Bass Setup - taking it easy!

Hello Bass Friends!

Actually, even some die-hard pro players don´t really know how to set up a bass right. Quite strange... everybody knows that their car needs to be serviced regularily to have a great performance... but then they play with dead strings and wonder why there is no intonation! Well, if you set up your bass every once in a while it will be easier to play and it will sound better. You don´t neccessarily have to read on if you have a personal bass tech who keeps your basses in top condition!

For all others, here is my little clinic to motivate you and enable you to perform simple setup tasks yourself. Let´s look at the strings first!

Strings

One player can do with one set for half a year, the next one needs a new set at every gig... Strings are moving parts that are abused a lot and only have a short life span – depending on how hard you play, and how tough you sweat! It also depends on the sound requirements: if you want a super clean tone with brilliant crisp highs, you need new strings more often than the rocker favouring a dark sound with little high end. When your tone gets dull and it gets harder and harder to get the strings in tune, you are in need of a new set. Sweat, dirt and grit builds up between the string´s windings making you lose more and more brilliance until the string is completely "dead".

Many players boil their strings as to get rid of the dirt, but you can´t better the string´s mechanical wear. A boilt string may sound okay for maybe one gig, but after that it is dead as nails.

Getting it right

Also very important: The proper way of putting new strings on the bass! Don´t cut them off too short! Better not cut off anything, rather put a few windings around the string post and make sure the string is close to the headstock as you see in the picture!

Pressure

Also firmly press with the thumb on the A, E and B strings at the bridge just before the string saddles as to ensure a proper fit.

String Height - Action!

That´s the distance from the strings to the fretboard, also known as "action". There is no such thing as the "correct" string height! That depends on the personal taste and the style of music being played. One player likes his strings a bit higher, the other likes it a bit lower. A high string set-up gives you a better tone, because the string can vibrate more freely, but your fretting hand has to work harder. A low string set-up makes you play with more ease, but there might be more fret noises because the vibrating string, being closer to the fretboard, is occasionally touching the frets. Some think that sound cool! Here we have to compromise. The string height is defined by the setting of the bridge saddles and the truss rod. The height of the nut also makes a difference. BIG difference, really.

The Nut

The nut can be made from bone, plastic, brass, graphite or ebony. It depends on how it has been filed! As a rule of thumb, the strings have to sit firmly in the saddle. If it is too high, the first frets might not be so easy to fret, if it is too low, the strings might rattle in the first fret positions. If you run into problems it is advisable to call for the help of an experienced guitar repairman with a set of special files.

 

The Frets

Frets wear out sooner or later, depending on how hard you play and what strings you use, resulting in buzzing and rattling noises where the strings touch the frets which are of different heights. A qualified guitar repairman can give you a good fret job which will make quite a difference.

The Bridge

Here we can control the height of the individual strings by adjusting the string saddles. Depending on the type, we need one or more Allen wrenches to turn those little screws until we are happy with the string height. Watch it: don´t take those little screws out as they like to dissappear and are very hard to find!

The Neck Feel

For a cool feel on the bass neck we have to get the truss rod properly set up. As the strings put a lot of pull on the neck, every wooden bass neck has a truss rod which can be adjusted with the right fitting tool. You find the adjusting screw either at the headstock or at the end of the neck, in which case, you might have to take off the neck to get to turn the screw.

As I always found that nasty and time-consuming, we have located the truss rod adjustment screw at the headstock which makes neck adjustment a breeze... just a matter of minutes if you know what you are doing! Here is how it works: 

Turning clockwise (pull the wrench gently towards you when the bass lies in front of you with the head to the left) tightens the truss rod, and the neck moves backwards, resulting in the strings coming closer towards the neck. Turning the neck screw counter-clockwise (away from you) relieves the truss rod, and the strings move away from the fretboard.

Neck Relief

The neck has to be a bit "concave" for a good setup. If the neck is too concave, you can use the bass as a bow to shoot some arrows at your local repairman - or your wife!


If you have at least two millimeters (yeah...metric is cool...) of relief between the string and the seventh fret when you fret the lowest string at the first and last fret and then look at it from the side of the neck, then you´ll be fine.

 

Neck Angle

You can adjust the neck angle on basses with bolt-on necks. Some instruments like 70ies Fenders, Music Man, and G&L, already have an adjusting screw on the (three bolt)neck plate. On most others you can do this: take off the neck – but loosen the strings first! Then take a rectangular piece of veneer, a piece of a business card or even cut a snippet from an old credit card and put this in the back of the neck pocket, maybe secure it with some thin tape. Then put the neck back on, tune up the bass and work on the bridge and truss rod... It acts as a shim, and will make quite a difference, but you need some experience for it. It might require taking off the neck several times to find just the right thickness of material... Only start experimenting with this when you have a spare bass handy for the gig tonight!

Intonation

When you are happy with the action and playability of your bass, you have to adjust the intonation in order to have all the C´s and E´s on the various fret locations on the bass in perfect pitch - they should not be sharp or flat but right-on! 

Get your tuner out for that one! We are going to compare each string´s fretted note at the 12th fret with the 12th fret´s harmonic. Both have to have the exact same frequency, in which case the intonation is OK. In order to achieve this, we have to move the string saddles in the bridge. Moving forward makes the string shorter which means the note gets higher, moving backward makes the note lower. We need the proper screwdriver for it – it´s best to keep one in the bass case at all times. Remember to tune up after every saddle movement.

Tough stuff!

Absolutely, you might think, if you haven´t done it before! Right... it´s science – bass science! A correct bass setup is the ultimate combination of all parts. Most of it you can do yourself, so get started and work on it. You will gain a lot of experience, and you will have a better sounding and more comfortable playing instrument when you get it right!

 

Have fun and play da bass!

Bert "Gear Head" Gerecht