BGRA Feature: Matt's String Reviews
Strings, Strings, and More Strings

by Matt Schmill
last update: 4/23/2004


Since I've started making my own basses, I've had a chance to get to know a few different strings. It's hard to remember one pack from the next without writing stuff down; I dare you to look at a product list from one of the major manufacturers. Hex-core, round-core, ribbon-wound, compression-wound. How do you decide what's important and what's not?

The prices listed here are approximate at the time of posting, and reflect typical cost at an online string retailer. The prices may be ancient, as I wrote some of these mini-reviews agest ago! Your local experience may vary, but they'll give you an idea of how one string price compares to the next.


My Favorites:
For fretless: TI Jazz Flats
For slap bass: DR Hi Beams
For fingerstyle: La Bella Deep Talkin' Bass
Best nickelwound: DR Sunbeams
Best cheap-ass string: SIT Silencers
Overall best roundwound: DR Hi Beams
General Recommendations

The two main distinctions to be made among strings are materials and winding. Most major manufacturers make a stainless steel string and nickel-plated steel string. The most common winding is a roundwound, but some manufacturers make flatwound strings, some make a groundwound, and one of the newer strings to hit the market is the compression wound string. All these windings refer to how the string is made: strings consist of a core, and a wrap (or "winding"). As the name suggests, roundwounds have a round wrap, flatwounds have a ribbon-like wrap, groundwounds have round windings that are ground down, and compression wound strings are rounds wound under compression that takes some of the bite out of the string.

You will notice a marked difference in the sound and feel of these different types of strings. Steel strings have a super-metallic sound, while a nickel plating will mellow that clang of the steel out some. Steels are also somewhat rougher feeling than nickels. Roundwounds have by far the best high end brilliance. Flatwounds have an almost "dead", thuddy sound right out of the box. Grounds are like flats with some brightness. Compression wound strings are smooth-feeling rounds with just a bit of the brightness taken out. Roundwounds collect dirt and oils in the ridges and eventually that kills the brightness of the strings, causing them to go "dead". Flats and rounds stay consistent in terms of tone for a long, long time.

Between feel, tone, and such, I have come to feel that nickel-plated rounds are my favorite for fingerstyle and all-around play on a fretted bass. For slap, I believe stainless strings cannot be beat. I prefer groundwound or flatwound on a fretless for the warmth and the feel, though those wanting some high-end bite should consider compression wound strings as a nice alternative. My favorite strings for different situations are listed at left. Your mileage may, of course, vary. The best policy is exploration, if you can afford it. Use these summaries to give you a rough idea of where you might want to go next, and take a shot. Chances are, after 2 or 3 sets, you'll find one you really like.

Before we get to the mini-reviews, let me just give a word of caution in regard to winding length. Two things you'd like to avoid are wrapping the winding of thick strings around the tuner post and running the silk of some string over the nut. The fat strings may have more than one winding around the core. Generally these strings have tapered windings on the non-ball end of the string so you can fit the string into your tuner post. Often the tapered part is wrapped in silk. You do not want the fattest part wound around the tuner if you can help it. Likewise, you generally do not want the silk to run over the nut. The key here is buying a set of strings that fits your bass. Nowadays, basses are available with many different scale lengths. The traditional scale length is 34". This is considered by most manufacturers to be "long" scale, short scale is considered 30", and medium scale is 32". 35" and 36" are considered "extra-long". So, even though your 35" scale bass was sold to you as a long-scale bass, GHS and D'Addarrio longs are usually not long enough! If you string through the body, they will be shorter still. I've also found that DR makes a string that will fit most 34" and 35" scale basses. That's pretty smart, eh? The new Everly strings fit my string-through-the-body 34" scale 4 string, so I think they'll fit most 34" and 35" scale basses, too. Best thing to do is to look on the manufacturer's web site for winding lengths, or better yet, buy local and bring your bass. Make sure they'll fit!


Carvin
$45 (for 3 6-string sets)
(only available direct)
How good is this price? Pretty average nickel roundwounds, these come in one guage: 128, 100, 80, 60, 40, 29. I found these strings to be reasonably snappy out of the package, but somewhat flabby sounding and lacking the slick feel that some of the other strings seem to have. Life expectency is somewhat short. In a pinch, though, these strings aren't bad, and are the most inexpensive I've seen.
Sound
Feel
Value
Life
75%
80%
95%
70%
Conklin Snakeskins
$40 (for 7-string set)
If you have a 7 string bass, this set of strings is the one you should buy. They have a wound F string, which is all you need to know.

These are custom guage steel rounds that I would guess are made by La Bella. The 94% rating for "feel" is simply because of the wound F string. It is far superior to a plain F string.

