If you have found some used bass guitar and had a feeling it’s not working properly, it may easily turn out that the instrument is just not set correctly.
The best part is that it is something you can learn to do on your own without going to a music store.
Table of Contents
Bass Guitar Setup Tools
Many things can be used to help you set the bass guitar properly but, these tools seem to be the bare minimum that you will need:
An essential part of every string change. Once you unwind them from the tuners you can cut them in half and pull the parts from the peg and saddle holes.
Another handy tool used for winding the strings up to your bass guitar. Yes, you can use the hand, too but it’s quite faster this way. Professional setup workshops even use automatic winders to speed up the whole process.
As bass guitar gets really low in frequency this is probably the fastest way to set the intonation correctly.
A feeler gauge is a precision measurement tool that’s usually made as a set of metal blades of different thickness that is inserted in the gaps to check if the spacing is correct. You can read the size by inserting a blade that fits in tightly.
Capo is used during performances to transpose your intonation higher. However, as some setup tasks require three hands, capo may come in handy to hold down the strings (with all pun intended).
To adjust the bridge saddle or truss rod, you will need a set of Allen wrenches. There is no standard size so you will have to find the one for yourself. Usually, it's a 3/16” Allen wrench that fits into the truss rod though.
Metal file is used to dress the nut slots properly. You may need different file sizes to address all the nut slots properly.
This scale is used to measure various heights such as pickup or string height and it would be ideal if you could find the one with the 32nds and 64ths inch increments.
Bass Guitar Setup
It’s very important to set the bass in a specific sequence as one thing may affect another if not done in the correct order. And, if you’re not familiar with it, be careful and do subtle changes as some parts can be damaged during the setup.
Truss Rod Adjustment Bass
Truss rod setup is the foundation of every bass guitar setup. Usually, you will need the 3/16” Allen wrench and set it into the neck, take the capo, and put it in just after the first fret.
Press the string at the place where it joins the tonewood and now use the feeler gauge 0.015” or 0.381 millimeters for the E string and place it beneath the string around the 7th fret. If the blade fits with lifting the string, the truss rod needs a bit of adjustment. In this case, you need to loosen it up a little so rotate the wrench counter-clockwise.
Bridge Action Height
Take the 6-inch scale and place it on the neck joint position on the top of the fret. Take a look at the space between the fret and the bottom of the string. Use the saddle adjustment Allen wrench and tune it up to the size we need and always adjust both screws simultaneously to maintain the balance.
Bass String Height
All bass strings have different height settings. So, use that 6-inch scale and check if the height of the first is 4/32 inches. For the 2nd string, the gap should be just a bit less than 4/32 inches. The third should be a tad smaller than the second but larger than 3/32 inches and the last string should be 3/32 inches. this gap should be around 4/32 inches.
The next stop is the nut action height. You will need a feeler gauge of 0.022 inches (or 0.559 millimeters and that’s the height for the first string on the first fret. Put the feeler gauge in and check if there is any gap between the blade and the bottom of the string. If there is, the gauge should be lowered.
Remove the string from the nut slot and use the appropriate nut filer and with small increments check if you have found the right nut depth. If not, repeat the process. If you overcut it will buzz and won’t play properly. Just remember that the string shouldn’t be moving at all when you insert the feeler blade beneath the strings.
The best way to check the intonation is to play open string and the fretted octave at the 12th fret. If they are in tune with each other, then your intonation is set properly. If the note is too sharp it means that the string is too short and it must be longer.
Put the screwdriver into the saddle and turn the screw so that your string will be a bit longer if you dial it in clockwise. Repeat the process for the rest of the strings and your basic bass guitar setup is complete.
When the strings are far from the fretboard, it’s called high action, while having them close to the frets is considered low action.
Bass guitar string action can be both high and low. Action will affect the playability and the tone. Some techniques are almost impossible to perform on high action, like tapping for example. Overall the sound is described as mellow, but that can be a good thing if you’re playing it aggressively with the pick and still get a clean tone.
On the other hand, while low action might feel “more natural”, if you lower it too much, you can easily get a fret buzz. In general, low action may provide you with that percussive and snappy initial attack that may work for certain genres. And, you know what rhymes with snap? That’s right - slap! Low action can work marvelously for this playing technique.
So, it all simply leads to a balance between playability and tone. There is no ideal action height and it all depends on your personal playing preference.
Unlike guitars, the bass guitar doesn’t have to be as straight as possible. The straight neck requires a bit higher string action. And, usually, bass guitars play a little bit better when there is a slight bow in the neck relief.
You can tell what the exact neck relief is only when it’s tuned to the pitch only.
If you want to measure it, find some straight edge to place it on the neck directly and look at the possible gap. Neck relief is altered by making the truss rod more tight or loose. Usually, even a quarter turn should be enough.
Pickup height can affect the bass overall tone a lot. There is no single right or wrong setup, but, in general, you don’t want to get pickups too close to the strings as it may lead to clipping. Moving them too far will cause a signal drop and not a well-made tone as well.
It’s also normal to have your bass pickups a bit tilted towards the treble side because there is less vibration energy in these strings so they have to be a bit closer to the strings than low parts. So ideally the bass side should be set somewhere around 8/64 and 7/64 inches while the treble side should rest somewhere around 6/64” and 5/64 inches.
Before you apply any pickup changes, make sure all your EQ pots are in the full neutral position and if you have two pickups, make sure that they are both engaged fully on and working in passive mode.
Based on the pickup style your bass has, setup can be a bit different:
P-Bass Style Pickups
For this type of pickup, you’re having four screws so you’re trying to balance the overall volume for all four strings. In case you’re hearing a treble louder, you should lower the bottom part of your pickup and vice versa if you’re hearing too much of low frequencies.
