In Search of Ancient Strings

PLUS: New Contest! Name the Classic 6-String Bass Riffs and Win a Seymour Duncan Pickup Booster Pedal!

"We both love candlelight, long walks on the beach, and really expensive old-school strings."

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?! :rant:

Stringing a Bass VI with flatwounds. (Artist's conception.)

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:

Side by Side (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!

Bass VI Riff #1

Bass VI Riff #2

Bass VI Riff #3

Bass VI Riff #4

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.)

13 comments to In Search of Ancient Strings

  • Oinkus

    Man those nylgut strings sound pretty great from here. The weird thing I just was given an old beat up classical that doesn’t have any strings on it ! Of course I already ordered a new set too shucks ! My timing is way off always

  • I’ve never heard of gut strings but I bet they sound brutal. Do these Nylguts just look white? What do they feel like? 

    • joe

      They’re pure white and appear to be very “plastic.” There’s definitely a difference in feel, though. They the seem to have less tension — they feel soft, and there’s a more “give” when you strike the string. And they’re a little deader, but in a nice way that flatters your (or at least my) playing.  

  • Scott Riggi

    Eastwood can’t keep these VI’s in stock……..http://secure.eastwoodguitars.com/osc/index.php?cPath=2_97

    • joe

      Haven’t tried one of those Eastwoods, but the Mosrite-inspired look is fun. There just aren’t a lot of 6-string bass options these days. It’s beyond me why Fender doesn’t do a mid-priced Bass VI reissue. 

  • El reclusa

    Fender did have the MIJ (I think) “Jaguar Baritone Special” a while back. If I recall correctly, the keyboardist in Kid Congo’s band plays one once in a while. They’re cool, but more of a “baritone guitar” than a six-string bass- I think the scale length on those is 27″ or so and not so hot for E tuning. It’d be nice to see maybe even a cheaper Squier version, like a “Classic Vibe” VI. Or Jag or Jazzmaster, for that matter…

    • Kenstee

      Another option is to get the new 2012 version of the Schecter Hellcat VI. http://www.schecterguitars.com/Products/Guitar/Hellcat-VI.aspx# It is truly an amazing VI. It has been significantly upgraded this year with three Seymour Duncan SJAG-1 pups which sound incredible replacing the “muddy” Duncan-Designed mini-hums which were IMO a disaster. It also has a treble bleed cap. One difference versus the Fender Bass VI is it has a TOM hard-tail rather than a trem. But, again IMO that is a positive as I don’t use a trem with this style axe, plus the TOM makes for an always in-tune and intonated instrument! The kicker is the new HCVI has a street price of $599 delivered. It is an absolutely an incredible bargain at that price! The construction as well as the fit and finish is amazing. And as with all Schecter instruments they are all hand-inspected and set-up at their LA facility by their techs before they are shipped to the retailer.
      And if that isn’t enough, you can get LaBella strings that are made specifically for the HCVI. Believe it or not rounds in either stainless steel or nickel cost only $6.95 while their stainless flats cost a mere $13.70! All of their strings are of amazingly high quality and sound absolutely fantastic! The gauges are .095>.026 which are standard Bass VI gauges. http://elderly.com/search/elderly?terms=hellcat+VI+strings&x=13&y=2 . Interestingly, some of us at the Schecter Hellcat VI/Ultra VI Facebook Group contacted LaBella and asked them to consider making HCVI-specific strings. Amazingly, they said “Yes” and worked with us to get them just right. Not only that, they ended up making 3 different varieties to boot (2 types of rounds and one of flats.) Also, Schecter contacted us and asked us if we had any suggestions for the next version of the Hellcat VI. Most of our suggestions were in fact incorporated into the new 2012 Hellcat VI. Gotta give kudos to both of these companies for their customer-centric approach! And it wasn’t just talk….they delivered the goods!
      If you are a total Cure freak you can get The Robert Smith Schecter UltraCure VI for $950 or so street http://www.schecterguitars.com/Products/Guitar/Robert-Smith-UltraCure-VI.aspx. Smith uses this exact model instead of his old school Fender Bass VIs these days due most likely to his endorsement contract. Interestingly, the electronics and pups are identical to those on their new 2012 Hellcat VI. Smith said in an interview that he felt the Duncan SJAG-1 pups sounded the most like his Disintegration-era Fender Bass VI did.
      There are so many more VI options available now vs just 2 years ago. Fender Japan has just released a new 2012 version of the Fender Bass VI. They are available just in Japan. Although some dealers in Japan may ship them – it is against corporate Fender regulations. The cost for the new Bass VI is approximately US $1,600. And with shipping, insurance and customs duty the cost would be around US$2,000 if you can get a Japanese-retailer to play ball with you that is. The unknown is how good these MIJs actually are. Personally, I can’t believe they would be over 3 times as good as a Schecter HCVI ($599 vs. $2,000) In addition, it would be hard to believe that the Fender standard stock Jag pups are anywhere near as good as the Seymour Duncans SJAG-1s on the Schecters.
      There are also MIJ Bass VIs from the 90’s out there on eBay, etc. During this period Fender Japan did make some repros. Now they run around US$2,000 or so. BUT…quality varies considerably. So try before you buy. In fact, many owners ended up replacing pups, bridges, etc just to get them playable. More than a few owners feel the Schecter HCVIs are better than these instruments at less than half the price.
      Another way to get a genuine Fender Bass VI is via Fender’s USA Custom Shop. NOS Bass VIs run from $4,000 to $6,000. And from what I have seen online the quality varies considerably. Worth it? Who knows? The best of the best of course are vintage Bass VIs from the 60s and 70s on eBay, vintage dealers, etc. They run $5,000 to $10,000+ depending on year, condition, etc. There are also lots of rip-offs being reported so be VERY VERY careful if you take this route. That said, NOTHING compares to the sound they can produce. It’s the gold standard.
      There is also a new VI being manufactured by Lakland. They are all custom built. Cost…around US$3,500. So, there is really no way to try before you commit to buy. As of right now there have been no reviews of them. One oddity is they have only 18 frets. Why? No one seems to know. They also use 3 PAF-type pups. And as mentioned there is a new VI from Eastwood which uses 2 PAFs. Costs around $650 or so. There are a few reviews floating around – mostly positive.
      There are also a few different alternative VIs out there which occasionally surface like the English Burns Barracuda with its excellent array of three Tri-Sonic pick-ups and endless pup configuration options via a push/pull system. Also there is the fabled Shergold Marathon six-string bass used by Peter Hook. Made in England, there were only 100 or so made.
      The one element that makes it difficult to interpret reviews and evaluations is that different people use them for different purposes. Some want them as a “BASS guitar” while others want more of a “bass GUITAR” if you get my meaning. That is, someone who is looking for a 60’s surf-tone/mystery/detective-movie, reverb/vibrato-ladden vibe has very different criteria than someone looking to use one more as a short-scale bass as in the style of Robert Smith or Peter Hook with single note melodic runs with chorus, flange and delay OR as a bass-substitute. You really need to explore how each option works for you using a combination of on-board electronics/Pup types/configurations, string gauge options, amps (bass vs. guitar vs. Bi-amping, etc.)

