Issue 7

Getting Your Bass Playing The Way You Want

Part IV

Strings, Tailpiece and Wire, Saddle

STRINGS: Never has the bassist had so many types of strings to choose from. It seems that every year another new bass string comes onto the market. Each new type is aimed at a certain segment of the bass-playing market, and of course claims to be the best thing since the advent of the internal combustion engine. At the risk of sounding ancient, I learned to play the bass when there were three types of bass string available: Gut strings, Spirocores and Flexocors. Gut strings were only being used by traditionalists, Spirocores by jazz players and Flexocors by classical players. We made do with what was available, and nobody developed the malady of “string acquisition syndrome”, buying and trying everything on the market, and never finding a completely satisfying string. Nowadays there are multiple varieties of steel, synthetic, hybrid, and gut strings (in several gauges) produced by Thomastic, Pirastro, D’Addario, Corelli, Jargar, Larson, Supersensitive, LaBella, Innovation, Velvet, and others. Some of these sets cost the equivalent of an average worker’s weekly wages, and few others are inexpensive, so experimenting with bass strings can get very costly in no time at all. The permutations are literally endless, and there is no reason why any bassist cannot find a suitable string set or combination that meets his needs.

Your string choice can make a huge difference in the way your bass sounds and responds. You can brighten or darken the tone, increase or decrease the sustain or decay, ease or tighten the bow or pizzicato response, and even make your bass louder or softer. The best way to find the right string for your particular bass is to swap with other bass players, or visit a luthier who can make recommendations based on your bass and on the changes you’d like to make. It also can be informative to visit online forums and take advantage of other players’ experiences with different strings, as long as you take everything you read there with a grain of salt. If you do change string type, give the new strings time to settle in, and give yourself time to learn how best to play on them. Be aware that the diameter of different bass strings varies, and it may be necessary to adjust nut and bridge grooves when changing from one type to another.

Amongst the current bass string offerings, these are my personal favorites:

Pizzicato Jazz: Thomastic Spirocore

Classical Arco: Tie between Thomastic BelCanto and Pirastro Flexocor (I like to use Pirastro’s Permanent E string in place of the Flexocor E.)

Dual Purpose: Pirastro Evah Pirazzi

Student: D’Addario Hybrid

Gut: Pirastro Chorda

Classical Solo Tuning: Tie between Thomastic Spirocore Solo and Pirastro Permanent Solo

TAILPIECE and WIRE: There is some mystique about the function of the stringed instrument tailpiece and the attachment wire. Although the tailpiece is involved in a bass’ tone and response, it is a minor contributor when compared to things like the bass bar and soundpost. That said, there is increasing knowledge regarding tailpiece material, style, and tuning which is worth delving into when searching for the final touch to make a bass feel and respond just right. I believe the tailpiece serves two important functions; it secures the tail ends of the strings, and it serves as both a tonal damper and “reverb unit”. In general, heavier tailpieces are better suited to arco playing, while lighter ones are better suited to pizzicato playing. When you pluck a note, the vibrational energy dissipates fairly quickly, and a lighter tailpiece will take away less of this energy. When you bow a note, the vibrational energy excites the string for as long as you bow the note, and a heavier tailpiece offers more of an evening-out of the arco sound of many basses, and may reduce wolf tones. Of course there are exceptions! Most bass luthiers aim to tune the string afterlengths at two octaves and a perfect fourth above the open strings as a starting point when setting-up a bass, often tweaking this tuning until it sounds and feels right to the player. Some also get involved with tuning of the tailpiece itself, and some with mode-matching, both of which can be positive, if subtle tweaks.

Old guitar amplifiers use a spring and some circuitry for a reverberation unit. On a bass, a small amount of reverb (or “wet” sound) is created by the tailpiece in conjunction with the string afterlengths and the tailpiece wire. If a player desires a dry sound, this “reverb” unit needs to be calmed down, either with more weight, a change in afterlength tuning, or a more absorptive tailpiece wire. If a player wants a wetter, or more resonant sound, the “reverb” unit needs to be optimized. When amplifying a bass though, especially at high volume, it is a good idea to shut down the tailpiece area resonance by winding a piece of soft foam through the afterlengths of the strings. This will reduce unwanted resonances and feedback dramatically. To give you an idea of how your “reverb” unit is working, whack the tailpiece and listen to the resulting sound; clear, multi-pitched and sustaining means you are resonant to the max in that area.

In recent years much has been made of the improvement in tone which can be achieved by installing a flexible synthetic material in place of the usual metal cable used to string up the tailpiece. My experiments with this have been disappointing, and in each case I found I liked the tone, response, and resonance best with my usual 3/32” stainless braided cable. But any flexible cable is an improvement over a heavy solid wire hanger, because flexibility in the wire enhances volume and resonance.

There is a wire “tailpiece” being marketed by Kevin Marvin which replaces the traditional wooden unit. It is basically four wires wound together and attached to a ring which fits around the endpin. The ends of the wires have little loops through which the strings attach. Some players really like what this thing does for their bass, believing it opens up the sound and increases volume. I have had some limited success with the Marvin tailpiece, appreciating it more on basses which are plucked rather than bowed.

Many makers and players have been experimenting with tailpieces which have an angled upper end, which varies the afterlengths of the strings. Sometimes this type of tailpiece can be helpful in reducing wolf tones and evening out the response of the different strings. I think this is because it gets rid of the relationship of perfect fourths which exists between all the afterlengths with a normal-type tailpiece.

SADDLE: The saddle is the small piece at the bottom end of the bass over which the tailpiece wire lays. Generally made of hard ebony, it protects the tail end of the bass and sets the height of the tailpiece wire. In most cases the saddle is about 1/2” (12.7mm) high. Raised saddles are fitted to basses if the angle across the bridge is too high, causing top plate sinkage, excessive playing tension and/or wolf tones. Basses with a short lower bout or those with a deeply set, highly angled neck tend to have a sharp angle across the bridge (called the breakover angle). Measured on the A string, the angle should ideally be 30 to 34 degrees. A raised saddle needs to be attached by a means other than just gluing it in place, or it will topple. Most extend down toward the endpin and are secured with a screw into the tailblock. I have been using an adjustable saddle I devised on most of my handmade basses; it gives me another tool with which to tweak the sound and response. Consider a raised saddle if your bass feels tight, has strong wolf tones, or if the top table is sagging. Consider lowering your saddle if your bass lacks adequate resistance for your playing style, or to slightly increase the power of the instrument.

Kindly refer any questions you may have to ArnoldS@aesbass.com. I look forward to answering them in future issues.

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