PLUS: New Contest! Name the Classic 6-String Bass Riffs and Win a Seymour Duncan Pickup Booster Pedal!
NOTE: The contest is at the bottom of this post. You can skip ahead if you don’t care about rare and expensive guitar strings.
What do the classical guitar and the Fender Bass VI have in common?
Both instruments were developed using types of strings that are practically extinct.
First, let’s talk nylon strings. When these appeared after WWII, classical guitarists, led by Andrés Segovia, ditched gut overnight. Nylon strings were louder and brighter, and they offered better consistency, superior intonation, and longer life.
Few living guitarists have ever actually played gut strings, which really are made from animal guts (usually cows, goats, or sheep). I’ve never tried them myself.
But one of my darkest secrets is the fact that I started out as a teenaged lute player. (I have a photo of myself playing on a hay bale at a Renaissance Faire, wearing a feathered tudor cap and white tights. And you will never, ever see it.) I experimented with gut lute strings, only to run screaming. Total tuning nightmare, especially on an Elizabethan-era axe with friction tuning pegs, not to mention lots of unison- and octave-tuned strings. Guitarists were smart when they ditched the stuff.
But I recently bought a new ukelele, which came strung a set of Aquila strings from Italy. They have several lines of faux-gut nylon strings made from a proprietary material called — wait for it — “nylgut,” which allege to capture the sound of gut without the tears. They sounded cool on the uke, so I ordered a few guitar sets. At between $12 and $21 dollars per set, depending on the bass-string wrap material, they’re pricy, but not crazy expensive — about the same as other high-end, E.U.-made brands, like Savarez or Thomastik-Infeld. (Aquila’s US distributor is Just Strings.)
And holy cow, do I love ’em! They don’t look anything like gut strings, which resemble, well, dried-out intestines. But they really do capture a lot of “gutness.” Their tone is quieter and warmer than conventional nylon, with markedly less string noise (a great thing for a very rusty classical player like me). Check out this demo:
Aquila Nylgut Strings
There’s still some hassle factor. You know how it takes longer to break in nylon strings than steel ones? These are even worse. I recommend allowing several days for them to settle in. But once they do, they feel and sound great. I also ordered a banjo set, for an ancient, pre-bluegrass sound. I’ll get back to you on that . . .
Okay, now let’s talk six-string bass — not the fusion kind, but the ’60s variety, such as the Danelectro six-string bass and the Fender Bass VI. Back when they were introduced, players would have strung them with flatwounds. As with gut strings, there are good reasons why tastes shifted toward louder, brighter roundwounds. I’ve written about flatwound strings before here, here, and here, yet it never occurred to me to string my ’90s reissue Bass VI with flats — until reader Benj posted this comment in the thread on flatwounds for 12-string:
….on a side note, I got a Fender Bass VI here with flats and I can vouch for its twanginess. The flats seem to give it a more authentic 60s tone. I don’t know why – it just sounds right. Specific to the Bass VI, the flatwounds also seem to keep a better tension on the low E than the roundwounds do – and that’s with the same guage of La Bellas. Open E was pretty floppy on the Bass VI with rounds.
Sheesh! Why hadn’t I thought of that? I went to order a set of La Bella six-string bass flatwounds. I didn’t mind paying a bit extra, because flats always cost a little more, so I . . . HOLY CRAP! SIXTY EFFIN’ BUCKS FOR A SET OF STRINGS?!
Feeling like a chump, I pushed the “BUY” button.
And am I glad I did! Flatwounds made the instrument come to life. It felt better, with less of a jarring tonal shift between the higher and lower strings. The sixth string is so floppy and toneless with roundwounds that I’d been tuning down to B below standard tuning rather than an octave below. But now I can tune E-through-E the way Leo Fender intended! And strangely enough, there’s no shortage of twang to the tone. I have now bonded with this guitar in a way I never have in the two decades I’ve owned it.
Let’s hear it in action. Remember Colm Kelly, the golden-eared Irishman who won the “Can You Tell Amps from Models?” contest that inaugurated this blog? He’d asked me to play on a track of his, and
lazy-ass ingenious soul that I am, I figured I’d make it a flat/round A/B test. He sent me a very rough mix of “Side By Side,” a pretty song by his band Tiny Telephone Exchange. For demo purposes, I used a version without vocals. Here’s the song with a Bass VI part played with conventional roundwounds:
…and here’s the same part with flatwounds:Side by Side (Flatwounds)
Or rather, almost the same part. I was tuned to baritone B when I played the roundwounds, so I fingered the D-major song in G. But once I realized how well the flatwounds performed in octave tuning, I was able to finger the song in the original key. I shifted some parts, like the harmonics in the B section, by an octave because
it was easier to play that way it sounded so nice.
Anyway, the first version doesn’t sound bad. But in the second, I hear more warmth, more fundamental, and (this is a recurring theme in this post) less pesky string noise. But most of all, it feels better.
Just for fun, here’s both at once, panned left and right:Side by Side (Roundwounds AND Flatwounds)
Okay, how often does a new set of strings make you fall in love with a guitar?
And now, since I had such an authentically ’60s sounding instrument, I had to play my favorite Bass VI licks. Can you name them? First person to do so wins Seymour Duncan Pickup Booster pedal,which that sounds amazing on six-string bass, not to mention regular guitars. The fourth one is probably the most obscure. (Hint: It’s from the ’80s, yet it’s not by the Cure’s Robert Smith, the modern master of the killer Bass VI hook.) The contest starts . . . NOW!
Email your guesses to me here.
Anyone else have any experiences with a particular string type bringing an instrument to life? Has anyone tried using vintage-style nickel electric guitar strings? (I have. They sound nice, but so do many modern formulations. Strings companies diluted the nickel content when the price of the substance went through the roof in the ’70s. Some say you need high-nickel-content strings to sound like Hendrix, but in my experience, insufficient nickel isn’t the principal factor preventing us from sounding like Jimi.)