Do you like jazz? I like jazz. I think. I probably don't understand it enough to say I'm a "jazz fan", but I really do love Mid-Day Jazz on 88.5 and the like. And that's the other thing: I'm not a jazz musician. I took a couple lessons in the concept of jazz back in school, and I can hack my way through a jazz song with fancy chords and a spang-spang-a-lang thing on a ride cymbal, but in all honesty...I'm probably not smart enough to be a jazz musician. Much less a jazz guitarist. But for those of you out there who are at least slightly smarter than me and actively participate in the jazz universe, this mid-week mini blog is for you 'cause we're talkin' about FLATWOUNDS and HALFWOUNDS! *snap your fingers like the chrome-lovin' beatnicks you are*
Generally speaking, jazz guitarists lean heavily on flatwound or halfwound strings because the sound somewhat defines the jazz guitar genre. Being that jazz is a relatively subdued style of music (by that I mean, you'll rarely find an 18-piece arena rock drumset or a Marshal stack in your local jazz ensemble), flatwound/halfwound strings are ideal because they have a warmer, mellower tone compared to your average roundwound, nickel-plated electric guitar string. But as with nylon strings (which we talked about last week), flatwounds/halfwounds appeal to a smaller demographic of musicians, so it isn't a surprise that not very many people know what is actually involved in a set of flatwound strings. So, in order to lift the cool, blue haze off the eyes of the general string-purchasing public, let's talk about manufacturing process of flatwounds/halfwounds...
Polish and Pressure:
A typical roundwound string is pretty simple contruction: you've got your round core (usually steel, though sometimes nickel or other things) and then a series a metal winds around the core of other metals or metal-alloys. Like we discussed earlier, the vast majority of electic guitar strings these days are roundwound, nickel-plated steel and the vast majority of acoustic guitar strings are some form of bronze-alloy round-wounded on a steel core. Ta-da! It's that simple! In fact, I have a neat picture here of what a wound-string profile essentially looks like. Yep, right there at the top:
Now, if you'll notice the next two pictures, the profiles of each string-wind are different. In the middle, you have an illustration of a flatwound string profile: notice that instead of a round wind, you've got something more like a flat ribbon around the round core. What is the result of a flatwound string in terms of sound and playability? Advantages are: 1) smoother feel and easier on the fingers, not to mention significantly less string-noise when playing (you know that unpleasant, squeaky sound you get when you play a fresh set of strings for the first couple hours? Not as much of that to deal with when there aren't ridges in the surface of the string); 2) an additional upshot of the smooth surface is a little bit more longevity in the life the string, seeing as how the ridges in a roundwound string can be traps for the dirt and oil on your fingers, which is the main contributor to a string's waning lifespan; and 3) a smoother surface mean less wear on frets. Even though a lot of fretless instruments feature flatwounds, having flatwounds on a fretted neck can be advantageous if you want to keep your frets smooth and polished for longer.
There are some considerable disadvantages to flatwounds, however. Obviously, having to grind and polish a string down to a precise diameter and texture adds an extra step or two to the manufacturing process, therefore making flatwounds generally more expensive to make than roundwounds. Not to mention, flatwounds are somewhat of a niche' product, making overall demand less. So strictly numbers speaking, flatwounds tend to be a bit pricier than roundwounds. As for playability, the strings can be a little bit harder to bend. There's a significant tone difference being that flatwound is much less bright and punchy, and considered to sound smoother, mellower, and "buttery". Which is neither an advantage or disadvantage: it all depends on what you want to sound like, and that "buttery" sound in the staple of most jazz music.
If you take another look at the picture, our third option is called "groundround" (or as it is more commonly known, "halfround"), and is actually a clever hybrid of both roundwound and flatwound strings. Though the outer surface of the wind is smoothed down like a flatwound and is still slick to the touch, the side of the wind that make contact with the core is still rounded out. This results in a string with the same punch and natural harmonics of a roundwound, while still maintaining the advantage of smooth feeling, fast-playing playability. And though they are still somewhat more expensive than roundwound strings, they're not quite as pricey as pure flatwounds.
Now that we know the basic anatomy of a flatwound or halfround string, what can we at Bigfoot music offer?
D'addario Chromes Flatwounds ($12.99):
The most common material used for flatwound strings is chromium-steel alloy (basically, stainless steel with a little more shiny stuff in it). Chromium is excellent because of its natural resistance to corrosion, not to mention its smoothness and, for those of you with tender attention spans, shininess! (ooooohhh....aaaahhhh). D'Addario Chromes are some of the best flatwounds on the market, and aren't even the priciest out there (always a good thing!). Recommended for jazz artists, blues artists, or just people who enjoy butter (smooth and mellow).