice if you have found that you prefer a brighter tone, or have found that a medium gauge set has too much low-end for your taste.
After you find a set of bass strings with a fitting thickness, it`s time to make the most of them. Luckily, strings can be reused multiple times if you go about it correctly. To learn more, check out my guide on reusing bass strings.