The Ultimate Guide to Bass Setups

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Are you ready to take your bass setup into your own hands? Gene Imbody and Evan Gluck walk you through this comprehensive guide on the 5 essential steps to setting up your bass at home, giving you optimal playability and tone.

Video Transcription

Gene Imbody: Today we're going to dive into some tips and tricks for how to make your bass play great. Whether you're a beginner or a seasoned pro, understanding the ins and outs of how to do your own bass setup helps you, the player, dial your own bass in to match your unique playing style. But before we get into the nitty-gritty, I'm super excited to welcome my friend, fellow Luthier, Evan Gluck, of New York Guitar Repair.

Evan Gluck: So nice to be here with StewMac. Love this place, love all the people here, and happy to join and share what I know.

Gene: So Evan, I have my own routine for doing a bass setup. I've worked on a lot of basses and made a few myself, but I'm not a player, so I'm really interested to see how my routine compares to yours and then hopefully by the end of this, we can prove that this is something that anybody can do at home.

Evan: Okay, it really boils down to five basic things, is you have the neck adjustment, then you have the bridge adjustment, then you have the nut adjustment, then you have the intonation at the bridge, and then you have the pickup height and electronic adjustment.

Gene: So, does order matter?

Evan: Absolutely. Order is imperative because basically, if I adjust one thing in the wrong order, it's throwing off everything else. So the first thing I really want to adjust is the neck.

1. Neck adjustment

Gene: If you don't know, a neck can be up bowed or what we call relief, that's a bow that comes with the pull of the strings, this direction [Gene moves his hand from the headstock up toward the body of the bass]. It can be dead straight or it can be back bowed, that's bowing away from the pull of the strings. Personally, I aim for a dead straight neck when I begin to set up. How about you?

Evan: Yeah, that's essentially what I do too, is I started out with it dead straight and then as I'm going through the setup procedure, if I'm noticing a little buzzing, I'll put in a little bit of relief in the neck as well.

Gene: So lots of different kinds of fret buzz, but at its core, fret buzz is essentially that oscillating movement of the string contacting a fret that you don't want it to, as it's moving, right?

Evan: Absolutely, it's metal on metal. I mean, other than a percussion instrument, I can't think of another case where that's going to sound musical.

Gene: And it can come from a variety of different places?

Evan: Absolutely.

Gene: And neck adjustment is controlling some of that, right?

Evan: Absolutely, yep.

Gene: Okay, well let's check out this Jaguar bass. Evan, how do you determine if the neck's straight?

Evan: I actually do everything by sight. So what I do is I pick up the bass and I'm about to tell you the most important thing. Do not do this, do not pick it up by the headstock.

Gene: Why not?

Evan: Because, gravity. What's happening right now is I'm putting several thousands of relief in the neck just by holding it by the headstock because its own weight is pulling the neck down.

Gene: Right.

Evan: So what I'm going to do is simulate playing position this way by just holding it from the center of the neck. So what that's doing is it's relieving the weight at the headstock. I use the string as a straight edge on both sides of the neck.

So I'm going to look down this neck, I'm looking at the string and the string is perfectly straight. Then I'm looking at the edge of the fretboard and what's neat on a fretted instrument is the frets actually segment the board, so visually, I can see it, and I'm comparing the edge of the fretboard to the string, which is straight. What I'm seeing is a considerable amount of bow in the neck, so, up bow. Sometimes what I'm describing is hard to see. So it's good to have a straightedge just to have something that you can lay on the neck and show what's going on.

Gene: Yeah, yeah, let's grab a straightedge.

Evan: So yeah, yeah, awesome.

Gene: So let's lay this down, throw that bad boy on there. I don't know if you can see what I am seeing, but you could literally almost walk underneath there. That's how bowed this neck is.

And just to confirm, I'm going to go ahead and check this in the playing position, because like you said, gravity really does affect these measurements. Oh, wow. Yeah, that gap shows us we've got a big up bow.

Okay, well if you don't have a straightedge and until you have the experience to be able to sight it like Evan does, we do have a third choice that will get us in the ballpark pretty easily. You can hold the string down at the first fret. I like to hold it down on a bass. Well, any neck really. I usually try to find the transition point for where all of this support of the body comes off.

Evan: Right, right where the truss rod becomes ineffective.

Gene: Exactly.

Evan: Yeah.

Gene: So somewhere in the 12th to 14th, 16th fret range depending on your instrument, I'll hold it down with my thumb, I'll hold it down at the first fret with my middle finger here, and then I'll just kind of stretch and move that string. So if we had a straight neck, I wouldn't be seeing this movement here, there wouldn't be such a gap in that fifth to seventh fret range. So we need to straighten this neck. We need to tighten the truss rod until that gap goes away.

Evan: So Gene, this is the part that really freaks out my customers, is truss rod adjustments. The most important thing is using the right tool because these are so easily stripped if you're using the wrong tool or you'll just have an ineffective adjustment. If you're a beginner and you haven't done this a lot, you may want to loosen the strings. I generally don't if I feel that the truss rod is easy to adjust and I'm not going to be forcing anything.

So what I'm going to do is pick it up this way again by the center of the neck, not by the headstock, because I want to actually see what's happening. This is a 3/16" truss rod wrench. I want to make sure I have a snug fit, and the first thing I'm going to do is actually loosen it a little bit.

Gene: Why is that?

Evan: Because, what if it's as tight as humanly possible? Yeah, and one little bit is going to pop it off. So I'm just going to give it a little spin and it loosens up quite a bit.

Gene: So you're going counterclockwise first.

Evan: I'm going counterclockwise, exactly. I'm going to start tightening this now. So I'm going to give it a little tighten and then I'm just going to pick up the bass and see where I'm at.

