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From the ethereal darkness of the bass line from “Come Together” to the airy acoustic fingerstyle of “Blackbird,” Paul McCartney has offered up some of the most iconic parts in all of rock music.
But what kind of strings does he use on guitar and bass to play those well-known riffs and how do they contribute to his tone?
For guitar, McCartney uses Ernie Ball Super Slinky strings, with a high E string of .009”. For bass, he uses two main string sets: Hofner H1133B Flat Wound Nickel strings and RotoSound Tru Bass 88 Nylon Tapewound strings, both of which have a tremendous impact on his tone.
Let’s take a closer look at the strings Sir Paul used and continues to use, as well as how they helped to shape his tone.
What Kind Of Guitar Strings Does Paul McCartney Use?
Famously, McCartney was the bassist for the Beatles, a role he continued in other projects. His Hofner “Beatle Bass” — the colloquial name for the Hofner violin bass he played through much of his career, and which we’ll talk about more later — is one of the most recognizable instruments of its day, thanks in large part to him.
But he was also a multi-instrumentalist. Starting fairly early in the Beatles’ recordings, McCartney would multiple parts on some songs. In the White Album’s “Back in the USSR,” for example, he wrote the song, sang it, played bass, played drums and played lead guitar.
You can often think of him as a studio musician within the band, switching instruments and styles to give a song a special touch. That meant his guitar tone, unlike his bass tone, is hard to nail down.
The solo in “Back in the USSR” doesn’t sound very much at all like “Blackbird,” obviously. Unlike George Harrison, who has a very distinct guitar tone, McCartney was a chameleon, changing tones to suit the song.
That change in styles and tones means he used not only a range of different guitars, but also different strings on those guitars. The strings can have a huge impact on tone, with much of George Harrison’s early guitar tone coming from his use of flatwound strings, on a Rickenbacker guitar.
The range of tones McCartney come up with speaks to the fact he was using different strings throughout the recording process. Now, though, he endorses Ernie Ball strings.
McCartney plays Super Slinky Nickel strings, which come in the follow gauges from high E string to low E string: .009″, .011″, .016″, .024″ (wound), .032″, and .042″
What Kind of Bass Strings Does Paul McCartney Use?
While McCartney’s guitar tone can’t be nailed down to just one kind, his bass tone is much more familiar. Despite changes in his instruments — and his strings — the warm, round tone of his bass is key to so many Beatles songs.
One thing to note before going much further: Part of McCartney’s tone is clearly from his strings, which we’ll examine in more detail shortly, but part is also from his technique.
McCartney has long played bass with a pick, a technique that’s always been somewhat rare in rock music. A pick might be associated with a harsh, sharp sound, that clearly doesn’t describe McCartney’s tone, so what gives?
The signature tone, warm, round and mellow but with a percussive attack, comes from his use of a pick on flatwound strings. Unlike roundwound strings, which have a steel core covered by a wrapping made of stainless steel, nickel or phosphor bronze, flatwound strings have a core covered by a winding of flat stainless steel or nickel ribbon.
Because the covering is flat, one major difference with flatwound strings is the relative lack of string noise. The occasionally annoying noises of fingers moving over roundwound strings is accentuated by volume, and that’s basically eliminated by flatwound strings.
The different wrapping also changes the tension the strings are under, which gives them a different tone than roundwound strings. In general, they are darker and warmer than roundwound strings.
The first set of strings McCartney is most associated with are currently sold under the Hofner brand name as the Hofner H1133B Flat Wound Nickel Bass Strings, sometimes called Beatle Bass Strings, after the iconic Hofner 500/1 violin bass that McCartney started using back when the Beatles were playing the Cavern Club in Hamburg, Germany.
Those flatwound strings, which though sold under the Hofner name are actually made by German string maker Pyramid, the same company that made the originals.
Another of McCartney’s iconic bass guitars also had unusual strings. In 1965, he was given a Rickenbacker 4001S short scale bass — the Hofner 500/1 is also a short scale instrument — and it also came with flatwound strings.
At multiple times, but most notably during the recording of Abbey Road, McCartney put different strings on both the Rickenbacker and the Hofner — tapewound strings.
Specifically, he used RotoSound Tru Bass 88 Nylon Tapewound strings. Those strings are quite different from both roundwound and flatwound strings, mostly because of their original purpose.
While a bass guitar is far more portable than the double bass used before its invention, it has a distinctively different sound. Part of that is because of the construction of the instrument.
It has a different scale length, body type and string attachment system, not to mention it uses frets, while a double bass, like most similar stringed instruments, is fretless.
The other major difference is how the strings are made. Upright bass strings were traditionally gut and now can be steel or nylon core, with nylon being most common.
Nylon strings offer a much different sound than steel strings do, offering more low end thump and showing much less brightness. That’s why it’s not uncommon to see nylon strings among the greats like Willie Nelson and other legends.
The obvious problem, though, is that nylon strings generally won’t work on an electric instrument, because the strings don’t create a disturbance in the electric field created by the pickups. The RotoSound strings take on that issue with a hybrid approach.
The strings have a steel core and so can be used with traditional pickups. Instead of a metal winding, though, they’re wrapped in a nylon material.
This offers a good compromise between the sounds of a bass guitar as opposed to an upright bass. They are much warmer and offer a rounder, smoother, more mellow tone than even roundwound strings.
This video looks at the strings and gives some idea of what they sound like.
What Gauge Strings Does Paul McCartney Use?
As noted above, when it comes to guitar strings, at least these days, McCartney uses quite light strings: Ernie Ball Super Slinky Nickel strings. The same is true for bass strings.
The Hofner H1133B strings are a light gauge string set, which makes sense for a set designed for a short, 30 inch scale bass. The set’s string gauges, from G string to E string are: .040″, .055″, .070″, and .100″.
The RotoSound Tru Bass strings, on the other hand, are anything but light gauge. They come in at .065″, .075″, .090″, and .115″ from G string to E string, closer to a heavy gauge or extra heavy gauge set of bass strings.
At least some stories about the beginnings of the Beatles claim that McCartney used flatwound strings because they were cheap.
Whether that’s true or not, there were definitely more limited string choices when he was starting out compared to today, and flatwound strings were much more common then.
McCartney will always be known as a songwriter first and foremost, but his playing has influenced generations, giving them bass and guitar riffs to dissect and try to learn. A lot went into creating his tone, but don’t overlook the effect his string choice had.
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.