Choosing double bass strings – what’s right for you?

There are so many brands! Here are thoughts on each of them.

With Jason Heath · San Francisco, CA

There are so many options for strings!

What double bass player doesn’t love to roll their sleeves up and geek out on bass strings?

In fact, it can almost become a sickness, and many players get to a point where they feel compelled to try out every single darn string they can get their hands on.

Also, strings seem to come in and out of style. A “hot new string” hits the marketplace and you suddenly see it on everybody’s bass. A standard older model suddenly comes back into vogue, and a forgotten old string is suddenly the hip new thing again.

Plus, everybody’s bass responds differently to different strings. What sounds awesome on one bass might sound wretched on another bass. Factors like string tension, flexibility, surface feel, and more are highly personal things, and some players like a stiffer or looser feeling under the bow.

Nevertheless, I thought it would be a good idea to get a list of general impressions of different popular strings going. This is most certainly a work in progress, so leave your own thoughts on your favorite (or least favorite) brand of strings. I’ll keep this list as an evolving document, so please chime in and let me know your string tastes!

I’m not getting into solo strings on this list, but feel free to chime in with your thoughts on these as well!

A Word on String Pricing Trends

It has become considerably more expensive recently to purchase European-made strings in the United States. This has caused strings that used to be about the same price (like Pirastro Permanents and D’Addario Helicores) to be pretty far apart cost-wise, with the Pirastro strings now costing 30-40% more than their D’Addario equivalents. If you’re an American and cost is an issue, you may want to consider a US-based string company instead of a European one. My favorite strings are all European in origin, unfortunately…

Some string brands are better for bowing than others.

Pirastro Strings

Permanent These are my current strings of choice on my own bass. They strike a good balance between robustness and flexibility, with a comfortable amount of resistance under the bow. They have an even sound throughout the upper and lower register. While not generally considered a jazz string, they have a good pizzicato sound and are used by some players in a jazz setting.

Obligato A little mellower and more flexible under the fingers, this is another popular string that works well for both jazz and classical settings. Many feel that this string lacks the volume and projection of more “robust” strings (we’ll get to those brands later), but the warmth and spread of their sound makes up for it in the eyes of many players. These strings actually twist under the fingers, which some players find irritating.

Flexocor Deluxe These relatively new strings are one of my current favorites. They respond well to orchestral bow strokes, with a nice and even sound that works well on many setups. They have become very popular in the past few years.

Original Flexocor The classic orchestra string. These strings have an unmistakable “growl” to them in arco playing and a wonderful chocolatey sound. Not for all tastes or basses, these strings tend to produce a “love ’em or hate ’em” reaction. They have a good amount of resistance to them, making them excellent orchestra strings but lousy jazz strings. Also, they sound fantastic on high-quality instruments, particularly older basses, but tend to sound muffled and unclear on cheaper basses. Finally, they sound great under the ear but may not project well in large spaces. Again, these are excellent matches for many basses and the string of choice for many orchestral bassists.

Evah Pirazzi These strings are relatively new and have become quite popular among jazz bassists. Though synthetic core and steel wound, they have a gutlike sonic quality to them buy with the stability of steel strings. They bow well, but would probably not satisfy most orchestral bassists. Their pizzicato sound is warm, and they feel great under the fingers, with tension levels similar to Permanents.

Oliv These chrome steel wound gut strings are thicker than your average steel string and considerably more expensive (though not as much as Eudoxas). Good for players looking for a gut string with some qualities associated with steel strings, these strings lack the projection of Pirastro’s other strings but make up for it with warmth and depth of tone.

Eudoxa These silver wound strings have had a complicated history. When Original FlatChrom (described below) originally came out, they were labeled ‘Eudoxa’ strings, being designed to closely replicate an older set of gut strings known as Eudoxas. This naming convention seemed to satisfy no one, so Pirastro rebranded these new synthetic strings as Original FlatChrom and came out with this very expensive line of gut strings. They are slightly brighter in tone than Olivs but are quite similar otherwise. You’d better be made of money if you really get into these strings, because they’re crazy expensive ($728.53 list price as of fall 2008) and break frequently. Bad combination!