Gene: Now, how much, how far did you go?

Evan: With the amount of bow that was in this neck, I just went about three quarters of a turn. I'm feeling some resistance now. Certainly not anything where I would be worried. Let's take a look. We're getting so much straighter. In fact, just that little adjustment has given me a back bow on it, so, and the way I'm going to demonstrate that is I'm going to play here. Hear that post?

Gene: Yeah.

Evan: Yeah, so what that means is my neck has deflected backwards a little bit, so-

Gene: Not too far.

Evan: Exactly, as I often do. So I'm going to just loosen this just a hair and see where we're at.

One thing to think about, truss rods and relief is the base can function two of the three ways. So it can function with the neck straight, if you play it light enough. Like I have a very light touch, so I'll play with a dead straight neck, but I do work for a lot of people and some of them need a lot of relief. The neck can play with a ton of relief in it, won't be fun, you can play it. If the neck is back bowed, it's nonfunctional, because you're literally not getting the notes that are over here or they're just coming out so distorted with fret buzz that it's not really a musical instrument at that point. Awesome, so I think that did it. Do you want to go ahead and check the work?

Gene: Yeah, let's see how you did, man. All that movement is gone. That looks great, man. Yeah, that's where I would set it. This is straight. So yeah, you don't have to obsess about this part, right? The main thing is what you were saying, we don't want a back bow.

Evan: Exactly.

Gene: And the one thing we have working in our favor with the bass is that we're probably going to loosen this a little at some point and add a little bit of relief back in as we go. We'll explain that, but okay, so this is great. Neck is straight, that sets us up for the next step. What do you do next?

Evan: Adjust bridge saddles.

Gene: Okay, let's do it.

2. Bridge adjustment

It's time to adjust our bridge. If you didn't know, this is our bridge and within our bridge are our saddles and the saddles are adjustable, both for length on our intonation, which we'll get into later, and for height to set our radius. If you did not know, the board has a curvature to it, we're going to try and match that and it's used to adjust our action, and by action I'm referring to the distance between the top of the fret and the bottom of the string. The overall playability we often just call our action. Evan.

Evan: You got it. Do you see this little guy over here? That's the nut, 99% of the time the nut is not correct. So it's either going to be too high or too low. So when I'm setting the action at the bridge, I want to get the nut completely out of the equation. So I will use a capo just to capo with the first fret.

Gene: To eliminate, okay.

Evan: Exactly. So what I'm dealing with then is just fret rather than nut height and fret. Now, the other super important thing that I cannot stress enough is, let's call it ABT, always be tuning, because I'm capo'd at the first fret, I'm actually playing F, B flat, and G sharp on top, and there we go.

So, let's say that I'm raising and lowering the strings. What's essentially happening is the tension on the strings is changing. So if I'm tuning, if I'm playing on the E string and I'm lowering the action on the E string, that's going to drop to an E flat, maybe a D, and that's going to make it much floppier, so that's going to give me a false reading on what the action is.

So, what's the radius? Radius is the curvature of the fretboard. It's very rare to have a musical instrument where the fretboard is completely flat. Usually there's some form of curvature on it. So what I want to do is I want to match the strings to the curvature of the fretboard, but I know that these two strings need to be higher than these two strings, because that is going to be the apex of the radius.

So, I want to actually check the D and the A string to see how low I can get them before I start fretting out over here. So what I'm going to do is I'm just going to play the trouble spots on the bass for me. So I'm going to play here and see what I got. I'm getting some buzz there. So I know that this probably has to go a little bit higher in the A string, right? So let me go ahead and adjust that. So I'm turning.

[Evan tightens the saddle height screw for the A string]

Gene: Up, you're going clockwise.

Evan: Clockwise, okay.

Gene: And you're doing evenly on both sides?

Evan: Evenly on both sides, yes. And what was my first rule? ABT, always be tuning, because my pitch just went up, increase attention on the strings, which would make it less buzzy, but I want to feel what the actual pitch is going to be. That's pretty darn good. So now that buzz is gone. Now what I'm going to do is, because I like low action, I'm going to lower it just a little bit just to see what I can get away with.

Gene: Yeah, you don't know where you can be until you go too far.

Evan: Exactly. So give that a shot. ABT, always be tuning. That sounds great to me, it feels pretty darn good. So, I'm going to move to the D string. When you're thinking about that radius, the D string is essentially going to be the same height as the A string. Looking at it now, it's a little higher, and always be tuning. That feels good.

And since I know that... Remember when I adjusted the A string a second time to lower it to see where I could get away with?

Gene: Mm-hmm.

Evan: I'm good with this because I know where the A string needs to be. What's useful for me about doing that center section first, it sets a point that locks something in for me. In other words, because I could keep going bananas with this and adjusting everything all at once in all different ways, but if I know that that is the highest point that I have to be, then everything else, when I say everything else, these two strings, they simply need to be lower than that.

Gene: You're referencing, okay.

Evan: Exactly, and then I can experiment with the heights of the E and the G string just to see what feels comfortable and looks good as far as the radius is concerned.

Gene: Okay.

Evan: Now I'm going to go with the G string and see where that is. So I'm going to do some G stringy stuff and this to me just feels way too high, when I'm coming off of that D string. The D string feels great, but then I got to almost jump up steps-

Gene: Jumping up.

Evan: ... in order to get to that. So I know we're going to be lowering that.

Gene: And there are no special locks or anything weird on, this is a hip shot bridge, I think?

Evan: No, this is interesting. I was about to mention that, Gene, is there is a lock on this bridge and you actually can adjust the string spacing on this bridge. There's a little tiny Allen wrench in there, which this guy probably adjusts, and if I were to loosen that, I could move the saddle back and forth within this channel. Actually, I am going to adjust something. Can you tell me what's wrong?

