Why do we have silk on our strings?
By Strings Direct – 29 August, 2023
If you’re a bass player, you’ll be well accustomed to seeing bright, colourful silk wraps around the tops of your strings. In some cases, you may even have noticed silk-wrapped down at the other end too.
But have you ever wondered why the silk is there? What’s its purpose? And is the silk winding only reserved for bass players?
Well wonder no more, in this blog we're gonna get all silky!
Protection for the Strings
One of the key reasons for adding silk to the strings is for added protection to the string itself.
The way in which certain strings are constructed means that they can be more delicate and susceptible to issues that can arise around the machineheads.
Adam Ironside from D'Addario UK explained further; "The addition of silk helps to add protection to the windings as they are tightly wound around the capstan of our machineheads and this can reduce the likelihood of them snagging and becoming damaged."
For example, if we take a flatwound or a tapewound string, the windings on these strings are wound very tightly next to one other to create a beautifully playable, flat surface. However, if these windings become separated, it can expose the inner core making the string vulnerable to breakage and in some extreme cases, the string can start to unravel.
Protection for your machineheads
As well as protecting the strings themselves, silk winding also helps to protect our machineheads.
When our strings have been fully fitted and tuned up to pitch, they are wound extremely tightly and are gripping the machineheads with a huge amount of tension… put it this way, you wouldn’t want to get your finger caught in there!!
The effect of 'metal-on-metal' gripped with such force can lead to the machineheads getting ‘chewed’ up over an extended period of time. Adding silk to the portion of string that is wound around the machinehead helps to create a cushion to help prevent any wear and tear which can build up over years of playing.
Speaking of a tight grip, silk windings were in fact originally attached to bass strings to help facilitate just that.
Jack Dunwoody of Rotosound helped elaborate on this particular point;
“Because the windings of heavier gauge strings are made from a large diameter wire, the contact point between each winding and the tuning post is spaced further apart than on an electric guitar string. Adding silk creates a layer that can press up against the winding and the post, creating a better connection.”
We like our guitars and basses to look nice, surely our strings should get the same attention too, right!? Well, string manufacturers certainly think so, making good use of silk windings to give the strings a bit of bling and utilising specific colours as a form of branding too.
Often, many brands stick to using a specific colour of silk to help identify particular sets within their range. For instance, whilst D’Addario’s EXL Nickel Wound and EPS Stainless Steel ranges don't have any silk at all, D'Addario use blue silk for their flatwound bass sets.
Rotosound are another brand that stick to specific silk colouring too;
“At Rotosound we keep the tradition of adding silk to our ‘heritage‘ ranges that have always included silked tails, such as our Solo Bass 55 (green), Swing Bass 66 (red), Jazz Bass 77 (red), and Tru Bass 88 (yellow) sets. Our more modern product ranges, such as our Ultramag Bass and Roto Bass sets, don’t include silked ends.”
In fact, Iron Maiden bassist Steve Harris’ signature Rotosound flatwound set has been fitted with claret and blue winding as a nod to his allegiance to West Ham FC.
If you’re unsure which strings you have on your bass, sometimes they can be identified simply by the colouring of the silk. Where it's known, we list the colour of the silk found on bass sets on our site.
We also mention if the silk is fitted at the top end of the string only, or if there is silk down at the ball end too. Speaking of which…
Silk at the ball end
Some sets will have silk winding down at the ball end as well as up the top by the machineheads. Silk at the ball ends certainly serves less of a functional purpose and it's often there for look only. This is particularly applicable for thicker gauge strings. Where the outer winding wraps back on itself, it can often be a bit unsightly so the added silk just helps to keep things a bit neater and tidier.
Are there any disadvantages to having silk on bass strings?
In short, no there aren’t any disadvantages to having silk around our strings. The silk is there, for the most part, to help enhance the longevity and performance of our strings.
However, it should be mentioned that when strings have silk down at the ball end, it can be problematic for some basses with toploading bridges. For basses where the strings are threaded through the bridge on the top of the bass (as opposed to through a tailpiece or a 'through-the-body' configuration) the strings are anchored at a shorter distance behind the saddles. If a set of strings are fitted to such a bass, there is a risk of the silk being too long and it becoming part of the speaking length of the string.
Much how we don’t want the silk to start before our top nut, we certainly don’t want the silk to run over our saddles either. If this does happen it can dampen the sound of the string and it won’t resonate and perform to its maximum potential.
Rotosound recently identified this as a potential issue and took the decision to change the design of some of their sets to help combat this issue. Jack Dunwoody explained;
“We ceased adding silk to the ball end of our Jazz Bass 77 strings. We looked at how the wire was finished at the ball end and found it to be just as “aesthetically pleasing” without the silk. Because each of these strings is hand-wound by craftspeople, we can take advantage of their skill to produce strings with beautifully wrapped ends.”
So are silk end strings reserved for bass players only?
In actual fact, no. If you’re an acoustic guitarist, you may have come across a few sets that make use of silk windings too.
As part of Martin’s 2018 Authentic Acoustic string line launch, they incorporated a number of silked sets into their range. Known as the Marquis range, these strings feature a silk wrap around the string by the ball end.
But why is it there? After all, 99% of acoustic sets don’t have any silk wraps.
Martin cite several benefits to the addition of the silk wrap, particularly for older, more delicate instruments. Over many years of playing, the windings of acoustic strings can cut into the front edge of the holes of the bridge, right where the string emerges. For vintage instruments that have endured years of playing, this can be a delicate spot and the addition of the silk softens the wraps and acts as a cushion between the string and the bridge (and bridge plate underneath) helping to reduce further wear.
Furthermore, Martin also say that the silk can help the string seat a little better at the bridge. The silk bulks out the string slightly so can benefit players that feel that they have slightly loose-fitting bridge pins. If you are having trouble with your bridge pins, be sure to check out our blog post for some guidance on how to fit them properly.
We hope this blog has given you a better insight into silk windings on strings.
So, next time you are fitting your bass strings, you’ll know exactly why that silk winding is there and the job it’s doing for you.
Ooh, it’s made us come across all expensive… "Jeeves! Grab my silk kimono and D-28!!"
See you next time!!