I would like to share how I maintain and setup my beloved bass guitars.
Although this article focuses on the basses I possess, the same approach can be projected to any bass.
Topics in this post contain highly subjective preferences. Your might (and probably will) differ from mine, but the general principles will be useful.
Detailed spec options of my Fodera ESS5 can be found at http://www.fodera.com/emperor-standard-classic/ . My bass happens to have an alder body with black finish, maple neck and rosewood fingerboard. I have two Fodera/Duncan alnico humbuckers which can be switched to single coils.
Another bass I will cover in this post is my Lakland 55-02, which can be inspected at https://www.lakland.com/55-02.htm .
Yet another bass I’ll cover is a Fender Custom Shop Classic V Jazz Bass, which is no longer in production.
Generally speaking; ash + maple produce a brighter tone with a pronounced top end, typically preferred for slapping. However, slapping is not the only application – many non-slapping bassist prefer this combination as well. Alder + rosewood produce a warmer tone with pronounced low mids. In both cases, you can even out things to a certain degree using EQ. Maple reflects too much of the fret & finger noise for my taste, so I prefer alder + rosewood.
Ceramic humbuckers produce a modern tone typically preferred by metal / progressive / etc players, while alnico (“al”uminum + “ni”ckel + “co”pper) produce a vintage tone. I seem to prefer alnico.
Rest of my gear can be seen here.
I prefer to use medium gauge uncoated nickel roundwound strings.
Light gauges feel like rubber under my hands, and heavy gauges consume a lot of finger stamina. Medium gauges provide a happy balance.
Coated strings have a longer life span than uncoated strings. However, the ones I tried so far sounded dull to me. They also have limited grounding capabilities because the metal of the string can’t touch the skin. On certain situations, I hear sparky electric clicks through the amp when I move my hands up & down, which is obviously not desirable. Therefore, I prefer uncoated strings.
Steel strings are too bright for my taste, and they wear the frets much faster than some other materials. They also have a very strong magentic pull – the pickups of my Fodera seem to pull steel strings so much that the B string sounds off-pitch despite the perfect setup. I assume that cobalt strings would have an even greater magnetic pull. Therefore, I prefer nickel strings.
Flatwound strings provide have a very warm, deep tone with no finger noise. Roundwound strings provide clearer high mid & treble frequencies, which I happen to like a lot. That’s also suitable for the music styles I play. Therefore, I prefer roundwound strings over flatwounds.
On my 35″ Lakland, I got to lean towards XL strings because I prefer to string it through the body. With flatwounds, I would have to string them through the bridge though.
Some typical strings I reach out for are;
Setup & Maintenance
I change my strings whenever they sound to sound dull to an extent where it can’t be fixed with EQ (what is lost, can’t be put back). If the string change is not part of my periodic maintenance, I change one string at a time to keep the neck constant and apply the maintenance steps (below) after the point of string change. Otherwise, I remove all strings so I can run through the entire maintenance procedure.
Normally, I run a full maintenance once every 6 months, which is based on the following steps.
First of all, I remove all of the strings.
I start with the body. I use an air duster to blow the dust off the cavities of the bass. Then, I clean the body of the guitar with a good guitar polish applied to a clean soft piece of cloth. Afterwards, I dry it off with another piece of cloth.
Next step is the neck maintenance (not fingerboard!). On the basses with finish or gloss necks, I simply clean the neck like I clean the body. If you have a neck without finish, you would need to apply gun stock wax to it as well; the same way you would apply lemon oil to a rosewood fingerboard (coming next).
Next step is fingerboard maintenance, which applies to rosewood only (Fodera). The deal is, rosewood has tiny little horizontal dents all over the fretboard. If the neck gets too dry, those dents tend to grow and turn into cracks. If things get further and the cracks grow as well, you might end up having a ruined neck. Therefore, you need to oil the rosewood fingerboard from time to time. I use lemon oil for that, which I apply to the entire fingerboard generously. Wood between each fret interspace should “drink” a fair amount of lemon oil with the help of a clean cloth. After the entire fretboard is oiled, I let the guitar rest and dry for a day or two. At the end of this period, I dry off any remaining oil from the fingerboard and frets using a clean soft cloth.
If you have a maple fingerboard (Lakland), the fingerboard can simply be cleaned with orange oil.
Jason from Fodera Guitars has a wonderful video on oiling the fingerboard; which you might want to watch if you have never done this before.
Next step is to put on the strings. Not much explanation needed here; except keeping the neck in balance. I start with the A string (the middle string), and add an additional string to either side sequentially – which looks like A – E – D – B – G. Then, I tune the strings.
On my Lakland, I particularly start by changing the A string to see if the string is long enough to run through the body. On the headstock, A is the farthest peg; so if I’m good with A, I’m good with any other string.
Next step is to setup the neck relief. I apply a capo to the first fret and press the first string at the 24th fret. Using a feeler, I measure the distance between the first string and the 8th fret. I have a light touch, therefore my ideal measure is 0.25 mm. In my opinion, this is as close as you can get without any buzz. If you have a harder touch, you might need to adjust the relief as needed.
Neck relief: 0.25 mm @ 8th fret when 1st and last frets are pressed
You need to re-tune your strings after each truss rod adjustment.
