Welcome to Part 5 of the Bass Essentials Series. In this part we’re going to look at setting up a bass guitar to playability and ultimately answer the question: how to set up a bass guitar. We’re going to look at:
Setting up your bass’ truss rod, bridge and string height
Some tools to keep your bass clean and functional and
Some last little tips to keep in mind when setting up your bass
Why Set Up Your Bass At All?
The answer is quite simple: a bass guitar that is properly set up will actually play well. Consider a trip you might have had recently to a local music shop. You spotted a bass on the wall that looked cool and you took it down and started to play it. You begin to notice that the strings seem rather high off the fretboard, certain notes buzz and clang and the neck feels gunky and slow.
This is an example of a bass that has not been properly set up and is likely in need of some care and attention. Would you take that bass to a gig and play it? Probably not.
That’s why we get our instruments set up.
How to Set Up Your Bass Guitar: The Essential Knowledge
When it comes to setting up your bass there are a few key aspects to look at:
The bass’ truss road or neck relief as it is also called
The bass’ string height
The bass’ intonation or the accuracy of a pitch being played.
Additionally, we’re going to look at how to restring your bass as well because in most cases the gauge of your strings can affect how the instrument is set up.
While there are certainly others that are more cosmetically focused and contribute to the overall functionality of the bass guitar like fret wear, cleanliness of the fretboard, cleanliness of the strings and so on, these 3 points above are the crux of any bass guitar set up. These are what are really going to make your bass playable or not come showtime.
1. How to Restring a Bass
With playing a stringed instrument, knowing how to change strings is must-know knowledge.
While some bassists rarely ever change their strings, many bass players find themselves changing strings as frequently as after every show and others every few months. Regardless of the schedule you change your strings on, knowing how to do so can change you a tremendous amount of money in having someone else service your bass for this one reason.
Here’s the process step by step:
Loosen all the strings on the bass by rotating the tuning pegs until the strings seem to fall off the tuning pegs
Take a pair of wire clippers and snip off the top ends of the strings just enough so the curly ends are removed and you can pull the string through the bridge and remove it
Take a second to clean off the fretboard with a soft cloth and a guitar cleaner of your choice
Unbox your new set of strings and pull them through their respective holes through the bridge all the way up to the tuning peg.
Fully extend each string and with your index finger, measure off about an inch and a half past the tuning peg hole and cut the excess off. Insert the string directly into the tuning peg hole and using your thumb, guide the string around the tuning peg as you wind it into place. Along the way, make sure that the string is coiling sufficiently and seated in it’s respective section of the nut.
Repeat with each string.
For additional insights and clarification, Elixir Strings put together a series of informative videos on bass guitar setup. Here’s their installment on bass string replacement.
2. Adjusting Bass Truss Rod
As we said before, another term for adjusting the truss rod is adjusting the relief of the neck. What is the relief of the neck? Consider the following image:
Notice how the neck seems to flex inward and outward in the other picture? That means that the neck has bowed too much in one direction and that bow translates directly to how playable your fretboard is with regards to how much fretbuzz you’re going to experience note to note.
Now, before you begin meddling with the truss rod, do the following:
If you’re looking to apply new strings, do it now and
Tune your bass to the correct standard tuning
Having your bass in as natural state as possible before you make these critical changes will save you a lot of re-work time and headache later when you try to correct mistakes and fine tune your instrument’s neck. Ultimately, you’re looking for the string tension and the initial setup to be the same as when you play.
Now that you’re all tuned up and ready to go, locate the truss rod nut. Most of the bass guitars out there will have their truss rod hole at the top of the neck just above the nut (left).
Find the truss rod nut. Other times, it may be covered by a plate on the headstock, hidden by your pickguard or at the bottom of the bass’s neck towards the 20th/22nd or 24th fret.
Left and Right: Fundamentals for Truss Rod Adjustment
Now that we’ve identified everything we need to get going, let’s actually start adjusting.
Study Bass recommends making a mark on the truss rod nut so you know where you started and as a general reference point. Very good advice to make for easy mistake correction. Just return the truss rod to the original position.
Now, remember: It doesn’t take much turning of the truss rod to adjust the neck.
