My Flatwound Bass String Odyssey

At the beginning of your bass playing journey, you may not even know that flatwound bass strings exist. When you hear people talking about them or come across a discussion online, you still might not know exactly what the fuss is. They sound darker, or warmer? They were used by the pros in the “old days” maybe? Whatever you know about flatwounds from reading or interviews, you don’t know much until you play with them. At the beginning of my flatwound bass string odyssey…I sure didn’t.

Are flatwound bass strings right for you?

Flatwound bass guitar strings take some getting used to, and they aren’t for everyone. I switched to flatwounds about ten years ago after flirting with them on and off for about a year on my Fender Jazz bass. The first time I tried them I was shocked at how much I hated them.

I was used to roundwounds with their bright, clanky ring and their rough, floppy feel. Flats felt stiff, too slick, and worst of all they sounded completely dead. I took them off after only a few days, and I thought I was done with flats forever…back to rounds!

Was it the flatwound bass string brand?

After only a few months of playing with rounds again, I started obsessing about having that flatwound sound. The thing is, I loved the sound of flatwounds on all those old recordings. I knew I didn’t like them the first time I tried them, but I reasoned that it was because of the flatwound string brand or the gauge or some other factor…I just had to find the right ones. So I bought another set and tried them again.

The second time around with flats felt better, but I still had reservations. I still felt like I wasn’t getting the sound I was after. The frustrating part was that I couldn’t pinpoint what it was. In my mind, I had a vision of a slightly more aggressive, over-driven Motown-like tone. All I was getting was a dull thud with my flatwounds. Achieving that mellow but punchy, deep old-school bass sound that I was really after was much harder than I thought it would be.

One more time with these flatwounds

About three months after trying them again, the flatwounds came off my bass and the rounds went back on…again. However, this time I immediately didn’t like the roundwound sound anymore. The rounds now sounded thin and hollow with no real depth at the bottom, and the feel was rough and too rubbery.

So, once again, I strung flats back on my Fender Jazz bass. I told myself that this was going to be the last time. I was committing myself to flats for good. If I didn’t like the tone, I would either tweak things until I did or simply try another type of flatwound brand until I was satisfied.

The breakthrough combination

The breakthrough moment came a few months later. After struggling with my sound and trying different string makers, I finally found my sound with Labella medium light flats and a passive Fender Precision bass, although I also got a good tone with a Jazz bass.

One of the main lessons I learned was to let the bass speak clearly for itself. I was trying too hard to EQ my sound, usually with too much bass. The other thing I realized was the value of persistence. You have to keep at it and explore all options before giving in, even if it means months of frustration.

After keeping everything completely flat on the amp and gradually increasing the drive until I had just enough dirt in my sound, I started to let my fingers dictate the overall tone. I finally felt satisfied that I had reached flatwound nirvana. Don’t get me wrong, I still experiment with different settings and techniques. However, if I ever feel lost I always go back to the basic flat EQ and start from there.

I now feel that flats are the only strings for me. Their depth, clarity, and solid punch just can’t be beat. They seem to stand out in the mix more than rounds by occupying their own sonic space. Rounds tend to clash and compete with guitar tones, while flats tend to sit just perfectly in the mix. If you haven’t tried flatwounds, give them a shot and stick with it…you won’t regret it.

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