      • joe

        Thanks for a most informative comment! I look forward to checking one of those out. :)

        I am second to none in my drooling R. Smith fandom — he was, hands-down, the most FUN interview I ever conducted in my years at Guitar Player, though that perception is probably colored by the all-night drinking binge that accompanied the interview. I’d love to hear what he does with the Schecter — yet a part of me will always be more interested in the a he used for Head on the Door and Kiss Me x3. :)

    • Jules

      The Jaguar Baritone suffers quite a bit from the shorter scale length when tuning E to E. The problems with the low E are a lot more obvious. It REALLY shines with lighter strings and tuned A to A. Sounds a lot less like a Bass VI but the tone improves immensely. Lends itself a lot more to blusey style playing.

      I’ve got a 1996 MIJ Bass VI as well, and still love it. I’m more of a fan of the Cure and Placebo (used a lot on their second album) style of playing than 60s twang tho.

  • Kenstee

    His quintessential Bass VI albums are probably “Faith” and “Disintegration.” Also, their DVD “Trilogy” (in which they perform their three classic albums in a row “Pornography,”Disintegration” and “Bloodflowers” in concert has very extensive Bass VI presence. Sometimes the band uses 2 at a time.

  • Coslar

    This post got me thinking, wondering how flatwounds would sound on a modern solid body. I’ve been modding the hell out of an LP knock off for the past few months. It’s got a Duncan Pearly Gates in the bridge and a Jazz in the neck, a master coil split, and it’s wired to be a little brighter than it would be on it’s own. I just ordered a set of nickel flatwounds, just to see how they sound on it. I’ll be sure record something if it turns out well.

  • Hi,

    I was wondering what sort of amp you used to get that vintage sound?  A bass amp or a guitar amp?  Any special settings on either to get the 60’s Bass VI twang?  
     
    I ask because I own two such instruments and I am going to string up one with flats after reading your blog (great blog BTW!).  You can see one in use here clearly being used as a bass:  

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rGS-9vrEWb8&list=UUhJIPMtJgX3sUrHS3zELb2A&index=9&feature=plcp

    I’ve used both a bass amp and a guitar amp but I am wondering what people did in the 60’s?
    I tend to use the amp for which the instrument is functioning most as at the moment.  If there is another bass in the track I will treat it as a baritone guitar and run it though a guitar amp.  If however it is functioning more in a bass guitar role then I tend to run it though a bass guitar amp.  Maybe this is what they did in the 60s as well?
     
    Thanks for any insights you can lend to this classic bass VI predicament and thanks for testing out and documenting the use of both sets of strings!  I think my next album may make use of the Bass VI sound in a much more “classic” way.

    Thanks again!

    Douglas – Sound of Seventy Three

    • joe

      Actually, I recorded it with one of the amp simulators in Logic — something based on a ’60s Twin Reverb, if memory serves. Back in day, though, these parts like these would have been recorded either through a guitar amp, or direct into the board with some plate reverb, and probably not through a bass amp. Not that you couldn’t try that too . . . .

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