Your instrument isn’t performing as much as you want it.
You want it set up yourself to align with the present application or event so you can save the money you’d pay a luthier.
You’re in the right place.
On this page, I’ll show you a slide-by-slide DIY process on how to set up bass guitar correctly in the areas of functionality, playability, intonation, and sound quality.
Dive in and out in just 10 minutes with your bass fully configured to your demand.
First thing first…
General Inspection; Drilling Into The Problems
You don’t want to pick your guitar up and start justling around the tuning machines right out of the box. The first thing you want to do is know the present state of it. Only after then will you know if there’s a need to tweak it and to what degree in what area is an adjustment needed. So, pick that bass up, play it, and put your ears to the ground (not literally). See if the action is too low or too high for your requirement. Also, see if there’s a buzzing fret.
Finally, inspect the hardware components as you play and listen for rattles, by testing through different volume and tone levels to check for self-noise. Another hardware component to inspect is the output jack. Jiggle the plug on there to notice the slightest noise if there is any.
Now, note all your observations and head straight to the solutions below to tweak ONLY the area that needs adjustments. Again, you don’t have to apply all the setup processes shared below. Just scroll to the sub-headers where I address your pain points.
Setup 1; Measuring The Neck Relief
The degree of curvature along the fret length, that is the neck relief, of your guitar can affect both action and intonation. It, as well, decides whether you’ll experience a fret buzzing or not and decide how much tweaking is needed to be done on the truss rod. So it’s important to measure the neck relief more often, using either of the two ways shared below.
Method 1; Measuring With A Feeler Gauge And A Capo
If you have a feeler gauge and a capo, then this is the method you want to use for ease and speed. Otherwise, see the next method 2.
Starting…place your capo on the first fret, the closest fret to the nut. Let it be fixed there, then depress the G-string on your bass (whichever is the last string) or the point right between the body and the neck. With a feeler gauge in your free hand, measure the gap between the top of fret 8 and the bottom of the string. Repeat the process on the low E string. If an excess relief is measured, then adjust your truss rod as illustrated under the header after the method 2 below.
Methods 2; Measuring With Your Hand
Suppose you don’t have a feeler gauge and a capo, this is what you should do instead to measure neck relief.
First thing, tune your guitar to the pitch you usually tune it into when recording or performing. Afterward, hold the lowest string against the fret closest to the nut, that is the first fret. Immediately, your string-picking hand should be stretched across the fretboard in a such a way that your index points toward the nut whilst your thumb is pointing towards the bridge. Continue by stretching your index on the first string until it is at that middle dividing the distance between your thumb and the first fret at the neck.
Now that the E lowest string is fretted on fret 1 and on whatever fret your picking thumb is on, gently tap the same lowest string against the middle fret with your picking index without moving other fingers out of position. Continue to tap and release the lowest string against the top of other frets that your picking index can reach. This way you’ll be able to determine how much space is between those frets and the lowest string. And it is that space makes the amount of neck relief you have.
If you notice more gap that is needed for your playing style, then you want to adjust the truss rod. Let me show you how to go about that immediately.
Setup 2; Truss Rod Adjustment
The first question you want to answer is; what are the tools needed to adjust a truss rod? Here is the complete list;
- Box wrench
- Nut file
- Miniature screwdriver
- Hex key
If you don’t have all or any of these, it’s better to call in a luthier at this point. Otherwise, here is how to use these truss rod adjustment tools like a pro even if you’ve never done this before.
First thing, find out to what direction your truss rod tightened or loosened. This information should be available in your manual. Likewise, mostly, manufacturers illustrate the procedure on how you SHOULD adjust the truss rod of a particular bass model either in the manual or in a free video tutorial by the manufacturer or both. If you find such a tutorial or a written guide, it’s a better procedure over what I am about sharing here.
So, suppose you are only able to decide whether your truss rod loosens anticlockwise and tightens in the other direction or vise versa, the next thing you want to do is expose the truss rod. To do this, remove all the attached strings first and do so carefully. With that done, loosen out the screws on the neck plate carefully using your screwdriver. Then finally, and slowly, pull out each screw and avoid scratching the neck as you expose it on removing the neck plate.
Now your truss rod is exposed as well. All you have to do now is the adjustment. Depending on the adjustment you want to do, here’s how to go about it all.
If you want to increase the gap between strings and frets, loosen the bolt on the truss rod slightly whether it is installed to the headstock or the neck heel.