Adjustment often requires a small turn of the neck, usually a quarter or half turn, either to the left or to the right.
And also remember to use the correct hex Allen wrench when adjusting the truss. Using the wrong truss might set you up to strip the truss rod nut and that would be very bad news for you, your bass and your wallet. Recent models of Fender have come with their own special ball-ended truss rod adjusting tool.
Below is a graphic provided by Sweetwater.com on how to adjust the bass truss rod neck and what actually turning the neck left or right gives you. Turning the rod to the LEFT loosens the neck and gives more ‘hump’. Turning the rod to the RIGHT gives more bow in the neck.
Loosen it by turning it to the left just to pop the rod out of place and get it ready for further adjustment. Again – this doesn’t require a massive twist, just a gentle turn. Like taking the cap off a Snapple bottle.
Now, start tightening the truss rod by turning it to the right. Measure where you are after each small turn.
To measure the straightness of the neck, fret the first fret and the 15th fret of the lowest string. By fretting these two areas, it should be clear how much relief there is in the neck by checking the space between the bottom of the string and the top of the frets. Like everything else so far, you should be looking for a little bit of relief – no gaping holes.
Continue to turn and measure until you’ve achieved that straightened neck.
3. Bass Guitar Bridge Setup: String Height
Now that you bass’ neck is good and straightened out, we can begin to focus on the string height of your bass.
For the first two years of playing bass, I wasn’t really paying attention to string height, but I probably should have been. It wasn’t until I graduated to my American Fender Jazz bass whose string height was considerably lower to the fretboard did I realize that by first bass’ string height was more like what James Jamerson was playing: high up like an upright bass. On the plus side, I developed immense hand strength early on in my playing but it was mostly due to young ignorance and not knowing any better than anything else.
Bottom line: string height matters.
Bass string height can be adjusted with the respective string’s saddles on the bridge (the tube looking pieces with the grooves in them on the front end of the screws):
Adjusting string height is considerably easier than adjusting the truss rod. All that’s required is an Allen wrench that fits the small holes on either side of the saddle head and a few turns to raise each string. Fretnot Guitar recommends setting up your string heights to factory settings as a go-to baseline.
Though there is a recommendation, string height is largely preferential. Depending on how you play, you might want the strings higher or lower.
Adjust the height of your lowest string so you don’t get any string buzz. Check the open string and all the frets up and down the neck for buzz.
4. Bass Guitar Bridge Setup: Intonation
Intonation is how in tune a note is. Believe it or not, even on a fretted bass guitar, there are slight differences with how in tune a note is the closer you play it to a fret versus playing it center fret. When your intonation is not in the best of shape, you might notice that playing all the notes slightly more to the right or left of center fret is what’s going to make the note come out in tune. When that happens, it’s time to check out your intonation.
a. Adjusting and Refining Your Intonation
To set the intonation of your bass guitar, you must lengthen or shorten the string by moving the string’s saddle backward or forward. You do this by tightening or loosening the intonation screws at the back of the bridge.
Here’s the process to checking your intonation:
With a properly calibrated electric tuner, tune all the strings on your bass guitar to their open pitches.
Next, beginning with the lowest string (the E string), begin the process by fretting the string at the 12th fret. Make sure you press the string straight down. You want this fretted note to be in tune. It should be the same note as the open string. Check the electronic bass tuner to see if you are flat (too low) or sharp (too high). If you are flat, you need to shorten the string by moving the saddle forward. If you are sharp, you need to add length to the string by moving the saddle backward.
After you adjust the saddle, double check the open string is still in tune.
Repeat for each string.
In this installment of the Bass Essentials Series, we covered how to set up a bass guitar. We looked at adjusting the truss rod, checking intonation, how to adjust string height and how to change strings.
Setting up a bass guitar doesn’t need to be a particularly challenging task but with the right know how and tools to make it happen, you can take care of it yourself.
A word to consider: if you’re still a little leery about tinkering with your bass for the first time, take it to your local guitar shop and have them set it up. Most guitar shops are very flexible and make it their focus to work with you and make sure you’re satisfied with the way the instrument it set up to play.
Additionally, here’s a short list of tools you’re probably going to need if you’re trying to set up your bass one of these days: