BunnyBass interview:
Kevin Reynolds, Thomastik-Infeld Strings
March, 2003.

BunnyBass: Hi Kevin. Thanks for agreeing to doing this interview with us. If you don't mind, could we start with perhaps you telling us a little bit about what your role is with Connolly & Co., exclusive U.S. Importers of Thomastik-Infeld Strings?

Kevin Reynolds: Hi Jon. I'm happy to take the time here and thanks for the opportunity. My role here at Connolly & Co. is primarily in sales and artist relations. I do help with some of the marketing decisions as well but we have personnel here for those specific jobs but, due to my background, they include me there as well. Since Thomastik-Infeld is best known for orchestral strings, I was hired on (about 4 years ago) to generally increase awareness of the fretted line. At the initial launch, most were unaware of the very existence of T-I fretted strings.
This includes contacting retailers and wholesalers already in our database as well as creating new relationships for retail sales. The job is challenging as my territory is the entire U.S. and the fretted string market is quite competitive. Additionally, I am the key contact here for when players, dealers, and wholesalers who call and/or e-mail with technical questions about the strings and purchase considerations. "Where can I get your strings" is thankfully a common question from interested players and also thankfully, my hard work is paying off in the sense that I have many more resources for those players now than the ones that were in place that first day on the job! I have also found that internet discussion forums, such as BunnyBass were chock-full of musicians with questions of every kind and I'm glad I can assist those who participate in these groups; mainly with technical questions about strings in general, not just the Thomastik-Infeld strings.

BunnyBass: Whereas every bass player I know seems to spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about every aspect of their bass, their amplifier, cabinet, and so on, I've noticed that many bassists don't put nearly as much thought into what their strings are contributing to the overall feel and sound of their instrument. Considering how critical selecting the appropriate strings are to achieving a desired sound, what has been your strategy in trying to educate bass players about the importance of reconsidering this apparent blind-spot?

Kevin Reynolds: Excellent question and pretty much the meat of most of my 'sales pitch'. Especially in regard to the above mentioned "increasing awareness" in that many times I'm reminding players that strings are a tool as important as the rest of their gear. They tend to lose sight of this and can get jaded. While I do not think of my product as the answer to all problems, I do remind players that there is indeed a difference from brand to brand, material to material, winding to winding, etc. Bass players (especially the real knob-twiddlers :-) are quite open to learning as much as they can about this especially when I have communicated the following:

Materials: Some already know (but not most) that there are only a few actual manufacturers in the U.S. and of those, they pick from the same batches of raw materials. That being understood, how much difference can there actually be from string to string? Think of it in food terms since we can all relate: If there were only one garden from which everybody picked their tomatoes, tomato sauce would really only vary in the way that one cooked, prepared and presented it and there would not be much difference, especially to the entry-level and intermediate palette. So I don't blame folks from saying, "strings are strings" and such, sometimes they're correct. Thomastik-Infeld strings are made from higher grades of raw materials (such as their nickel) and are built with a winding process patented about 100 years ago. Their raw material sources are exclusive so their strings are truly unique. This is the basis for why T-I's sound and feel so good for so many players.

Winding process: T-I's are hand-wound. There are indeed skilled technicians who (with machines) wind each Thomastik-Infeld string you play. Hand-wound refers more to the fact that they're not made on automated machines. The sets are so consistent from batch to batch because a trained, skilled person will notice an inconsistency or a defect while an automated machine will remain merciless and can turn out more defects.

Custom Gauges: Some of you are thinking I'm crazy for mentioning this because in some circles players feel that our string sets have odd or weird gauging. OK, they know that they make weird (lets say different) gauges. We import them and I looked at the sets with furrowed brow when I first got here, too; we're aware! How many times have I gotten the question, "Do you have 45-105 sets? No, why? Are they crazy?" The thing is that it's just as weird for the folks back at the factory in Vienna as they ask, "What is it with these Americans and their need for sets ending in zeros and fives, are they crazy?" First, it helps if you knew why they're different. You see, T-I developed their strings with a different set of priorities. Instead of targeting gauge numbers, they strove for the best possible string-to-string balance. To the R&D department in Vienna, balance means optimizing each individual string in every set for the most accurate note reproduction, musicality, pleasing harmonics, output (volume/gain) and tension from string to string. This process just does NOT produce nice round even gauge numbers! So when you try them, you may have to recalibrate your idea of what is an acceptable diameter for an E or B, etc., but you won't have to worry about balance. After all, they've been using this process for over 86 years! Accurate note reproduction is the most important thing and with their formula, it's the first thing they hit. For instance: When using pure-nickel, making a flat wound string at a given scale length, and trying to hit a desired note, there is actually only ONE gauge that will be the most accurate for said desired note. It's kinda logical when you think about it in those terms; it's simple physics, really.

