Flatwound strings suck on bass guitar

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.

Snobbery

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 truthflatwound bass string

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.

9 Replies to “Flatwound strings suck on bass guitar”

  1. It may sucks for you, but not everyone. Enough said. Cutting out harmonics isn’t the same as changing which them are presents. Way enough said.

  2. This is a pretty dumb article, that makes a straw man out of flatwound tone.

  3. I’ve always hated flats. To me they feel icky and they sound like the deadest of dead rounds. I’d rather have the high mid and treble response and dial it back if it’s too much than not have it to begin with.

  4. Really? How is this still a thing? People use what they use because it works for them. Polarization is just an indicator of how mono-dimensional a person’s view of life is. Take a minute and get over yourself.

  5. Sitting better in the mix isn’t the same thing as “highlighting the bass”. Rounds may be better for styles where you want more clank and high-end clickiness (Korn, etc). For a lot of other styles, I think flats work better.

  6. Fabulous. Somebody’s got to tell the truth. I’m with you, brother!

  7. Finally someone exposes the fad for what it is. Lately, I’ve been cracking up more than once over pictures on bass forums where guys show photos of their latest Fodera (or similar Hi-Fi boutique bass) – strung with flats. To each their own – but buying a 10.000 € hi-fidelity preamp bass with elaborately voiced preamp and EQ – and then killing the tone with flats – that’s really above my head. Might get a cheap asian passive P-Bass copy for the same results. Also, as subtractive synthesis has shown, you’d usually want to get a basic signal that is rich in all the frequency ranges because you can alway filter frequencies out. Still, the best active preamp in the world won’t make your flats sound crisp, because the frequencies are just not there. Still, lazy audio engineers and mixers will likely keep the “flats rule!” myth alive, because they got so used to mixing fender Ps with flats through the years.

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