Chicago-area double bassist Eric Hochberg (who has both been a guest on Contrabass Conversations and has written previously for the bass blog) recently put out a post detailing his thoughts on some of the more popular string brands being used today, and he has kindly agreed to let me repost it here at doublebassblog.org. I think you’ll find it very interesting, and if you’d like to hear my thoughts on different bass strings, you can check out a post I put out about this topic as well–it’s from the perspective of a classical player.
Perspectives on Double Bass Strings
I am mainly a jazz pizz player, although I work with the bow for improvised solos and enjoy practicing the Bach Cello Suites and other classical music. I began auditioning double bass strings a few years ago in an attempt to find something that would work well as a hybrid string for both styles of playing. One thing I have learned through this process is that there is not one single “best” string for all basses and musical styles. One brand of string on my bass may not respond and sound the same on your bass. This auditioning of double bass strings can also be a very expensive proposition, so borrowing strings to try from your colleagues or buying used is a good way to go with this.
Thomastik Spirocore Mittels were my main string into the early ‘90’s until I got an endorsement for the new D’Addario line of strings. I felt really good about their product until 2002 or so, when I noticed inconsistency issues. Around that time they changed the terms of my endorsement deal so I decided it would be a good time to start trying out other brands, as I was not particularly happy with the D’Addarios anymore. I will start out with my impressions of the D’Addario Helicore line, although it has been a number of years since I last used them and haven’t experienced their current lineup.
Helicore Orchestra – I used these strings for a short while, about a week to be exact. When they were sent to me, I mistook them for the original Helicores I had been using and liked, as they came in similar blue packaging. I strung up my bass with them one day and went straight to a recording session for Verve Records. When we started recording, I immediately noticed that these strings were not what I was used to or expecting at all. For the pizz playing I was doing, they were much stiffer and much fuller sounding with a bigger fundamental, but without the sustain I prefer in a jazz string. I got a pretty good sound that day, if somewhat dark and a bit lifeless. I think these strings might work well for some in this context, but not for the sound and feel I go for. For a while at least, I know they were popular with Orchestral players.
Helicore Hybrids – I used these strings off and on for a number of years and liked them pretty well as a pizz string for jazz, but I don’t feel they ever were that great with the bow. They are a bit darker than the Helicore Pizzicato strings.
Helicore Pizzicato – This is the brightest, most sustaining, string in the line up and is the D’Addario answer to Thomastik Spirocores. They come in four gauges like the Spirocore line. They are a well priced alternative. The mediums that I used were not great bowers.
Pirastro Obligato – These are the strings I decided to try out after my Helicore period. I was immediately struck by their somewhat looser feel and warmer sound than the previous strings I had been using. The E string was the only problem string for me, as it had a dirty, buzzy quality to it on my bass and I knew it wouldn’t be suitable for recording. I found the other 3 strings intriguing, bowing very well and giving me a warmer pizz sound than I had experienced before. I decided to replace the E string with a Spirocore Mittel and then went with Spirocore E and A, Obligato D and G combo for a while. A nice mix. The Obligatos have a tendency towards short life and when they go, it’s quick.
Thomastik Spirocore Mittels – Going back to these strings after many years with the Helicores, my initial impression was of a big step up in quality. The sound and feel of these strings are first rate. Very well made with a long life span. Their initially bright sound mellows out after playing for a while (weeks, at least). Not the easiest bowers, but for jazz pizz, the standard.
Thomastik Spirocore Weichs – I decided to try these on a bass that has a bit tighter feel than my main instrument. These are very similar in sound to the Mittels, but I find they bow smoother and start easier. They are also excellent jazz pizz strings, lively and easy on the hands. Maybe a bit less “gravitas” than the mittels. I really like Weichs!
I received a couple of sets of Corelli strings from Savarez of France to try out. they are well priced, and I was hoping they might meet my needs.
