Bass Setup: The Basics

Today we’re going to take a cursory look at how to set up your bass.  There are many variables:  nut height, neck relief, saddle height, pickup height, and string length (intonation).  It’s important to understand how to set up your bass for optimal performance.  Let’s jump in.

Below is a good starting guide from Fender’s website.  I generally use their specifications as a starting point for setup regardless of playing style.  Read through it to get a general idea of the concepts of setting up the bass.  Following the article are two videos by Carl Pedigo of Lakland Basses.  He does a nice job of showing the basics of setup.  In Part 2 on this subject, we will delve deeper into the process.

 

FENDER® BASS ADJUSTMENT AND CARE

Area 51

Tele, tele, tele.

The following setup procedures and specifications are for you Fender bass as equipped with the strings that come on the instrument as standard equipment from the factory. If you plan to change string gauges, you may need to adjust the specs somewhat to compensate for the changes in string sizes. Modifications of the specs may also be made (within limited parameters) to adjust for your individual playing style or application (i.e., how hard you pick, finger, slap, pop or fret the bass).

Note: These are minimum specifications that are meant as a guide; they should not be construed as hard and fast rules, as we realize that every player’s subjective requirements often differ.

TOOLS NEEDED

  • Set of automotive feeler gauges (.002-.025) (0.05–1 mm)
  • 6″ (150 mm) ruler (with 1/32″ and 1/64″ increments) (0.5 mm increments)
  • Light machine oil (3-in-1, toy locomotive or gun oil)
  • Phillips screwdriver
  • Electronic tuner
  • Wire cutters
  • Peg winder
  • Polish and cloth

STRINGS

Because of the amount of tension on the neck, it’s advisable to replace and tune each new string before removing the next string. After the whole set is changed and tuned, stretch your strings properly by holding them at the first fret and hooking your fingers under each string (one at a time) and then tugging lightly, moving your hand from the bridge to the neck. Re-tune and repeat several times.

TUNING KEYS

The Keys to Good Intonation

The Keys to Good Intonation

How you wind the strings onto the pegs is very important. Start by loading them through the bridge and then loading them onto the appropriate keys as follows:

Standard keys. Pre-cut each string for the proper length and desired amount of winds. Pull the fourth string 3″ (76 mm) past its tuning post and cut it (make sure to pull each string taut). Insert through the eyelet in the tuning key, allowing approximately 1/16″ (1.6 mm) of the end to extend through the eyelet, then wind neatly in a downward pattern, being carefull to prevent overlapping. Pull the third string 3 1//2″ (89 mm) past its tuning post, cut it, and repeat the winding procedure. Pull the second and first strings 3 1/2″ (89 mm) past their tuning posts and cut and wind as noted. For five-string basses, cut the fifth string 3″ (76 mm) past its tuning post and repeat the same cutting and winding procedure.

INTONATION (ROUGHING IT OUT)

You can preset the basic intonation of your bass by taking a tape measure and measuring from the inside of the nut to the center of the 12th fret (the fret wire itself; not the fingerboard). Double that measurement to find the scale length of your bass.

Adjust the first-string bridge saddle to this scale length, measuring from the inside of the nut to the center of the bridge saddle. Now adjust the distance of the second saddle back from the first saddle, using the gauge of the second string as a measurement. For example, if the second string is .060″ (1.5 mm), you would move the second-string saddle back .060″ (1.5 mm) from the first saddle. Move the third saddle back from the second saddle, using the gauge of the third string as a measurement. Adjust the fourth saddle in the same manner (and fifth if you have a five-string bass).

Note: If you’re using a taper-wound fourth string (and fifth if it’s a five-string bass), use the actual gauge of the string for your measurement rather than the dimension of the tapered portion of the string.

TRUSS ROD

TrussRod2First, check your tuning. Affix a capo at the first fret and depress the fourth string at the last fret. With a feeler gauge, check the gap between the bottom of the string and the top of the 8th fret—see the spec chart below for the proper gap.

Caution: Because of the amount of string tension on the neck, you should loosen the strings before adjusting the truss rod. After the adjustment is made, re-tune the strings and re-check the gap with the feeler gauge.

