The idea that a successful musical life — or any life at all, really — should be lived with integrity to one’s values is not a novel concept. For musicians, the quest for truth and authenticity can be especially fraught. The allure of success, the thirst for acceptance, or the corrosive toll of low self-esteem can skew our priorities, diverting us from the path as we chase ego-reinforcing approbation. Knowing how hard it is, we tend to most admire the musicians whose confidence and determination seems to make them immune to trend-chasing — those who seem to embody real artistry and make self-expression the driving force in their lives.
Jonas Hellborg is such a musician. In an iconoclastic career spanning over four decades, Hellborg has consistently remained true to himself, with a body of work that includes boundary-pushing collaboration with towering icons John McLaughlin, Ginger Baker, Bill Laswell, Shawn Lane, V. Selvaganesh, and many more. Hellborg’s fidelity to his vision and restless curiosity have also informed a long interest in bass and recording equipment. The result are decades of innovative instruments and amplifiers, including signature models from Aria and Warwick, a double-neck fretted/fretless Wal, and the Hellborg Amplifier, built by Warwick to his exacting specifications.
Several years ago, Hellborg’s insatiable quest for his ideal tone found him partnering with DR Strings. After that relationship concluded, he contacted Dogal Strings, a venerable manufacturer best known among classical cellists and violinists — mostly because, like the company, Hellborg was also based in Venice, Italy. Impressed by Dogal’s old-world techniques and open-minded willingness to entertain his ideas, Hellborg partnered with the company to release the strings reviewed here.
The Hellborg strings are not just another rebranded vanity set with a famous artist’s name slapped on to move product. They are a complete reconsideration of the received wisdom of string construction. Hellborg’s primary objective is to achieve a string that plays in tune, not only according to the fretted position but also in terms of its overtone spectrum. To understand his thinking, a quick refresher on string construction is in order.
Roundwound strings are made by wrapping wire around a plain round- or hex-shaped, narrow-gauge core. Successive wraps are used to build up the thickness desired for a given gauge. Hellborg’s Dogal signature strings differ in two distinct ways. First, rather than use plain wire for the core, they employ a stranded woven wire. Second, the roundwounds use a single pass of wrap wire; the desired string gauge is achieved via the thickness of the wrap wire, not by building up layers, as in conventional strings.
It’s Hellborg’s belief that stiffness is one of the primary contributors to poor intonation and out-of-tune overtones on a conventional string. According to him, when a string vibrates, there is a length of string near each end that isn’t vibrating as it should — the desired vibration occurs only between these lengths at each end. Thus, the vibrating length of string is subtly different than the fretted note suggests, leading to shaky tuning. It’s for this reason that Hellborg experimented with stranded core wire, inspired by the nylon braid that constitutes the core of classical strings and contributes to their exceptional flexibility. The single-wire wrap also contributes to flexibility and potential for better resonance and sustain, by reducing the frictional energy loss associated with typical construction. The exception in the Dogal Hellborg line is the flatwound set, which requires multi-layer construction to work. They do employ the same stranded core as the roundwound set, though.
Out of the box, the first thing I noticed about the Hellborg strings is that coiled up, they don’t have the same springiness I associate with a new set of strings. They’re limp compared to the taut coil you expect. Next, I noticed the very cool bi-color silks on the roundwounds; it may not mean anything, but it’s a handsome aesthetic touch that befits expensive, exotic strings like these. Dogal sent me three sets: 5-string roundwounds with a low B string, 5-string extra-long-scale rounds with a high C, and a 4-string flatwound set. The set with the B went on my Moollon J-Classic V, the high-C set on my Citron Swallow bass, and the flats on my 1966 Fender Jazz.
The feel of the strings is immediately notable. First, they’re made with a pure nickel wrap. Unlike the much more common nickel-plated-steel or stainless-steel wraps you normally find, pure nickel has an uncommonly soft and supple texture. When I brought the strings up to pitch, the next most obvious quality revealed itself: They are incredibly flexible, among the lowest-tension strings I’ve played — exceeding even the loosey-goosey feel of Thomastik-Infeld Jazz Flats, a notoriously low-tension design. Personally, I love that. Strings this supple make me feel like I’m playing in rather than on the string. Subtle changes in technique and attack yield big results. The roundwound strings’ feel is also notable because of the single wrap. The ridges (or is it valleys?) between wraps are larger, and that’s particularly noticeable on the E and A strings. It’s not offensive, but it is different. Fine-tuning the strings’ pitch revealed an immediate clue as to what would lie in store: My primary tuner (the Peterson iStroboSoft app) locked on to the pitch faster than normal. This was true when I played each string open as well as the 12th-fret harmonic.
The Hellborg strings have a few sonic qualities that separate them from the pack. First, they have an overall strong midrange presence. It’s reminiscent of other pure-nickel-wrapped strings I’ve played, but it’s even more robust than those. The strong mids make their timbre incredibly focused and present, easily cutting through dense playing situations with clear and precise pitch definition. Perhaps it’s the overtone alignment and density afforded by their unique construction, but the mids are where most of our instrument’s tone lives, and the Dogal’s dole out the mids in spades. Their other most notable sonic characteristic is the remarkable evenness throughout their range. No matter where you’re playing on the neck, the Hellborg strings sound like they’re from a unified instrument. Conventional strings tend to thin out as you play in the higher register, or lose their focus below low E. Not so with the Hellborgs. They are almost synth-like in their consistency, no matter where you play. Even open strings, which typically have a drastically different timbre than their fretted equivalents, don’t sound as disembodied as is typical.
The evenness and remarkable clarity make intricate chordal work particularly rewarding. Slap playing also benefits from their pliability and consistency. The flats offer a unique voice, too: They are also strong in the mids like the roundwounds, but with the reduced high-frequency presence you’d expect. On my Jazz Bass, they worked perfectly for burpy back-pickup fingerstyle; I loved how nuanced I could be and still wring out a huge array of usable tones. Finally, anyone who loves to experiment with harmonics will love these strings. Harmonics leap out more easily and readily than on any set I’ve encountered.
In an ocean of derivative, stale products, the bass world should celebrate that innovators like Jonas Hellborg are still investing their deep experience and passion into pushing our instrument forward. Given the simplicity of their design, you’d expect that strings would have been pretty much figured out by now. Not so, as the Hellborg strings capably demonstrate. They represent a substantial new sonic and tactile opportunity for anyone passionate about great tone.
Price and release date: TBA
For more visit: Dogal Strings