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If you’re a beginner guitar player or you haven’t had the opportunity to experiment with your guitar strings or bass strings for that matter then your instrument is most likely equipped with roundwound strings.
Roundwound strings are sort of the default, but there are more string options out there for you, and flatwound strings have their own unyielding fanbase.
So, what’s the difference between flatwound and roundwound strings?
Roundwound strings have a round external wire that wraps around the inner wire core, while flatwound strings have a flat and smooth external wire. This difference has an effect on the sound and longevity, roundwound strings are brighter while flatwound strings have a reduced high end, less finger squeak, and last longer.
If you want to know more about the differences between flatwound and roundwound strings both on your guitar and bass guitar and which will be the optimum choice for you then keep on reading!
What’s The Difference Between Flatwound and Roundwound Guitar Strings?
While there might be a sort of divide between roundwound strings and flatwound strings, I’m the kind of guitarist who sees the virtues and drawbacks of both windings.
But before you make your final choice, it’s important to understand what these virtues and drawbacks are and what they mean to you as a guitarist!
The main difference between flatwound and roundwound strings is how they are built. Call me a nerd, but I think the guitar string construction is truly a fascinating process, and a lot goes into it, but I’ll focus on the string winding this time.
The guitar string starts off with a steel core wire or a filament core made from nylon or a blend of synthetic fibers.
Then the string core wire is hooked into a machine called the string winder, and a wrap wire made out of steel, bronze, nickel, and other types of alloy is looped around the core wire that spins.
It’s a quick process controlled by computerized sensors that monitor the speed and tension in which the wire is wrapped around the core wire and loops over the whole length of the string.
With roundwound strings, the central core is wrapped with a wire in a spiral that has a circular cross-section. While flatwound strings will also wrap the core wire the same way, the wrapping wire will have a rectangular cross-section instead of circular.
If you observe flatwound strings up close you will see that the wrapped wire looks like it’s wrapped more tightly around the core wire, it’s much smoother and you can barely feel the ridges, compared to roundwound strings where you can see the dents and feel the ridges that the circular cross-section is creating.
I also want to mention that when flatwound strings are constructed a steel wrap wire is more commonly used and while a nickel wrap wire is also used it’s not as common.
Roundwound strings on the other hand come in multitudes of different materials with metals, synthetics, alloys, and compounds and they are available in the widest selection of gauges.
2. Tone And Sound
As you can imagine the construction process doesn’t simply change the appearance of your strings, but it creates some major differences in the tone and sound they produce.
Because of their winding, flatwound strings are much stiffer, as a result, they generally don’t produce as many higher harmonics. This makes them sound duller compared to the bright sound of roundwound strings.
Despite the limited harmonic content, flatwound strings can be a great choice for those of you who tend to go for a darker and deeper tone that emphasizes the fundamental note. Let’s not forget that while flats do have a reduced high end the mids and lows are more present.
If you haven’t changed the strings on your new guitar yet, then chances are it’s strung with a roundwound set. This means you are probably used to the bright and metallic sound your strings produce and you are most likely getting sharper upper harmonics.
If you decide to change to flats then you will immediately notice the lack of brightness, and that these strings are also much stiffer than roundwound strings which means that they exhibit more inharmonicity.
Jazz guitarists are known for their flatwound string preference because they have weak overtones, while still remaining quite loud, and full, plus flats don’t produce much finger noise.
Roundwound strings, on the other hand, are popular with acoustic guitars, but even more so with electric guitars that enjoy playing more aggressively because they have a wider frequency response, and while the higher ends are pronounced roundwound strings also have well-defined mids and punchy lows.
Another difference between flatwound and roundwound strings is how long the strings vibrate.
The longer it takes for the vibrations to spread, the better the sustain. This doesn’t mean strings with less sustain are bad, it’s just a difference that you need to be aware of.
Roundwound strings have more sustain because thanks to the round wrap wire they can move more freely. Compared to flatwound strings that have a tightly packed wrap wire which limits the vibrations.
This means that flats have less sustain and that can make these strings sound more muted. For some of course this means that they can achieve a more vintage sound.
4. String tension
As you try to compare flatwound and roundwound strings in real life you will notice that your fingers need to apply more pressure when pushing down on flatwound strings.
If you are a new guitarist then this extra tension could cause unnecessary muscle pain and fatigue, if it’s overlooked then it could even cause injury.
Roundwound strings on the other hand hold less tension, and thanks to the round wrap wire they are far more flexible. This flexibility will come in handy for those of you who use guitar techniques like bending.