Adjustment at headstock (allen wrench): Sight down the edge of the fingerboard from behind the headstock, looking toward the body of the instrument. If the neck is too concave (action too high), turn the truss rod nut clockwise to remove excess relief. If the neck is too convex (strings too close to the fingerboard), turn the truss rod nut counter-clockwise to allow the string tension to pull more relief into the neck. Check your tuning, then re-check the gap with the feeler gauge and re-adjust as needed.

Adjustment at neck joint (phillips screwdriver): Sight down the edge of the fingerboard from behind the body, looking up toward the headstock of the instrument. If the neck is too concave (action too high), turn the truss rod nut clockwise to remove excess relief. If the neck is too convex (strings too close to the fingerboard), turn the truss rod nut counter-clockwise to allow the string tension to pull more relief into the neck. Check your tuning, then re-check the gap with the feeler gauge and re-adjust as needed.

Note: In either case, if you meet excessive resistance when adjusting the truss rod, if your instrument needs constant adjustment, if adjusting the truss rod has no effect on the neck, or if you’re simply not comfortable making this type of adjustment yourself, take your instrument to your local Fender Authorized Dealer.

Neck Radius 7.25″ 9.5″ to 12″ 15″ to 17″ Relief .014″ (0.35 mm) .012″ (0.3 mm) .010″ (0.25 mm)

 

ACTION

Players with a light touch can get away with lower action; others need higher action to avoid rattles. First, check tuning. Using a 6″ (150 mm) ruler, measure the distance between bottom of strings and top of the 17th fret. Adjust bridge saddles to the height according to the chart below, then re-tune. Experiment with the height until the desired sound and feel is achieved.

Neck Radius String Height       Bass Side Treble Side
7.25″ 9.5″ to 12″ 15″ to 17″ 7/64″ (2.8 mm) 6/64″ (2.4 mm) 6/64″ (2.4 mm) 6/64″ (2.4 mm) 5/64″ (2 mm) 5/64″ (2 mm)

PICKUPS

Pickups1Setting pickups too high can cause a number of unusual occurrences. Depress strings at last fret. Using a 6″ (150 mm) ruler, measure the distance from the bottom of the first and fourth strings to top of the pole piece. A good rule of thumb is that  the distance should be greatest at the fourth-string neck pickup position and closest at the first-string bridge pickup position. Follow the measurement guidelines from the chart below as starting points. The distance will vary according to the amount of magnetic pull from the pickup.

Note: Larger string gauges need wider vibrational allowances. If you have a five-string bass or are using heavier-gauge strings, your measurements must be increased accordingly.

  Bass Side Treble Side
Vintage style 8/64″ (3.6 mm) 6/64″ (2.4 mm)
Noiseless™ Series 8/64″ (3.6 mm) 6/64″ (2.4 mm)
Standard “J” or “P” 7/64″ (2.8 mm) 5/64″ (2 mm)
Special Design Humbuckers 7/64″ (2.8 mm) 5/64″ (2 mm)

INTONATION (FINE TUNING)

Adjustments should be made after all of the above have been accomplished. Set the pickup selector switch (if your bass has one) in the middle position, and turn the volume and tone controls to their maximum settings. Check tuning. Check each string at the 12th fret, harmonic to fretted note (make sure you are depressing the string evenly to the fret, not the fingerboard). If sharp, lengthen the string by adjusting the saddle back. If flat, shorten the string by moving the saddle forward. Remember, basses are tempered instruments! Re-tune, play and make further adjustments as needed.

ADDITIONAL HINTS

There are a few other things that you can do to optimize your tuning stability that have more to do with playing and tuning habits.

Each time you play your bass, before you do your final tuning, play for a few minutes to allow the strings to warm up. Metal expands when warm and contracts when cool. After you’ve played a few riffs and done a few slaps and pops, you can then do your final tuning. Remember—with most tuning keys, it’s preferable to tune up to pitch. However, with locking tuners, go past the note and tune down to pitch. Finally, wipe the strings, neck and bridge with a lint-free cloth after playing. When transporting or storing your bass, even for short periods, avoid leaving it anyplace you wouldn’t feel comfortable yourself.

 

Setup Tips from Carl Pedigo of Lakland Basses (Part 1)

Carl Pedigo – Part 2