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Bass String Choices

Bass String Choices

by Frederick C. Lyman, Jr.

Originally published in American Lutherie #5, 1986 and Big Red Book of American Lutherie, Volume One, 2000

Fifty years ago, basses had gut strings, usually the top two plain gut and the lower two wound with wire. Whatever techniques a bassist wished to learn, classical, jazz, or the various folk/ethnic categories, they had to be within the limited possibilities afforded by this kind of string.

Gut strings were at their best in the deep background tones of a symphonic bass section because they had a strong, true fundamental that stayed back where it belonged. Plucked, they had a punchy jazz rhythm sound in the lower and middle register, sometimes producing a delayed response that was known popularly as the “walking” effect. For solos of any sort, the range was limited because the high notes were feeble and uncentered.

The first steel strings for bass, with a solid wire core, were stiff and had a harsh, metallic sound. But improved strings were developed with flexible, stranded cores and multiple windings. These were developed along the lines of two different design philosophies, and musicians had to choose between them.

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