History: Dr. Franz Thomastik and Otto Infeld invented a winding process in 1918 which enabled them to design a violin string that would replace the gut strings used at the time. As you'd assume, gut strings, while sounding great on most violins, just do not last long especially under varying climactic conditions. When Thomastik-Infeld launched their violin string project (then and still called the Dominant string) it was so well-received that Thomastik-Infeld violin strings remain the top seller in stores and the reference standard in tone for builders and players the world over. They recently launched a fretted line including acoustic and electric guitar and bass strings, and although the Dominant line may have had quite a head start, in some ways they've paved the road for me.

There's more, but I'll stop here, apologetically for the long discourse as I can get geeky when talking strings.

BunnyBass: We don't mind geeky (let me remind you that our mascot is a bass-playing bunny...), in fact this is extremely helpful. Let's talk a bit about some of the characteristics of the Jazz series strings - two things in particular jump out at me: these strings are unusually flexible and supple - they are very pleasing to the touch and I find them exceptionally easy to play. Sound-wise, they have an incredibly strong, present fundamental. What is it about these strings' design and construction that makes them so radically different from other strings on the market today?

Kevin Reynolds: Jazz flat wounds are an excellent example of a string that T-I does exceptionally well. Also, it includes some of the things mentioned above where T-I just puts more into the making of their strings than of anyone I know of.

First, the core is high-carbon steel for the strongest signal. Then the core is wrapped with silk. This silk inlay filters out any odd- or off-color harmonics as well as distortion. The wrapped core is then wound with two cover wires of a proprietary nickel alloy which also acts as a filter while adding to signal strength. The final ribbon of flat wrap is pure nickel; NOT nickel plated steel.* (see below for an extra-geeky fun-fact about nickel) This nickel delivers that 'vintage tone' or 'upright-like' fundamental that players comment on. While winding, there is a high density synthetic fiber placed between the windings so that they do not touch. This material is removed after the wraps are locked to the core and the resultant extra space between windings is one reason why the strings are so flexible; the windings do not touch one another. We've never abandoned the silk inlays which indeed cost more to make, but the results they yield are worth it. Instead of abandoning the silk inlays, the use of pure nickel and the winding techniques to compete with strings that lean more toward the treble and sustain that cut through the mix with louder guitars and vocals (indeed a greater market), T-I appeals to the player who wants to keep that woody, vintage tone. For me that pulsing, thumpy throb is what made me want to play bass in the first place! Not that we don't have strings for the more percussive players who like it to go to 11, but for those who have a vintage bass (especially Fender P's) and want "that" sound, I can almost guarantee the JF series!

(*a side note here on pure European-grade nickel. I have had people call and e-mail after trying our nickel strings for bass or guitar, who after using our strings complained about developing a strange rash. It turns out that they're allergic to nickel but never knew it, as the 'nickel' strings they were playing on were either plated and/or did not have enough nickel content to cause a reaction!)

  
Left: the construction of the TI Jazz Flats (illustration courtesy of Thomastik-Infeld). Right: a close-up photograph of the slick, grey flatwound surface (click on the image to see a large version)

BunnyBass: The T-I flats are quite well known, but I get the impression that the Jazz Rounds are not quite as popular. I don't hear as much discussion about these strings and yet I think they're really beautiful sounding. I use them on my favorite, most versatile bass. They don't start out as overtly "bright" as other roundwounds do, but they also seem to keep their high end - a musically useful high end - seemingly forever. What were the design priorities/objectives during the research and development phase of this string set? Who is this string set primarily intended for?

