Picking the right set of bass strings can be a difficult and expensive process. Experimenting with a variety of brands is the only way to find strings that work for you and your bass, but each set of strings runs $150-200, which limits experimentation. Some (but not most) local luthiers will let you experiment with their old strings, so if you find someone like this, stay on their good side!
I should mention before getting into my string descriptions that I am a classical bassist, and what I use is not generally considered good for jazz and bluegrass styles of playing. For example, most jazz players I know consider Pirastro Obligatos to be the only acceptable jazz strings Pirastro makes, while classical players tend to favor many different types of Pirastro strings. I have not done much playing on gut strings, so I have not offered any opinions on these strings. It would be smart to do some research before buying gut strings since a set can easily approach $400.
- Pirastro Permanent – This is my current favorite string brand. A recent addition to the Pirastro line, they are powerful, medium tension strings that are quite popular on the audition circuit right now. Permanents to me are a great string to start your experimentation. They combine the free and open feeling of lighter gauge strings with the power of heavier gauge strings. They tend to work well on a lot of basses.
- Pirastro Obligato – These strings are a close second favorite of mine. They are a relatively low tension string with a great deal of flexibility under the hand. You can actually twist the string winding back and forth and feel it move. These are one of the few brands of strings that seem to work well for both classical and jazz playing. The response under the bow is excellent and they have that jazz “growl” when plucked. I have had great success with these strings on a wide variety of basses. They seem to work well on cheap as well as expensive basses. Since they are a lower tension string they can make a tight bass sound more open. If you are looking for a firm feeling under the bow, however, these may not be the best choice.
- Pirastro Original Flexocor – These strings are a classic favorite for orchestral section players. These do not make good jazz strings – in fact, they are the opposite of what a jazz player is usually looking for. They are a higher tension string with very little pizzicato ring. These strings tend to sound great with the bow. They have that “chocolate” sound prized by arco players, and they blend very well in a section. Since they are a higher tension string it takes more weight and energy to activate them. They can feel stiff under the bow, especially when compared to Permanents or Obligatos. It all depends on the player – some people really like that feeling under the bow. You can put a lot of energy into these strings and they will respond in kind. They are a darker sounding string and are therefor not appropriate for all basses. Also, they tend to sound very good under the ear and less good in a hall.
- Pirastro Original Flatcrom – These strings are as old school as you can find. They make Original Flexocors look wimpy in comparison. These strings are even higher tension than the Original Flexocor, and they are definitely only for orchestra playing. In my experimentation I have found these strings to sound great on very nice old Italian basses and terrible on just about everything else. They have even more “chocolate” in their sound, but they will only work well on certain basses, and solo or jazz playing would not usually be a good idea on these strings.
- D’Addario Helicore – These strings exploded in popularity in the mid 1990s, but I don’t see a lot of players using them now. Quality control at D’Addario seems to me to be shakier than it is at Pirastro. I have never broken a Pirastro string while playing, but while using D’Addarios over a three year period I managed to break three A strings. This was while playing arco, not pizzicato! These strings come in an orchestral variety, hybrid variety (good for both pizzicato and arco) and a jazz variety. They also come in light, medium and heavy gauges, so there are more customization options in your set up with these strings than there are with the Pirastro brands. I used two heavy gauge orchestral strings on the G and D strings and heavy gauge hybrids on the A and E strings. This for me was the best set up for my old Lowendal bass. These strings tend to be similar in sound to the Pirastro Permanents. All versions of D’Addario (orchestra, hybrid and jazz) sound brighter to my ear than Permanents, and not in a good way. I don’t see a lot of players on the audition circuit with these strings.
- Corelli by Savarez – These are some strange strings. They come in light, medium, and heavy gauges, but even the heaviest gauge is extremely light. These strings come in nickel and tungsten varieties. I have only played on the tungsten strings, and I have not been impressed by the results. To my ear they sound light without any substance, and are disappointing to play. I have a hard time recommending them to anyone.
- Spirocore by Thomastik-Infeld – These strings are extremely popular for jazz bassists, but they can work quite well for classical bassists in some situations. They have a huge, powerful sound with lots of sustain and pizzicato growl. They tend to be difficult to bow, so a player playing primarily arco should consider this when thinking about these strings. They are very bright and clear. Their Wiech string variety is lighter gauge and easier on the hands while still retaining the power of the standard gauge. Many classical players use Spirocore solo strings. They tend to sound extremely bright up close but to sound well-balanced and clear in a hall, and they can cut over an orchestra better than most other brands.
I hope these descriptions will help people looking for strings to make a good decision. I welcome any feedback or suggestions on brands of strings that I did not cover here.