How to set up a bass guitar properly
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 fretboard.
While some of these adjustments can be done yourself, some need a professional. They may even need special equipment.
Let’s get into it!
How to set up a bass guitar (A YouTube guide is also available below)
Learning how to set up a bass guitar properly is essential for maintaining a playable instrument.
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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?
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Before you start to set up your bass guitar, you will need to ensure that you have the proper equipment on 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 that 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 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.
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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 and 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 ensure 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.
The 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.
How do I set the action on my bass guitar?
The action on a bass guitar refers to the height of the strings above the fretboard. To adjust the action, you will need to adjust the saddle height on each string individually.
Use a hex wrench to adjust the height of the saddle by turning the screw at the top of each saddle. Loosen the string before making adjustments to avoid damage to the instrument.
Adjust the saddle until the string height is comfortable and the notes are clear when played.
How do I adjust the intonation on my bass guitar?
Intonation refers to the accuracy of the pitch at each fret on the bass guitar. To adjust the intonation, you will need to use a tuner to ensure each string is in tune.
Once the open string is tuned, play the string at the 12th fret and compare the pitch to the harmonic at the 12th fret. If the pitch is flat, move the saddle towards the neck. If the pitch is sharp, move the saddle towards the bridge.
Repeat this process until the pitch is accurate at every fret.
How do I set the truss rod on my bass guitar?
The truss rod on a bass guitar is a metal rod that runs through the neck of the instrument to provide stability and adjustability. To adjust the truss rod, you will need to locate the truss rod nut on the headstock of the bass.
Use a hex wrench to adjust the truss rod by turning the nut. Turn the nut clockwise to tighten and counter-clockwise to loosen. Make small adjustments at a time and re-tune the instrument between adjustments.
How do I set the pickup height on my bass guitar?
The pickup height on a bass guitar refers to the distance between the pickups and the strings. To adjust the pickup height, use a screwdriver to raise or lower the pickups to your desired height.
Adjust the height until you achieve your desired tone and volume.
Related Article: How to change guitar pickups
How do I change the strings on my bass guitar?
To change the strings on a bass guitar, first, loosen the strings and remove them from the tuning pegs.
Remove the bridge pins and carefully pull out the old strings. Insert the ball end of the new strings into the bridge and re-insert the bridge pins. Thread the other end of the strings through the tuning pegs and wind them until they are in tune.
Cut off any excess string length using wire cutters.
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.