Gene: You've got more space here than you do here?

Evan: Exactly. I would've described it as the A string is a little too close to the D string, just a tiny bit. So I'm going to adjust that and just see how that looks.

Gene: Okay, yeah, so that little adjustment is going to take the brass piece, the actual saddle part-

Evan: Exactly, where it slots.

Gene: ... slots and move it.

Evan: There we go. So let's go back to that G string. All right, G string feels great to me. I'm looking at it and it's certainly within radius. In fact, I might kick it up just a hair. If we want to be really neat, if you think about we're doing a radius like this way [Evan makes an arc with his hand], so technically speaking and if we want to look real pretty, this side of this string needs to be tiny, a bit lower than this side of this string because we're creating an arch here. So, you could have it dead flat, straight and then just have them staggering up and then down again, or you could tilt it up just a little.

Gene: Tilt the whole, yeah.

Evan: Exactly. You also have to think about when you're checking the action is, where are the money spots on a bass? In other words up here.

Gene: Right, I was about to ask you that. If you're getting a buzz on these last two frets on your E string but it's playing great here, you're going to raise all of that just to clean that up?

Evan: Yeah, people will pay you not to play up here. Nobody is paying you to play these notes up here on a bass.

Gene: Money notes are there.

Evan: Money notes. So I am thinking around here, what am I hearing?

Gene: Yeah, okay, so you're checking the E string now.

Evan: It's actually not terrible. I'm going to raise it up just a little bit, but we're looking pretty darn good. Awesome. Do you play bass?

Gene: I don't.

Evan: Cool, play this. You'll never know I don't know what I'm doing.

Gene: Well that's why I really wanted to do this with you because you're a bass player. So I do everything by measurement. I'm curious to see if where you set it as a player falls within the ranges of where I measure typically-

Evan: Exactly, yeah.

Gene: ... to set one, so.

Evan: And don't get me wrong, it's not that I don't use measurements. I actually use measurements as proof of concept. In other words, after I've set something up, I sometimes measure it just to see where it's at.

Gene: So let's do some measuring then and see where you landed. I really recommend for checking action on a bass or a guitar, our String Action Gauge. Do you ever use one of these?

Evan: Yeah, I have it magnetized and it's clips to the bottom of my bench leg so I can just pull it out and it's there.

Gene: I put one on my vice a lot.

Evan: Yeah, yeah, exactly, yeah.

Gene: Yeah, this is great. You can easily see what your action is, just putting this on the top of your frets and you can see where the string line markers hit and that tells you right where you're at. It's got metric, decimal, fraction conversions on the back. We kind of call it our Swiss Army ruler, it's a super handy tool.

Since I'm old like you, I started measuring this stuff before we had this, so I still just use a six-inch rule. So I'm taking this measurement at the 14th fret, that's my drop-off point where I lose all this support over the body. At our low E string here I'm seeing 3/32s and at the high G string I'm seeing 2/32s or a 16th of an inch. That's pretty darn close to where I set my action on a bass. I tend to go a little higher and I'll go ahead and show you my technique because it's a little different.

What I do is set the action of my outer strings first. I find a good starting point on a bass to be 4/32s on the low E, which is an eighth of an inch. And then I set the G at 3/32s, and then I play those two strings. It should play cleanly at this height. So usually from here I'm lowering the saddle to see what I can get away with, just like Evan did with his middle strings. Of course, if I am getting a little buzz, I can choose to raise the saddle a little more, but if that buzz is concentrated in the first to about the seventh fret range, what I probably need is a little bit of relief.

Once I find the lowest point where my outside strings play cleanly, then I come in with my radius gauges. These are our Understring Radius Gauges, they come in a bunch of different sizes to match the radius of your fretboard, and we have these extra wide ones here for basses. I'll hold the radius gauge to the two outside strings, the ones I just set here and check the height of the two middle strings in comparison. If they're too high, I lower them until they kiss the top of the radius, if they're too low, I need to raise them up. It helps too if I move the string to see, and I think you've done this a couple of times because it's right at nine and a half. So I like to measure because I can't eyeball that as well as you can. So that's right at a nine and a half, this is where I would set a low action. So about 3/32s and a 16th, that's a great starting point for a low action. For a higher action, eighth of an inch and 3/32s. And you at home, you're going to probably be setting up your own bass, so nobody knows how you play like you do. So you'll have to find what works for you.

Evan: Yes, the only right answer is yours.

Gene: Right, exactly.

Evan: Yeah, that's it.

Gene: What feels right to you is what is right. If it's playing well and it's not buzzing, that's your right action.

3. The nut

Evan: All right, so we got the saddle heights adjusted and the action and the radius where we want it on the bridge. So now we're going to actually adjust the nut.

Gene: Right, so we're talking about nut height over the first fret. If it's too deep in the slot, we'll buzz off the first fret.

Evan: Yep.

Gene: If it's too high, it's hard to play, but it'll also throw off your intonation.

Evan: Absolutely, yeah. Nut height is absolutely critical because if you're thinking about where you play on a guitar or a bass, a lot of times you're playing in this first position [Evan gestures to the section of the fretboard closest to the headstock], so it has to A, play in tune. So if you're too high, it's going to be out of tune, but also, it has to play organically. You have to be able to just grab it, feel it, and it has to feel like almost like the nut's not there.

Gene: So specifically, we're talking about the depth of the string in the slot itself?

Evan: Correct. All right, so we're going to take the capo off and now the nut is back in the equation. So now I actually want to see what the nut's doing. I think you're a hair high on the G, the D, the A, and the E.

