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How does string gauge effect tone?

Discussion in 'Strings [BG]' started by JohnArnson, Nov 1, 2019.

  1. JohnArnson


    May 28, 2019
    I got my 5 string 28,6" scale Ibanez GSRM25 Mikro bass tuned F#1 to D3, like the 5 lowest strings of an 8 string guitar, or 2 half steps above standard E tuning.

    Works well for me with how I use it, a bit more like you would a Bass VI type instrument or a baritone guitar, than how you'd traditionally play a bass, with a lot of melodic lines and chord work.

    As it is now I have it strung up with a gauge .100 to .032 set of strings, which due to the short scale of the Mikro bass still put a fair deal lower tension on the neck than a similar set of strings would on a regular 34" scale bass in E standard tuning.

    This arrangement does actually work great and I am quite satisfied with it, but non the less I have decided to experiment with putting on a set of strings with lower gauge, to see how that would work.

    I haven't actually received the new thinner strings that I ordered for this experiment yet, but they are a set of Ernie Ball 2837 Slinky Baritone strings, gauge .090 to .020 (6 strings, so the thinnest string I will actually use is gauge .030), meant for Bass VI type instruments.

    This also means that the new strings will have guitar sized ball ends, which I plan to solve by threading them through the cut off ball ends of an old set of bass strings, before going through the bridge.

    Tension wise on my bass, since I tune up to F# standard, the new slimmer strings will be very close to when my current gauge .100 to .032 set is tuned in E standard, actually even having ever so slightly higher tension than that, so should work perfectly fine.

    My own guess is, beside obviously lower tension, that the slimmer strings will give me a bit less fundamentals and more upper harmonic content, but what do people say about this?

    What effect does string gauge have on the tone of a bass?

    It might be in place to add that the mentioned strings are nickle round wound steel strings, though discussion about other types of strings is welcome in this thread as well.

    All opinions are welcome, but it would be nice to hear the reasoning behind them and even better if someone could provide actual scientific facts to back up their claims.
    Last edited: Nov 1, 2019
  2. Do this:

    Play an A note on your 1st string (the one closest to the floor)
    Now play an A on next string up,
    does it sound the same?

    Thorny1, scuzzy, bassrique and 3 others like this.
  3. JohnArnson


    May 28, 2019
    Well, no.

    Sure I know there is a difference, but the question was what it is and why?

    In your example there might be other reasons for the fretted notes sounding different from each other than just the different gauge of the two strings, such as one of them being fretted further up the fretboard, physically having a shorter length to vibrate on, among other things making it slightly more rigid compared to the other fretted string, as well as there might be a slight variation of the tension of the two different strings fretted.

    So doesn't really answer my question, as well as I was a bit in doubt of the nature of the tonal difference I detected, beside them obviously sounding different from each other.

    I still appreciate your input though.

    I guess this is more of a theoretical question than a practical one, so would be nice with some actual facts, or at least reasoning, and getting an actual explanation of what the difference is.
    Last edited: Nov 1, 2019
  4. OK, new experiment:

    tune the 1st string down 2 steps
    tune the 3rd string up until it matches the 1st string
    do they sound the same?

    More ferrous material makes for more disruption of the magnetic field of the pickups & thus a different output.
    There are many factors at play however, the length, the tension. There must be a perfect tension for each string to maximize sustain, because if it's too taut there'd be almost no sustain, but if it's too loose it won't even utter a note.

    Another example:

    the last string on a guitar sounds wildly different than the first string on a bass, even playing the same note
  5. ixlramp


    Jan 25, 2005
    So, same tuning, smaller gauges, lower tension.
    Seems to be a bass myth that smaller gauges mean less 'low end'. They have a different tonal character due to different gauge.
    Smaller gauges are more flexible, which will make them brighter, clearer and more harmonic.
    However also, lower tension tends to reduce the volume of higher harmonics relative to the fundamental.
    So the resulting brightness is uncertain due to 2 opposite effects. However it will be clearer and more harmonic, which for me means a better tone.

    Note that on a shorter scale you do not need as much tension for the same 'feel' because the anchoring points of the string are closer together, reducing floppiness. .100 is excessive for F# and quite fat and stiff for that scale.
  6. Joe Nerve

    Joe Nerve Supporting Member

    Oct 7, 2000
    New York City
    Endorsing artist: Musicman basses
    The simple answer, IME....

    Fatter strings, thumpier tone.
  7. Vinny_G


    Dec 1, 2011
    Gallia Celtica
    I think it is the opposite, at least with roundwound strings.

    I find that thicker strings have more of these dissonant high harmonics that compete with the fundamental, making it less clear. This is one of the reasons why B strings are sometimes blurry or muddy, unless you extend their range.

    When I speak of fundamental, I do not speak of the amount of lows (lighter gauges can have a lot of lows if you want, and vice versa, it's just a question of volume), I'm talking about the harmonic spectrum. I find that the bigger the string, the richer the harmonic spectrum, hence the perception of a subdued fundamental.