Kevin Reynolds: Astute observations; the JR's (jazz rounds) are not as popular as the flats. Of course there are many players who just don't understand why this is! The first thing (and I think it's really the main issue) is that at first glance many players dismiss them based solely on their gauges and tensions which are as follows: .043, .051, .068, .089 (.118 for the B and .029 for the high C) with a total overall tension of 122.34lbs for the 4-string set. Now, if one is looking to slap hard and be percussive, bright and punchy, this may not be your set so I understand if one dismisses them on tension and diameter alone. But for those who have played the flats and like them and are wanting to go just a bit more into the mids and upper frequencies without losing the fundamental tone of those flats; this is your set! Yes the diameters are smaller but even though the E is a .089, don't let that fool you: Do you think T-I would ever release an E that wasn't absolutely accurate? Never! The construction is very similar to the flats in that the nickel content is the same on the outer wrap and cover wire. The difference is that there's only one cover wire over the core and no silk inlay, this is to increase the mids & highs a tad. Here's the kicker: The diameter of the outer wrapping itself is unusually small to the point where many have asked if it's a half-wound or ground wound, etc. Nope, it's a round wound, just with a much smaller winding and very densely applied. The result is a smoother-than-ordinary round wound string that is not as bright as a typical round or 'rock oriented' round. The set appeals to the player who is uninterested in plucking away on high-tension cables but does not want to lose the articulation and general punch that some associate with going to flats. The other major audience is the more chordal bass players and folks who may use looping and similar techniques. The signal is strong enough so that drop-off is not a problem recording or adding affects and at the same time, the strings aren't so darn bright as to muddy-up the mix when using these technologies. This can happen when a string brings too much distortion to the signal.

The JR's are, to me, kind of an unsung hero in our line as the players who know that flats (even ours) won't get 'em where they want to be and for whom rounds have just too much boom and treble. The folks are usually stuck in an unhappy compromise until they discover the Jazz Rounds. Granted, this is a smaller market but I think speaks for Thomastik-Infeld's commitment to top of the line, useful, purposeful products. I have gotten many thankful calls from players who just discovered them and they sound as if I have just helped them deliver their newborn child or something, and I'm only the manufacturer representative!

BunnyBass: We seem to be making our way through the entire T-I line, and since I have a couple of questions about the Powerbass Strings, maybe I'll ask them now. I notice these are the only strings in your electric bass line that uses a hex-shaped core - how does this affect the performance characteristics of these strings? I'm also curious about the look and feel of the string's surface - it's quite a bit shinier (they almost look "polished") than other nickel roundwound strings I typically see.


The Jazz Rounds have a distinctive green silk wrap. If you look closely you can see how small the outer wrap is, resulting in a smooth, almost compressed-wound feel (click on the image to see a large, more close-up version). The B string in this picture is not a TI Jazz Round string, but rather a low B from a Fodera stainless steel set.

Kevin Reynolds: The hexagonal core is there for added flexibility and increased sustain. They did not have the option of separating the windings in the way they do with the flats and to appeal to those who would be more apt to use this set, they also needed to stay within certain diameters (namely the good old 45-105 deal, folks are used to it). Since they have a more overall tension on them when compared with the JF's and JR's, they wanted the set to still have good balance and this hex core tested best. It's a high-carbon steel core which is why the signal is so hot and the resultant string nice and crisp. The next step is the cover wires which in the Powerbass series, there are two. They're made of nickel and are very densely applied wraps to add mass without undue tension. The last wrap is a proprietary blend of metals, including nickel and high carbon steel but not simply nickel plated. This makes the windings magnetically reactive as well as the core. This is why they look shinier and more polished than say, the JF's and the nickel filters out any odd or non-musical harmonics in the signal.

So, while those are quite a loud and bright set of strings, there is not a lot (if any at all) of added noise in the signal, in other words a better S/N (signal to noise) ratio. Added distortion is typical of some strings as this is the easiest way to get a "loud" or bright sound as your ear registers this as loudness. The trouble is that this process does not yield very long lasting strings so T-I, again, took the long and high road. I think the result is worth it as you get a set that's bright and powerful but not tinny or brittle. Good for percussive playing but also good for walking lines - very versatile!


TI Powerbass strings: a close-up look at the surface - the shiny nickel and high-carbon steel outer wrap also contribute to signal production, resulting in a more powerful signal. (click on the image for a larger version)

BunnyBass: TI uses the following designations for its bass string line:

32" short scale
34" long scale
36" super long scale

What do these lengths actually measure, and how are bassists looking for a set of strings meant use them? For example, if you have a 34" long scale bass, then buying a 34" long scale set seems like the obvious choice. But would it also be possible to use the 36" super long scale set on a 34" scale bass - are there reasons why this wouldn't work? Or 30" scale basses - what will using the other length/gauge sets produce in terms of sound, feel, intonation, and so on? And finally, which set should be used on a 34.5 or 35" scale bass?

Kevin Reynolds: The scale lengths designated by those numbers are the vibrating or 'speaking length' of the strings and are measured from bridge to nut. T-I adds a little length to each SKU to better accommodate string-through-the-body and other conditions that may require a little more string. It is possible to use longer strings on shorter basses and the most noticeable result of doing so is that the tension will decrease. While this may be great for some, there is a warning here: T-I's are made to have their silk wrapped ends install around each tuning post. Using a longer string will result in wrapping metal around the metal post and can shorten the strings' life, especially if it grabs between the windings on the flats and separates them. Typically this is not a problem as the strings are really quite tough, but it can happen. Conversely, installing a short-scale set on a 34" scale bass (if they'll fit based on the measurements I can provide) will make the tension increase slightly. Either way the increase or decrease in tension is even across the board so sound and intonation is not affected, but the feel will be slightly different going up or down in tension.