Gene: So, how do you know that? Are you just doing it by feel?

Evan: I'm literally just pressing here and just what I'm feeling is there's a lot of resistance as I'm trying to press it. If I go from here to here, right, it's very easy for me to do a little hammer on here or something like that. But if I go from here to here, I got a lot of resistance as I'm trying to push down this first fret. Now, I don't want to go too low because then I'm going to get an open string buzz, but I do want to get it to feel a little more organic here so that it almost feels as if when I'm going like this, it feels like I'm going like this. Yeah.

Gene: Okay.

Evan: So we're going to file basically all of these nut slots a little bit deeper.

Gene: That's great. For those of you who haven't done this a million times, and if I can-

Evan: Sure.

Gene: ... I'm sure you've seen this before too, it's like how the string feels when you're fretting from one fret to the next is the feel you're going for on the nut as well.

Evan: Exactly.

Gene: Then theoretically, the height you have over that first fret shouldn't really be much different than if you put that capo back on the first fret and you look at the height-

Evan: Exactly.

Gene: ... over the second fret. Now, I always add a little extra.

Evan: Totally.

Gene: Because you tend to hit open strings and they move a little more. So, to help you determine where it needs to be, hold the string down at the first fret or leave your capo on there and then look at that height over the second fret. You can even measure it if you want. You can use Feeler Gauges or a pick or your setup gauge. For me, I do what Evan does and I just kind of eyeball this because it's not an exact science. I'm just observing the gap over the second fret and when I release my finger or you take the capo off, I check that gap over the first fret. I want them to be about the same and what I'm seeing is just what Evan said, this gap is much larger, so the nut is too high, and it's the same way all the way down for each one of these strings. So we've got to file these slots to lower the string, bring them closer to what I saw over the second fret.

So we have a set of our nut files here that are matching the gauges of our string, plus another smaller one here I know you like to use. Show us how you do it.

Evan: All right. So I don't know if you noticed, but we have not changed the strings on this instrument yet. So because I'm loosening the strings and tightening the strings and pulling them out of the nut slots, I'm just doing this on the old strings so that I can dial everything in and then at the very end we're going to throw the new set of strings on it before we do the intonation and the pickup heights.

Gene: I do the same thing.

Evan: So on this bass I can just pop this out of the string tree and pull it over a hair. Then I'm going to grab this guy, this is a 50, 0.050 nut slot. Going to give it a few swipes [Evan works the nut slotting file back and forth in the first nut slot, blows the dust out and very briefly plays the strings]. And I'm going to go a little bit more than that. So one of the tools that I'm using as a measurement thing, it's going to sound weird, but I'm actually using shadow and light. So when this is engaged and it's where it's supposed to be [Evan points to the fretboard], I can actually, I have a light that is shining on it, so I can look underneath the string and see the shadow of the string on the fret and as I'm filing, I can see the distance between the string and the shadow decrease. So that is telling me how much I'm taking off. And I'm always conservative as I'm filing because I don't want to go too deep.

Gene: Absolutely. Even one file swipe can be too deep and then you got to make a whole new nut, or at the very least go through some band-aid repairs to fix that.

Evan: Give it a real hard hit [Evam plucks the string], going to give it a couple more.

Gene: So you're just noticing it feels stiff and you can hit it really hard before it starts to buzz, that's what you're going by.

[Evan files the nut slot down further and blows away the shavings]

Evan: Correct. So, this slot feels great to me. So I can hit it with some ferocity and not get it an open string buzz. And when I fret on the first fret going from open to first fret, it feels like it does from first to second fret, it doesn't feel like I'm jumping over something. It's just even and smooth. So I feel comfortable that this is going to be good, and then I'm going to move on to the D string. We're using a 65 for the D string.

[Evan starts filing the D string nut slot with the nut slotting file]

Gene: So I don't know if you do this or not, it looks like maybe you do, but a lot of times I won't bother taping up the headstock when I do this because keeping my other hand to a point where I'll hit it with the file before I hit the headstock.

Evan: Yes, yeah, exactly.

Gene: I can see you are doing the same thing.

Evan: You see where this goes, yeah, exactly.

Gene: Yeah, that's a trick I started doing years ago instead of taking the time to tape it up, I just put my finger in it.

Evan: Totally. There's some scratched headstocks that wish I had done that when I first started. We're going to go a little more on that. Perfect.

So the most important thing that the nut is doing besides registering the height of the strings and basically giving you spacing is, it's providing some sort of pressure across it to get to the machine heads. I got a string tree here, right? This is giving downward pressure over the D and the G string, right? I have no problem with how little wrap is around this because as long as it stays in, I got this downward pressure.

Gene: Right.

Evan: The low E string, the tuning machine is so close to the nut that if it's engaged around the tuning machine, it's already got some downward pressure. A string, problem. It's free floating, it's almost a straight line going to the tuning machine from here. So I'm looking at this the way this is wound with the original strings and that's clearly not enough winding for me. I want this to be like that, to match.

Gene: The two with the string tree?

Evan: Exactly, exactly. I want downward pressure over the nut.

Gene: Yeah, that's a really important point and it's very common, if you don't keep that downward tension right, you're going to get some really weird noises coming out of that nut.

Evan: Exactly.

Gene: But first, you're going to set the height of the string.

Evan: Yeah, so we're using an 85 here.

[Evan starts slotting the nut with the nut slotting file]

Gene: Yep.

[Evan plays the E string]

Evan: Hear that rattle?

Gene: Mm-hmm.

Evan: Okay, that is not enough downward pressure over the nut. In fact, listen for it. [Evan plays the E string] See how it changes?

Gene: Yep.

