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This article was originally published in issue #9
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Bass strings? How do you review bass strings? It isn't easy but there seems to be so much excitement about the latest Ernie Ball Cobalt sets that we decided to give it a try. Step forward the intrepid Dan Veall!
It is unusual to have a set of strings in for review here at The Bassment - in fact we really weren't sure how to go about it, but it's hard to ignore the stir that's been created by US string maker Ernie Ball with its new Cobalt range. Guitarists and bassists alike are being tempted by these new strings which we're told open-up a new dimension in sound quality, so when Strings And Things, the UK's Ernie Ball distributor, offered us a couple of sets to try, we sat down to work out how best to do it. Well, what if we put them on identical basses and tried them side by side?
Naturally, as Ernie Ball owns Music Man, that seemed an ideal match, so we whistled-up a pair of Musicman Stingrays, one fitted with standard Ernie Ball Slinky bass strings and the other with the brand new Ernie Ball Cobalt Slinky bass strings of the same gauge.
Visually, as I pulled the basses out of their cases, there wasn't much to report on. Had we have left it without a closer look, you'd not tell the difference in the strings from a distance. Fortunately, Strings And Things had kindly left the tag from the Cobalt strings in the box, just in case, by some unfortunate twist of fate I lost a large portion of my senses to illness (he means alcohol - Ed) thus rendering this comparison review a little light on detail, so we'd at least know which was which!
Firstly we primed the instruments - tuned them and made sure all the controls were set the same. Nothing was adjusted before or after, so what you hear on our video is the difference between the basses and strings with some different playing styles. I've taken my usual 'guitar shop' approach to testing the basses by keeping things simple, clear and modest in terms of playing. I prefer to do this in reviews as it's the instrument and gear you want to focus on, not me.
Before jumping in front of the camera, I sat with our video and sound crew and played between the two instruments. I have to say acoustically, without amplification, there was very little difference in the volume of the string and tone that we could tell. Maybe this would be different on other instruments but in a straight A/B with these two basses, the volume and tone difference was subtle. Given that what EB is claiming: "Cobalt provides a stronger magnetic relationship between pickups and strings than any other alloy previously available" this makes sense. You would expect to hear more variance when the basses are amplified and that seems to be the case.
One thing I should add is that one bass arrived with a maple fretboard while the other had rosewood. It makes them easier to identify on the video, but the hyper-critical might suggest some tonal difference is because of that factor. Feel-wise, I think the Cobalt strings are a little smoother and maybe the tension was lower than the standard Slinky strings, making them feel more pliable, although I felt it was quite a subtle difference - at least in our short test.
Switching between the two instruments once they were amplified, however, the differences between the standard Slinky strings and the Cobalts became much more noticeable. I have to say that we could tell through the studio's foldback PA quite clearly which set of strings was which. So how do they sound? To my ear, there's a noticeable accentuation in the mids and clarity of the Cobalt strings. They seemed to resonate more vibrantly on the test instrument. Hopefully that comes across on the video audio as clearly as it did in the studio. See what you think.
So, yes, in our admittedly brief and limited test, the Cobalt Slinkys felt good and sounded great. Unfortunately I can't comment on how long they will stay bright for, nor, indeed, however Ernie Ball promise longer lasting strings that stay bright longer.
The new Cobalt strings are available for bass and guitar in a variety of gauges and are already getting glowing endorsements by Ernie Ball users. Strings And Things tell us they are selling extremely well in the UK, which is slightly surprising as they are a premium priced product and these are said to be hard times. Then again, if you get a better sound from your bass, it's a lot cheaper than changing instruments!
I'd say the Ernie Ball Cobalt bass strings certainly appear to offer tonal gains over the standard Slinky strings. When you're due a new set, these should definitely be on your 'must try' list.