For a 34.5 or 35 scale bass, the 34" scale series will fit most instruments. Just to be sure, you can use the following measurements. This is the length of string from the ball to the beginning of silk wrap at the peg-head end. One can measure from right where the ball anchors, up to the nut on their bass to make sure that they'll fit.

Here are the measurements of the 34" scale Jazz Rounds and Jazz Flats, from the ball end to the start of the silk wrap at the peg head end:

C=37.26"
G=37.63"
D=37.38"
A=37.50"
E=37.75"
B=36.88"

The Powerbass set:

C: 37.56"
G: 37.50"
D: 37.50"
A: 37.50"
E: 37.25"
B: 36.50"

There's about 3/4 of an inch of silk at the ball end and over a foot of silk wrap at the top. In a pinch, you can shave off about 3/4" to 1" of silk at the top before the first taper starts.

Add approx. 2 inches to the vibrating length regarding the 36" scale set and minus 2 inches to for the 32" scale set. Of course currently those SKU's are only available in 4 string sets. If they're short, keep an eye out as I have some 36" scale 5 & 6 string sets (something we've never had in the lineup) coming very soon. [editor's note: these sets may be available by the time you read this interview]

BunnyBass: You mention the hexogonal-core being used for added flexibility and increased sustain - exactly the opposite of what some other manufacturers sometimes claim for round-core string construction. Are debates surrounding string construction techniques just as contentious as, say, the never-ending arguments about whether bolt-ons or neck-throughs basses sound better and whatnot? Does empirical data often contradict perceived "feel"?

Kevin Reynolds: (laughs) Yes, it's about as dicey as neck-through vs. bolt-on, maple vs. rosewood, etc., regarding what's "best". The idea of the hex-core is that less mass and less inertia results in a longer period of musical vibration. This is felt by most as more flexible than another, usually higher tension string and I think is perhaps more of a perceived feel that something one could measure on some machine. The idea of increased sustain could also be in this category as technically, the hex core should add an "edge" for more focus under a fretting finger but is it really the high ferrous content in the windings which makes the signal hotter thus more sustain? I can't say for sure and maybe it's a combination of the two, but data contradicting perceived feel: happens all the time! ;-)

BunnyBass: How does T-I define "hand-made" when it comes to manufacturing strings?

Kevin Reynolds: T-I strings are hand-made and it says it on most of their packages. This does not mean that there are a bunch of Schwarzenegger-sized Austrians with pliers in a room winding strings. They have some of the most innovative winding machines available which are highly customized. These machines are run by skilled technicians and operated by hand but it's not a claim similar to driving a bulldozer and saying that the hole was dug by hand, it's a little more exacting. Their hands do indeed touch each wound string, guiding each wrap, making sure the ends lock together properly, etc. Also, the human element significantly decreases defects since each wrap is monitored.

BunnyBass: Is there anything in particular you've learned since taking your position at Thomastik-Infeld that's stood out as something particularly eye-opening, perhaps something that's been a real surprise for you? I imagine that there must be a ton of things people don't know or just don't think about when it comes to strings.

Kevin Reynolds: I think the first thing that surprises me (I was guilty of it once too) is how players are so conditioned to refer to strings in diameter rather than in tension and material, when the latter makes so much more sense. I have heard and read players say things like, "The best gauge is 45-105 because they're louder than 40-100" or "I can't play flats, they're too tight". Or "I suggest (blank), I use them on my (blank) and they sound great and so (blank)". Just insert the usual in the blanks and you'll have a general statement that may or may not be helpful if this person is giving gear advice. A strings' material, wrap, and tension are what's affecting the feel and tone. 45-105 might just happen to get you there, but it was erroneous. Players say things like, "I like 9's cuz they're light". Well, this is not always the case. I know of a set of 9's, listed as "light" that have more than 10 lbs. total tension than another set. There's another, listed as "Super-Light" which have about 7 lbs more than a set called "light". Granted, not every company lists their tensions so looking for this specifically can be a drag. I do notice, however, that almost nobody ever says to a store clerk "I want to put a few more pounds of tension on my guitar to move the top more because I want to cut and project a little bit better". This is accurate, but the conversation usually goes more like this:

Guitarist: I need some 11's to make my axe louder than it is with 10's.
Clerk: Do you want a specific brand, material, tension, etc?
Guitarist: Whatever 11's are on sale is okay.