Evan: So we're going to give it another swipe just because it needs it [Evan uses the nut slotting file to deepen the slot for that string]. Now I'm hoping that that will be corrected with the new strings, but I have a little tip. I was working on a bass, it's a Fender bass, a Tele bass, you know the original one?

Gene: Sure.

Evan: Like from 1951 that had the original strings on it.

Gene: Oh, wow.

Evan: And the customer was like, you can't change the strings. They were not wound great and I had that. So what's happening here is it's not quite seating properly. What it's doing is, there's not enough pressure for it to keep it from vibrating back and forth. So what I tried was I took a nut file, half the diameter of the string and made one little slot in it for the string to register into. So the bottom part of the circular part of the string is sitting in that little slot. And what I found generally, is it works.

Gene: So you're just clearing out the bottom of that?

Evan: Yeah, what I'm doing is making a little slot with a 42 gauge nut slot file in order to seat the bottom of the string to keep it from moving sideways.

Gene: So that noise I don't refer to as a buzz, but more of a drone.

Evan: Well a drone, a rattle, to me.

Gene: Right.

Evan: Yeah.

Gene: It's similar to how a Sitar makes that noise.

Evan: Exactly, because it's playing on... It's a string going in a straight line over a flat.

Gene: Right.

Evan: So it's rolling as opposed to just vibrating.

Gene: Right.

Evan: And that's what gives you that.

Gene: And sometimes if you clear out the back of the nut, that will help.

Evan: Sure.

Gene: And then your little trick, that's a great one too, I've never thought of that. That can help too, but like you said, the proper fix is to get the right angle.

Evan: Oh, totally, exactly.

Gene: Approaching, and then-

Evan: But bass from 1951, original strings, I wasn't even de-tuning these if I could avoid it.

Gene: Yeah, I get you, yeah.

Evan: You don't want to say, here's your bass with a brand new A string. Awesome. So let's do the low E string [Evan files down the E string slot on the nut]. I'm almost sold, when we put the new strings on, I might give it another swipe, but that's good for now.

Gene: Cool. So let me ask you this. I'm sure you never cut a nut slot too low.

Evan: Never.

Gene: But let's just say you did. You have a way of fixing that too, I suppose?

Evan: Change the phone number, pull down the website. Yes, as a matter of fact, I do.

Gene: All right, I've got just the bass for that, check out the G string.

Evan: Awesome. Let me see this thing. Yes you do, Gene, yes you do. I mean, you can just hear this. You start off with a note that as it oscillates you hear it hit the fret when it's doing its oscillation.

Gene: A sizzle.

Evan: It's a sizzle and that's literally it's not the rest of the bass. Sounds good there, sounds good there, sounds good there, sounds good there. So, clearly the nut slot is too low because it's hitting the first fret as it's moving.

Gene: Why does this happen in the first place?

Evan: Think of the string as like its own little mini file. It's got serrations in it, which is the winding, and that's going to actually over time as strings pass over the nut, it's going to actually file its way through a little bit.

Gene: Yeah, you're pushing it down into the nut.

Evan: Exactly. So I'm just going to grab some of this stuff. The Nut Rescue Powder, I think it's called.

Gene: Rescue powder, yeah.

Evan: Some super glue, some brush-on accelerator, and I'm going to use these Drop-fill Toothpicks. Randomly, I took one of these toothpicks and just popped a little right angle into it like this so I can actually lift the powder up and then lay it in the slot.

Gene: Yeah, right.

Evan: First, I'm going to move the string out of the way. I'm going to take a little bit of this stuff, put it on.

[Evan puts some Nut Rescue Powder down into the nut slot that is too low]

Gene: Are you trying to fill the entire slot?

Evan: No, I'm putting a little layer into it. Then I'm going to brush off whatever fell out of the nut slot. Then I actually take the string-

Gene: Oh, yeah.

Evan: ... and I lay it in it, because what that does is kind of solidifies it down to the bottom, exactly. This is glue, strong stuff, so.

Gene: Runny stuff.

Evan: Exactly, runny, very, very thin viscosity.

Gene: Water thin, yeah, me too.

Evan: So what I actually do is I unscrew the top and I actually have a special bottle of this that I only use for nut fills and I take one of these little toothpick guys, dip it in there, and then I can apply it almost in little spots. So I'm sure that there's not enough super glue that's ever going to get out onto the finish. The back of the nut, the front of the nut, I'm just making little passes. I'm not trying to do it all at once. It kind of looks like a slurry rather than a powder at this point. So now, this is a brush-on accelerator. I can just put a little drop.

Gene: It doesn't take much.

Evan: And doesn't hurt the finish. I don't care if this stuff goes all over the finish because it basically just burns off and airs off and evaporates. So now let's see where we're at, and that's dry already, so that's ready to go. So, there you go.

[Evan plays the strings]

Gene: Okay.

Evan: And now what I'm going to do is, I think it's just a hair high, so now I can file into this as if it hadn't happened. It files great too. I've used a lot of different stuff and I'm really sold on this stuff.

Gene: Yeah, shout out to Joe Glaser at Music City Bridge in Nashville for this stuff. It's a real lifesaver.

Evan: Perfect. The rest of the nut slots need work, but the one we just fixed is great. So that's that.

4. Intonation

The reason I've been keeping these strings on this bass is there was so much manipulation with them, as far as the action adjustment, the nut adjustment, pulling them in and out and everything like that, that I don't want to be doing that on the new set of strings because anything I'm doing like that is going to have an impact on the longevity of the string and possibly damage the string.

So I'm going to take the strings off now before we do the intonation because that's going to be really my final, except for the pickup height adjustment, the final thing that I'm doing as far as the setup is concerned. And while I have the luxury of having the strings off, I have been staring at this filthy fretboard and frets and it has been driving me bananas. So, we're going to just cut these to make it quick.

