A friend of mine who has recently gotten back into the double bass, asked me about gut strings the other day. Like most bass players, I struggled (and still do) with choosing strings for my instrument. I don’t know if classical or jazz players struggle as much with this issue, but for Americana music, string choice can directly affect what styles of music you can effectively play on your instrument, and how long you can physically endure playing it.
Why Gut Strings?
I started using gut strings about 6 years ago and have never looked back. If you do a lot of slapping, you can’t beat the tone. Steel strings have a bright attack and too much sustain. Synthetic (nylon) strings have good attack and sustain, but often lack the solid punch you need for the foundation of the music. The dull clickety-clack of gut strings on the fingerboard is the perfect balance of attack, sustain, and punch. If slapping is your primary style and you are willing to spare no expense for tone, full gut strings are your ideal choice.
The other reason gut strings are so popular with slappers is that they are easy on your hands. When I first started slapping on steel strings, my fingers blistered up badly. The Bottom Dwellers rarely play fewer than two sets at any given gig (we frequently do four), and playing for any period of time with blistered fingers is nothing short of torture.
Gut strings aren’t just for slapping, though. If you’re a stickler for authenticity, any music with double bass written before the 18th century demands gut strings, as this was the material strings were made of before the industrial revolution.
From an Americana perspective, traditional bluegrass bass is boomy and lacks sustain. This may be more a result of recording technology of the time, but if you are after boomy and short sustain, gut strings will give you that.
It’s Not All Black and White
Well, it is black and white for some. Gut strings are made from the intestinal lining of sheep, goats, and cattle. Animals need to die to make gut strings. If you are vegan, your choice is easier.
Gut strings aren’t ideally suited to all styles of music. Even if you can afford to have two or more instruments with different setups, lugging them around to gigs and rehearsals is pretty unwieldy. Rockabilly, honky tonk and bluegrass aren’t the only styles of music I play. Musical styles can vary quite a bit just within a single Bottom Dwellers set.
My personal string choice was initially based on which musical styles I would be playing the majority of the time. This was a good place to start, but I have since grown to treat my string preference as an extension of my instrument preference.
Believe it or not, the Bottom Dwellers can get moderately groovy from time to time. Some songs scream for electric bass, but I don’t really enjoy playing the electric bass. Instead of trying to mimic the instrument, I approach the bass lines as a double bass player. The way you do, say, a funk tune on a double bass is different than the way you do it on an electric bass, but the end result is still funk. In turn, the way you play certain flavors of jazz on steel strings with lots of sustain is different than you would play it with gut strings with almost no sustain.
I am a double bass player, and I like that my particular instrument is percussive, boomy and old fashioned sounding. Every song I play, I approach from the perspective of how these tonal qualities can enhance the style of music I’m playing, while still providing the backbone for the song. This isn’t necessarily the way you may want to approach everything you play, so keep in mind that gut strings are drastically different sounding than steel strings.
And that isn’t all that is drastically different.
It’s A Big Adjustment
If, like many bass players today, you came to the double bass from the electric bass, you know that it is a radically different instrument. Despite the fact that they fulfill the same role and have the same number of strings tuned to the same notes, the double bass requires quite a bit more effort to play. Going from steel strings to gut strings on your double bass is a similar experience.
Gut strings are not as dense as steel strings. They require more material to make up for their lack of mass (the mass of the string is an important factor in producing a note that is loud enough to hear). As a result, gut strings are fat, floppy, and not as loud as steel strings. A full (non-wound) gut E string can be as large as .185 gauge. A full gut A string will be somewhere around .145. For reference, a heavy E string on an electric bass is about .105.
If you play a 3/4 size bass, stringing it up with guts will feel like playing rubberbands at first (tension is another major factor). Gut strings on shorter scale instruments will be floppier and quieter than they will be on longer scale instruments. If you play without amplification, take this under serious consideration.
Getting the volume out of fat, floppy strings without amplification causes you to play harder. While the strings themselves won’t tear up your hands, it can take a while to build up your endurance.
The adjustments don’t stop with you. The extremely large diameter of the lower gut strings means you will likely need to modify your nut, bridge and tailpiece to accommodate the added girth. Basses just aren’t built with super heavy string gauges in mind. While nuts, bridges and tailpieces are a trivial expense, it is admittedly a pain in the ass to have to do woodworking, or hire someone for the simple process of changing strings on your instrument.