Sound
Feel
Value
Life
88%
94%
80%
88%
D'addario Chromes
$38 (5 string set)
I finally have gotten a chance to check these strings out on one of my own basses. My initial impression is that first of all, flats or grounds are a must-have for people who own at least one fretless and one fretted. They sound cool and uprighty, and they definately feel cool, in addition to not chewing up fingerboards like roundwounds.

So, I like the Chromes. In fact, I think they stack up nicely against the Thomastik Jazz Flats, which are more expensive. The Chromes seem to be higher tension than the Thomastiks. Not much, but somewhat tighter. This is a double edged sword, as looser can be faster, but tighter is, well.... tighter. Overall, I would say that given the price tags, I lean towards the Chromes over the Thomastiks.

Sound
Feel
Value
Life
85%
85%
70%
???
D'addario XL170
$15 (4 string set)
I put these on a fretless at the request of it's buyer. The pack I tried were "soft guage", which were .100's. They are nickel roundwounds. No roundwound has ever really thrilled me on a fretless, but these really perked the bass up. For that bass, I think they were perfect. They played real smooth (I love those 100's) and has a nice, sweet sound. A solid nickel string. I've since tried the XL170 5 string set, which have a pretty solid low B.
Sound
Feel
Value
Life
85%
88%
88%
80%
D'addario Slowounds
$20 (4 string set)
I bought the Slowwounds to put on a customer's bass a couple of months ago. When that fell through, they sat for a while. Well, I finally finished up a 33" scale 4 string bass, and I decided what the heck, I'll put them on it.

Now, somehow, I decided to string this thing B-E-A-D. Yeah, a 33" scale bass with a B. People complain about floppy B strings on a 34" scale bass, and I go and put one on a short scale. Well, the good news is that the B string is not flabby, though it is not perfect. In fact, this set (I can't remember what guage we're talking about) seems pretty tight.

That aside, I don't notice much difference in the Slowound strings from other D'Addarrio nickels. They feel nice, and sound good, too. But that's $5 a set you could be spending on beer or sandwiches if you bought XL170's instead...

update, 7/4/2001
I decided to try another set of Slowounds today, this time a 6 string set on a 35" scale bass. I have the "Long Scale" set and it does not fit. The silk starts a good 1/2" before the nut, when strung on an ABM quick load bridge. This is very disappointing, as I think few people consider a 34" scale bass "long scale", especially for a 6 string set. Now I'm stuck with a 6 string set that is only good for 34" scale bass.

Sound
Feel
Value
Life
88%
90%
80%
87%
Dean Markley Blue Steel
$21.40 (4 string set)
I didn't like these strings at first. They are dull and grey looking, with a sort of coarse feel to them, like most steels. But after getting a set of Ken Smith Rock Masters, I became a steel believer, and I put this set on one of my fretted basses, and I like them a lot now. The Rock Masters are cheaper, though, so I still like them a bit better.
Sound
Feel
Value
Life
90%
85%
80%
90%
DR Hi-Beams
$20.25 (4 string set)
I finally broke down and sprung for the extra $5 it cost me to get DRs instead of Ken Smith or D'addarrio. I got the Hi-Beam 100's, which are stainless steel roundwounds. I believe they have a round core. These strings just feel better than any other steel string I have played. The sound is snappy and tight.
Sound
Feel
Value
Life
93%
95%
85%
90%
DR Lo Riders
$20.25 (4 string set)
If you're like me, you're wondering what the difference between Hi Beams and Lo Riders is. If you're like me, you went out and bought both to find out, and you made sure to get stainless Lo Riders so it would be a real apples-and-apples comparison. Technically, the Lo Riders have a hex core, and Hi Beams have a round core. Apparently, the Lo Riders are a little less bright looking. They look a lot like the Ken Smith Rock Masters. They feel just like Hi Beams, and are great for slap bass. Just great. The difference is slight between the two strings (at least the steel versions), but I would have to say that the low riders are less bright and sparkling.
Sound
Feel
Value
Life
93%
93%
85%
92%
DR Sunbeams
$29.70 (5 string set)
I like the DR steel strings so much, I decided, "what the heck, I might as well try some of their nickel strings. The Sunbeams are those strings. I got a .125-.45 5 string set of Sunbeams to go on a 35" scale bass I made. They fit the bass perfectly, but on a shorter scale bass, you'd end up wrapping the windings, I think. I'm going to start putting up winding lengths soon.

Anyway, I think I like the feel of nickel strings better, in general, than even the good steel strings. I like the slickness of the sun beams. They slap pretty good, and I am starting to think that the D'Addarrio XL170's don't do that as well. All around, Sunbeams are at the top of my nickel list. They feel and sound great, and slap better than the XL170's.

Sound
Feel
Value
Life
91%
97%
88%
90%
Ernie Ball Slinky
$19.00 (5 string set)
Hey, get this. Someone sent me an email raving about Ernie Ball Slinkys and I actually went out and bought a set to review. Go figure.

