“You gotta use Spiros, man!”
Every upright bassist has a string drawer, a repository where the physical remains of experiments, seemingly good ideas, and broken dreams lie waiting for that fateful day they might get a second chance. Mine is filled with sets I hoped would be “gut-like” or “slap-friendly,” “good for bowing” or “pizz-specific” — whatever goal I was chasing at the time. These days, I have one specific goal: to provide a thick, traditional thump on my Azola/Ampeg Baby Bass. I need to support a nine-piece ensemble with a tone that works for Latin, traditional country, swing, or R&B. For one year, I’ve played a set of nylon-coated strings, with good results. They are gentle on the right hand, have a similar diameter as well as some of the warm and fuzzy attack of gut, and offer sustain if you work it. But, the Baby Bass is its own beast. No matter what string you put on it, that pickup turns the response into boom, boom, boom, and that’s a good thing in my opinion. But after a year, curiosity got the best of me, and I started looking for options. I asked my friend Carlitos Del Puerto — one of the baddest cats out there and a multiple Baby Bass owner — what string he recommended, and the answer was: “You gotta use Spiros, man!”
Thomastik-Infeld Spirocores, a.k.a. Spiros, are a legendary string in the double bass world. One of the earliest successful examples of steel-core strings for double bass, they are perhaps the single most popular string for players of jazz, country, rockabilly, and in many cases, classical. Spiros are available in several gauges: Stark (heavy), Mittel (medium), Weich (light), and Solo (designed to be tuned up one whole-step, but when tuned to standard pitch become a super light-gauge string). They are a true industry standard in a very fickle market. I used Spiros for most of my formative years on the bass, and they have always been a favorite — and yet, I haven’t played them in at least 25 years! What is it that leads us away from the known, in search of something better? (If not for this urge, there would only be one electric bass in the world, a Fender Precision, strung with flatwounds. Wait, I’m talking myself out of this already!) My point is, while we enjoy the consistency and reliability of a proven standard, musicians and artists in general have a natural curiosity that sets them on chases for more of “this,” or less of “that.” Often, we find something that fills a particular need for a while, always knowing in the back of our minds that the standard we are deviating from is still there if we need to go back to it. And so, 25 years later, I’ve fallen back in love with Spiros. Returning to the standard that I developed my chops on is an interesting physical experience. Playing them again, I remember the feel, the pull, and the biting attack that often led me to overplay other strings when trying to replicate it.
Using a flexible multi-wire spiral core with a chrome-steel outer wrap, the Thomastik-Infeld Spirocore provides a solid pitch reference, stability in different environments, as much sustain as you need, and a great variety of attacks. The string responds quickly to your demands and transmits even the subtlest nuance very audibly; you can’t hide anything with Spirocores! I realized this right away, as I’ve spent many years cultivating the “controlled slop” of rootsy, traditional Americana, honky tonk, and rockabilly over my classically trained jazz background. After years of thumping away, I was suddenly facing a string that reproduced everything I do with great clarity — and frankly, it required an adjustment. The first thing I realized is any left-hand pull-offs were immediately telegraphed; tonal variations of attack were profound and easily accessible with changes in pressure, angle, and location along the string length. I could approach the string up the neck where the note is full and warm, and still get a pronounced bump on the front of the note, or I could drop the right hand to the end of the fingerboard and get tight, jackhammer precision with growl and depth. The Spiros make a huge difference in how I hear myself; it’s a faster, more direct response, and the end result is I play more in tune. Everyone from the trumpet player to the FOH engineer remarked on the difference, and the next paragraph summarizes why I think they are working for me.
My tone goal is to provide a warm, traditional upright-bass thump at very high volume levels. If you took a bass setup to provide that sound acoustically, you would deal with the realities of amplifying a giant resonating sound chamber on a stage where levels can hit 112dB (as measured from the monitor board). Once you got the sound to that level, the necessary dampening of the instrument, combined with the natural tendency of gut strings to be indistinct and decay quickly, produces a tone that can be very tricky to mix out of the big speakers. In essence, the sound I want to hear out of my amp does not necessarily work for the overall mix in the high-volume realm. As I mentioned, the Ampeg Baby Bass (mine is an Azola-built reissue from the ’90s) is a thump machine. Even with its relatively solid construction and surprising string sustain, the Baby Bass pickup turns a smooth road into a bumpy ride, which is exactly why it has long been the bass of choice for salsa players. It’s essentially a bass drum with pitch control. When I put nylon-coated strings on the bass, I liked what I heard — the tone was round and warm, and they felt good under my hands. But when I switched to the Spiros, I noticed a pronounced increase in the focus of the attack. You could compare it to cutting a channel with a V-shaped chisel vs. a U-shaped one: The notes had more “point” to them, and filtered through the “sieve of woof” that is the Baby Bass, it translated into just the right balance of distinctness and wool. The string does exactly what I tell it to do, giving me a level of control over my sound I wasn’t getting before. Now I know why virtually every Baby Bass player I’ve asked answered my question the same way: “Get some Spiros, man!” Although the Baby Bass doesn’t reproduce a lot of high end, I found that the strings became less twangy as they broke in, and the low end blossomed even more. I’m excited to put a set on my acoustic bass and get back to the sound and feel I started with 45 years ago.