J-Bass Style Pickups
Because of the nature of the string vibration, it’s quite normal to have a bridge pickup higher than a neck pickup to maintain a balanced tone. The bridge pickup is closer to the saddle so the strings don't get to vibrate enough as they are on the neck pickup spot.
From this position you adjust the tone further - raising a bridge pickup can get you a bit more bite or treble to your tone while raising a neck pickup will generate more low end.
If you have decided to set up the bass completely, it may be an excellent time to change the strings as well. This may be a great time to clean and condition your bass as well. You will need the wire cutters and peg winder for this task.
First, unwind old strings a bit to make them loose, cut them in half, and take them off.
Then, you will insert the strings through the bridge first. If your instrument has a body-through setup, you will have to insert the strings from the back of your instrument. Start with the lowest string and apply a minimal winding so leave a bit less than two thumb lengths. Turn the machine heads a bit to the right and start winding to the left so that the last winding remains on the bottom.
Now that you have just changed the strings, stretch them out a little bit and then tune them up, stretch and tune again. It may take a couple of hours of playing before they break in properly.
Here’s a video tutorial of what we have just described:
How to Tune the Bass Guitar
As we already mentioned, some setups can be checked only if the bass guitar is tuned properly, so here’s a quick tutorial on how to do it.
You can use digital tuners, other instruments reference (such as a keyboard), or even tune based on the tone of the string you think it’s closer to the correct tuning, but for this purpose, we’re going to cover the most usual method - tuning with the digital tuner, this time in modern design - mobile app - Fender Tune.
Simply select the bass as the instrument, plug in your bass amp, and watch the screen on your phone to get the note correctly and repeat the process for other strings.
And just a thing to remember - always tune-up to the note. Tuning the note down loosens up the tuning peg and makes it loose and more prone to get out of tune. So, if you have to tune the string down, we strongly recommend tuning it down completely and miss the intonation note and then tune it up slowly to make the string tight.
If you would like to see a video with this tutorial, please check the link provided below:
Pro Tips for Bass Guitar Setup
Here is some additional advice to get the most from your bass guitar:
Multiple String Action Setups
If you have more than one bass guitar, consider having a different string action. This way you can shift between various genres, so you may have an all-around one and your main workhorse, while others can have high or very low string action if you need to record a particular sound.
Lubricate the Nut
Adding a bit of graphite before you change the strings next time can do wonders for your bass guitar action. It’s a very cheap tweak that’s using a real graphite pencil. Simply, just “draw the lines” in the nut slots and you’re good to go.
Change the Hardware
Cheap guitars can have quite a decent tonewood sometimes, but it’s the hardware that makes a bad impression. And usually, the tuners and pots are the first items that could be improved. Cheap tuners can cause you intonation problems, especially if you’re playing any standard tuning.
Invest in Pickups
Having third-party pickups is always a nice thing to consider as these brands have a different mindset - they simply have to sound better than the factory to sell. That’s why these pickups will usually be much better and can seriously improve your overall sound. And the best part is you can remove them when you decide to upgrade your instrument.
Consider Different Type of Strings
If you’re looking for better playability or a different tone, sometimes it’s not just the bass setup that can do the trick. Using flatwounds instead of roundwound can create a quite different experience and may fit your music genre much better. But, bear in mind that changing the strings type will probably require a different overall bass setup, too.
Hope this article will encourage you to learn a bit more about your instrument setup. It’s not that hard but it does require a bit of a trial and error approach. Eventually, you’ll get it right, no matter how complicated it sounds - trust us, it’s not rocket science.
People Also Ask
There are probably infinite numbers of questions you can think of while we talk about this topic. We’re going to cover the most frequent one and also break some myths about “right” bass guitar setup and explain whether a new bass guitar also needs a setup:
Does Weather Affect Bass Guitar Action?
As the bass guitar is made of wood and metal, yes, this instrument is prone to extreme weather conditions, both hot and cold. If that occurs in your area, feel free to slightly dial in the truss rod (no more than a quarter-turn) to compensate for the environmental changes.
What Is the Stock Setting for Pickup Height?
Unfortunately, every bass guitar is different because the tonewood is never the same, so there are only some rough guidelines that can be checked, but the final touch must be done based on a specific instrument and your taste.
How Do You Change the Action on a Bass Guitar?
If you want to lower the action, you can apply changes to the saddle only. Some saddles have individual screws for every string so you can tweak it to perfection.
But, if you want to raise it, you may need to loosen the truss rod by dialing it counter-clockwise, too.
Does a Brand New Bass Guitar Need to Be Setup?
It’s not that rare that the factory setup works for players. But, if you have a specific taste and know what you need from the instrument, the chances are high that it might need at least some setup changes to adjust it to your personal taste.
How Often Do You Need To Setup A Bass Guitar?
Usually, a bass setup is done upon purchasing or if you’re changing your strings with some different model. Once you set it up, you can check it up occasionally, if you notice any fret buzz while you’re playing or you feel like your neck is starting to bend.
How Much Does Bass Setup Cost?
It all depends on what kind of setup you need. Basic setups can be found for a bit under $50, but it can go $100 and more if your bass guitar needs any kind of additional fixing. That’s why learning how to set up the basics can be very rewarding.
Can You Setup a Bass Guitar Yourself?
Yes, it is possible to set up a bass guitar yourself. You just have to be extra careful and perform subtle tweaks and turns. For example, filing too much on the nut may damage it beyond repair, or tightening the truss rod can affect the neck bending.
When Does a Bass Guitar Need New Strings?
New strings are required as soon as you have noticed that the overall sound is a bit dull or that your intonation is not holding like before. If the problem persists even after you change the string, it might be time to check up the overall bass setup.