If you don’t like the idea of filing down parts of your bass, or getting used to playing super fat strings, you can get wound E and A gut strings. This means the strings have a gut core, but are wound with steel. The steel provides much more mass, so they are louder and have higher tension; closer to a full steel string. The drawback is that the winding seems to have a springy slap sound when played through an amp using a piezo pickup. They have a brighter attack as well, but not as bright as a full steel string. This is a pretty good compromise, and is actually the more popular option with gut string players.
I am personally on the fence about wound gut strings. On two occasions I have had the steel winding on an E string and A string break on me. This caused the wire to bunch up on the bridge and stretch out at the nut. The string also spun quite a bit when plucked. If this happens, the strings are pretty much done for. Sometimes you can wind them up enough to stop the spinning, but fingering notes at the end of the fingerboard can still hurt your fingers.
I currently have a full gut A string and wound E string on my bass. I sanded down the edges on my bridge before installing the E string and haven’t had any trouble with it for nearly a year. This may have been a fluke with my instrument, but make sure the edges of your bridge and tailpiece where the strings sit is not causing any pinching.
Thankfully many dealers sell individual strings, which not only allows you to more affordably replace broken strings, but it allows you to mix and match a custom set. This is how I ended up with a wound E and full gut A string (Lenzner Supersolos, and I am extremely happy with them). Incidentally, this combination took a little getting used to as my E string is a lighter gauge than my A string.
It’s An Investment
A double bass is a wholly different instrument than an electric bass, or guitar. Strings aren’t meant to be changed every few months; especially gut strings. Besides the fact that they can set you back the cost of a decent factory electric bass (typically $300 to $500 a set), gut strings need to be broken in. And in my opinion, they get better with age.
There is a myth that gut strings don’t last as long as steel strings. This is simply not true. I used the same set of gut strings on my last bass for three years before I broke one. I’ve even read stories about antique dealers and archeologists discovering ancient harps, mandolins, and other instruments with their gut strings still intact and playable.
If you’re experiencing sticker shock, remember, you can start slow by purchasing individual strings, and with proper care, these strings can be a lasting investment.
Relax, Proper Care Is Totally Easy
It’s not a myth that gut strings are more sensitive to temperature and humidity than steel strings are. If you live in a dry climate like I do, you will need to oil them from time to time. Players typically use walnut oil. I like to use extra virgin olive oil on my strings. It’s as good for your skin as it is for your strings, and smells nice. It’s also readily available in a pinch if you are playing anywhere food is served. I dab a little on a paper towel and rub it up and down on the front and back surfaces of the strings, making sure to apply it to all parts of the strings from the pegbox to the tailpiece. I then wrap the paper towel around each string and run it along the length of the string.
When your strings dry out, small hairs will pop up. It’s important to clip these off as soon as you see them. They can cause the strings to unravel and break. I keep a small set of nail clippers on my keychain. Not only are they handy for clipping off string hairs, but you never have to play your way through a night with a gangly fingernail.
One last caveat about gut strings. It is not recommended that you take any bass strings off and put them back on again. Besides the usual twisting and turning they do in different places on the bass, gut strings are a natural, pliable material. They will conform to the notches and grooves of your instrument and reseating them can cause weak points to develop. They will also unravel a bit at the pegbox end. Threading them back through the holes in your tuning pegs isn’t always easy.
If the cost of gut strings is still out of the question for you, there is a wide range of synthetic strings claiming to be just like gut. Unfortunately, I don’t have enough experience with them to make any recommendations.
I have tried LaBella Supernils and Eurosonic strings on other people’s basses. The Supernils were difficult to play. They had a lot of spin when plucked, similar to how my broken wound gut strings behaved. The Eurosonics felt good, but they didn’t have enough foundation. They sounded flat against the fingerboard, and had much less punch than a real gut string.
Both of these alternatives are much more affordable than gut strings, and perhaps these compromises are worth while to you, but the purpose of this article is to pass on what I have learned about gut strings, and both of these alternatives fall short of the real thing.
I suppose this is a lot of information to take in. Gut strings are a very different experience, and deciding to throw down that much money on a set of strings is a really big deal. These strings have caused me a good amount of heartache and frustration. Being as expensive as they are, I don’t think it is at all unreasonable to have as much information as you can about them before taking the plunge.
Don’t just take my word for it. Ask around. Bob Gollihur has tons of information about bass strings on his website. He has one of the largest string selections around, and he has tried most, if not everything he carries. He also seems to be better stocked than most dealers. If you need a string quick, he’ll likely be able to hook you up.
Beyond that, make an effort to befriend other bass players. Play their basses and let them play yours! Experimenting with different setups on your own instrument can be time consuming, and mistakes can be expensive. If we stick together and help each other out, we’ll all be better off in the end.