At first, I thought these were nothing special. Just between you and me, most strings are nothing special. In fact, I thought, "who cares?"

The other night, though, I finally brought the bass I put them on into the recording room. They actually play pretty nice. They're not overly bright, which is fine for me on a 5 string, since I generally do not do funky slap stuff on anything other than a 4 anyways. So, for me, feel is the big thing on a 5 string. And these feel pretty good.

Bottom line: do not fear buying Slinkys. They feel good. Not real bright. Good value.

Sound
Feel
Value
Life
86%
92%
95%
NA
Everly Bass Rockers
$11.95 (4 string set)
I got these Everly strings because they're so darn cheap. Changing strings every couple weeks at $20-25 is not in most people's budgets. At $12, now we're getting into the realm of possibility.

As you might have guessed, these are very run-of-the-mill nickel roundwounds. Is that the good news, or the bad news? Well, it's good news, I think, if you're the type that buys whatever nickel strings are on sale -- D'Addarrio or Charlie Stringers or whatever. The Bass Rockers certainly feel okay, and sound fine unamplified. The guage is very regular -- 100, 80, 60, 40.

I guess it's bad news if you are a die-hard for a particular brand, especially if you pay a lot to get a particular brand. This is because the Everly strings don't have any particular strength besides their price. If you are a DR die-hard, the Everly strings won't change your mind. If you aren't, though, the $2-3 savings per pack over the closest competitor might win you over.

Sound
Feel
Value
Life
84%
88%
96%
88%
Everly B-52 Rockers
After reading my Rockers review, an Everly rep sent me these strings. He said that the Rockers I reviewed must have been an old set, and he wanted me to get the real deal to review. Sounded good to me, so the first 4 string to come out of the shop got a new set of B-52 Rockers.

The package says these are made of "... a specially magnetic alloy called Alloy-52 ... that is incredibly resonant and tarnish resistant." Looks and feels like well polished nickel winding to me.

The B-52 strings sound good to my ear out of the box. Even sound from E-G, with the bright, lively sound that you should expect from a new nickel roundwound. A nice slapping string. Feel is good, not coarse, but not as slick and smooth as some strings I have played. I like these strings, both in terms of feel and sound, than the Bass Rockers I tried.

These strings seem to come in at around $4-5 cheaper than DR strings, although I am basing this on pricing I have seen on a string called "Everly Bass Sessions", which is an Alloy 52 roundwound. The B-52 Rockers could be another string altogether, but pricing on Everly strings is all around darn good. If you're looking to cut budget on strings, take a look at Everyly B-52's.

Sound
Feel
Value
Life
90%
88%
94%
??
GHS Bass Boomers
$19 (4 string set)
I've never really been impressed by Bass Boomers. They are snappy, I guess, like most nickel-plated strings, but there's really nothing about them that distinguishes them from any other string, and the price is just okay. I've tried Mediums and Lights of this brand.
Sound
Feel
Value
Life
85%
85%
80%
80%
GHS Brite Flats
$19.70 (4 string set)
+$3.50 hi c string
It ain't easy finding a flatwound set with a hi C if that's the way you like to string your fretless 5 string. After about a month with XL170's on mine, I finally found the GHS Brite Flats - with a hi C string. They're ground roundwounds, so they're not actually flatwounds, but they are smooth! I love the feel, and they actually are pretty bright sounding. Much brighter than the D'Addarrio Chromes, which have their own appeal, but also much cheaper. I like these strings!
Sound
Feel
Value
Life
90%
95%
95%
95%
Ken Smith Rock Masters
$16.25 (4 string set, retail)
When I bought these, I hadn't realized that were stainless steel. After my unspectacular initial experience with the Blue Steel strings, I was a little disappointed. I strung them on my freshly finished four string fretted and was pleasantly surprised. These have a pretty slick feel to them, and have a very crisp, snappy tone. The medium-light (.100-.45) gauge is right-on for me. Suddenly, I'm a believer in steel strings. The judge is still out on durability, but so far, so good.
Sound
Feel
Value
Life
90%
88%
85%
85%
Ken Smith Tapercore 7 string set
$30.25 (7 string set)
I bought these strings to put on a fretless 6 string I was building, that I wanted to string E-F (tenor). Well, I finally finished the bass. These strings are just like Rock Masters, as far as I can tell, except for the taper at the ball end. The taper on the E string continues past the saddle on my ABM bridge. I dunno if that's the way they're supposed to go, or if the ABM is just a "short" bridge. At any rate, the C and F strings on this set (a .028 and a .020) are quite thin, while the lower strings (E, A, D) are pretty gutsy. I can imagine the F string being only useful in chords, or in a very controlled environment (i.e. a studio). Probably not Ken Smith's fault. What do you expect out of a 28 and a 20?
Sound
Feel
Value
Life
Balance
82%
86%
85%
88%
60%
La Bella "Deep Talkin' Bass"
$16.95 (4 string set)
Cool name, right? Check this out: the subtitle is "perfectly balanced set". What this boils down to is that instead of a .100 or a .105, they give you a .102. My set is Med-lt: .102, .077, .058, .039, stainless steel. Can you really tell the difference between a .102 and a .100? Probably not. These strings do sound nice, producing a surprisingly huge sound out of a set of Bartolini 9J (jazz pickups). And I do like the guage.... but I like .100's, too, and most people won't feel much difference (myself included). No reason not to buy them, though, they're good strings, and if you happen to feel like .105's are too tight and .100's are too floppy, these are the ones for you.
Sound
Feel
Value
Life
92%
88%
88%
91%
La Bella "Slappers (6 string)"
$26.95 (6 string set)
I like La Bella strings. As I understand, they can be a pain to deal with and get strings from. Too bad.

