Strung Out

One of the drawbacks of playing stringed instruments, which of course are far outweighed by the pleasures they have to offer, is the occasional need to restring them.

I once calculated that I had over 100 strings on all my instruments (admittedly, one of them is a harp which immediately adds 22 strings to the total; I’ve got rid of a few of them since then too, so the number may be slightly lower by now). Most of the instruments don’t get played incredibly frequently and I generally prefer the sound of fairly well worn-in strings to very new ones so I tend to only replace the strings when one breaks or the intonation noticeably starts to suffer. I usually try to change the whole set of strings on an instrument at the same time (although if I break one mid-gig, I usually only change the offending string at the time and then replace the rest of the set at my earliest convenience).

Fortunately, bass strings tend to last quite a long time since they are about the most expensive strings I use (roughly £25 for a 5-string set – about the same price as my violin strings and considerably better value considering there’s an extra string and a great deal more material in each string). However, they do break from time to time and last week was one of those times. My E string snapped in the middle of a band practice and I discovered that I didn’t have a spare.

I can’t remember the last time I got new bass strings. I think it was about 8 or 9 years ago, when I discovered half-wound strings. As the name suggests, these are a cross (or a compromise) between the more usual round-wound and flat-wound strings, providing a slightly brighter tone than the latter but giving some of their smoothness (and gentleness on a fretless fingerboard) compared to the former. As a fretless player, I found half-wounds to be just the thing for my bass.

I got myself a set of Status Graphite strings, which I seem to recall cost about £25 back then. Rather than waiting for my previous, flat-wound strings (probably the ones that came with the bass a few years earlier) to wear out, I swapped the strings immediately and then kept the flats as spares.

A few months ago, a couple of my strings snapped within a few weeks of each other, so I temporarily put the corresponding flats back on and made a mental note, which I unfortunately then proceeded to ignore, to get a new spare set. Of course, one of the strings that broke was the E, which is why I found myself without a change of string last week.

The Status strings, which are hand wound, were not the cheapest ones available when I got them, although they came highly recommended (and I’m not that sure that half-wounds are widely available in other brands), so I had expected them to be quite a bit more expensive by now if they were still available. I was pleasantly surprised to find that they are still available and still about the same price that I remember. Actually, they were listed on the website at £22.50, but it later turned out that this was an ex-VAT price. I do wish that shopping sites would make it clear on the product pages whether prices include VAT or not, rather than (presumably) hiding the information away somewhere in the small print, but I digress…

I’ve now put the new strings on, after giving the fingerboard a bit of lemon oil treatment, and they are sounding fine. I decided to buy two sets this time, so that I have a change of string available the next time I break one – hopefully not for at least another 8 or 9 years.

This reminds me of an anecdote I once heard about the great Stax-Volt bassist, Donald Duck Dunn, who sadly died earlier this year. Apparently he was once asked, a number of years ago but at least 30 years after starting his professional career in which he was notable both for playing on a huge number of recordings (and presumably quite a few live gigs too, as well as the Blues Brothers film) and (I gather) for using a single bass throughout, what strings he used. His reply was “I don’t know – they were on the bass when I bought it”! I don’t know the source of that story, but I’d like to think it’s true.

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