If you are not experienced with this setup, get help & training from a luthier or more experienced player on the first few times. Jason from Fodera Guitars has a wonderful video on the subject; which you might want to watch – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cgmoRHr2cD8 .
String Height and Spacing
Next step is to adjust the string height via the bridge. Using a measurement tool, I measure the distance between the end of the string and the top of the last fret for each string. Due to my light touch, my ideal distance is 1.25 mm for A D G, 1.50 mm for E and 1.75 mm for B string. The reason why E & B have different heights is; they are stronger strings and they need to be a bit farther away so they don’t overpower weaker strings. If you have a stronger touch, you might need to raise the strings according to taste.
String height: 1.25 1.25 1.25 1.50 1.75 from G to B @ last fret
Most bridge saddles have 2 screws for each string. Make sure that they have the same height. And you need to re-tune your strings after each height change.
If your bridge supports string spacing adjustment, you can adjust to taste. My Fodera has a string spacing of 19mm, which provides a wide comfort. The key is, distance between the middle points of string should be equal. For example, distance between B – E should equal to the distance between E – A. My Lakland has fixed string spacing, which is also fine.
In case you need instruction, I recommend the string height video of Jason from Fodera Guitars.
If you lower a string as much as the bridge allows you to, but still can’t get as low as mentioned above, then your neck angle might not be properly setup. That wouldn’t be the case with a high end boutique bass; however, you might experince that on production basses. The solution is to remove the neck, apply a thin piece of card / wood between the neck & the body at the spot closest to the bridge, re-attach the bridge and re-run the maintenance procedure. A very thin shim goes a long way. This will change the neck angle and let you lower the strings further than before.
If you do a shim operation, you obviously need to go back and restart the setup with the neck relief. If you are not experienced with that, you might get help from a luthier. In case you need instruction, the commercial video of StewMac can give you a good idea.
After setting up the neck relief and string height properly, you shouldn’t experience any buzzing. Play around some with your regular touch. If you experience buzz between the 1st-12th frets, the neck might need more relief. If you experience buzz between 12-24, the string height might not be enough.
Please note that another reason for buzz might be unleveled frets. Ideally, each fret should have the exact same height all over the fretboard – that’s usually achieved with a plek machine. If some frets are higher than others, those might buzz despite a perfect setup matching your playing style. The quick but poor solution is to increase the distance between the string & frets by playing with the relief or string height. The good solution is to have your frets leveled by an experienced luthier. In case you are wondering, you can watch Stew Mac leveling frets. That’s not something I’d recommend doing on your own.
Next step is to setup your pickup height. Again, this is a matter of taste. If you set your pickups close to the strings, they will sound hotter. Set them apart, and you’ll get the opposite effect.
Please note that pickups produce magnetic pull. If the pickups are too close to the strings, the magnetic force of the pickups will affect the oscillation of the string and you’ll start to sound out of tune. Some string materials, such as steel and cobalt, are more susceptible to magnetic pull. Some materials, such as nickel, are less susceptible. Pickup type is also a factor: Ceramic pickups tend to produce stronger magnetic fields than alnico pickups.
In any case; the distance between bass strings & the pickup should be greater than the treble strings & the pickup. You wouldn’t want the stronger strings to overpower the weaker strings. We make up the power difference by making the weak string get closer to the pickup so they get heard better.
Here is the string to pickup height chart for my Fodera where the strings are pressed at the last fret:
Front pickup: B: 2.5mm, G: 1.75mm Back pickup: B: 2.5mm, G: 1.75mm
Here is the string to pickup height chart for my Lakland where the strings are not pressed:
MM pickup: B: 3.969mm, G: 2.778mm J pickup: B: 4.366mm, G: 3.572mm
Here is the string to pickup height chart for my Fender Custom Shop (with Bartolini 57J) where the strings are pressed at the last fret:
Front pickup: B: 3.5mm, G: 2.5mm Back pickup: B: 3.5mm, G: 2.5mm
After setting the pickup height, play around your bass through your amp and ensure that all strings sound even. Due to your technique, you might be hitting some strings harder than others – or they might be other factors affecting the string to string balance of your bass. Minor pickup adjustments might be needed accordingly.
In case you need a demo on pickup height, you can watch Jason from Fodera Guitars adjusting his pickups .
After making sure that your bass is in perfect tune, it is time to check your intonation. We need to ensure that each string produces the desired frequency on the 12th fret. For example; your E string might be in perfect tune, but if the string length is not correct, it will sound off at the 12th fret and won’t be in tune overall.
For each string;
- Let the string ring and ensure that it is in tune
- Press the string on the 12th fret and check your tuner
- If the note is in tune, move to the next string
- If the note is flat, you should shorten the string via the bridge
- If the note is sharp, you should lengthen the string via the bridge
In case you need a demo on intonation, you can watch Jason from Fodera Guitars intonate his instrument.
If you have an active bass, changing your battery every 6 months is a good idea. It is also important not to leave the jack on the bass, otherwise the batteries will drain extremely quickly.
I feel like this is one of the most comprehensive articles I wrote about bass setup. When it comes to music, there are no universal rights & wrongs. What sounds good to someone can sound bad to another person, and what works in a certain context might not work so well in another one. Having said that, I hope that my approaches will give some inspiration to the entire community of bass players.
Note that a good setup is only the first step of a good tone. I recommend you to continue with How I EQ my Basses .