Not true! One set of 11's has 136.30 lbs on is while another has just 120.2 lbs. while another has 123.6 lbs. This guy could wind up using a set that was lighter than the 10's he was using. Then he'd post on a board saying how bad brand X's strings were! Outside of the orchestral realm and classical guitar, you rarely hear of anyone talking about string tension when in actuality it's THE thing they usually mean when discussing gauge. Why is this?

I have heard players talking about their amp impedance and how psyched they are about the fact that their new rig has a sensitivity @ 1M w/2.83 vms and can get to pressure levels of 121 dB while handling more that 350 watts! The have no idea what their strings are made of or how much more or less tension they should seek for the best response and tone but they know that their rig has a response level of between 41Hz and 18KHz. There is no standard in the string industry so statements about a strings' diameter relating to how they sound are about as general and useless as a statement about a cars' reliability and its color! Okay, maybe not that dramatic, but tension makes more sense than diameter as they are NOT all created equally. I guess you can see that we're pretty tension conscious around here ;-)

The back of each TI string box has useful tension information...

BunnyBass: Okay, so the indicated tension of a string is more revealing than its diameter. Can you explain a bit about what these measurements of string tension (in pounds) are actually measuring? For example, here we have the gauge/tension table for the Thomastic-Infeld Powerbass set:

G .047 inches 46.40 lbs
D .068 inches 53.68 lbs
A .080 inches 42.76 lbs
E .107 inches 40.78 lbs

Does this mean that tuned to pitch a bass with these strings will be experiencing almost 200 pounds of pressure pulling on it? Is a theoretically ideal set one that would have equal pounds of tension across all four strings? How might someone shopping for bass strings use this otherwise cryptic information to find what they're looking for?

Kevin Reynolds: Yes, that set would produce 183.62 lbs combined total tension. Since these are the Powerbass series and mainly marketed toward players seeking a more contemporary tone & feel such as rock & funk, they designed them with more tension than say, the Jazz Flats. An ideal set for many jazz players is a lower overall combined tension set with even (or as even as they could get them) tension from string to string. This is just based on research and designed to appeal to as many as possible. On the Powerbass side, with more rock players using them, they not only went with higher tensions but were not as concerned with such an even balance. Balance in this case was to have a little more tension where the most pressure would be applied as in slapping and popping the A, D & G more than the E & B. Again, it was more of a judgment call to appeal to many players. Evenly balanced tensions are especially sensitive to classical & jazz guitar players. They make sets in these SKU's that have almost identical tensions from string to string. Ideal is of course so different from player to player so it's tough to say this or that is "best".

I suggest that players look for an even tension balance from string to string, especially in the areas mentioned above. There will be a range as it is very hard to make the tensions identical but, you'll notice some ranges vary slightly where others have a very broad (some up to 20lbs between strings) swing. Otherwise brand X may have 45-105's with so much more tension than the brand B's with the same gauge. You just tried brand B and wanted a different tone, but you can hardly play the new brand A set because the tension is too high! Now you're frustrated. If you look toward the strings' tension you'll stand a better chance of getting the feel you desire. First, knowledge of what materials will display what general characteristics is best to start with - that is, pure nickel is generally warmer than steel, and so on. From there, one should be able to look toward a set's tension to get the feel they desire rather then guesswork. It isn't easy as not all companies will post their tensions.

BunnyBass: Are there any new developments from T-I coming in the near future that bass and guitar players would like to know about?

Kevin Reynolds: The newest thing we've got working is super-long scale (36"+) strings in 5 & 6 string sets. Many have been waiting for these and they're currently in production. I expect them in 3 to 6 months. There's also a signature series on the way. This one may take quite some time, however, but I'll be sure and keep you posted.

BunnyBass: Kevin, you can't imagine how helpful this has been, I feel like I've learned a lot about strings today. Thank you so much.

Kevin Reynolds: You're welcome Jon and thanks again for the opportunity here. I have made friends here at Bunny Bass and have learned a lot in the process, I don't think I could ask for much more than that!


 

If you have additional questions about Thomastik-Infeld products, you can reach Kevin at:
          Kevin Reynolds
          Connolly & Co.
          Exclusive US Importers of Thomastik-Infeld Strings
          1-800-644-5268
          www.connollyandco.com

Or, visit Thomastik-Infeld on the web at www.thomastik-infeld.net.

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