I recently went through a phase of experimenting with different bass string gauges. This was mainly down to running into the age old problem of the flappy low B strings of most 5 string basses.

One of  the first things people notice on switching to a 5 string is the lack of tension in that low B, mainly because you have a direct comparison with the other strings on the instrument. While restringing the instrument I would sometimes over tighten the strings during the initial tune up and marvel at how great the lower strings would feel with the extra tension while tuned that extra semitone or tone. I failed to realise the connection between string tension, instrument scale length, tuning and gauge and so never envisioned the possibility of keeping that tension at a lower tuning.

Billy Sheehan’s big bottom

I’d never really taken much interest in string gauges and just assumed the string manufacturers had good reason to pick certain gauges for certain strings and I just bought string sets based on a rough low or high gauge basis which I always associated with thick or thin strings. The only time I’d given any thought to how the individual strings can make a difference in the overall feel of a set was when watching an old Billy Sheehan Hot Licks video on which he discussed the reasons for developing his own customised Rotosound set. This set is still available and has a lighter G string (.43) and a heavier E string (.110). His reasons seemed pretty sensible since he likes to bend the strings more than the average bass player and the lighter G string helps in that department. The heavy E string helps with retaining some tension while using his hipshot de-tuner.

Balanced vs Progressive Tension

Then, while browsing talkbass.com for help on 5 string setups and avoiding low B rattle, I came across a discussion on progressive and balanced string gauges.  Balanced string tension is a fairly self explanatory concept whereby all the strings on the instrument are of an equal tension.  Progressive tension is similar to the Billy Sheehan concept of having a tighter tension at the E string and a looser tension at the G string with the A string and D string progressively decreasing between them.

This all sounded sensible and the balanced string tension concept seemed a little more normal. I just assumed that most string sets were fairly balanced anyway because I’d never noticed anything wrong until running into the loose string issue. But then as I read more detailed information about string tension I discovered just how ‘unbalanced’ most sets are. For an amusing take on this whole subject try out this link to Zachary Guitars and his ‘optimized string sets’.

Making sense of string tension

D’addario have a downloadable string tension chart documenting every string gauge they manufacture. The string tension is measured in pounds of pull per string. If we use a standard set of D’addario Pro Steels at a relatively average gauge set of: .045, .065, .085, .105 and cross reference the string tension chart we find the following tensions:

G string –  41.9 lbs

D string – 47.4 lbs

A string – 44.9 lbs

E string – 37.3 lbs

This shows that the D string has the most tension followed by the A string, then the G string and finally the E string. This seems a fairly random ordering of tension. On the face of it, this sounds like a simply mathematical difference rather than a real-world feel difference. However, my Fender Jazz had a set of Marcus Miller DR Fat Beams at the same gauges as the Pro Steels mentioned above and, after working out this tension for the set I had a play on the bass and could feel the different tensions very noticeably.

There are other factors that can contribute to the string tension. Scale length is the most obvious. The longer the scale, the higher the tension at the same tuning. However, the scale length of an instrument is fixed so the only other sensible way to change the string tension on a single instrument is to change the string gauge. Obviously this brings it’s own problems since heavier gauges can be tougher on the fingers and there are a whole host of technical problems that can arise in the neck, the nut and the bridge. Nevertheless, I thought I’d try formulating my own custom set using D’addario singles as an experiment.

I liked the idea of a progressive set because I like the light gauge feel on the D and G strings but I like the tighter feel on the E string. Plus, after toying with the various tensions on the D’addario chart, I found it a little easier to devise a progressive set. Here are the 4 and 5 string sets I tried out:

4 string:

G string: .040 – String tension: 33.8

D string: .055 – String Tension: 37.6

A string: .080 – String Tension: 40.5

E string: .110 – String Tension: 44.4

5  string:

G string: .040 – String tension: 33.8

D string: .055 – String Tension: 37.6

A string: .080 – String Tension: 40.5

E string: .105 – String Tension: 37.3

B string: .145 – String Tension: 37.4

As you can see, the 5 string set is not a true progressive tension set but is as close as I could get with the available gauges. The A string is a little tighter than the E and B string but at least the B string is tighter than the average set. The ideal gauge would be closer to the unavailable .150 and the E string equal to the 4 string set at .110.

New found comfort

After trying out the strings I fell in love with the extra tension of the B string. The only problem with the size came from the string-thru body design of my 5 string ESP. Initially, the string wouldn’t fit through the ferrule and I had to drill it a little wider but after that quick adjustment it worked just fine. The 4 string set also worked out well and I could see why Billy Sheehan goes with the .110 E string. While the E and B strings felt a little tighter, I also found the slightly looser tension of the D and G strings to be quite useful. The G string is, as Billy Sheehan says, better for bending (if that’s your bag) and I also find popping to be easier on the fingers as I would in a normal light gauge set. In the case of both 4 and 5 string sets I found it took a short while to adjust to the new tension differences but after a few days I felt at home with them. It’s also worth noting that I needed to adjust the truss rod and the intonation of both basses as a result of the tension change but that’s to be expected with any change of string gauge.

There is also the possibility of trying out a balanced tension set, although this is even more difficult to assemble while reliant on the D’addario singles. Circle K strings offer a wide range of string sets using uncommon gauges and provide pre-assembled, balanced tension sets. This will be the next port of call in my string experiments at which point a new blog entry will cover progressive versus balanced string tension.


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