THOUGH I’M A CHANGED MAN WHO’S rehabilitated himself, I have a dark secret from my past that I’m just now feeling bold enough to admit: I’m a bass murderer. It was a late night my senior year in college (go Bruins), and under the influence of tequila and Weather Report’s Heavy Weather, I took pliers to my beloved Fender P-Bass Lyte and viciously removed its frets. The scene of the crime was ghastly, with twisted metal and shards of rosewood strewn about, and by the end of the ordeal, all I had to show for myself were some nasty splinters, an utterly destroyed bass, and the shame of having bitten off more than I could chew.
The next morning, I put my corpse of a bass in its case and shuttled it across town to Carrothers Guitars, one of Southern California’s top repair shops. As I placed my bass on the bench, the look on the technician’s face said it all: what kind of monster could have done this? After weeks of painful rehabilitation in which the bass’s ragged fret slots were filled and the fingerboard coated with fiberglass, the tortured Fender was restored to playing shape. But it was never the same.
Though I clearly took it too far that fateful night, I still believe there is something about working on your bass that deepens your connection with your instrument. It’s a good idea to consult a professional for more involved work, but there’s a lot you can do without risking damage to your bass. The following is a basic guide to setting up your bass. Consider it my penance for past indiscretions. (I feel better already!)
Broadly speaking, action relates to the distance of the strings off the fingerboard. There are three key factors that influence an instrument’s action: the height of the strings at the nut (a constant), the relief in the neck (adjustable via a neck’s truss rod), and the height of the strings at the bridge (adjustable via the string saddles). To get a sense of your bass’s setup, try sliding a credit card between the strings and the third fret. If the card’s embossed numbers scrape along the bottom of the strings but the card otherwise slides through, you’re in pretty good shape. Now do the same thing at the 12th fret. If you can pass the card through without touching the strings, it might be because there is too much relief in the neck. More on that in a second....
On some instruments, the nut slots—the grooves in which the strings sit—have been cut much higher than they need to be. Fretting a G on your E string’s third fret, look at the string clearance at the first fret. If it isn’t almost touching the fret, consider taking your bass to a tech to have the nut slots filed down.
WHAT A RELIEF
To check your bass neck’s relief—the curvature between the nut and the highest fret—press the index finger of your fretting hand on the first fret, and the index finger of your plucking hand on the last fret. With the pinky of your fretting hand, press against the fourth fret. If there is no movement of the string—if it’s lying flat against the neck— your neck has too much back-bow. If the gap between the string and the 10th fret is much larger than the width of a business card, the neck has too much up-bow.
If the neck is back-bowed, your truss rod—the steel or graphite rod running the length of your fingerboard—might be too tight, overcompensating for the tension of the strings against the neck. Detune your strings, loosen the truss rod a quarter-turn (with either a hex key or socket wrench, depending), and tune back up. If the strings still lie flat on against the fingerboard, repeat the process. And so on. If the neck is upbowed, your truss rod might need tightening. Before tightening a truss rod, it’s always a good idea to loosen it just a smidge.
The humble saddle, the bridge mechanism that’s in direct contact with the string, actually has a major influence on the sound and feel of your bass, controlling for both string height and intonation. This is where you will do the bulk of your tweaking.
If you look closely at your bass’s neck, you’ll see it’s not perfectly flat. That arc along the length of the frets is your neck’s radius. For your bass to play right, the radius of the strings should match that of the neck. To check where it sits, measure from the edge of the fingerboard to the bottom of each string. That measurement should match. If one string is higher or lower than the others, try adjusting the height of the saddle with the appropriate hex key.
At the back of most bridges, there are screws anchoring each saddle. This adjusts for intonation. To check your bass’s intonation, play a harmonic at your E string’s 12th fret. Now press down on the fret and play that note again. If the fretted note is sharp or flat of the harmonic, you need to adjust your intonation. If the fretted note sounds sharp, take a screwdriver and tighten the saddle screw at the back of the bridge. This will pull the saddle back, increasing the distance between it and the 12th fret. If the fretted note sounds flat, close the gap by loosening the saddle screw.
SETUP OR SIT OUT?
Keep in mind the cautionary tale at the top of the page, and don’t get too far in over your head; there’s no shame in seeking professional help for a bass that just doesn’t play right. But before you take your bass to a tech, try some of these tweaks yourself. I think you’ll find it will strengthen your bond with your axe. Good luck out there.