Corelli 370TX – These are the heavier gauge in the 370 line, although they are still very thin. Fantastic bowing strings with a bright, cello like timbre. Their pizz sound really isn’t suitable for the jazz I play, so I went on to the next package.
Corelli 380TX – These are heavier strings than the 370’s, closer to the Spiro Weich gauge, I think. The E string did not speak at all on my bass for pizz, the A was fair but the D and G strings were quite usable and bowed wonderfully. I used these in combination with the E and A Spiro Mittels for a while. They probably would have been in better balance with Weichs.
Thomastik Dominants – I had these on and off my bass in one day. One of my students uses them and they sound nice and felt pretty good on his instrument, but on mine, not so much. Kind of stiff feeling with a bright sound, fair under the bow. Top bass luthier Arnold Schnitzer reports that the Solo set of Dominants makes a good low tension hybrid string at orchestra tuning.
Pirastro Evah Pirazzi – I got a set of these when they came out a few years ago, and wow, my bass had never sounded as loud and full as with these strings. Somewhat dark sounding, but with a bit of growl and thump for jazz pizz and a nice, meaty bowed sound. I used these for six months or so, but felt that I needed a string with a bit less tension for all the playing I was doing. The old hands can only take so much and it was time to work a little easier, so I decided to try the next set.
Velvet Compas 180 Suite – This was my first experience with the Velvet line of strings. Rufus Reid had introduced me to them a few years ago, and I plunked a few notes on his bass at the time, but I wasn’t that impressed with their sound out in the audience. Most of the players I have heard with Velvet strings (Animas & Garbos) get a very dark, old school kind of sound, not really my thing. The Compas 180 Suites are a bit different, they are made to be played either at orchestra or solo pitch, they have smooth, flat steel windings over a silk core and they are very low tension. I have been using them for six months (until a week or so ago) at orchestra tuning and really enjoy them. They are extremely easy on the hands, have some growl and bite and I think they could be called Velvet’s answer to Spiros. They bow pretty well, but you have to lighten up as they have a pretty wide excursion from the low tension and they bottom out fairly easily, at least with my fairly low string height. The regular Compas 180 have a bit more tension and might solve this problem. I took them off my bass as the G string was not responding too well anymore, probably worn out. On this bass I’m now on to Spiro E and A and Evah D and G, a good combination.
Kolstein Heritage – I wanted to get a set of these as I remembered them to be pretty low tension from my experience trying out basses at the Kolstein shop in NY. I put them on my second bass and they work pretty well, nice full pizz sound and good arco. I haven’t gigged with them at this point so I don’t know how they will respond in a more demanding playing situation.
A few miscellaneous string impressions:
The Spiro Weich G string is pretty thin and I wanted to experiment with some fatter feeling (and maybe sounding) strings. I tried out the Pirastro Oliv steel wrapped gut G string for a couple of weeks. It has a very nice, big, full and fat pizz sound, bows well and mixed pretty well with the Weichs. I found it to be a bit slow in response on my gigs and a bit too dark to project the way I prefer when playing with a loud jazz band. I also auditioned an Innovation 140H G string. It also had a nice fat feel, good volume, and was fun to play, but after a couple of weeks I started noticing a kind of “plastic-y” quality to the sound, so off it went.
I am very interested in auditioning the new Evah Pirazzi Weich set, these may be the answer for for a good, lower tension, hybrid string. Initial reports have been very promising.
I just played 2 gigs with my new EP Weichs and my first impressions are very favorable. They do remind me of the regulars in tone, but they have more growl on the E and A strings. They are also quite a bit looser feeling on my bass, which I like. They sound dark and wonderful jazz pizz when playing alone or soloing with light accompaniment, they do tend to disappear in the mix to my ear when playing in the band. I’ve been tweaking the eq on my amp to the higher side to see if this helps and I think it does. They sound nice under the bow, but the feel is a bit spongy and will require a lighter touch, I think. All in all, I’m getting a nice, dark punchy pizz sound with them and they are quite enjoyable. I’ll report back after working with them some more.
Thank you, Pirastro!