Gene: While you're taking these off too, another thing I'll often do, and I learned this from Dan, is to check the intonation now too, to make sure that I don't need to go too far back.

Evan: Exactly. What I was going to say before I put the new strings on is I'm actually going to pull them back a little bit-

Gene: Move them all back, good.

Evan: ... so that all I'm doing is pushing forward.

Gene: If you string it up and then you find that you're sharp and you need to move the saddles back on a brand new set of strings, you just put a dent right in front of yourself.

Evan: Exactly. Thank you.

Gene: Yeah, so if you need to move, you want to move forward, yeah, okay.

Evan: Exactly. And just a little tip for me, whenever I'm removing strings so I don't damage somebody's bass, I'll keep my finger here, catch the ball end and lift it. Yeah, I don't want it to impact the finish of the instrument right behind the bridge, so I'll always just do that. So grab it and pull it up, grab the ball in, pull it up.

So I'm looking at this fretboard and it is disgusting. This is ColorTone Naptha, you just want to put it on a paper towel. I'll give it a rub across the fretboard. It is a de-greaser and it acts as a little bit of a cleanser. Doesn't generally affect finishes in any way, it'll remove some light dirt. I'll also go over the hardware with it. So that looks pretty good and I'm going to use this stuff, it's called Miracle Polishing Cloth. It is a coconut impregnated cloth. I'm just going to use one strip.

Gene: Yeah, that will clean and polish the frets and condition the fretboard at the same time.

Evan: See how shiny that gets?

Gene: Yeah, it's good stuff.

Evan: It really is. I'm going to get a little paper towel, rub that down. See how much shinier this is?

Gene: Yeah, it'll shine up pretty quick.

Evan: Yeah, that looks nice. And now I'm going to get my favorite stuff.

Gene: Oh yeah, that's our Fretboard Finishing Oil, that's good stuff.

Evan: And I can go like this and do the entire fretboard in one swipe [Evan pours some finishing oil on the shop towel and wipes down the fretboard]. Then I'm not going to let it dry on there, I'm just going to wipe it off as quick as I can. There you go, like that. And that's really, really pretty. Yeah, that looks great.

Gene: It works great.

Evan: Now a lot of times when you play the bass, depending on your style, you'll use the pickup as your thumb anchor because it just gives you somewhere to rest your thumb and you can play it like that. The thing I hate the most is a squishy pickup, where when I put it down, the pickup actually moves. There's not enough foam underneath there for it to actually be rigid when I put it to the height that I want it to have. So I'm going to lift this pickup out. What I'm going to do is actually pinch it slightly. I'm trying to keep the cover on the pickup because what happens is, if I take the cover off, that's the coil of the pickup. So I don't want to nick that or cut it or anything because then we have a larger repair, we'll do a different video on what I did wrong today. All right, so I'm just going to lay this on the side. Now what I'm going to do is take some of this foam.

[Evan cuts off a few pieces of the Pickup Height Foam]

Gene: This is Pickup Height Foam, we sell it in different sizes. I'd use this over any sort of foam you might have laying around. It's way more dense and has way more spring to it. It's the right material for this job.

Evan: Now what I don't want is for it to be too stiff, so I'm actually going to cut the tops off a little. So I'm actually going to stick this to the original.

Gene: Oh, you're putting it right on top of the old stuff?

[Evan places 3 pieces of the Pickup Height Foam down into the pickup slot]

Evan: Totally. Because the old stuff is still something and I want this thing solid, but what I don't want is just jamming one thing underneath the middle

Gene: Because it'll lean?

Evan: Not only could it lean, but what it'll do is if I'm really tightening this down against this one pivot point, it can flex the pickup.

Gene: Yeah, right.

Evan: Break the coil.

Gene: Yeah, that's a good point.

Evan: What I want is just kind of like a little bridge there like that. So then we pop this guy back. Now, that looks way too high.

Gene: That's high, yeah.

Evan: But look at how much this squishes down.

Gene: Oh, yeah.

Evan: So I have full support underneath and I can really squish it.

Before you put a screw into any musical instrument, wax it. How many broken screws have you removed in your life?

Gene: More than I would like to admit.

Evan: So also take this opportunity while the pickup's out. Just give it a little... There's a lot of dust that gets in there, so if you can get some of that out, it looks better. And the way I usually do this is I actually keep pressure on the pickup as I'm doing this because what I don't want it to do is I have one screw in. I don't want it to pop up again.

Gene: Yeah, right.

Evan: So I'm going crisscross. Now, I don't know if this is the right height, probably not. It doesn't matter right now, but feel that.

Gene: Yeah, that's solid.

Evan: It doesn't move, yeah. And I can keep going lower on it if I want. So we're going to do the same thing with this guy. Little pinching action, get that there. Little dusting action. And now the jazz bass, the neck pickup, I'm going to get much lower because there's so much more string energy over here that I don't need that to be nearly as high as this. So I'm actually going to cut this in half [Evan cuts the Pickup Height Foam in half to reduce the height and places it down into the pickup slot], not just cut the top off, because I just want a little bit of rigidity to it. All right, and there we go. Do the same thing. All right, and so, got that. Do a little cleanup over here.

By the way, if you get a little wax on things, Naptha, it takes it right off.

Gene: Yeah, sure, mm-hmm.

Evan: Next step, we're going to put strings on this and intonate it. So what have we not done yet?

Gene: Move our saddles back?

Evan: Bingo. So, do you want to do that?

Gene: Sure.

