Yeah man, there I said it. Flatwounds were the only thing available for bass guitars (from 1951 on) back then. Then the nightmare went on for decades. People figured if it worked for double bass and electric guitar, it should work for the bass guitar, too. You know, cause it was the new, snobby thing back then; them pricey flatwounds were the shit for guitar. All those jazz heads changed to these once they appeared on the scene. And so we entered mud heaven. Ever wondered why in most bands, the bass guitarist played with a pick in the 50s and 60s, and even in the 70s? Nope. It’s not because it was still new and they called it bass GUITAR. No, it was because playing with a pick was about the only way to squeeze out some definition and attack from those pesky flatwounds.
Flats – the only choice
Then Rotosound finally came out with roundwound bass guitar strings, and things were fine for about 20-25 years (thankfully, there are many brands to choose from these days). Bass guitars finally earned the option to be able to ring out like a freakin’ cowbell. Slappers in funk bands and rock bassists embraced it. It was like throwing the window open in a heavily fart ridden room.
Enter the 2000s (and it’s still going strong, thanks to the internet and greedy businessmen; they would sell you retro in intravenous shots if they could, just to make a couple more bucks with it). Flatwounds – as you guessed – are considered in now, again. Not because all that many pros want to use them. (Except, well, darn you Pino for giving up the fretless with rounds… he’s kinda allowed to get away with it now. No.) Still, it’s mostly these bedroom n00bies who insist on putting on the flats. No surprise there. When you first heard a proper bass line on the radio, buried into the elaborate mix of a tune of some famous band, it most probably sounded the way your bedroom bass sounds like on the neck pickup, with flats on. The problem is, you are not surrounded by the same elaborate arrangement, played by the entire band.
I dare you to go to any music related forum and ask around what strings to use on your bass. All these wannabe (and, to give credit to them, some real) professionals will let you know quickly how flatwounds are the only real choice for you. These combative people will go to great lengths to aggressively (or at least passive-aggressively) defend their beloved flatwounds (see all those ad hominem verbal “gifts” below, written by folks that got triggered by this post). There are also countless articles that should be collectively titled “I’m so in love with my flatwounds”.
The truth is, there are a million different ways to get a dead tone out of roundwounds. It usually takes a counter clockwise turn of a knob somewhere in the signal chain.
When they say “flatwounds sit better in the mix”, you can flip out your bullshit card. If you want to highlight bass guitar (and bass instruments in general), you need a certain amount of treble and high mids. If it’s bass frequencies only, your arrangement has to be very sparse in the low end. And even then, you’ll have to turn up the bass way too high to get a usable, audible sound. Think reggae. Or Motown stuff. They’ll tell you how James Jamerson sounded great with flatwounds. Well, did he really? He did his job on the thing, he wasn’t in love with it though. They could get away with it when there wasn’t even an audible kick drum to compete with in the mix.
Quite often, you’ll see some random bass forum guy with drops of warm jizz appearing all over the lower part of their pants, with their fingers moving back and forth over the neck of their bass guitar to the rhythm of the ominously chanted mantra “This One Really Sings With Flats!”. What they really mean is, their new, couple thousand dollar bass finally began to sound dull and thuddy just like the old one they’re so used to. It’s good news, because the duller it sounds, the less audible their playing mistakes will be. Little known fact that in order to detect the most orthodox flatwound snobs present on the internet, all you need to do is make a search on the exact phrase “sings with flats“. The results speak for themselves.
If you put these singing flats on a fretless, it gets even worse, as the strings now meet some wood or plastic (resin), not metal (unless it’s one of those rare metal fingerboards, not that it will be of any help). Once you really end up having to mix such a misery, you’ll find yourself boosting highs and distort the living ‘roach crap out of the bass track. Just to make it work. And then you can try to filter and gate out the hiss, remove the clanky clams and say your favorite prayers. Or just get rounds.