Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Bass Strings: To Change Or Not To Change

Bass Strings: To Change Or Not To Change
For years, bass players have debated the concept of changing strings and most people have asked the same questions: Doesn’t it change the sound of the instrument? Does the funk disappear? How can someone get good tone playing strings that are a year old? Don’t you know that (insert famous bass player) never changed his strings? Don’t you know that (insert other famous bass player) changes his strings every few shows?

In many ways, the concept of when to change strings is just as important to a player’s sound and approach as the type of strings they decide to use. Plus, legends, anecdotes, superstitions, and myths circulate the bass player community regarding curious methodologies… never, ever changing strings, boiling strings and re-using them, rubbing a day-old slice of pizza over the strings, sprinkling the strings with baby powder and rubbing it into the creases, and who knows what else.

So, what got me thinking about this? Last Friday evening, something came over me… maybe it was the fact that I had recently played a handful of basses at the NAMM show with nice, fresh strings, or maybe it was because I felt as if I need a bit of change in my life. In any case, I decided that it was time to break open a fresh pack, rummage around for my string cutters, and embark on the journey. Clearly, I know how to let loose, party, and have a good time on a Friday night.
The inspiration for changing strings simply had to do with, well, lack of inspiration. I am a true believer in having some “gunk and funk” on your strings, especially for that dark, old-school tone, but I also know that strings have a lifespan and that the lifespan is dependent upon many variables. Some of these include (but are not limited to): how frequently you play, if your hands tend to sweat when you play, if you pick up your instrument without washing your hands, if you wipe your strings down before or after you play, if you use some kind of fretboard lubricant, if you’re a very aggressive or very light player, and, the all-important variable… how you like your tone. When it comes to my strings, I notice when they just don’t feel right. When they seem sticky, stale, and uninspiring, then I know that it’s time.
DISCLAIMER: Changing strings is completely based upon personal preference. That said, here are a few different viewpoints on the subject and some good suggestions for knowing when you should (or when you shouldn’t) change the strings on your bass.

So, rule of thumb number one: if you’re not happy with the feel of your strings, change them! As I mentioned before, there are many things you can do to change the feel of your strings once you put them on…. Some people suggest the “French fry” method to add some grease, but I prefer a more organic approach: practice, practice, practice.

Elaborating on the “lifespan” concept, the more experience you have with your strings, the more you’ll realize how they change over time and how that impacts your playing.
Here’s an example of the lifespan for my strings:
Stage one: Brand new. Ew! They’re too bright for my taste and too metallic feeling. I momentarily regret my decision to change the strings when I play along to some old blues tunes… I long for my old tone and the inherent nastiness of the old strings. I consider only playing Duck Dunn and Jamerson lines on the new strings in order to infuse them with soul (crazy? Perhaps…). Then, on a whim, I play a couple of slap licks and realize that it sounds great! Time to bust out the disco ball.
Stage two (roughly 4-6 weeks later): Finally breaking in. I’m not convinced that intentionally rubbing grease into my strings is the way to go, so, I’ve gotten used to the idea that it takes a little while before I’m happy with my strings. The initial brightness has disappeared and the strings feel more comfortable. Slides, bends, and chords sound great and feel easy… bass solo, please!
Stage three (anywhere between 2 and 7 months): These are my strings and this is my sound. I get the tone I want, the strings feel the way I want, and I’m generally happy with my instrument. I tend not to notice the strings very much, which is a good thing.
Stage four (the hero’s downfall): Different tone when slapping, popping, or using a pick (not necessarily bad, just different). I revisit my Staple Singers collection or play some Joe Osborn lines without having to do much tone shaping, but I do have the sense that the strings are feeling grungy.

Stage five: That’s it. I’m done. Time for a change! 

That concludes the basic evolution of my strings… I know what to expect when they’re brand new, when to be content once they’ve broken in, and when to give up on them when they’re past their prime. Some players like to change their strings every few weeks or after just a few gigs, especially if they prefer a brighter tone that cuts through the mix. On the other hand, some people believe that the tone of their instrument and the tone of their strings is one and the same. They purposely don’t change the strings because they don’t want to lose “that sound” or because they’re superstitious or nostalgic about the instrument. There’s nothing wrong with any of these approaches.
Hence, rule of thumb number two: if you’re unhappy with the dull sounding tone of your strings, then go ahead and change them. But, if you’re getting the sound you want and it’s your tone, then there’s no reason to make a change.
Also, if you’re the kind of person that hates the sound of new strings, remember that the bass and amp gods have given us tone controls for a reason. You can compensate by rolling off some highs and boosting the low end if they’re too bright. Remember that your tone shaping comes from a few different places (your fingers, your bass settings, your amp settings, the room, etc.) and that you have all of these at your disposal.
And finally, remember that sometimes, you just have to do it. Here are a few scenarios that call for an immediate string change:
You try out a new set and decide they’re just not for you. I suggest a 30-day trial period to let them break in a bit, unless you absolutely hate them the second you put them on.
You break a string… go ahead and replace the set (unless they’re pretty new to begin with and you feel as if you only need to replace the one that broke).
You pick up a bass that has been sitting in the basement for years and the strings have rusted over. As a teacher, I’ve had students show up to lessons with strings that were so rusty that I had to ask their parents if they’ve recently received a tetanus shot.
You finish a practice session, look down at your hands, and they’re black or brownish red (gross). Sometimes, strings just happen to get funky (the bad kind of funky) and it’s worth it to wipe them down or change them.
You’re new to the instrument, have never changed them before, and have an opportunity to learn how to do it during a lesson or clinic. When I began playing bass, I was afraid to change the strings, simply because I didn’t know how… once someone guided me through the process, I never thought twice about it.
So, folks, there you have it. It’s up to you to decide how to maintain your instrument. Whether you want to change your strings the 3rd Thursday of every month or every 15 years, that’s your modus operandi. Bass strings aren’t particularly cheap, which is why some people don’t like to change them often; but, in the grand scheme of things, a $30 set of strings is a small price to pay to have the tone you want and to be inspired by the sound and feel of your instrument