For the sound of a double bass its strings and their quality play a major part – they produce the sound. Strictly speaking the instrument (as well as pickups, microphones and amplifiers) only serve to amplify. This is why choosing the strings suitable for the instrument is one of the most important aspects sound optimization.
A today’s bass player can choose from various materials and combinations of materials: apart from gut (guts of sheep or even cheaper beef guts) and plastic (nylon, perlon, polyester, carbon, silk among others) you can also find different sorts of steel, such as iron or non-iron metals (e.g. aluminum and copper, gold, silver, wolfram, titan) as well as mineral fibers which are used to produce strings.
Plant fibers and animal sinews were already used as strings in prehistoric times. In the advanced civilizations of the Near East horsehair, silk and gut were used and the antique peoples of the Mediterranean used gut to produce strings. In Egypt an American mission found the grave of the famous musician Harmosis, who lived in the time of Queen Hatschepsut (1520 – 1484 BC) In the grave of the artist they found his lute unharmed. At the instrument, which is exhibited in the museum in Cairo there are still the original gut strings to be found.
Until today the English language uses the misleading term “catgut” to identify gut strings. The origin of this term can be explained by an anecdote: Around 1300 the Italian saddle producers in the little village Salle/Pescara found out that the guts of the wild sheep of the region, which they used to sew their saddles, were particularly suitable for strings for instruments. The production of strings quickly became one of the most important industries of the village. In order to protect themselves against competition the real origin of the used material was concealed and they claimed that they used catguts. There were quite a lot of superstition around cats and the killing of cats was thought to be ominous – so people hoped to deter potential imitators.
Around 1650 people began to produce strings with a metal winding: a coat consisting of thin wire is wound round the center (“core”). This sort of strings show less stiffness in contrast to comparable blank strings. By giving the strings such a coat the vibrating mass of a string increases without interfering with its elasticity. By this way thinner diameters and shorter string length become possible. Today gut, nylon multifilaments, steel ropes or steel or bronze wire are used for the core.
A core consisting of wire does not have to be circular. Six-edged or lengthwise slit profiles give the coat a better support. The coat is made of one or more layers of round or flat wire (or a combination of both). If round wire is used the string will be ground afterwards to create a smooth surface and to achieve a more pleasant feeling. Before applying the coat, silk or plastic threads are usually woven around the core. This does not only serve the sit of the coat but also the damping of the string. This damping eliminates unwelcome vibrations and provides a good response with the bow. But at the same time it also reduces the sustain of a string – which spoils pizzicato playing. This is why there are only a few strings which are suitable for bowing as well as for pizzicato.
When steel strings appeared in the 50ies they were quite expensive compared to gut strings. In spite of this fact they have been able to dominate the market over the years. They are relatively insensitive in regard to weather, sweat of hands, live long and offer a long sustain, enable the usage of a magnetic pickup and a low action (less distance betwen string and fingerboard) because of their thinner diameter. Some steel strings however sound somehow “metallic” and not all can be bowed comfortably.
Recently gut strings have become more and more popular, again, despite of their being more expensive (meanwhile). For a lot of bass players the warm tone of gut strings is a measure to judge the quality of the tone of a string. This is why a lot of producers try to develop the optimal string by combining the natural, warm tone qualities of a gut string with the luxury and the reliability of a steel string.
A lot of companies offer their strings in different gauges, e.g. “light”, “medium”, “heavy”. A different gauge has a direct effect on the tone: A light, thin string vibrates more strongly and longer because of its low mass but transmits less energy to the bridge and the instrument. On the one hand this leads to better response and a long sustain, on the other hand to a weaker sound. Thicker strings with a higher tension produce a louder sound richer in higher positions. It is important to find out the right tension which is optimal for the individual double bass because of a strong pressure caused by a high tension on the top can have a negative effect on the tone qualities. If you want to find out how the gauge of a string alters the tone you can try out when tuning up or down. If the double bass sounds better after having lowered the pitch, you should try out thinner (lighter tension) strings and if it sound better after having raised the pitch, you might need thicker (higher tension) ones. Some companies give the tension of an individual string (in N, kp or Ibs) which are very useful if you want to compare various strings an mix strings of different brands.
A further possibility to reduce the pressure on the top (while the string’s tension is the same) is to keep the angle of the strings measured at the bridge flatter. This you might achieve through a lower action, or a raised saddle
Bassist Paul Warburton remembers:
“When I started playing in about 1956, the Artone gut strings were almost everybody’s choice for the G and D. The A and E were almost always steel Lycons. This was mainly a jazz genre choice. The Red-O-Ray gut strings were, I think, next in popularity, in jazz anyway. They were odd looking strings in that they were gut strings dyed to a red color! (There’s a Gerry Mulligan album that has a photo of the band laying down on the floor and the shot from above, shows Bill Crow’s bass with those Reds on it.)
I lived in Aspen Colorado in the mid 1960s and Gary Karr, John Deak and many other future great bassists who were there studying with Stuart Sankey were all using Eudoxa both in orchestra tuning and solo tuning.
The Lycon steel strings became most popular as the first steel strings in the late 50s. early 60s. The great jazz bassist Red Mitchell, to my knowledge was the first bassist to switch to all steel Lycons. Ray Brown had a business deal with Lycon, endorsing his own personal version of Lycon. They were not as heavy as the regular ones in terms of tension, and a bit easier to play. They came packaged in a nice plastic envelope with an autographed picture of Ray in the clear plastic window! These strings were kind of a Thomastik kind of high tension string that were fabulous for pizz sustain, but pretty awful for bowing. They suddenly went out of business and disappeared from the market. At this time, Thomastik became the state of the art jazz pizz string.”