Evan: As the string goes through here, it hits the saddle and the second it hits the saddle and you get some tension on it, the string will deform a little bit to some degree because it's hitting something here. So what I want is any of that deformation, is that a word? To be on the saddle or behind the saddle and not in front of the saddle. All right, so we're going to get some strings on. So if you look at a standard set of D'Addario strings like these, first thing I'm going to do is put the A string on. Why do I put the A string on first?

Gene: Because of what you mentioned earlier about the break angle of the string.

Evan: Exactly. To me it's the most critical wind that I have. In other words, I need to get this right. If I get this wrong, I move on to another set of strings.

So what I have found, and hopefully it'll work in this example is, again, I'm holding the end of the string so I don't snap the ball in back. What I think is about to happen, and I'm going to use a drill to do this for expediency, you can do this by hand, you can use a string winder. I have a drill bit attachment, so I'm actually holding the string down as I'm doing this and feeding it with my hand.

Gene: You're putting all that winding on.

Evan: Putting all that winding because what I want is that.

Gene: That, yeah.

Evan: I want it to go all the way down to the bottom.

Gene: So the extra winds take up more room on the post, which forces your A string down and increases the angle going to the nut.

Evan: And that's as much string as I got. So that's as much as I can do. So now I'm going to do the D and the G string. As it loosens up, just get it underneath the string tree. All right G string. If you've noticed, I haven't clipped the end off a single string yet. I'm using the full length of each of these strings.

Gene: And we make sure too we have the right scale string.

Evan: Oh, absolutely.

Gene: You don't want a short scale or extra long scale string, so you need to pay attention to the scale length your strings are made for.

Evan: Exactly, and most of the basses are long scale. Although I will say that there's been a big push in medium scale and short scale basses as of late. And if you do this with a drill like I'm doing, be careful, it's a power tool.

Gene: I'll usually put the first few wraps on just by hand.

Evan: If we didn't have the drill, I was going to do that. But we have the drill, so. This is the only one I'm actually going to cut because it's too long. I don't need it to be completely wound and all the way down because I got that break angle over the nut.

Gene: It's closer to the nut.

Evan: Exactly.

Gene: So the angle is tighter.

Evan: But I'm going to show you guys a little thing that I do all the time whenever I'm clipping a bass string. Now it's not with D'Addarios that you have to do this, but pretend these weren't D'Addarios and these were another type of string. I'm going to go out to about the D string here. I think that's good, right?

Gene: Mm-hmm.

Evan: Then what I'm going to do is bend it into a right angle or whatever angle that is, like this, because a lot of strings have a round core and if I simply cut it, the core separates from the windings and that can lead to horrible intonation problems, bad sound, buzzing all over the place. So what this does is it just locks it in. Then I'll clip this off right there just to give a little spot there. That part goes in the tuner.

Gene: That's the part going through this.

Evan: Exactly. Now I'm going to do what you said, which is wind it a couple of times, so I get one wind, that's good, I'll take it. And I like a lot of different strings except when you feel that core slip off of the winding, you can see it, you can feel it. It's just you're like, oh yeah, that's a string that's dead.

All right, so we got our strings on and now we're going to tune this thing with our little tuner here. Both of us, I think we use more serious giant tuners sometimes in our shops, but this is great just for now.

Gene: Yeah, I don't have a problem with-

Evan: No, this is actually, I have this tuner.

Gene: This is great.

Evan: Yeah, this is one of the Peterson clip-on strobe tuners and it's fantastic.

Gene: Even a cheap Snark I think is fine.

Evan: Great.

Gene: It's more accurate than your ear's going to be.

Evan: There we go, we're in tune. So I'm just going to do one thing before the intonation, is a new set of strings has different tension than an old set of strings. So I'm just going to check the neck one more time to see if it has moved in any way.

Gene: Do you do any stretching or anything of the new strings? You just let that happen naturally?

Evan: Yeah, I tend not to because stretching bass strings you're going, you can damage the core to the winding.

Gene: Sure, yeah.

Evan: There are strings you stretch. I'm about to play somebody's wedding and I just put new strings on, I'm going to stretch my strings, but if I can let them stretch out naturally, I will. This neck bowed a little bit. We got a little bit of an up bow. I think there's a little more tension on these strings. Sounds good to me.

We did everything that we needed to do now, because we had the strings off, all the cleaning and all the pickup height adjustment or the re-foaming of it. And now, we're going to move on to intonation.

Gene: By intonation, what we're referring to is how well this bass plays in tune with itself at any point along this fretboard. When you fret a note, you stretch the string and that stretching makes it go sharp. So we need extra length to compensate for that stretch. Intonation is compensation to ensure you play in tune.

So what we generally do is set it at the 12th fret. The 12th fret is your halfway point of the scale. So on a 34 inch scale, halfway is 17 inches. At the 12th fret, we're going to match our open note with our fretted note, and the way we do that is by controlling the length of the string through the saddle. We're going to tune our open note, we're going to compare that to the 12th fretted note. If it's sharp, we're going to move back, if it's flat, we're going to move forward and shorten the length.

Evan: So I want it in the playing position because this is where the string is resting naturally without any gravity, without the neck being propped up. So I'm going to hit the open G string. For some reason I always start on the high string. Then I'm going to play the 12th and it's a little bit flat. We're going to move it forward [Evan adjusts the intonation screw on the saddle]. I'm essentially trying to get this little segmented block thing to stop moving as much as possible. It's going to always move a little bit because it is a string that is oscillating. And watch what happens, if I hit this initially, see how it just starts and then it starts drifting down a little bit? Because as the string relaxes, it flattens a little bit. So, watch what happens if I tune it up. See how it moves like that? Now if I tune it back down, it starts to stabilize, there it's stable. Now, I always tune down and tune up to a note.

Gene: Yeah, that helps to keep tension in the gears so you don't drift flat.

