How To Setup A Bass Guitar

I don’t usually work on other guitars. After all, I am not a luthier or a guitar tech. But, with owning many guitars and interacting with some great techs over the years, I have a pretty good handle on the basics.

I’ll be setting up a Squier Jaguar Bass later today.

The instrument seems to be in fairly good shape. That said, there is a lot of oxidation on the frets. The fretboard is dried out. The action is high. And the strings are really old and worn.

Here is my approach.

Tools

  • Scotch green masking tape in two sizes: half-inch and quarter-inch. The tape is used to mask the fretboard when polishing the frets.
  • 1,000 grit sandpaper (or higher) for light sanding of the frets.
  • 4-zero (#0000) steel wool for polishing the frets.
  • Murphy’s Oil Soap to provide a bit of lubrication when using the steel wool.
  • Dunlop Lemon Oil to treat the fretboard.
  • Micro-fibre towels for cleaning and polishing the instrument.
  • Capo to help with truss rod adjustment.
  • A feeler kit or, at least, one .015 and one .022 feeler to test/make appropriate adjustments for truss rod adjustment and neck height adjustments.
  • Precision steel ruler for measuring down to one-thirty second of an inch.
  • Files for adjusting the nut height.
  • Allen wrenches for adjusting the truss rod and bridge saddles.
  • String winder for changing strings.
  • Wire-cutters for clipping excess string length.
  • Tuner for calibrating intonation.
  • Extra cables, batteries and tools for the just-in-case.

Process

With the appropriate tools at the ready, a basic setup includes 5 steps:

  1. Prepare the instrument
  2. Adjust the truss rod
  3. Adjust the bridge height
  4. Adjust the nut height
  5. Adjust the intonation

Prepare the instrument

I will remove the strings. I will then clean the body with a guitar polish from Dunlop. I will examine the instrument for any signs of excess wear or damage that might impact playability. I will tape the fretboard and begin by polishing the frets. A light sanding followed by fret polishing with the steel wool. I will clean off any excess material on the fretboard and then remove the tape. Then it is time to condition the fretboard and clean off the excess. Restring and tune.

Adjust the truss rod

On this instrument the truss rod adjustment is made from the top of the neck just at the headstock. I will insert the Allen wrench first without making any adjustments.

Capo just before the first fret. And then I will press the fret where the neck meets the body. Then I will check the neck by using the .015 feeler midway — usually at the 7th fret — to determine gap. If the string lifts up when the feeler is inserted on top of the fret, then the truss rod is too tight and needs to be loosened. A slight counter-clockwise turn, just a quarter-turn, and check again. If there is a gap then the truss rod is too loose and needs to be tightened. Again, very slight turns otherwise you may cause significant damage to the instrument. A little turn goes a long way.

Adjust the bridge height

For this instrument, the low E should have a gap of 4/32 of an inch at the fret where the neck meets the body. The other three strings should descend very slightly until the G string is at 3/32 of an inch. Each string has a saddle and there are two screws for each saddle on this particular instrument. Raise or lower both of them as required.

Adjust the neck height

You might want to get a tech involved if you are not comfortable filing down the nut of the instrument. Basically you want to use your .022 feeler at the first fret and the string should rest on that feeler. There should not be a gap. If the string is pushed up by the feeler then you may need a new nut.

Adjust intonation

For each string, tune the open note to pitch and then fret the octave (12th fret) and check tuning of the octave note. If the octave note is sharp then the string needs to be lengthened. If it is flat then the string needs to be shortened. This is accomplished by the screws at the bottom of the bridge assembly.

And that should do it.

Elixir has a good set of videos in terms of setting up a bass guitar. You can find at least one of them here. They have the rest of them up on their YouTube channel which is here.

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