BGRA Feature: Flatwounds, Part I

Flatwounds, Part I

by Mark Wikholm

I have been using flatwounds for a couple of years now, after trying to figure out how to subdue the "ring" of roundwounds. I finally realized that roundwounds would not give me the sound I was looking for, although I could get close. At the same time, I thought that flats would sound flabby and indistinct. I posted a message on the Fender Discussion Page,and was nearly inundated with replies, the result of which was that I tried a set of Thomastik-Infeld Jazz Flatwounds. These are truly excellent strings, and, emboldened by this experience, I have tried several other brands of flats.

This article is called "Flatwounds Part I," because there are several brands that I haven't tried yet that I would like to try. I hope to do a follow-up after I have tried La Bella, Dean Markley, and some others. At this point, I have tried Carvin, Ernie Ball, Fender, GHS, D'Addario, Thomastik-Infeld, and Rotosound flats.

Before I give you my impressions of these strings, I should probably make a disclaimer. First and foremost, your mileage may vary. I have definite opinions on each string to be discussed, but your experience may lead you to choose differently. Choosing musical equipment is a highly subjective matter. Secondly, I have no financial interest inany of the brands discussed. And finally, these are all four-string sets. So, without further adieu, here are myimpressions:

I have the most experience with Fender 9050 Stainless Flatwounds. I have used the 9050 L set (.045-.095), and the 9050 ML set (.050-.100) fairly extensively. These are highlypolished, very smooth, shiny strings with high tension and stiffness. I find them to be the "thumpiest" of all the strings listed. Even the .045-.095 set feels stiff. The G onthe 9050 L set sounded pretty twangy to me, limiting its usefulness. The .050 G of the ML was much better in this regard, but still a little brighter than I thought it should be. The general character of these strings is upright bass-ish, but with more sustain. I like them a lot, because that's the sound I'm looking for from flats: strong attack, with good sustain.

The Thomastik-Infeld Jazz Flatwounds have gotten quite a bit of press lately, and have been discussed a lot on the internet as well; and for good reason. They are truly unique in the string world. They are very flexible compared to most flats, and they look a little funny, too. The D and G ares hiny, smooth strings, while the E and A almost look like half-rounds. The feel at first is a little off-putting; the E and A feel sticky and a little rough. Also, if you're a bit of a klutz like I am, you may pull the G off the side of the fingerboard occasionally until you learn to use a lighter touch. These strings have a midrange presence unlike anything I've ever heard. Some bassists say the "cut through the mix" better than roundwounds. I'm not sure about that, but they can make you heard without excessive treble. When I first put these strings on, they seemed pretty bright for flats. However, I was advised that this soon fades, and they then have more of a flatwound sound. This is correct. Within acouple of weeks, they were sounding fat and thumpy, and after a couple of months, they sounded even better. The G acquires a marvelous "deadness" that makes it fit well with the other strings. These strings are also somewhat unique in construction, in that there is a silk layer between the core and the windings. TI says that this dampens odd-orderharmonics. Suffice it to say that these are unlike other strings in construction and feel, but have a very solid sound. I'm going to have to try them again.

I currently have Ernie Ball Flatwounds on my Fender Precision. These are in some ways similar to the Fender 9050's, but there are some significant differences. They are not as smooth as the Fenders, either to the eye or hand. They have a little stickiness, which will hopefully wear off eventually, as it does with the TI's. They also have a little rougher sound, although they seem to be settling down. I've only had them on for about two weeks, which isn't very long for flats. The outer wrap of the Ernie Balls is chrome-plated steel, while the Fenders are stainless. The G string of the Ernies is shiny and smooth, much shinier and smoother than the other strings. It is also less twangy than the Fender G. I have the .050-.105 set right now, and they're plenty stiff. The feel is similar to the Fenders. I find them a bit less thumpy than the Fenders, but you can still feel it when you pluck a string. All in all, a good, traditional flatwound. I've played them out twice so far, and I'm told that the notes can be heard as well as felt. I see no reason to change them anytime soon.

They say that if you can't say anything good, don't say anything at all. I guess I won't have much to say about Carvin flatwounds, then. Carvin flats are, without a doubt, the worst bass strings I have ever used. The Carvin guys havetold me that GHS makes them, and they've told me that LaBella makes them. I don't know who makes them, but both companies denied responsibility when I called and/or e-mailed them. The E was muddy and indistinct, the G was twangy with little bass response, and the A and D fell somewhere in the middle. To Carvin's credit, they gave me my money back.

I am also less than highly impressed with GHS Precision Flatwounds. On my Precision, they sounded close to the Fender flats, but weren't quite as consistent. The E and A tended a bit toward mud, and the D and G were a tad bright for my taste. I will say, however, that on a project fretless I have, they sounded somewhat better, so I wouldn't necessarily count them out altogether. Their finish is smoother than the Ernie Balls, but not so smooth as the Fenders.

Rotosound 77 Jazz Bass flatwounds are some of the most beautifully crafted strings I've seen. They are highly polished, shiny strings with impeccably applied silk. They have a nice, smooth feel as well. Sonically, though, I was underwhelmed. 77's are not typical flatwounds, having a much brighter sound, almost roundwound-ish. I tried the Steve Harris set, and yes, they are big, fat strings, but they don'thave a big, fat sound compared to other flats. They don't have the thump I associate with flats, either. If you're an Iron Maiden fan, you might want to try a set. Or if you want something really different, well, here you go.

I'm probably the only person in the world who has had a negative customer service experience with D'Addario. I ordered a set of Chromes, figuring that with that name, they would be smooth, shiny strings. Not so. They looked almost like half-rounds, and were a lot brighter-sounding than I expected. This was at the time when D'Addario was having some heat-treating difficulties, and P.J. D'Addario had posted instructions on Talkbass about how to heat-treat his strings. So, I tried it, and of course the silk turned black, but the sound improved a little. They still sounded inconsistent to me, so I e-mailed Peter D'Addario (several times) with my complaints. He finally e-mailed back and said that now my strings sounded fine, and the black silk was just cosmetic anyway. So I threw the strings away and gave up on D'Addario. I'm still not sure what Chromes are supposed to sound like,and I'm certainly not going to try them again. That said, I gather that my experience with D'Addario was not typical, as they have many devoted customers, and I've mostly heard good stories about their customer service.

There are a lot of flatwounds to choose from. In addition to those listed above, there are Lakland Joe Osborn flats, Dean Markley Flatwounds, La Bella Deep Talkin' flats, D'Aquisto flatwounds, Pyramid Gold flats, Guild flatwounds, and maybe some others. Of these, I really want to try the La Bellas, since I've heard so many good things about them, but I'm not in a hurry, because I've found some that can do the job pretty well already.

So, lots of strings, lots of sounds. I can't narrow this list down to a personal favorite, but for traditional sound and feel, I really like the Fenders and Ernie Balls. Both have advantages and disadvantages, but either will do the job. Both have enough mid and top to be heard, and both have sufficient thump to be felt, even at relatively low volumes. On the other hand, if you can handle (or prefer) low-tension, flexible strings, by all means try the Thomastik-Infeld JazzFlatwounds. They are very high quality, unique (but still flatwound) sounding strings that will last almost forever. TI customer service, handled in the USA by Connolly and Company, is nearing legendary status.

Mark Wikholm is a former BGRA Editor