These are nickel rounds. Very slick feeling, great playing strings. Good life to them, nice sound. Unfortunately, these are on a 6 string fretless (not my idea), so I couldn't really get them slapping to put their name to the test. Definately in the same league as Sunbeams, my favorite roundwounds.

Sound
Feel
Value
Life
89%
94%
88%
92%
SIT Silencers
??
SIT is a relatively new string company that popped up only a few years ago. Their strings are competitively priced and so I ordered a big batch to try. Among them were Power Wounds, Power Steels, and this set, their "Silencers".

The Silencer is basically SIT's pressurewound string. All their strings come out of the packaging well polished and feeling nice and crisp. The Silencers are quite smooth to the feel, and I used these for a while on fretless basses for people who wanted something close to the bite of a roundwound. These strings somehow manage to feel tight even compared to rounds of a similar guage. SITs are great strings for the price.

Sound
Feel
Value
Life
85%
90%
95%
85%
Snarling Dogs
$15 (4 string set)
Come on, who can resist a pack of strings that retail for $15 ? It's pretty sad, considering guitarists get away with $6 sets of strings (for the expensive ones). These are your run-of-the-mill nickel roundwounds. The pack I tried were .95-.40 (light guage). These strings have decent, snappy tone, with a somewhat coarse feel to them. I don't think I like this light a gauge, as they can get somewhat flabby sounding. Overall, though, a good value if you don't feel like spending $30 a pop for strings, although I prefer the feel of soft guage XL170's.
Sound
Feel
Value
Life
80%
78%
90%
75%
Thomastik-Infeld
Jazz Electric Roundwounds
$42.50 (5 string set)
Compared to the DR strings that the bass previously wore the Thomastiks have much lower string tension, resulting in a soft, easy playing feel, although the softness does add a bit of looseness to the B string. Despite this, the B string still sounded nice and clear right up the neck. These strings are light: .118, .089, .068, .051, .043.

The sound of these strings was a bit of a surprise- they add a bunch of mids to the tone; very growly sounding. I will try these on a fretless bass next, as they seem to be well suited for that. The highs are less shimmering than the DRs. The bottom is full and tight.

A word of caution- do not attempt to use these on a 35" scale bass, or a bass with through body stringing! On the 34" scale test bass the silk windings cleared the zero fret by about 1/2". The 4 string set is available in super long scale, but apparently not the 5 string set.

(special guest review by Jack Read using a Read Custom 5 string)

Sound
Feel
Value
Life
90%
95%
70%
95%
Thomastik-Infeld Jazz Flats
$31.95 (4 string set)
I've heard a lot of good things about Thomastik-Infeld strings lately, so when I decided to produce a fretless 4 string, I decided to throw some TI Jazz Flats on it. You know, give them a ride. The $31.95 price tag is hefty. Are they worth it?

When I first threw them on, I was unimpressed. I was expecting magic strings -- gleaming chromium superstrings that melt in my hands. They weren't gleaming chromium, and that disappointed me. In fact, they are dull-looking flats that are visibly indistinguishable from most other flats.

After playing them for a while, I like the feel of them. It's a slightly weird guage -- .043 .056 .070 .100 -- but I think that may be why they feel good. The guage determines how much tension you need on the string to tune it to pitch, and so by tweaking the guages, you can get a more consistent feel from string to string, and a softer overall feel, which the Jazz Flats have.

I can't decide whether or not I like these better than the GHS Brite Flats. They are less bright (not surprisingly) than the Brite Flats, which on a fretless, has its allure. They also feel different -- they almost feel less bright, which also has its appeal. In some ways, they sound and feel more like a fretless to me.

Sound
Feel
Value
Life
92%
92%
80%
95%