When you turn around and look at the past seven decades (or more), you realize how the guitar has changed. But at the same time, you can see that some of the stuff remains the same. For instance, for quite some time now, plenty of jazz players still prefer to use flat-wound strings. But are flatwound strings good for rock music? Are they good for any genre other than jazz?
First off, before we get to any specifics – you’re free to do as you want. Be it acoustic or electric guitar, there’s no one stopping you from putting flat-wound strings on your beloved instrument, no matter the genres that you’re into.
Rock and metal guitar players don’t practice putting flat-wound strings on their instruments. The resulting tone is usually really mellow. And, in the case of acoustic guitars, it can be noticeably quieter compared to conventional strings. Of course, this is considered as a downside by almost all guitar players in rock music. Therefore, flat-wound strings remain popular among jazz musicians.
But just like with anything we discuss here, we have to take a deeper look into the matter. After all, no question concerning guitars is too simple. And I always love to go in-depth, no matter how seemingly simple the topic might seem.
So let’s get into it!
Table of Contents
What Are Roundwound and What Are Flatwound Strings?
The first thing to tackle here is to explain what flat-wound strings actually are. To those who don’t know, we have an important distinction between round-wound and flat-wound strings.
If you’re a guitar player, you might have noticed that your three, or sometimes two, highest strings unwound. This means that they’re completely smooth. The rest have a different surface.
Thicker strings have a steel core with a specially designed wire wrapped around it. The wire, which is precisely wound over the core, gives these strings a spring-like appearance. These are your conventional round-wound strings.
If we’re talking about six-string sets for both acoustic and electric guitars, they come with the bottom three wound strings, and sometimes with the bottom four. The top two or three are completely smooth.
The third (or the G) string can be round-wound or unwound. You’ll often see guitar players discussing whether string sets with wound or unwound third string are better. But it usually comes down to personal choices.
Roundwound string sets, on the other hand, have different kinds of bottom strings. They also have a steel core and a wire wrapping around them. However, the difference is that the wire here is like a flat “tape” rather than a round string. As a result, these strings have an almost flat surface, making them feel like unwound strings.
What Do Flatwound Strings Sound Like?
Now that we know what flat-wound and round-wound strings are, let’s take a closer look at the latter. Most importantly, we need to understand the tone of flat-wound strings.
The main trait of these strings is that they are much darker-sounding. In fact, they’re so mellow that manufacturers often need to use stainless steel as the main material to boost the brightness.
Aside from the overall mellow tone, flat-wound strings also have way less harmonic content compared to round-wound ones. This is not a disadvantage, however, since it makes the tone focused on the note that you’re playing.
Additionally, flat-wound strings bring much less noise compared to round-wound. Having flat surfaces, there’s much less friction between the fretting hand fingers and the strings. Again, this doesn’t make them “better” or “worse,” just different. If you like cleaner and straightforward sound, flat-wound strings can be a good choice.
Lastly, we also need to point out the fact that they are quieter. This is especially noticeable with acoustic guitars. You can strum and pick as hard as you want, but you won’t ever get the volume of conventional round-wound strings.
Are Flatwound Strings Good for Rock?
So are flat-wound strings good for rock music? Well, in general terms, they’re not a favorable choice. And honestly, I would highly recommend that you avoid them altogether.
Below, we’ll get into how flat-wound strings sound on acoustic guitars, acoustic basses, electric guitars, and electric basses.
Acoustic Guitars and Basses
One thing that you need to bear in mind is that flat-wound strings aren’t intended for acoustic instruments. Well, at least not fully acoustic ones. Be it a bass or a regular guitar, an acoustic instrument will be significantly quieter.
This is not only due to the lack of harmonic content but also due to the string’s structure. Roundwound strings add that “snap” to the tone with its stronger attack. They “ring out” significantly more, which ultimately helps the instrument cut through the mix.
If you were to put flat-wound strings on an acoustic guitar, it would sound dull compared to regular strings. You can do it if you like a mellow and clear kind of tone. There’ll also be much less noise when you’re going over the strings with your fretting hand.
Acoustic bass guitars with flat-wound strings will get pretty quiet. Honestly, I’d only recommend this if you’re using a piezo pickup or a good mic and going into the mixing board. Otherwise, I’m not sure what you’d get.
Flatwound strings are actually recommended only for archtop hollow-body electric guitars. It’s the kind that you use for jazz. Nonetheless, they’re also useful for solid-body or semi-hollow-body guitars.
Of course, you’ll get a different tone with them. There’s a lack of harmonic content, which is especially noticeable with the distortion effect on. Nonetheless, it can be useful if you want to add a mellower twist to your music.
Also, bear in mind that flat-wound strings also have a shorter sustain. This can be an issue if you prefer your notes to ring out longer, be it a clean or a distorted setting.
Nonetheless, the lack of harmonic content, overall mellowness, and the lack of sustain are the main reasons why I wouldn’t recommend flat-wound strings for rock music. Of course, it’s not impossible to use them, and they might bring a different twist to your tone. But just bear in mind that the tone will be darker, you’ll not cut through the mix so easily, and you’ll have less sustain.
They could be good for some lead sections, especially if you’re experimenting. The lack of harmonic content brings a more “focused” tone, so some guitar players might like that.
Electric Bass Guitar
Flatwound strings are probably most common with electric basses, especially for fretless basses. The tone is extra-smooth, mellow, and focused. There’s much less “buzzing” and “snapping.”
This is also somewhat of a downside if we’re talking about rock or metal music. However, the bass guitar is not taking all the spotlight in rock music, so you might just get away with flat-wound strings on a bass. In fact, some may prefer such a smoother tone.
Advantages and Disadvantages of Roundwound Strings
While it mostly comes down to personal preferences, there are some advantages and disadvantages that come with flat-wound strings. Let’s look into them.
- Less fretting-hand noise
- They can last much longer
- The tone is more “focused” – more fundamental rather than upper harmonics
- They feel much smoother on your fingertips
- Lack of sustain
- Lack of upper harmonics reduces brightness and attack
- They’re often too “dull” for rock and metal music
- They’re significantly more expensive
- They’re harder to find
Who Should Use Flatwound Strings?
So who uses flat-wound strings? Well, it’s mostly jazz players. Having a mellower, smoother, and more “focused” tone really does the trick, especially for those looking for an old-school kind of tone. Most commonly, they’re present on traditional archtop hollow-body electric guitars.
With that said, some blues players might use them as well. Additionally, those who want to experiment, no matter the genre, are free to use flat-wound strings. In my opinion, they can be interesting for some lead tones.
There’s also another group of players who prefers flat-wound strings – those who play electric guitars with MIDI pickups. Not to bore you with too many technical details, MIDI guitars work better if your tone is cleaner and more “focused.”
If the frequencies entering a processing unit (be it a computer or a digital guitar synth) are too messy, you might just hit a wrong sample with the given note. This is where flat-wound strings come to help you out. If you ever decide to play a MIDI guitar, you’ll most likely use flat-wound instead of round-wound strings.
Remember: You’re Free to Experiment!
With all this said, there’s one thing you need to remember – there are no set rules to the music that you’re making. It’s up to you. It’s not like anyone’s going to arrest you for using flat-wound strings for rock or metal music.
However, just bear in mind how they sound. If you’re looking for a darker, mellower, softer, and more focused tone without much harmonic content and sustain, then they might just be perfect for you!