When it comes to playability I already mentioned how round wound strings are more flexible and they are easier to play, compared to flatwound strings that are much stiffer. But when it comes to the feel, you will immediately notice the superiority of the flatwound strings.
You see the surface of flat strings is much smoother, you can barely feel the ridges between the wraps and this makes sliding between notes so much easier.
With roundwound strings, you will notice that there is more friction and they definitely feel rougher on your fingertips.
That’s why guitarists that want to experience the slick and super fast playing that you often see in Jazz prefer flatwound strings. I tend to avoid them for that precise reason, and mostly because my hands can get sweaty and slippery.
6. Longevity and Durability
Flatwound strings are much more durable compared to roundwound strings and it’s all in the construction. I also want to mention that when I say durable I actually mean both their breakability and sound.
So, let’s start with breakability first. Since flatwound strings don’t have ridges, the smooth surface is less likely to accumulate oils and dirt which will happen naturally no matter how clean you keep your strings or your hands.
Sweat and grime are one of the most prevalent causes of string deterioration, and this means corrosion and rust.
Of course, this doesn’t mean you don’t have to maintain your flatwound strings, after all, you don’t want your fingers to end up turning black from the dirt, or your strings breaking mid-play!
When it comes to sound, flatwound strings sound much warmer and duller, but they maintain their tone for much longer compared to roundwound strings that start off with bright high ends and lose their brightness much faster.
Last but not least is the cost, which is not always a clear-cut difference because you can find very expensive roundwound strings and very cheap flatwound strings and vice versa.
But we’re not here to talk about the two extremes especially when it comes to really cheap strings, because usually, they are not the best quality no matter the winding.
On average however flatwound strings tend to be more expensive than roundwound strings. A good quality roundwound set can cost less than $10 while good quality flatwound strings can cost you twice that price, and if we’re talking about bass guitar strings then the price can go much higher than that.
This might be the dealbreaker for some of you when it comes to flats, but you need to keep in mind the durability of these strings.
Flatwounds can last significantly longer compared to rounds and I’m not only talking about their break lifespan but also the sound. So, they might be more cost-effective in the long run.
What About Halfwound Strings?
Flatwound and roundwounds strings are quite popular, but you may have also heard of halfwound strings, also known as groundwound strings.
Halfwound strings start out as roundwound strings, meaning that the central core is also wrapped with a round wrap wire, but then they are pressed or ground down and this process makes the surface smooth.
Basically, if flatwound and roundwound strings had a baby then you would get halfwound strings!
The smooth surface means that halfwound strings have the same advantages that flatwounds offer, but at the same time, they maintain much of the brightness and sustain and most importantly the bendability and flexibility of roundwound strings.
While they do sound like dream strings, halfwounds can be hard to find and they can be quite expensive even compared to flatwound strings.
Which String Winding Method Should You Choose For Your Guitar?
The type of strings you choose for your guitar, whether that’s an acoustic beauty or an electric beast comes down to your personal preference.
While there’s no right or wrong option here, you still need to know what results will a flatwound or roundwound string set give you.
So, let’s take a closer look!
Consider Your Guitar
No matter what kind of strings you go with your guitar will wear down after years of playing, but depending on what kind of winding you go with it can accelerate the process.
Flatwound strings are stiffer which means that there is going to be additional tension on the neck and it can damage your nut and bridge.
Roundwound strings won’t cause these issues, instead, the grooves on the surface of the strings will wear down the frets much sooner.
Frets are easily replaced, but a damaged and bent set neck is another story, and even if you find a luthier who can do it then prepare yourself for the cost.
So, if you have a vintage guitar, a guitar whose neck is cut entirely from a single piece of timber like a Les Paul, or the wood used is not hardwood then perhaps you need to avoid flatwood strings.
Consider The Playability
The same tension that could possibly damage your guitar could make it harder for you to press the flatwound strings down.
Whenever I spend most of my time playing roundwound strings and then suddenly decide to switch to flats I often experience some finger fatigue.
Since I’m a seasoned guitarist this discomfort doesn’t actually last long, but for someone new, it can make it challenging when getting started.
On the other hand, the ridges on the roundwound string surface can be hard on your fingertips, especially if you haven’t developed calluses just yet.
In this case, flatwound strings can be a blessing, but I must warn you that the ridges on rounds give you more control when you play and your fingers won’t end up accidentally sliding across the fretboard.
Consider The Sound
For me, the sound and music you are going for will determine which winding will work for you.
Roundwound strings are more popular because they are more versatile, they offer more sustain and they are simply much louder and brighter. This suits aggressive guitarists just fine, especially ones that enjoy pop, rock, and punk music.
