Roundwound vs. Flatwound Strings on Fretless Bass
Recently, we did a call out on our Facebook page about some topic ideas that you, our readers, would like to see covered here on the Fretless Bass Guitar Hub. Reader Paul Oliphant chimed in with several good ideas (we are looking at covering more of them), including this one – why someone would choose roundwound or flatwound strings on a fretless bass guitar.
But first, let’s review what the differences are between the two strings in the first place.
How Flatwound and Roundwound Bass Strings Differ
Believe it or not, the first commercial bass guitar strings produced on a mass basis were flatwounds. That might be a surprise since the vast majority of players today use roundwounds. In fact, roundwounds didn’t overtake the flatter version until the 1980s, which is why most of us probably assumed that roundwounds were always the standard.
Most flatwounds have some type of steel core with a flat metal (nickel or stainless steel most commonly) wrap. This is part of what gives them their unique tension, sound, and feel (more on that later).
Roundwounds, on the other hand, typically have a similar structure with respect to materials. The difference is that the “ribbon” wrapped around the core is…you guessed it, round as opposed to flat.
More recently, a lot of younger bassists have started to move back over to flatwound strings. I haven’t seen any speculation about why that is happening, and maybe that makes for a great follow up blog post if I can track down more information.
Now that we’ve covered that stuff … There are several reasons you might want to choose one over the other. Let’s look at them now.
Having played a bunch of different types of strings (I like to experiment), I can say from personal experience that roundwound and flatwound tend to sound completely different on the same instrument.
The biggest difference is in brightness. Roundwounds are much more bright than flatwounds. So if you want to play dub, reggae, or blues with a more thumpy bass sound, flatwounds are perfectly good options. On the other hand, if you play lead, slap and pop, or want to do anything in a higher register (say you have a 6-, 7-, or other model with more strings up high), you’re better off sticking with roundwounds.
Some studio folks prefer flatwounds because they claim that the tone is easier to harness in the studio. While that may be true, bassists who like to play up on top of the mix may find themselves buried in the background too much. It all comes down to your style and approach to playing fretless bass guitar.
I would be remiss to skip this point though – between roundwound and flatwound strings, flatwound wins the tone war when it comes to that familiar fretless “mwah” sound you get when sliding or using vibrato. Again, you may have to make tradeoffs between that sweet mushy sound and your desire to be up in the front of the mix.
Here’s a pretty cool video I found on YouTube, where different types of strings are tested side-by-side. I’m not sure it really illustrates the tonal qualities accurately, but it’s worth a quick watch nonetheless.
And as someone who likes to both fingerpick and slap and pop on fretless, I want to make sure I’m clear – even though roundwounds have a more bright sound that fits slapping better, you can absolutely use flatwounds with the technique. It will end up with a sound like you hear in this video (which is a cool sound in and of itself):
Yeah, I sorta made up that word, Playability, but I’ll wager that you know exactly what I’m talking about.
There are pretty significant differences between the two types of strings. For example, roundwounds have rough outer wrappings, which can take more of a toll on your fingers than flatwounds normally do. The rough outside also causes more clicks, clacks, and general finger noise.
You have to be much more in control of where and how you move your hands on roundwounds. Since fretless bass guitar players almost always say they enjoy the additional control they have on fretless, I’d guess this is a non-issue for most of you. I know it is no concern on my part.
Another thing to keep in mind is that flatwounds have higher average tension for strings of the same gauge. This makes the strings tighter, and also can cause them to go out of tune more frequently than roundwounds.
Flatwound bass strings are much easier on your fingers. Looking back, I almost wish I had learned on flatwounds and worked my way up to roundwounds. That first period where I was working to build calluses was a bitch!
A huge difference between round and flatwound strings is how long they last. Roundwounds are notoriously shorter in lifespan than flatwounds. Whereas you might play flat strings for months or years, you would want to swap out roundwounds for an active player in days or weeks.
This is one of the tradeoffs you make for the tone and playability benefits of roundwounds – it costs more to keep fresh sounding strings on your bass. I realize that a set of roundwounds costs less than an equivalent set of flatwounds, but someone who changes rounds weekly will pay more than another player that keeps their flatwounds on the bass for a year. Simple math.
How It Impacts Your Fretless Neck
Similarly to how the different types of strings affect your fingers, flatwounds are much more forgiving in wear and tear on your fretless fingerboard. If you can get the sound you want out of flatwounds, your bass will thank you.
The exception to this is for fretless basses that have harder materials on the fretboard, like epoxy or ebonite. There is even a continuum between softer woods like rosewood and harder types like maple. Bottom line – it pays to upgrade the neck material if / when you can. Otherwise, you might as well plan on having the neck re-planed and/or re-finished at some point if you are an active roundwound string user.
Realistically, the decision between choosing flatwound or roundwound strings for your fretless bass guitar is a matter of preference, budget, and tolerance for wear and tear on the bass neck. There’s really no bad decision, just different opinions. When in doubt, try both out. Or even better, go with half-rounds to see if you can get some of the brightness and some of the “mwah” on the same bass and set of strings. Who knows what will work out best, right?
What type of string do you use and why?