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I've been playing shows at a local theatre for the past several years and when our April show was cancelled, they paid everyone anyway. So I'm planning to invest it in my kit. For the past few shows, I've upgraded my electric gear; so this time I want to upgrade my acoustic bass.

The type of music varies from classical-ish (eg. Sweeney Todd) to tango to oompah-oompah vaudeville kind of stuff and occasionally country slap bass. How do I measure what the existing strings are so I can choose a slightly lighter gauge (hopefully with a little more top-end, easier fingering and a springier slap)?

For reference, it's a "step-up" rent-to-own student model 3/4 from St. Louis Strings, approx. $3500. Gorgeous red-brown with subtle grain on the body, and a super convenient discoloration on the back of the neck right at the "5th fret".

Can I just eyeball it with a precise ruler, or do I need some kind of caliper tool?

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  • String thickness isn't a good indicator of tension for orchestral strings. Many manufacturers will publish tension charts for their brands, and various web sites and online forums have comparisons of the different brand's tensions that you can look up. In some cases players will mix-and-match different brands to get a tension profile that they like for their instrument. Jul 8 '20 at 19:01
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Unfortunately upright bass strings don’t typically give diameter measurements like electric bass strings do. Instead they are usually identified by gauge or tension, light, medium and heavy. This combined with the fact that they cost a lot of money makes it hard to select one with confidence.

For jazz I prefer a brighter string like a D’Addario Helicore Pizzicato or Thomastic Spirocore but they are a bit harsh for arco. In the past when I did more musical theater work my preference was a medium gauge string that had middle of the road characteristics, not too bright with the bow and not too dark pizz. My two choices were D’Addario Helicore Hybrid or Thomastic Superflexible.

As for identifying your current brand and gauge, you might try either contacting the manufacturer of the bass (if they’re the original strings) or a reputable bass dealer like Lemur, Gollihur, David Gage or any other that you might know and trust. They should be able to tell you what you have based on the color and pattern of the silk windings on both ends of the strings and offer you some advice based on what you have and the direction you want to go. Post the colors in comments, maybe I’ll get lucky and know which ones you have.

Bottom line is it’s a very personal preference and decision, some players like a gut or gut-like string with high action and some like a light or heavy gauge steel string with varying degrees of action height. Personally I like a light to medium gauge string with medium action. If the action is too low you can’t dig in or get much sound out of the instrument and if it’s too high it’s hard to execute very fast tempos, especially in the upper register.

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