Evan: That's perfect. Now we'll go on to the D string. That's-

Gene: It sounds pretty close to me.

Evan: Then we go to the A string. That's pretty good. I'm going to see if I can back it back just a hair [Evan adjusts the intonation screw on the saddle]. Close enough for rock and roll. E string, perfect, we're right on. I'm looking at a little vibration going back and forth, but it's hard to get the thing to completely stabilize.

Gene: Yeah, and that's not how you play.

Evan: Exactly. Yeah, I'm not-

Gene: You're not playing.

Evan: Yeah, the minute you apply science to this, you will be disappointed. So, yeah.

Gene: Yeah, this is part art.

Evan: It's called playing. So our intonation is set. So essentially, the mechanical part of our setup is complete. We have, as we went through it, we had the neck, we had the saddle height adjustment, we had the nut, then we had the intonation. So we're going to move on.

Gene: What's next?

Evan: We're going to do our electronics and pickup height adjustment.

5. Pickup Height

Gene: We are now in the home stretch and it's time to talk a little bit about electronics. In particular, how high do we raise our pickups back up? The higher the pickup is, the louder it is, the more responsive it is. The lower it is, the clearer, cleaner it can sound. So you want to strike a balance, right?

Evan: You always have to remember that these are magnets. If I raise this up too much, the magnetism of the pickup is going to impact the travel of the string. So, the first thing before I even get to that is, I actually want to just demonstrate cleaning out electronics. I use this stuff, it's DeoxIT, I've been using this for a million years. So I pull out the little straw that it comes with and I take one of the Whip Tips that you can get that you usually use for super glue and stuff like that and I pop it on there. And there is a reason why I'm pulling it out of the can, this is flammable. Then I take some Heat Shrink Tubing, pop it over there, and then heat it up.

Gene: Okay.

Evan: And so what that's doing is locking that whip tip.

Gene: Definitely don't do that on the can.

Evan: Don't do that on the can. It's locking the whip tip on there. So then I pop this back in. I'm just going to do a little pinpoint sort of lubrication and cleaning, just like that.

Gene: Yeah, if you've got a pot that's crackly or noisy, a lot of times this will solve the problem.

Evan: All right, let's plug this in. Hit it.

Gene: Let's go.

[Evan starts playing the bass guitar]

Evan: Bass sounds good. Okay, so I'm going to listen to the bridge pickup soloed. So I'm going to turn off the neck pickup. That sounds like a bridge pickup to me. So I'm going to bring that up a bit because it is super low right now, and we kind of wanted that before. So I'm adjusting all four screws. I want to get the string, the pickups level to the strings. You're just eyeballing that distance [inaudible 00:46:03]?

Gene: I'm just eyeballing it to see where I like it. Now I'm going to listen to it. I find the bass, the lowest notes to be a little hot. Yeah, you hear that?

Evan: Yeah. So to me, the trebles are a little light and the bass is really hot.

Gene: Kind of hot, yeah.

Evan: So two things I could do, is one is I could raise up the treble side, but I think I'm going to lower the bass side just a hair on this, just to get a little distance from the strings. That sounds better. So now I'm going to switch to the neck pickup and see what happens. So to me that's a little louder.

Gene: So you're playing each pickup by itself to compare the volumes and balance them out?

Evan: Bingo, but what I want to do is I want to bring it up to a point where I know it's not going to work well because I want to show you guys something. Hear that note.

Gene: There's a secondary-

Evan: There's a secondary note shooting over it. It is out of tune, it sounds weird.

Gene: Worbolly, almost, yeah.

Evan: The whole dance hall is leaving. So I know that this pickup is too high. We're going to lower this down quite a bit. That's a lot better. So now what I want to do is listen to that pickup compared to the other pickup. So that's both. That sounds pretty darn good. Not going to listen to the... that's the bridge pickup.

Gene: The bridge.

Evan: And now I'm going to listen to Nick, and that sounds like a nice balance for me.

Gene: That does sound great. So once again, if you've never done this before and you're still training your ear, it's helpful to have some ballpark measurements to start out with. You measure your pickup height by pressing down your outside strings at the last fret, and then measuring the gap between the pull piece and the string. On my bridge pickup, I'm setting an eighth of an inch gap on my E and G strings. On my neck pickup, I'm looking for a quarter inch gap on my E and G string. Then I listen and adjust by ear, if it needs to be louder, the pickup comes up, if it needs to be quieter, the pickup goes down. So looking at Evan's adjustment here, I'm within a 32nd of those measurements. So we're doing great.

Evan: So this is all to taste and that pickup height can give you a little control, so you can control your tone a little bit as long as you know what you should be looking for as far as anomalies that can...

Gene: Well, and that's an easy one because you can always just readjust it.

Evan: Absolutely, you're not going to do any harm by moving it up and down. And feel free to experiment because if you hit harder than I do, you may have to go a little lower. So it's just a matter of hitting the bass and try and play it the way you're going to play it, and not as a scientist.

Gene: Don't test it.

Evan: Exactly.

Gene: Play it, yeah.

Evan: Just play it like as if it's you're practicing but also play it like it's as a gig because I know that when I practice, my hands don't hurt. I could play two songs at a gig and my hands hurt because I'm playing for real.

Gene: The adrenaline, yeah.

Evan: And it's a different thing, yeah.

Gene: All right, that does it, our setup is complete. Hopefully we've proven to you that this is something you can do at home. You're going to be able to your bass into your own style.

Thank you for joining us, Evan. Again, thank you for coming to town.

Evan: Pleasure.

Gene: And we'll see you all at the bench next time.

StewMac

 

Gene Imbody, Evan Gluck

StewMac Guitar Tech and New York Guitar Repair Owner

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