Cage Match Bass Edition: Rounds vs. Flats

There is never a more polarizing thread that comes up in bass forums than the one that starts with “what is better?” and ends with “Rounds or Flats?” In this article we’re going to talk about the differences between roundwound and flatwound strings, the pros and cons between the two and then offer up a couple suggestions where either of them would fit the bill nicely.

P Bass CloseupIt’s always interesting: as soon as someone mentions the “flats or rounds” question, you can visualize all of the purists on both sides digging in, getting ready for the impending battle. And while neither is a true “superior” to the other, both have secured a solid place on many musician’s gigging instruments. Let’s explore the similarities and differences.

Flats: Flatwound strings are made by winding a flat, ribbon wire over either a round or hex core. From there, they are then polished to a smooth, sleek finish. This yields a string that has a deep tonal quality that sounds “dead” compared to the zing of roundwound strings. Flatwounds sport a much longer playing life, partly due to the ribbon wire having very little spaces for dirt and oils from your fingers. They also enjoy less finger noise and are very kind on your frets.

One of the big issues people mention with flatwounds is the tension. Because of the flat wire, there is much more mass compared to rounds of a comparable gauge, which can translate into more tension on the neck and a stiffer feeling string under the fingers. The other one is that sound; it’s a love/hate thing. People either love that thump that you get with flats, or absolutely abhor it.

Genres that people tend to use/recommend flats for are funk, R&B, motown and the like, although you can play them in any style you want (just ask Steve Harris).

Rounds: Roundwound strings are made in a similar manner to flatwounds, but use a round wire (most typically nickel or steel, but there are others) over either a round or hex core. This yields a very bright, snappy tone with a lot of harmonic content. Rounds by and large do not last as long as flats; one of the reasons being the spaces in the string that allow for buildup of dirt and oils. Also, they have more finger noise (especially when new) in comparison, as well as a “clack” like sound when hitting the frets.

Roundwounds tend to be very bright and zingy out of the gate, but usually break in after about two-three weeks. From there, they retain their tone until the string is dead. Compared to flatwounds, rounds have less tension on the hands, but due to the construction, can be rough to the touch.

Genres that people use rounds for normally need that aggressive bite and edge, like funk, rock, metal and anything along those lines. Again, you can technically play them in whatever genre you want.

So, which one is BETTER?

Batman MemeThis isn’t nearly as simple. For years, I never found a set of flats I liked. I figured that “I’m just a rounds guy,” happy to play my personal set until I can’t anymore. Then, I took a gig (6 weeks! Yowza!) that had me playing electric bass with a string quartet, so I needed something that would fit tonally with the acoustic instruments. I gave flats another shot, and was very happy with the differences. Keeping in mind the tension consideration, I grabbed a set that was lighter in gauge than my usual roundwounds were. With those strung up, I EQ’d the bass to bring out the deeper tone of the flats and went to the gig. The six weeks with flats gave me a better appreciation for flats; what they do and where they’ll fit with my gigging needs.

So for me, the string that is “better” is the one that helps me fit into the gig the best. Most of the time, it’s a set of nickel-iron roundwound strings. But, I now have a bass that has a set of flatwounds on it all the time, for whenever I need it. So let’s hear from you: which side of the fence are you on, or are you one that uses both, depending on the gig?

Jon Moody

About Jon Moody

Jon is the Asst Manager of Marketing & Social Media at GHS Strings, a staff writer for Bass Musician Magazine, freelance bassist in the West Michigan theatre circuit, husband and father. Occasionally, he sleeps.
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  • Thomas Holder-Music

    I’ve always been a double bass man, playing jazz and a little bit of classical too, but as a result I’ve preferred to use the roto-sound tru bass nylon wounds, strung on a 70′s reissue Fender Jazz. The result you get is a deep, thumps sounding tone, brilliant for jazz, and Reggae. I hear very often how other bassists in the business don’t like the sound of flats or even nylon wounds, but you may have been hearing the nylons for longer than you thought! Herbie Flowers, arguably britains most favoured session bassist of all time always played on rotos, so they feature on hundreds, if not thousands of hit records right from the 60′s to the present day. I think that gives a clear indication of where I stand on this topic. What about you?

  • Tick Bryan

    There is another option. Half flats. Or half rounds. I’m not sure who makes them but it would seem to satisfy those on the fence. I’ve never used flats but have been wanting to try out a set. If you are looking to duplicate a certain sound like Paul McCartney’s or James Jamerson,flats would be the way to go.
    By the way, I have always used GHS strings. Not sure when I started but it’s been at least thirty years. Thanks for a great product.

    • Jon Moody

      Technically, there are TWO options; half/ground rounds or pressurewounds. While the latter gets lumped in with the former, they’re actually two different processes. Half/grounds are a roundwound string that is micro ground to a smooth finish, whereas pressurewounds have the outer wire “squished” between two rollers while being wound. Pressurewounds are still a “round” wound string, but have a smoother, mellower tone.

      And the reason I didn’t really mention them is that in the aforementioned debate, it’s usually one or the other; no love for half/grounds or pressurewounds usually.

      Thanks; we take a lot of pride in our strings over at GHS.

  • Rodney Stauffer

    Surprised you didn’t mention. Usually flats are better on fretless (less sliding noise and more of a acoustic sound; nylon wrapped even more so but completely dead) and round wound for fretted bright sound, rock, you can’t sound like Geddy Lee with flat wound strings.

    • Jon Moody

      I didn’t mention it, specially because for every person that says that flats are “better” on fretless, there are the same amount that prefer rounds. Neither is better, and I’ve used both, depending on the needs of the gigs I’m doing and the tone I’m trying to achieve.

  • Tim M

    I use flat wounds on my P-bass and the RotoSound black nylon flat wounds on my fretless (Fender Jazz Bass Special – although I modified the body). I use round wound strings on my Peavy Patriot, Hofner clone (by Rogue — don’t laugh, It sounds pretty good), and an acoustic bass. There is not a better, only different. And you choose the right tool for the right job.

  • King Koeller

    Fender Pure Nickel round wound med lite 100, 80 65 45 have the tone ofr my japanese p bass law suit copy from MEMPHIS,,Fender 7150′s pure nickle…

    • King Koeller

      I play bebop, jazz,standards, swing, and blues….Mostly smallish clubs, and sometimes…many dancers…These Fender 7150′s last and last … they are the factory original equipment string for USA Fenders….

  • Patrick Durham

    Flat wounds with a pick. I know, I know… “real” bassists use their fingers and not a pick. But there’s something about that sound that I like. Maybe that could be another cage match.

    • Jon Moody

      Patrick, “real” bassists realize the pick is another tool, just like their fingers. If that’s the tone you like, do it!

      In full disclosure, until I had a gig that demanded I play a pick, I poo-poo’d them all the time. Now that I have some experience with using one, there are some great sounds you can get (I especially like the palm muting with a pick for some country 1-5 stuff, as it gives a nice attack with a big bottom).

  • Bassmaniac

    70 P-Bass, Tomastik flats = Heaven. Used to use rounds all the time not any more.