There are differing opinions about whether the flatwound or roundwound design is the best for guitar string construction. The reason for this is simple: Each type provides a solution to a specific problem, but at the expense of other benefits. Depending on the user's needs, some compromises may be necessary to have the desired set of strings.
What are the differences between flatwound and roundwound guitar strings? The winding around the string's core makes up the difference between flatwound and roundwound designs. Roundwound strings have bulkier, rounder wrapping that causes ridges and creates extra friction. Flatwound strings have a compact, flatter wrapping, causing much less friction.
This distinction is a matter of preference for experienced guitarists and a subject worth understanding for beginners.
In the market, there is a myriad of different string types. They can vary widely depending on the core, the material of the wrapping, the gauge, the tension, and the coating.
In this article, we will be paying closer attention to the wrapping or “winding technique” employed in their making as we delve into the main differences between a flatwound string and a roundwound string.
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Winding is a term that is sometimes used to describe the method of attaching the string to a tuning peg. The alternative meaning of winding (the one we'll be using in this article) refers specifically to the process of wrapping the string's core.
First of all, we need to know what strings are made of. Two or three main components make up a guitar string:
- Core: which is the steel wire that stretches across the string and gives it form. Core wires are made mostly from high-carbon steel alloy, but stainless steel is also used at times. On an acoustic guitar, usually the 3 highest notes (G, B, and high-E) are pure steel cores with no wrapping or coating.
- Wrapping (winding): which basically increases the width of the string to produce lower notes.
- Coating: is an optional feature that addresses the string's resistance to corrosion and also provides enhanced playability in some cases.
The strings are wound because the cores cannot be made in diameters greater than SOL 0.18 without losing flexibility, which is important for playability and functionality. Wound strings are rendered in the necessary diameter to produce heavier notes and with enough elasticity to vibrate.
Strings can be woven or wound in many different materials, although the most common are:
- 80/20 bronze
- Bronze phosphor
- Aluminum bronze
As for the wrap wire, there are three patterns:
- Round wound
- Flat wound
- Half wound (or ground wound)
With roundwound wires, the strings have a bulkier appearance since the wrapping forms ridges. These ridges will create friction with the finger movement.
Flatwound strings have a smoother surface since the wire is compacted and flattened, as the name suggests. Ridges are practically non-existent, and finger sliding feels much softer.
Finally, groundwound strings are midway between the previous two, reducing the ridges to a minimum but maintaining some semblance of friction. Groundwound strings can be thought of as carrying some of the advantages and difficulties of both roundwound and flatwound strings.
Here is a simplified illustration that visually represents the differences between roundwound and flatwound strings:
Note that both roundwound and flatwound strings can have gauges from light to heavy and can be designed for any scale length. These winding designs are found on electric guitars, acoustic guitar and bass guitars alike.
For more information on string gauge, check out my article Should I Use Light, Medium Or Heavy Gauge Guitar Strings?
But, what about the sound? Is there a noticeable difference in tone between roundwound strings and flatwound strings?
Roundwound Strings Vs. Flatwound Strings
Now that we understand the design differences between flatwound and roundwound strings, let's consider how they behave on a guitar (or other stringed instruments). More specifically, we'll consider the differences in tone, string noise, price, longevity, and playability.
Let's begin this section's discussion with a table showing the key differences between roundwound and flatwound guitar strings:
|Roundwound Strings||Flatwound Strings|
|Price||Lower price||Higher price|
|Longevity||Less durable||More durable|
|Playability (friction)||More friction||Less friction|
|Playability (pressure)||Requires less pressure||Required more pressure|
|Tension||Lower tension||Higher tension|
Apart from differences in appearance and feel, there are also differences in tone.
When the string vibrates, the surrounding air molecules turn into vibrational motion. The sound waves will fill the soundbox, which will vibrate at the same frequency as the string and help amplify the sound.
The surface of a string is important in this process. A ridged surface will create spaces where the air molecules effectively get “stuck”. Thus, the propensity to create more disruption or high-order harmonics in the overall sound.
Flatwound strings, with smoother surfaces, deliver a cleaner sound, though it dies out quicker as the frequency travels with less retention. However, this is not necessarily a defect, as the longer sustain can produce a muddier sound when overlapped with other notes in low frequencies.
String noise was mentioned earlier but is worth repeating. The rugged surface of roundwound strings produces much more finger “squeaking” than flatwound strings. This can be a hindrance during studio work since the person in charge of mixing and mastering has to either work with or around these squeaks.
Too much string noise may ruin an otherwise perfect performance. Dealing with this noise in the mix (whether with editing or EQ) takes time and may compromise the integrity of the sound.
However, finger noise can also work as a form of musical expression if done tastefully.
Price And Longevity
Flatwound strings are scarcer and harder to produce than roundwound strings. This also means they tend to cost more than their roundwound counterparts.
Nonetheless, they are also much more durable than roundwound strings since the latter is more prone to accumulating dirt, grime, sweat, and other corrosive agents in the gaps.
The friction caused by roundwound strings may hurt the fingers more due to their abrasiveness. This is expressly relevant when playing bass guitar, as the strings have a much higher gauge and more pronounced grooves.
Conversely, flatwound strings are far easier on the fingers, but they might feel slippery as a result. Furthermore, they hold more tension, meaning that the fingers need to apply more pressure to the strings over the fretboard to produce a specific tone, especially as we arrive at the first frets just below the nut.
So roundwound strings may have more friction, but flatwound strings require more pressure from the player.
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