Round Wound Vs. Flat Wound Strings: What Is The Difference?

Over the course of my last few articles, I have covered some of the most significant elements of string construction, and the impact that these elements have on both the tone and playability of strings for blues guitarists.

If you haven’t had a chance to check those articles out, and you are also looking to find out a bit more about the differences between string sets, then you can find them here:

In today’s article, I’ll be rounding off this series by looking at the final element of string design which in my opinion is worth taking into account when you are looking for a new set of strings. And that is the way that your strings are wound.

This is a topic that is less frequently discussed than some of those which I have covered in my previous articles. However despite this, it does have an impact on tone and playability, and is therefore worth taking into account.

So without further ado, let’s get into it! Here is everything you need to know about string winding and the impact it has on your guitar strings.

The basics of guitar string construction

Before we look at string winding and the various different ways that manufacturers wind their strings, we first need to understand what string winding is and where it fits within the string manufacturing process.Almost all electric guitar strings (at least of which I am aware), are made from a type of high-carbon steel wire.

In a ‘normal’ set of electric guitar strings, the core wire of the low E, A and D strings is then wrapped in a different material. Conversely, the G, B and high E strings are normally left ‘plain’. They are not wrapped in any other material, and are constructed just using steel.

As noted in my previous articles, manufacturers can (and often do) alter some of the elements of these bass strings. They wrap them in a variety of different materials, and also alter the shape of the core wire. Changing either or both of these elements will alter the tone and playability of the bass strings on a guitar. And as such they are worth taking into consideration.

The final element which we will be exploring today, is the way in which these lower strings are wound. There are a variety of different options here and each has an impact on tone and playability.

String winding

Broadly speaking, there are 3 main types of winding technique used on modern guitar strings. As such, you are most likely to encounter strings which are: 

  • Round wound
  • Half round
  • Flat wound

Each of these terms refers to the shape of the wire that is used to wrap the core wire of the low E, A and D strings.

As the name suggests, in the case of round wound strings, a cylindrical piece of wire is used to wrap the core of the string. This cylindrical wire is wound very tightly around the string, and the spaces between each of the circular winds creates a series of ridges along the strings.

If you look at strings that have been round wound, you will see tiny ridges all the way along the string which separate the circular strips of wire from one another.

On the other side of the spectrum, a flat wound string is constructed using a wire that is flat and ribbon like in shape. Again this is wound very tightly around the core wire. This time though, the flat wire shape does not create a series of ridges. Instead it wraps tightly around the core wire and creates a smoother wrap.

Finally, you also have half wound, or ground wound strings (as they are sometimes called). At the start of their manufacturing process, half wound strings are constructed in the same way as round wound strings. However once they have been wound, they are then ‘precision ground’ and polished. This gets rid of the ridges that exist on round wound strings and again creates a smoother surface on the string.

Now that we understand what each of these terms refer to, we can look at how they compare with regards to tone and feel, as well as a variety of other factors.

Round wound guitar strings

If the concept of string winding is new to you, then the likelihood is that you have been playing round wound guitar strings up to this point. Round wound guitar strings are by far the most common. And in fact, the ‘standard’ guitar strings offered by all of the main string manufacturers are round wound.

From a tonal perspective, round wound guitar strings have a slightly brighter and sharper tone. They highlight the treble frequencies in your sound and push those through the mix. They also have greater sustain and attack than the other types of string listed here.

The drawback of using round wound guitar strings is that they can produce quite a bit of ‘handling’ noise. The ridges in the strings create friction – both with your fingers and against the frets and fretboard. And this can create unwanted noise when you are changing chords, as well as implementing techniques like sliding.

Finally – of the 3 main types of string listed here, round wound guitar strings have the shortest life span. Dirt, sweat and small particles of skin can get into the ridges between the cylindrical winds of the wrap wire. This causes the string to age and it will start to deaden the sound of the string over time.  It is also for this reason that round wound strings often have a bright and articulate sound to begin with, but lose that brightness over time.

Flat wound guitar strings

When compared with round wound guitar strings, flat wound guitar strings sit at the opposite end of the spectrum in almost every regard.

Tonally, flat wound guitar strings produce a much darker and more mellow tone than round wound strings. They don’t have the same brightness and they lack that top end sharpness and bite. Depending on the type of tone you are looking for, this dark and mellow tone can either be beneficial, or a little problematic.

The base tone of these strings is definitely more ‘vintage’ than that of round wound strings. Early electric blues guitarists played using flat wound strings, and so if you are looking for authenticity and prefer a darker guitar tone, flat wound strings could be an option to consider.