    When you listen to the lower strings of a grand piano, you can hear a strong fundamental, but you can also hear a lot of those dissonant, bell-like, overtones (the inharmonic partials). Pluck the lower strings of a concert harp, which are also wired with metal, and you have a clean and clear tone with a well defined fundamental. That's because they are much thinner and have less tension.

    Generally speaking, heavier gauge strings have more volume and power because they have more mass and tension. In reality, it depends on what you do with them. Action, pickups height, amp settings, and playing style can also play a role in the final result. It's hard to say that Mark King's tone lacks punch, for example.

    Well, it was just my two cents. :)
  8. JimmyM

    JimmyM Supporting Member

    Apr 11, 2005
    Apopka, FL
    Endorsing: Ampeg Amps, EMG Pickups
    If anyone can tell the gauge of someone's strings just by listening to them, then they should be studied intensely by scientists.
    dagrev, Rich48, baxter_x and 19 others like this.
  9. Iristone


    Jul 8, 2017
    Lighter strings give you more fret buzz. Heavier strings give you more pitch. :smug:
    mellowgerman likes this.
  10. JohnArnson


    May 28, 2019
    I asked what the effect was, not weather or not knowing the answer to that would allow me to guess what strings people are using just by listening to them playing.

    Yes, most people won't be able to tell the difference and most people won't even care either, but I don't quit playing and end my life for that reason, it is their problem not mine.
    Kaplan and Vinny_G like this.
  11. Vinny_G


    Dec 1, 2011
    Gallia Celtica
    mikewalker, Kaplan, bassrique and 2 others like this.
  12. jamro217

    jamro217 Supporting Member

    I think the composition of the string has more to do with tone than the gauge does. As a rule of thumb stainless steels sound brighter than nickel do and both are brighter than tape wounds. Hope this helps.
  13. Kmonk


    Oct 18, 2012
    South Shore, Massachusetts
    Endorsing Artist: Fender, Spector, Ampeg, Curt Mangan, Nordstrand Pickups, Korg , Conquest Sound
    I've noticed that heavier gauge strings sound fuller than than lighter gauge. Since I like a fuller sound and can't find string sets with the gauges I like, I custom order sets from Curt Mangan 50-70-90-105.
  14. AboutSweetSue


    Sep 29, 2018
    Lebanon, TN
    It’s really difficult to answer for a solid bodied instrument, for me anyway. On an acoustic and whatnot you’ll find that heavier gauges get the top moving, producing punchier, thicker, louder notes. Put those same strings on another acoustic and they choke it, sounding terrible but plenty loud. You can feel the entire guitar resonate more with heavier gauges on an acoustic.

    I view gauge on solid bodies with an eye on feel and playability, mostly. But, I’ve used Jameson’s and I use .49-.109 La Bellas on my Gibson because, compared to lighter gauges, they, like someone above said, thump like a punch to the gut compared to the lighter gauges I’ve used.

    For more melodic playing, less fundamental, I prefer lighter gauges. If you use chords a lot, probably should go light. But it’s all subjective. Heavier gauges, to me, when played as a chord choke the chord much like they could on an acoustic whereas lighter gauges do not...which is why I feel light gauges are better for chording. That choke, however, sounds heavy and thick, which could be used to great affect.

    I don’t really know. I try a set, like the set, move up or down in gauge to fine tweak. The Gibson SG Bass loves the .049-.109 DTF. My ‘51 build loves La Bella DTF gauges .043-.104. That .104 I switched to a .105.....can’t stand how it plays (playability and sound, strangely). That just goes to show how fickle the question of how gauges affect tone is. Wayyy too many variables. But, like I and someone else said, thump seems to hold true compiled with thickness as a general answer.
  15. AboutSweetSue


    Sep 29, 2018
    Lebanon, TN
    No, you’d likely never be able to guess someone’s gauges unless they were playing clean and using chords, switching between gauges with everything else being absolutely equal. Then....maybe. Be a cool experiment.
  16. ihaveaquestion


    Jan 9, 2018
    One test that you can do is taking a string which is not the lowest tuned, and tune it the same as the one above it. And then playing the same notes in each to see how they compare
  17. I choose the string TYPE for the TONE I want, and choose the GAUGES according to how I want them to FEEL.
    mikewalker, AboutSweetSue and PillO like this.
  18. Eddie LeBlanc

    Eddie LeBlanc

    Oct 26, 2014
    Beaumont, Texas
    Construction of the string and materials used seems to me to effect tonal qualities more than string gauge. But I do like .105 to .045s. I switched to nothing, pretty much, but 34" scale lengths decades ago. Not to say I won't drag out a short scale Steinberger once in a while for grins on a song or two.

    Optima Gold Uniques on basses I typically gig with. Except for fretless (using tape wounds there).
    mikewalker likes this.
  19. Vinny_G


    Dec 1, 2011
    Gallia Celtica
    AboutSweetSue and bassballs27 like this.
  20. ThickBassSteaks


    Sep 15, 2019

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