Original FlatChrome These strings are truly old-school orchestral cannons. Kind of like a more extreme version of Original Flexocors, these high tesion cables produce a magnificent sound in the lower register but often sound strained and throaty in the upper register. While not for all tastes or basses (they tend to overpower cheaper basses and can verge on being completely unplayable on others), these strings can produce a rich, choclatey bass sound in the right hands. These are pretty much the opposite of what jazz players look for in a string. On the wrong bass, they can have a pinched and nasal

Flat Chromesteel Another middle-of-the-road string for the Pirastro line, somewhere between Permanents and Flexicors in terms of string tension and robustness of sound. These strings poduce a no-muss and no-fuss sound that works very well for classical and moderately well (but not wonderfully) for jazz. Great for bowed playing in general across a wide variety of basses.

The feel under the left hand can vary greatly between different string brands.

Thomastik Strings

Dominant These strings are not nearly as popular as their upper string equivalents. Quality control is an issue for Dominants (an issue that rarely plagues Pirastro strings). Though not used very often in the United States these days for bass, these strings actually have many desirable characteristics, including a throaty growl that both jazz and classical players like. They are a medium to medium-heavy tension string with good projection and an even response.

Spirocore The gold standard for steel string jazz playing, these strings are also popular as low E, extended E, or low B strings. Bright and loud with a lot of sustain, these strings don’t bow particularly well on the top three strings, making a full set of Spirocores a dubious choice for classical playing. They are excellent jazz strings, with an unmistakable pizzicato sound. They come in multiple gauges, so experiment with a set if possible to find a good match for your bass.

Spirocore Weich These lower tension, thinner, and mellower variants are extremely popular among jazz players. They bow much more easily than regular Spirocores and are easier on the hands. They are good crossover strings for players who usually play pizzicato but need to also sound good with the bow, and they work well on a wide variety of basses.

Belcanto These newcomers from Thomastik have exploded in popularity, though they are much quirkier than many other popular string brands. They carry a high price tag compared to American strings. Also, they have a magnificent, buttery sound when paired with the right instrument and are quickly becoming a favorite among orchestral bassists. They can take some getting used to at first.  They’re looser than other popular orchestra strings like Original Flexocors, Original FlatChroms, or Permanents.  Also, many bow strokes feel substantially different on these strings. Their pizzicato sound and sustain is also very nice, though without the punch and growl of Spirocores. Strangely, they tend to wear out faster than other popular brands, which may be a factor if you’re on a tight budget.

D’Addario Strings

Helicore Orchestra, Jazz, and Hybrid These strings from Long Island-based string manufacter D’Addario exploded onto the scene in the early 1990s, with both orchestra and jazz bassists singing their praises. Around 1995, it seemed like every bass player had Helicore offerings on their instrument. They have faded in popularity in recent years but remain a common string of choice for American bassists. They come in three different guages (light, medium, and heavy) and have orchestra, jazz, and jazz/classical hybrid versions, giving the player a lot of variables to experiment with as they search for the perfect setup. I have used many combinations of these strings on my basses. Check out this comparison chart to determine which variant is right for you.

Kaplans – These new offerings from D’Addario have become very popular in the last few years.  Released in 2012, they play really easily with the bow and have an excellent sound. They are one of the most popular strings from a non-European company and are a good bang for your buck.

Zyex– These strings are flexible under the bow and finger. D’Addario’s aim is to mimic the sound of gut. They feature a synthetic core and have more complex sound than most steel core strings I have tried. Available in light, medium, and heavy tension.

Savarez Strings

Corelli Like Helicore, Savarez’s Corelli strings come in several different gauges, including one  for both solo and orchestral tuning. Long known as the string of choice for double bass soloist François Rabbath, these strings are made of tungsten steel. They’re thinner and lighter than other brands. Also, they are bright and low tension.  Even their ‘forte’ strings are brighter and looser than most other brands. Corelli response is more suited to solo playing than orchestral.

Super-Sensitive Strings

Red Label Super craptaculous. A last resort string to be avoided at all costs. My dislike for Red Label strings has caused me to avoid all other Super-Sensitive options. If you’ve got opinions about any Super-Sensitive strings just leave a comment on this post.

Jargar Strings

Another string that has faded considerably in popularity with bass players these days. Cellists often use these strings–bassists much less so. It’s been years since I’ve used them, honestly, so it’s hard to even remember much about them.

Velvet Strings

Many jazz players love these low tension and earthy sounding strings. They’re radically different in sound and response to steel strings like Spirocores.  These strings work well for many jazz and pizzicato contexts. They’re typically not that great for other styles, though.

I’m leaving out tons of strings on this list.  Let me know what strings you use! Any good tips for readers out there? What doesn’t work for you?

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