The average person probably doesn’t put much thought into musical instrument strings; to them, strings are strings and as long as you get the right set for the type of instrument you have and don’t try to put bass strings on your guitar, they’re all pretty much the same. Yet experienced musicians know that’s not the case. There’s a huge variety of different string types available, and they come in a wide range of scale lengths and thicknesses or gauges. Instead of overwhelming you with every possible consideration when choosing strings, we’re going to focus in on just one in this article – roundwound vs. flatwound strings.
Flat or Round – What’s the Difference?
Strings are made by wrapping material around an inner core of wire. Roundwound strings use a round external wire to wrap around the inner wire core, while flatwound strings use a flat, tape-like wire. The difference has an effect on the sound and playing feel of the strings.
Roundwound strings tend to have a brighter, more harmonically complex tone. They are available in the widest selection of gauges and materials (nickel, stainless steel, etc.) and many companies now offer treated or coated roundwound strings to improve their life, as well as reduce the buildup of dirt and oils in the wraps that would otherwise make them “go dead” faster.
Downsides to roundwound strings are that finger squeaks and other noises from repositioning your hands on the neck are more prevalent. They also tend to cause little grooves to wear into your frets faster than flatwounds, so you may need to refret your instrument more often if you use roundwounds.
Flatwound strings tend to have a darker tone that emphasizes the note fundamental, with limited harmonic content compared to roundwound strings. Another big advantage to many players is their smoother playing feel, which can be easier on the fingertips, not to mention your fingerboard and frets.
Flatwounds tend to be harder to find, cost a bit more and come in a more limited variety of gauges. They can also be harder to bend. However, note that guitarists who play MIDI guitar often find tracking is more reliable with flatwounds due to the reduced harmonic content; flatwounds are also popular among jazz guitarists.
Does It Matter Who Wins the Popularity Contest?
Roundwound and flatwound strings are available for both guitar and bass. Roundwound strings are by far the more popular of the two with modern players, and most new instruments come equipped with this string type. While generally not as popular as they once were, flatwound strings are more popular with bassists today than they are with guitarists. What’s the sonic difference? Think of “Bernadette” by the Four Tops – that’s a flatwound sound on the bass, while “Roundabout” by Yes features a bass with roundwound strings.
If you do play guitar, don’t overlook the usefulness of flatwounds for getting different tones. There are some tones you can’t get any other way than by using flatwound strings, so if you’ve never tried a set, you should give them a try sometime. Not only may you find interesting new sounds, you may find you prefer their playing feel. At the end of the day, that’s what the decision comes down to – sound and feel. There’s no “right or wrong” answer when selecting string types – just preferences. The only way you’ll know which one you prefer is to try them both.