To keep your bass guitar sounding great, you will need to practice basic maintenance. This is because the wooden parts of the bass are held under tension from the metal strings, so can sometimes need adjustment to ensure that they’re able to be played in tune.
Adjustments are typically covered under the general term “setup”. This refers to adjusting the truss rod, nut, bridge, frets, and the fretboard. While some of these adjustments can be done yourself, there are some that need a professional. They may even need special equipment.
Setting up your bass guitar properly will be essential for maintaining a playable instrument. You won’t want to hear any buzzing on the strings at any of your frets, you’ll want to ensure that the strings are set at the correct height, and you’ll want to make sure that your bass has the right intonation accuracy.
So now that you know it’s important to set up your bass guitar, how can you do so properly?
How do I set up my bass guitar properly?
Before you start to set up your bass guitar, you will need to ensure that you have the proper equipment to hand. You will need:
- Allen wrenches
- Electronic tuner
- Neck rest to keep the guitar secure
- Phillips screwdriver
- 6” ruler measured in 1/32” and 1/64” (0.5mm) increments
We’re going to cover the two basic adjustments that you can make yourself.
Truss rod adjustment
One of the first steps you should take when setting up your bass guitar is to adjust the truss rod. This is a metal bar which works to reinforce the neck of your bass. When you adjust the pitch of your strings, this of course puts more pressure on the neck of the guitar. The truss rod works to counterbalance this tension so that you can adjust how much the neck bows.
You’ll want to ensure that the neck of your bass is set to the proper relief. This will be the distance between the neck and the strings of your bass. Of course, it will be important to ensure your strings are in great shape, too. If they’re too old or too knackered, make sure to swap these out first.
First, check the relief of your bass. You should do this in the playing position. Place the capo along the first fret so that you can use both hands. If you don’t have a capo, you can of course use your finger. Press down on the lowest pitched string where the neck joins the body. This creates a straight line across the length of your fretboard.
Now look at the gap between the 7th fret and the bottom of your string. You can use a feeler gauge to measure this – be sure to make a note of the measurement. A slight gap is good, as a neck that’s too straight can cause buzzing problems. The strings will need enough clearance from the neck to do their usual vibrational pattern.
If there’s no relief at all, or if the neck bows towards the strings, you will need to adjust this by turning your truss rod counterclockwise. The straight line you’ve created with the capo should make the bottom string rest on the 7th fret. Usually this can create lots of buzz on your open strings as well as in the middle of the fretboard.
Too much relief? Turn the truss rod in the opposite direction: clockwise. If there’s too much bow away from the strings, this can cause tonation issues, buzzing towards the end of the fretboard, or too high action. It’s important to make sure that your bass is properly tuned in the correct pitch before you make adjustments, and only make a quarter turn adjustment each time.
Remember not to overtighten your truss rod or do anything that makes you feel like you could damage your bass. In the event that the truss rod has come to the end of its travel before you can get it to where it needs to be, you’ll need to take it to a professional technician or luthier.
Adjusting the action
Action refers to the distance that the string has to travel to reach the frets. The right action for your bass will depend on your preferred style of playing.
If you tend to have an assertive pick attack or slap bass then you’ll need to compensate by raising the action so the string can move properly. If you’re lighter with your playing or are more laid back with your playing, lower action will be perfect. Most common action measurements are between 5/64” and 7/64”.
Keep your capo in place on the first fret to eliminate the nut height. Use your ruler to measure between the top of the 12th fret down to the lowest string. It’s best to use smaller changes so you can be accurate.
Give your bass a play and see how the action needs to be adjusted. Sounds great? Then you don’t need to change a thing. If you’re finding it hard work to press down, then the action needs to be lowered. If there’s lots of fret buzz or a loss of sustain, then the action needs to be heightened.
You can lower or heighten the action of your bass by raising or lowering the saddle of your bass a quarter turn. Tune your bass to the right pitch, then give it another play.
You will need to repeat this process until you find the right action for your needs. It will always be important to retune your bass after each adjustment so that you accurately measure the action.
It will also be a good idea to repeat this process for the strings on the treble side of the bridge.
So there you have it! It’s important to set up your bass properly so that you can keep it sounding great. If there are adjustments that need to be made apart from the truss rod or adjusting the action, it’s best to take your bass to a professional so they can do this for you.
Remember that getting the right sound from your bass isn’t always about numbers. It will be all about how it feels to play and the type of sound that you’re after.