Flatwound strings on the other hand are a better option for those of you who like to produce a warm, full, and clean sound, without high-gain distortion.
Jazz, blues, and country guitarists are quite fond of flats or guitarists that are looking to create a mellow sound.
So, what kind of guitarists are you?
Consider The Price
When I first started playing the guitar I used the same roundwound guitar strings, until I felt confident enough to explore different string materials, gauges, and manufacturers.
To be honest, the price of flatwound strings intimidated me, so I kept buying affordable roundwound strings since I wasn’t too worried if they broke.
But when I decided to go for a flatwound set, I discovered a completely different sound and feel that I fell in love with, plus it lasted for so long!
I also realized that flatwound strings have a much longer lifespan overall and in reality, I wasn’t spending that much more.
If you’re a newbie or on a budget, I would still suggest experimenting on roundwound strings first before setting some money aside for a good pair of flatwounds.
Recording Vs Performing
Performing live or recording in your studio can also affect your choice between flatwound and roundwound strings.
During live gigs especially in large venues, you usually need the guitar to stand out, and the bright sound roundwound strings produce can help you with that.
On the other hand, flatwound strings are a great option when recording because they produce very little finger squeak that recording equipment can easily pick up,
Sometimes I also go for flats when my band and I are performing in a crammed pub and we’re going for a softer musical style.
Flatwound VS Roundwound Bass Strings, How Are They Different?
We’ve already talked about the differences between the two windings when it comes to guitars and the same can be said for their bass equivalents, especially when it comes to construction.
Additionally, roundwound bass strings are more common and easy to find, compared to flatwound bass guitar strings. Even though bass strings of any kind can be quite expensive roundwound strings are also more affordable.
If you are a bass player who uses roundwound strings and you’re looking to explore other string options then you might want to try flatwound strings for their sound and smooth feel.
Flatwound strings are great if you want to achieve that warm, vintage tone, sort of woody. This sound is great for genres like Jazz, and Bossa Nova.
Roundwound strings as you already know are much brighter and unlike flats, they create more finger noise, squeaking, and distortion. All these characteristics are usually far more welcome in genres like pop, rock, and of course in punchy styles like punk.
The only disadvantage for me when it comes to flatwound bass strings is that there’s a limited variety of string gauges.
Tapewound Vs Flatwound Bass Strings
Tapewound bass strings have the same construction that flatwound strings have. The only difference is that the metal core is wrapped with a nonmetal wrap wire usually nylon.
Because the nylon is also polished these strings have an even slicker feel, I would describe them as silky, and because there’s no resistance they can give your fingers even more speed.
When it comes to the sound they are more mellow and distinctively warm even compared to flatwound strings. You can get great blues tones out of tapewound strings.
I do need to mention that they can sound a bit rubbery and you can hear it clearly in this video, and some of you might not vibe with that.
If you thought that flatwound strings are long-lasting then you will be surprised to know that these nylon-wrapped strings have an even longer lifespan because the nylon doesn’t corrode as fast as metal does.
Tapewound bass strings are great to use on a fretless bass because they cause less wear and tear and they create fantastic sliding harmonics. They are also great for Jazz performances and they sound great during recordings!
Should You Use Flatwound or Roundwound Strings On Your Bass?
Flatwound strings are quite popular among bass players and for a good reason. One of the most influential heavy metal bassists, Steve Harris is one great example. His flatwound strings still help him achieve his distinctive tone, they offer a smooth feel and long string life.
Plenty of jazz players also gravitate towards flatwound strings, because of their desired low high-end sound.
That being said there are many bass players that prefer roundwound strings, acoustic bass guitarists and jazz players included. You might feel the same way if you play rock or you’re simply going for a brighter and balanced sound.
However, if you want to achieve a smoother, darker, and warm tone then you should give flatwound strings a try, more so if you play the electric bass guitar.
Whether we’re talking about a regular guitar or a bass guitar the differences between flatwound and roundwound strings are quite similar. However, you need to keep in mind that flatwound strings for a bass guitar are harder to find, they are pricey and come in a more limited variety of string gauges.
While these are factors that can make up your decision for you, as a bass player the choice between flats or rounds is still a personal one, based mostly on your taste and your musical end goal.
When it comes to roundwound and flatwound strings, whether we’re talking about a guitar or a bass guitar there are both perks and disadvantages and it all comes down to your personal music style.
If you want the bright sound of roundwound strings and their flexibility then you might not like the dark and full sound of flatwound strings and how stiff they can be.
Then again you might prefer the smooth feel of flatwound strings, and how long their sound can last compared to the roundwound strings that sound the brightest and burn quickest.
The choice is yours, but before you settle down make sure you try both!