On the other hand, to decrease the neck relief (that is the space between strings and frets), tighten the bolt on the truss rod.
Depending on your adjustment, always retune your guitar after each adjustment phase to confirm that the desired relief has been achieved.
Note; adjusting a truss rod that is fixed to the neck heel is much difficult compared to tweaking the neck relief of a guitar that has its truss rod fixed to the headstock. In the former case, I recommend letting a luthier do it for you to avoid damaging your instrument with your own hands.
With the relief adjusted via tweaking the truss rod, you have better playability and action on your heavy metal, but that’s not all. There are more elements that can be tweaked to improve your guitar for better performance regarding your event. One among those is adjusting the saddle height as explained below.
Setup 3; Adjust Saddle Height
This is the easiest, most straight-forward, and one of the most effective ways to set up your bass guitar to your liking. All you need is a metal ruler and an adjustment wrench. So, go ahead and tune up your instrument first. Done that, right? Great. Now, using a metal ruler, measure the distance between the top of the 12th fret and the bottom of each string from high to low. Is the gap too wide or too short? Whatever the case is, you can tweak things up on the bridge. Locate the bridge of your guitar, and adjust the saddle height for each string using your adjustment wrench.
Fundamentally, when increasing saddle heights, you want the saddle height to decrease across the fretboard from bass to treble. But again, depending on your style you may not shave to stick to that fundamental rule turn popular opinion.
Setup 4; Intonation Adjustment
The intonation of a bass guitar is another fundamental factor that determines a player’s experience and performance. To make a guided intonation adjustment, cash in on one of the best strobe tuners. If you don’t have that, then any effects processing pedal that has strobe function is an option.
To the process. First, install a new set of fresh strings to your bass, stretch them to avoid sagging, and finally tune them up to pitch and set up the guitar to your strobe tuner. Done that? Great. Now, play the lowest string open without tweaking its tuning machine. Notice the visual feedback on the strobe tuner. After that, hold the same string to touch fret number 2 without tweaking the tuning machine. Notice the visual feedback on the strobe tuner to see if the fretted tone is in tune with the unfretted tone. If they aren’t in tune, an adjustment should be done on the saddle by lowering or heightening the pitch of the fretted note to become in tune with the open string pitch.
Did you notice a greater sharpness in tone in the fretted string compared to when it is open? It is likely that the space between your chosen fret point and the saddle is too small. You want to increase that space to get rid of the sharpness by shifting your saddle away from the neck until the pitch is no longer perceivable.
On the flip side, if you notice that the fretted tone is flatter compared to the open, you want to cut down the space between your fret point and the saddle till the flatness is no more. You’ll do this by shifting the saddle toward the neck.
If you’re successful with one string, repeating the same process for intonation adjustment for the remaining strings should be a walk in the walk. Right?
See below for another setup you should do to get things right.
Setup 5; Inspect The Nut Slots For Buzz And Action
When fretting a string, it is important that the space between the same string on a previous or a next fret is not too small and not too wide. These are the consequences. When that space is too wide, you’ll experience a buzz as the string you’re playing hits a previous or a next fret. Consecutively, when that space is too wide, you may get a lot of action as that same string collides with other strings on the same fret. Do you get the trick? Great. Here’s what to do.
Press all strings unto fret 2 and check the distance between all those strings and the top of fret number 1. Ideally, that space shouldn’t be more than the slim body of a business card. If it’s more than that then a nut file comes in.
Note that a nut file is a file specially designed to file the nut slots between the frets on your fretboard. It is not just any typical file that you lay your hands on.
With a nut file, carefully deepen the size of the respective nut slot when the said space is too wide. You might as well watch a YouTube video on how to deepen a nut slot using a nut file to get that right though. The slightest cut will render your instrument useless or you’ll be creating a new hole to throw money into.
Setup 6; Checking Your Electronics
Playing the guitar with the pots dirty or with the jack connection ports clogged with dirtbags will end you up with scratchy and frustrating sounds. The best thing you want to do is clean all pots and jacks thoroughly using a contact cleaner. And that’s pretty much it.
A good setup is what differentiates a great bass performance from a ridiculous one. But again, you need to be decisive about your playing style in order to make a smart configuration. In this article, I have explained every last configuration possible on how to set up bass guitar. I can only hope this helps at least one person.