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Guitar players often try to branch out to other instruments, and bass guitar is a really common second or third instrument to pick up.
If you’re considering trying that, you might wonder whether you can put guitar strings on a bass.
Putting guitar strings on a bass is fraught with problems. The strings are designed for different scale lengths and to be tuned to different pitches, meaning even if you can install a standard guitar string on a bass, you probably wouldn’t be able to tune it correctly and get a good tone.
Let’s look at the difference between strings for guitar and bass, as well as whether there is any crossover potential for strings.
Are Guitar Strings And Bass Strings The Same?
One of the biggest issues that makes using guitar strings on a bass difficult is the different scale lengths of the instruments. Scale length, the thickness of the string, and the pitch its tuned to, determine the tension the string is under.
While the basic idea of strings for the electric guitar and bass is the same, when it comes to specifics, things can be quite different. After all, a four string electric bass is tuned E A D G, matching the lowest four strings of a guitar, but an octave lower.
That just wouldn’t be possible with a low E string from a standard electric guitar set. That’s because guitar strings are designed to be tuned with a scale length of between about 20 inches and about 27 inches.
The most common guitar scale lengths are the Gibson standard of 24.75 inches and the Fender standard of 25.5 inches.
In comparison, most basses have a scale length between 30 and 34 inches.
The difference in scale length and the lower tuning mean bass strings are much, much thicker than guitar strings. A set of light gauge four string bass strings for a short scale — that is 30 inch scale — bass runs .040″, .055″, .070″, and .100″.
A set of extra light gauge electric guitar strings, for comparison, runs .009″, .011″, .016″, .024″ (wound), .032″, and .042″, meaning the lowest string is about the same gauge as the highest string.
That doesn’t necessarily mean you can interchange the low E from a guitar set with the G string on a four string bass. though. Because of the difference in scale length, you might have some trouble getting a string to fit, depending on how long it is.
If you can, you might have real issues getting a regular guitar string to tune down a full octave. This video looks at some of the sounds you can get when you put guitar strings on a bass, including tuning the instrument up an octave.
There are some tricky parts to installing guitar strings on a bass, no matter what you’re going to tune the instrument to.
First, the tuners are designed for much thicker strings. You might run into some issues with the tuning post breaking a string, so take your time when tuning up.
Second, the bridge and nut are also made for thicker strings. You might have problems with buzzing and intonation if you use a guitar string instead of a bass string, because the string won’t be securely held in place.
Can You Put Bass Strings On A Guitar?
What about the inverse, though? Can you put bass strings on a guitar?
It should be pretty clear why installing bass strings on a guitar isn’t a fantastic idea, if it would even work. After all, the tension a string puts on a guitar is directly related to its gauge.
When you’re talking about the difference between a .047″ string and a .102″ string, that is a massive difference. The first string has a tension of about 20 pounds.
The tension on a string that’s .102″ thick is more than 90 pounds when tuned to the same note. If you drop the string an octave, the tension would fall to about 22 pounds.
One major issue with using a string that thick is the inverse of what I mentioned above. The tuning post, bridge, and nut will all be much smaller than needed to properly seat a string that large, causing buzzing and other issues.
Can You Use Guitar Strings On A Six String Bass?
There have been some instruments that bridged the gap between bass and guitar, though. While the most common bass is the four string electric bass designed to imitate an upright bass, makers have been experimenting with other ideas for decades.
In the 1950s, Danelectro introduced a six string bass guitar. Made with a 30 inch scale, it was tuned an octave lower than a guitar.
It came with much thinner strings than other basses and was pitched as a way for a player to mix both guitar and bass sounds. It found a niche among some players, especially Nashville session players who used the instrument to create the tic-tac bass sound.
This video gives a demonstration of that sound on a classic Danelectro six string bass guitar.
Not long after Danelectro, Fender followed suit with the Fender VI, also called the Bass VI, which was also tuned an octave below a guitar. It had an offset body and also used a 30 inch scale, along with three single coil pickups and the same basic vibrato system as used on the Jazzmaster and Jaguar.
Like the Danelectro, these used much thinner strings than a standard four string bass, even one with a 30 inch scale.
Companies still make strings for the Fender VI, and a normal set of strings for the instrument runs .024″, .034″, .044″, .056″, .072″, and .084″. That offers much, much lower tension than on a four string bass.
A .102″ string tuned to low E would have a tension of about 31 pounds on a 30 inch scale instrument. By comparison, a .084″ string has a tension around 21 pounds on the same instrument.
Today, five and six string basses are common, but they normally offer a different tuning than the six string basses from Danelectro, Fender, and others. Most five string basses add a low B string, giving players a deeper range.
Six string basses, on the other hand, are usually tuned B E A D G C, with a low B and a higher C added.
That is a much different idea than guitar, which is mostly tuned in fourths with one interval of a third, and closer to the origins of the bass as a relative of the violin, and therefore tuned in fourths.
In addition to guitar strings, there are piccolo bass strings, which are designed to be tuned an octave higher than a standard bass. Those are a good option because they are designed for the same scale length as the original instrument.
That means they’re going to fit properly, but the same issues of thickness and the fit of the string in the nut will be present.
The electric bass is a hybrid of a guitar and a traditional upright bass. so it makes sense to think about using different kinds of strings on different instruments as a way to change up the tone.
As long as you’re careful not to put too much tension on the neck or body of your guitar, experimenting with different strings is a great way to develop new tones. And strings are far from the last thing you can experiment with when it comes to your bass.
I’ve been a musician, particularly a guitarist, for more than 25 years. I love writing about guitars, gear, recording, music in general and more.