Whether you’re getting a shop-fresh model or a more played-in hand-me-down, no bass guitar ever comes perfectly set up specifically for you. We’ve all got a unique style and preferences to match, and there’s nothing wrong with that. In this blog, guest-blogger and bassist Cor Vos presents a basic guide to setting up a bass guitar. It’s completely beginner-friendly too, meaning we’re not covering more in-depth tweaks like pickup swaps and nut-filing. Depending on your bass, all you’re going to need is a good ol’ hex-key and a phillips head screwdriver. Let’s get started!
- Personal Playing Style
- A Quick Word to the Wise
- Step 1 – Tuning Up Your Bass
- Step 2 – Adjusting the Neck
- Quarter Turns
- Up Bow vs. Back Bow
- The Alternative Way: String Height
- Step 3 – The Bridge Saddles
- The Optimal Distance
- Step 4 – Intonation
- Step 5 – Play Away
- Helpful Videos
- See Also
Personal Playing Style
While you might prefer a lower action so you can play faster lines more easily, other bassists may well demand more string height for fatter tone. From Joe Dart to James Jamerson, Thundercat and Tim Commerford, each player has a different style that not only comes into play when picking out the bass but when setting it up so it meets your demands. As long as you know what you’re doing, you can easily set up your bass yourself. Read on and I’ll take you through the various steps!
A Quick Word to the Wise
Most of the information in this blog is pretty straightforward. Nevertheless, taking tools to your instrument is always done at your own risk. If you’re not feeling confident enough, simply take your bass to a luthier instead!
Step 1 – Tuning Up Your Bass
First off, tune up your bass so that the strings have the right tension.
Step 2 – Adjusting the Neck
Essentially a steel rod that runs down the length of any wooden guitar or bass neck, the truss rod can be adjusted to determine how straight you want the neck to be. String tension pulls the neck forward, so the truss rod counters the exerted force to keep the neck pulled back. Since there’s a lot of constant tension, adjusting the neck is a delicate job.
A Quarter Turn at a Time
In most cases, the truss rod can be adjusted at either the top of the bottom of the neck using a hex-key. This needs to be done carefully and with the right size hex key because you don’t want to cross-thread the truss rod or break the neck beyond repair. Always adjust the rod a quarter turn at a time and give the wood ample time to set and get used to the new tension – maybe even a full 24 hours. Whatever you do, never force anything. You can only break your bass guitar’s truss rod once, so take your instrument to an expert if you’re not sure what you’re doing.
Up Bow vs. Back Bow
- A back-bowed neck causes string buzz, which can be fixed by adjusting the truss rod for more up-bow. When looking down the length of the neck, you want the neck to be straight or have just a little up-bow.
- When bowed up too far, the neck lifts the strings up too high, which can be fixed by adjusting the truss rod for more back-bow. When looking down the length of the neck, you want the neck to be straight or have just a little up-bow.
To find the optimal set-up, you can use the strings as a ruler. Push the low E-string down at the first fret (F-note) with one hand and use the other to press the same string down where the neck meets the body (see image below). Then, see if there’s at least a tiny gap between the string and the fret in the middle, so most likely the 7th, 8th or 9th fret. If the gap’s just ever so slightly too small to slide a credit card through, you’re good. If the neck needs straightening out for less space, turn the truss rod a little to the right (clockwise) for more tension and counterbalance. Turning anticlockwise reduces the tension, creating more up-bow and the space between the frets and the strings.
The Alternative Way
What you can also do is measure the action, or the height of the strings. You can watch John Carruthers demonstrate how it’s done in the video below (from 2:54 onwards), and get any tools you need for the job at Bax Music. Then again, if you’ve properly checked the spacing between the strings and the frets and have hit all notes to see if there’s no buzz, you pretty much know all that you need. So, if the neck of your bass needed a little tweak and you’re ready to move on, let’s go to step 3. Don’t forget to tune your bass back up!
Step 3 – Bridge Saddles
The saddles of the bridge on your guitar can be heightened or lowered, usually with the help of a small hex key. This way, you can optimise the height of the strings, also known as the action, to match your style and preferences. Bear in mind that if your bass has a bit of back bow, you’ll want the strings to ‘curve’ along with the neck.
The Correct Distance
The distance between the string and the 12th fret usually varies between 1.5mm and 3mm. The thicker strings naturally need more space than the thinner ones, and a little bit of fret buzz when playing forcefully isn’t necessarily bad. In fact, Scott Devine lovingly calls it a “raspy sound,” and legendary Motown bassist James Jamerson was known to prefer high action. It’s really just a matter of personal preference and on top of that, no bass is the same.
Please note: When adjusting the height of any bridge saddles, always drop the tension of the string first. If you don’t, you run the risk of warping the thread of the adjustment screws.
Step 4 – Intonation
Now we move on to checking the intonation. The open E string needs to sound as perfectly pitched as it does when played at the 12th fret, otherwise the bass will sound out of tune when you play the highest frets. You can use a tuner to check this.
- If the low E string is too low in pitch when held at the 12th fret, it will need shortening to tighten the tension.
- If the low E string is too high in pitch when held at the 12th fret, it will need lengthening to loosen the tension.
Either of the above can be fixed by adjusting the position of the saddle via the screw on the back. Simply move any poorly positioned saddle to backwards or forwards as needed, and make sure to check each string
Step 5 – Play Away!
When everything feels right, it’s time to lay down some bass lines and try your fresh set-up, making sure to check that it suits things like the amount of force you play with, your playing technique, and the sound you’re looking for. By experimenting with your set-up as you go, you not only get to know your instrument a little better, but yourself as a bass player. And, sooner rather than later, you’ll know exactly when you’ve hit the sweet spot. Enjoy the ride!
There’s loads of helpful guides, videos and tutorials you can find online. Here’s bass teacher Scott Devine from ScottsBassLessons with what he calls a “ghetto bass setup.” As you can tell, you don’t need to be an expert to do this.
Looking at veteran professionals like John Carruthers and Andy Brauer (seen below) shows that it’s basically all-the-same all the time.
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