Having said that, very dark and mellow sounding strings can prove problematic if you like to play with a heavier and more overdriven tone. You won’t have the same separation between the notes you play, and as you start to push the gain higher, you will risk your tone becoming ‘muddy’. So if you like to play with a heavier tone, then flat wound strings might not be the best option.

From a feel and playability perspective, one of the main benefits of flat wound guitar strings is that they feel smoother to the touch. Not only does this reduce the friction between the strings and your fingers, it also does the same between the strings and the frets and fretboard.

This makes it easier to implement techniques like sliding, and also reduces the chance that you will create unwanted handling noise when you are changing chords or moving around the fretboard. This reduced friction also reduces fret wear. As such, using flat wound strings could extend the life of your frets and increase the amount of time before you need to consider a fret dressing or a re-fret.

Finally, one of the benefits of flat wound guitar strings is that they have a longer playing life. Unlike round wound guitar strings, there are no ridges in the string wrap where dirt and oil can accumulate. This prevents the strings from becoming deadened and allows you to play them for longer.

Now, I appreciate that all of these benefits make it sound as though flat wound strings are by far the best choice out there. Yet as I will explain in further detail, some of these benefits are less applicable in an actual practical playing context. So keep reading and don’t rush out to buy a set of flat wound strings just yet!

Wound G strings

It is also worth mentioning at this stage that most flat wound string sets come with a wound G string. With these string sets, the G string is constructed in the same way as your low E, A and D strings. It is wrapped in a different material, and so it has a feel that is more similar to your bass, rather than treble strings.

In the early days of electric guitar playing, all guitar strings were made with wound G strings. And this was actually how string manufacturer Ernie Ball started business. He was teaching guitar in the 1950s, and observed that many of his students struggled to play the popular songs of the time.

He asked Fender to make him a set of strings with a lighter gauge without the wound G, which he felt made it more difficult to play rock n’ roll. Fender rejected his request, and so he set about creating his own strings.

This began a move away from wound G strings, which many players welcomed. For even before Ernie Ball started business, guitarists had tried various different ways of reducing their string gauge. The most common of these was to throw away their low E string, move all of their strings up one and then replace their high E string with a banjo string.

Now as you have likely experienced in your own playing, it is more challenging to bend your wrapped bass strings than it is your unwrapped G, B and E strings. And this is one of the reasons that a lot of players totally discount flat wound strings. They struggle with that wound G string and so quickly move back to round wound strings.

And this is not surprising. Personally, I would not recommend trying to play a wound G string if you are playing lead blues guitar. To play expressive lead blues guitar, you need to be able to bend and apply vibrato freely. And using a wound G string will make this a challenge.

If you do want to give it a try though, then there are various flat wound sets out there, Just a number to consider are as follows:

If you are interested in trying out flat wound strings, but you don’t want to play using a wound G string, then you can also buy a set of flat wound strings and replace the wound G string with a plain G string. This will of course increase the cost, but is an option to consider if you want the benefits of flat wound strings whilst enjoying the playability of a plain G string.

Half wound guitar strings

As you might expect, half wound or ground wound strings have characteristics that sit somewhere in the middle of round wound and flat wound strings.

They are smoother to the touch than round wound strings, and this offers benefits with regards to string noise and fret wear.

The grinding and polishing process also takes some of the brightness out of these strings. This means that they are slightly darker and more mellow sounding than round wound strings, without being quite as dark as flat wound strings.

Finally, the life span of these strings also sits somewhere in the middle of round wound and flat wound strings. The ridges in the wrap wire are not as pronounced as they are with round wound strings, and this means that dirt and small particles of skin and oil don’t permeate the core wire in the same way. This extends the life of the string and also reduces the tonal loss that you can experience with round wound strings.

As a result of these various factors, some players view half wound guitar strings as a ‘best of both worlds’ scenario. They offer some of the benefits of flat wound strings, without representing such a move away from round wound strings.

Price and availability

Up to this point, we have discussed the pros and cons of these strings ‘on paper’. And as noted above, you might be thinking that flat wound strings are the secret weapon for which you have been searching.

Yet choosing a set of guitar strings is often more challenging in practice than it is in theory. And when it comes to choosing between strings wound in different ways, I would argue that practical considerations totally change which choices make sense.

There are two specific factors that I feel have an impact on the type of strings that you should choose. And these are price and availability.

When you start to move away from standard manufacturing processes, the prices of strings increase. Round wound strings are ‘standard’ and are the cheapest types of string available. And in fact they are significantly cheaper than both half wound and flat wound guitar strings.

At the time of writing for example, a set of ‘standard’ D’Addario round wound strings in .010-.046 gauge costs £6.49. D’Addario half round strings in the same gauge cost £12,99. And D’Addario flat wound strings in a .010-.048 gauge cost £20.99.

As noted above, one of the benefits of flat wound strings is that they last longer than half round or round wound strings. Yet they also cost 3 times as much. And so unless they also extend playing life by 3 times (which I don’t believe they do), then the ‘benefit’ of longer string life is limited to the fact that you don’t have to change your strings so often.

Not only this, but your choice is much more limited with flat wound strings. Most flat wound string sets are offered by companies focusing on jazz players. And some of the brands that are most notable within a blues guitar context – like Ernie Ball, D’Addario, DR and Curt Mangan either don’t offer flat wound sets, or offer a very limited choice.

As such, you might find that your favourite brand of string does not offer round core string sets. And depending on your brand loyalty, that might prevent you from even wanting to experiment with flat wound strings.

Further considerations

Additionally, string manufacturers do not alter and adjust elements of their strings in isolation. And this means that you cannot assess the pros and cons of different winding techniques without also looking at the other qualities and features of any given string set.

For example and as noted above – flat wound strings have a dark, mellow and vintage sound. Yet many of the flat wound string sets out there (like those offered by D’addario) are wrapped in chrome. As I noted in more detail here, strings wrapped in chrome have a bright and sharp tone and a higher output.

In this way, the different characteristics of the string counteract one another. And so if you were looking to buy a set of flat wound strings for their darker and more mellow tone, opting for that particular set of strings would not be the best choice.

In short, you need to consider all of the different elements of a string set before buying.

The verdict

In each of my articles so far, I have recommended experimentation as a means of helping you to work out which strings will work best for you. There is often no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ option when it comes to string choice. And in fact many times, the strings that will work best for you will depend on your personal playing context, the type of tone you are looking for, and your preferences when it comes to playability.

Here though, I would argue that flat wound strings are not the best choice in a blues context. On paper they make sense. They are smoother to play, reduce unwanted string noise, and produce a warm and mellow vintage sound.

Yet flat wound strings are much more expensive, are not so readily available (at least not from many of the notable string brands) and they require you to buy a separate plain G string to replace the wound G which comes as standard in flat wound string sets.

Not only this, but I believe that you can achieve that same mellow tone by opting for pure nickel wrapped strings, or by potentially opting for strings with a round core. Those types of strings will help you to create the same warm sound, without incurring so much hassle and expense.

Some practical recommendations 

Having said that, I do think there are some benefits of using half round strings. Although they are more expensive than round wound strings, they do offer some of the benefits of both round wound and flat wound strings.

Half round string sets also come without a wound G string. So you can bend and apply vibrato with freedom on the G string, whilst enjoying reduced string noise and a more mellow tone on the bass strings.

If you are looking to test out half round strings, then you have a variety of different options. Some great half round sets to consider are as follows:

GHS also offer their Nickel Rocker range of strings. These are constructed using a winding technique called ‘rollerwinding’ which is unique to GHS. Rollerwinding flattens the strings slightly, making them smoother to the touch and also adding a bit of extra warmth to the sound.

This range of strings are also made using a pure nickel wrap. Combined with the winding technique, this gives them a warm and vintage sound which could work very well if you are looking to dial in a range of vintage blues tones.

Closing thoughts

At this stage, you might understandably be wondering why you have read an article all about different string winding techniques, only to be told that the round wound strings you have been using all along are probably the most pragmatic choice.

If that is the case, then I would like to leave you with these closing points:

Firstly, I think that having knowledge of how your gear works is important. And I would argue this is especially the case with your guitar strings, without which your guitar is unplayable.

Even if you are not actively searching for different types of string, you will encounter the various elements that we have looked at over the past few weeks. Search for a set of electric guitar strings, and you will be presented with sets that are in different gauges, made from different materials, made with different shaped cores and wrapped in different ways.

Instead of being confused by these different terms, I hope that you will now be in a position where you understand what they refer to, and how they impact the sound and feel of any string set.

Secondly and significantly, I believe that knowing what doesn’t make sense for you is as useful and empowering as knowing what does work for you. There are so many different types of strings out there. And the differences between these strings are real. They impact the way your strings sound, how they feel, and how long they last.

As such, understanding which elements of string design are either less important (or totally irrelevant) for your setup will help you to focus your search and choose the right set of guitar strings. You can then spend your time experimenting with those elements of string design which are more relevant to you. And that will take you one step closer to finding your perfect set of guitar strings.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Aidan Bricker
The Happy Bluesman
www.happybluesman.com
@happybluesman

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