Flatwound vs. Roundwound Strings? How to choose what’s right for you!

If you’ve been shopping for guitar strings, you have probably noticed that flatwound strings are often noticeably more expensive than flatwound strings and perhaps you’re wondering whether there is a significant difference between the two, and whether price increase is justified for your needs?

In this KillerGuitarRigs guide, you will learn:

  • What are the physical differences between flatwound and roundwound strings?
  • What are the sound differences between flatwound and roundwound strings?
  • Is there a difference in feel between flatwound and roundwound strings?
  • What considerations should you make when switching from roundwound to flatwound?

Before moving on to the guide, check out these fast facts:

  • Flatwound strings are the longest lasting
  • Flatwound strings significantly reduce finger squeaks
  • Roundwound strings have a much brighter tone
  • Roundwound strings are cheaper than flatwound

What Are the Physical Differences Between Flatwound and Roundwound Strings?

In principle, most guitar strings are constructed in a similar fashion – they have a center core wire that is surrounded by a wrap wire. The real difference between flatwound and roundwound comes down to the wrap wire itself.

With a roundwound string, the wrap wire is as you might have guessed, round. As roundwound are much more common, there is a good chance you already have this style on your guitar now. If you run a pick horizontally down your low E string, you’ll feel the ridges between the wrap layers.

With a flatwound string, the wrap wire has been compressed and flattened. This means that when it’s wrapped around the core wire it doesn’t leave such pronounced ridges. Because there are fewer ridges, there is less opportunity for the accumulation of finger gunk, which does help to keep the strings sounding new for much longer. 

What Are the Sound Differences Between Flatwound and Roundwound Strings?

While the tonal difference between an Ernie Ball and a Dunlop string might be subjective, what isn’t subjective is the clear difference between the tones from flatwound and roundwound strings. 

Roundwound strings are definitely the brighter of the two types. Due to the round wire used, roundwounds are more flexible – the strings have more freedom to bend and move, which results in more upper order harmonics when played.

With flatwound strings you will notice a much more mellow, almost “dead” sound. Because of the tightly packed wrap wire, the string is restricted from moving as much as a roundwound can, giving them a much darker tone and reducing the sustain.

Flatwounds are commonly used by jazz guitarists as their overtones aren’t as pronounced. This is a useful characteristic for playing harmonically complex jazz chords.

Flatwounds are also much quieter, noise-wise than roundwound, which pick up every nuance. Because of the smoother surface, they make very little finger squeak when moving your fingers up and down the strings. This can be especially helpful when recording if you’re trying to get the cleanest possible take.

ROUNDWOUND and FLATWOUND Guitar STRINGS / Audio Demo Test

Is there a difference in feel between flatwound and roundwound strings?

The overall feel is one of the most noticeable differences between roundwound and flatwound strings. Physically speaking, roundwound strings feel rougher, which can take a toll on your fingertips and will contribute to fret wear. As most guitars are fitted as standard with roundwound strings, they won’t necessarily accelerate fret wear, but it will occur faster than it would on a guitar equipped with flatwound strings.

Additionally, due to their smoothness, flatwound strings feel slick, and are exceptionally fast playing. This is another benefit for jazz musicians who often reach for complex chords and use the whole fretboard during progressions.

It is worth noting that roundwound strings are available in a wider range of sizes than flatwound strings. The smallest commercially available flatwounds are usually .11 gauge, and this can make the playing experience feel more like acoustic guitar strings. Subsequently, bends and vibrato will feel like much harder work by comparison to a .09 gauge string set that you may be more accustomed to.

What Considerations Should You Make When Switching From Roundwound to Flatwound Strings?

If you’re planning to string a guitar with flatwounds when it has normally been equipped with roundwounds, ensure you consider the following:

Playability

Because of the increased tension that comes with flatwounds, it can be harder to depress the strings. Getting used to this will take some time and effort, and you’re likely to experience some early onset finger fatigue when getting started. 

Setup

Another effect of the increased string tension is the effect on the neck. Higher string tension will increase your neck relief, which in turn increases height of action, exacerbating the increased effort that is required of playing flatwound strings to begin with. However, the biggest problem with the change in neck relief is a change in intonation – you will need to account for this with a proper setup once the new strings are installed.

Price

You should also be conscious that flatwound strings tend to be a lot more expensive than roundwound, and in many cases cost double, or even triple the price of rounds. On the plus side, because of their ability to resist accumulation of sweat and dead skin, they last considerably longer than roundwound strings. So, the initial cost is greater, but they have the potential to be more economical over the long term.

Effects Response

If you are already running a pedalboard with custom settings, you will likely have to modify the parameters after switching to flatwound strings. Your pedals apply set parameters to the dry signal coming from the guitar and modify it before sending it to the amplifier. If the input signal is changed, the way the pedal interacts with it will also change, resulting in different tones. 

Final Thoughts On Roundwound Strings Vs. Flatwound Strings

One of the best things about playing the guitar is the ability to express creativity by experimenting with different gear to create different sounds. Changing from a roundwound to a flatwound string is a great (and relatively cheap) way to do that. You’ll be able to unlock new sound profiles, and if you don’t like how it turns out, it’s a straightforward change to revert to a different set of strings.

Martin Holland

Growing up in rural Australia, there wasn't much to do but play guitar and stare at the red dirt. When things broke, the only person to fix them was fifty miles away, and eventually fixing gave way to building, giving me my career as a luthier. I wouldn't have it any other way.