I’ve done a lot of discussing about a couple of sets of strings in recent past on this blog, but when it comes down to it, I’ve tried a LOT more. So, in an effort to put most of this knowledge out there, I’ll try to ruminate on the brands/types that I can remember. I’ve tried to talk about strings that I’ve used for an extended period of time (preferably more than one set, although if you don’t like a set, why buy a second?), in real situations in order to give you a real world perspective.
Hopefully this will provide some insight and things to consider when you are looking for new strings yourself. If you have any other questions, please feel free to contact me.
As a disclaimer, these are my thoughts and experiences from playing these strings. I’m not speculating on how they react; these are my findings on how they worked for me. I am however, not the final source. There are a lot of opinions about strings; this is just one of them.
Other Sets I’ve Used: American Flyers Nickels, Epiphone, Ernie Ball Bass Slinkies, GHS Boomers, Ken Smith Burners, Peavey Cirrus Nickels, Stoner Bros. String Company Nickels, Webstrings Detroit Bass (nickels and flats)
Circle K Balanced Set: Do a search on this blog and you’ll find my thoughts. To recap, these strings are beautiful, with a piano-like clarity and deep, focused low end. The balanced tension is really nice, and makes playing across the entire fretboard a breeze. They also last quite a long time; the first time I put a set on, it was for a two week run of “Tommy.” The strings not only lasted through my channeling of the Ox, but also lasted another week for a quick run of “The Civil War.”
The only issue that I had run across was that the G and C strings sometimes seemed a bit weak in terms of consistent volume from string to string. It was minor, but you could tell. Also, once these strings started to die, their tone got a little brittle, forcing me to bump up the bass on my eq to compensate for it. But all in all, a great set of strings from a bunch of great guys.
D’Addario XL: I have used D’Addarios every now and again over the years in an effort to be objective and see if they are for me. Simply put, they’re not. They sound fine, and react like a set of strings should. Problem is, there’s nothing about them that make me say “Yeah, I like these enough to continue using them” with exception of the price (they’re cheaper than the rest).
Durability wise, they really fall short. I put on a set for a two week run of “The Full Monty” a summer back, and these strings started dying the beginning of the second week of shows. Saving a couple of bucks didn’t seem that much of a deal at that point.
Dean Markley Blue Steels: This was the first real set of strings that I bought, from the fine folks at Elderly Instruments. These strings don’t keep their new string “zing” very long, but their broken in sound is pretty awesome. It’s deep, round and mellow. Not a lot of high end tonality to them, but that’s not to say these strings are tubby sounding; they’re not. They are a dark sounding string that keep their tone for a loooooooong time. For many years, they were my “go to” string that I’d always go back to for that familiar tone.
DR Red Devils: I was curious about coated strings, and the fact that DR colored their coating, I thought it would be cool to try. The DRs definitely have a feel that is all their own, which was a little lower tension than I was used to at the time. The coating gave the strings a cleaner, sleeker feel as well. In terms of tone, they sounded exactly like strings sound after that “two week break in” period; the new string “zing” has been reigned in a little, but is still there and the low end has thickened a little without losing any definition.
I only tried one set of these. Main reason is that after two months of light rehearsing and a weekend of gigs, these strings died. And when they died, they really turned into a tubby sounding mess that was undistinguishable in a mix without some heavy-duty eq’ing. The coating also got grimy and kind of sticky as well.
GHS Flea Signature: I was doing the musical “Pippen,” and using a bass that I spec’d out to Fender 1962 stacked vol/tone standards. I wanted a straight up “rock” string that would work, and decided to give these a try out.
I’m not exactly sure what the difference between these and regular Boomers are, but I liked these quite a bit. They had a high tension but with a smoother feel than you’d normally get with steels. The tone was big and focused, without being too harsh. Not a lot of high end clarity, but for my purposes they fit the bill. If they’d make them in a 5 string set, I’d consider stringing up my Corvette with them as a tonal option from the other basses I have.
GHS Super Steel Contact Core: My current string of choice. They have a lot of the same tonal characteristics of the CKs in terms of clarity and definition across the entire fretboard. However, I find that they are a little more mellow and warm than the CKs. They are a little more harsh in terms of feel (they ARE stainless steels, after all) in the beginning, but once you play them a little bit, that usually settles in and gets very easy to play.
In terms of durability, they last quite a long time with a good amount of snap and upper end clarity before getting boomy. I put on a set during a very long run of “Annie,” and they held up extremely well between that and the large amount of seasonal church gigs I was doing. I kept them on for a month run of “Hairspray,” figuring that the dead strings was period appropriate. They really kept their focus and definition, while you could still tell that they were getting old.
Rotosound Swing 66: Probably one of the most aggressive strings I’ve played, the Rotos were my string of choice for a while. They have a definite bite to them, which is complemented by a thick and focused low end. Especially when used with a pick, these things really roar; when I had them on my Corvette 5, they really brought out the mid-range growl that Warwick is known for. The problem that I had with these was that the E and B string were quite boomy and undefined; anything above the fifth fret was mush and wasn’t much use.
Warwick Black Label: Anyone that has a Warwick knows that these strings are a PERFECT compliment to the midrange growl and presence that the instrument has. The snap these strings have is great, they feel great under the fingers, and the clarity is nice. They don’t have a huge low end fundamental to them, but they really accentuate the mids of the bass, allowing you to really power through a mix without having to do any fancy eq’ing or tricks.
Warwick EMP: Got two sets of these free when I got my Custom Shop fretless, so figured I’d give them a go before putting my regular set on (which was Circle K at the time). They reminded me a lot of the Black Labels, but the coating on them definitely darkened their tone down a little bit. Still had a good amount of high end, which helped offset the darkness that these strings had. The nice thing about these strings is that they retained that similar tone for a long time, and didn’t really change after breaking them in or when they started to die.
As with any coated string, they’re “supposed” to last longer. I used the first set for almost a year, which isn’t an accurate representation of their lifecycle. I used the fretless (with these strings) for a month long run of “Jekyll & Hyde” where I really pounded on them, and they held up well. Probably should’ve replaced them shortly after, but used them semi-regularly when I’d pull the fretless out for church gigging.