Friday, October 11, 2013

Way More Than You Ever Wanted To Know About Upright Bass Strings

Of late, I've become discontented with the action and sound on my upright bass.  Or, more accurately, I've not been satisfied with the set up for some time - like a year.  The action is high, the notes are buzzing at certain points on the fingerboard, and the hand strength it takes to play the bass is pretty limiting.  I've been reluctant to do anything about it because addressing such issues takes money.  Also, I wondered how much of it can be addressed by simply practicing more.

I've got some gigs coming up (actually, just had one - a fund raiser for the Exotic Feline Rescue Center - photos here) that I really want to make sure I'm doing a decent job.  I really want to make sure that bass sounds great and is as easy to play as I can responsibly afford.  I took it to Bloomington Stringed Instruments for a consultation.  The harsh truth is that with a bass of this calibre (an Englehardt EM-1), costs of set up and repair can quickly exceed the actual value of the bass.  It's not worth it to get too crazy with a new fingerboard and/or new bridge.  I was relieved when Lucas (the luthier) suggested that a $100 fingerboard dressing would take care of most of the buzzing issues.  This involves scooping out the middle of the fingerboard in such a way that the strings will not vibrate against the fingerboard.  It's kinda hard to explain.

Anyway, after I got the bass back, the buzzing annoyance had improved but not disappeared.  At this point, the only "financially viable" option is new strings.  I use quotes around "financially viable" because strings for an upright typically cost between $100 and $400.  While it's true that upright strings seldom need to be changed, I decided it was time for mine to go.  In addition to the high string tension and the buzzing at certain points on the fingerboard, the windings on the strings were beginning to break.

The short version of the story is this:  after consulting with an old bass teacher, I narrowed my choices down to Thomastik Spirocore strings and Innovation Silver Slap strings.  Spirocores have a strong following; but on the strength of my old maestro's recommendation, I opted for the Silver Slaps, medium tension.  (I thought low tension would sound "plasticky", artificial and floppy.)  I was hoping to have a solid all around string - something that sounds good when playing pizzicato (that's plucking with your fingers, gringo) which is 99.9% of what I play; but something that would also allow me to begin working on my slap bass technique.  I've been dying to bust out my instructional DVD, and I didn't want to wait any longer.  So would these strings lower the action, the string tension, both or neither? Would it eliminate the buzz on the fretboard?  How would they sound playing pizz? Would it help me become more agile/precise with my runs? I felt that at $145 for a set, this was a bit of a gamble.

Here's what I found out about Innovation Silver Slaps (medium tension):
The disadvantages of the Silver Slaps compared to my old strings:

  •  My old metal wound strings are louder and have a bit more sustain than the Silver Slaps.
  •  The older strings have a bit more warmth to the sound.  There is a nice little "mwah" sound that the old strings make when sliding into a note; the same "mwah" that happens as the notes decay and resolve.  You can hear what I'm talking about on the first note of this tune.  That's not as evident with the Silver Slaps.
  • You can't really bow Silver Slaps because of what they're made of; but hell, I don't even own a bow.  So no biggie, but I wanted to mention it.
The advantages of the Silver Slaps compared to my old strings:
  • The pizz sound of these strings is great!  Very organic sounding; similar to how gut strings might sound.  My old strings were pretty bright sounding, the Silver Slaps are pleasantly mellower.  The attack of the notes starts with a nice little "thud" that I like so much.  Again, hard to explain.
  • I'm not sure the action is lower - it might be. But the string tension is a lot less!  But it's not so low that the strings feel floppy under my fingers.  I can be very physical when I play, and I like to wrestle a little with my bass. So some string tension is good, and Silver Slaps have just the right amount.
  • The buzzing is gone on the fingerboard.  This alone makes the purchase worth it.
  • These string are great for slapping.  They make the proper "ka-thunk" sound instead of the loud snap and pop of my old strings.  And, as advertised, they sound great for jazz as well.
  • I think my stamina is a bit better playing with these strings.  Sometimes muscles and tendons in forearms and hands are killing me when I finish playing; not with these strings.
  • For some reason, the Silver Slaps have given me the courage to attempt soloing.  I'm not saying I can solo worth a damn.  Yet.
The verdict is that these strings kick much ass!  Ultimately I will go back to metal strings.  In fact, I'll probably go back to the Obligatos, but I'll probably get the lower tension of those strings.  To me, metal strings are just how an upright should sound.  If you don't have that warmth, then it's just not the same.  In the meantime, because of the Sliver Slaps, I can't wait to play my bass these days.  They will do just fine for the next few years.

Those last lines sound so fucking corny I feel obligated to mention that Innovation strings is not reimbursing me in any way for my endorsement of their strings.  However, if they wish to, a representative from that company should leave a dollar amount in the comments section below.

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