Photos by Ariel Ellis
I’ve read many articles and repair
manuals on bass setup, and I’ve
personally set up thousands of basses
as a professional. So when PG asked
me to write a DIY piece on the subject,
I thought, “What can I bring to this
discussion that’s truly helpful? Is there a
little something I can describe that you
don’t already know?”
In this article, we’ll cover the essentials
with the goal of helping you decide what
you can handle yourself and what you
should leave to your local repair technician.
Even if there are aspects of the
job you’re not prepared to attempt on
your own, it’s good to understand what’s
involved with a bass setup. Knowing the
steps and terminology will let you communicate
more confidently and effectively
with your repair guy or gal.
More than likely you’re thinking
about setup because in some way, your
instrument is not performing
the way you’d like. To pinpoint
any problems, we need to look
at all the factors that affect your
instrument’s overall playability,
sound, and function.
Our journey begins with a
general inspection (Photo
1), which consists of playing
the instrument while asking
yourself these questions: Is the
action too high? Too low? Are
there buzzing frets? If so, that
indicates a need for adjustment.
1. A setup begins with a preliminary,
hands-on inspection of your bass.
Check playability and listen for issues
like buzzing frets and hardware
rattles. List any problems you find.
While you’re at it, work
the volume and tone controls,
checking for noise. Gently jiggle
the 1/4" plug at the output jack
to check it for noise. Are there
any hardware-related rattles?
Take notes on all your observations
and list any issues you
need to address.
After you’ve given your bass a
hands-on evaluation, you’re ready
to get to work on the setup.
Tip: Because the adjustments
that control playability are
affected by string gauge and
tension, be sure your bass sports
the type of strings you plan to
use. If you change string gauge,
you’ll need to do a fresh setup to
accommodate the new strings.
Step 1: Measure
the Neck Relief
We start with checking the
“relief” or amount of bend in the
neck. I often see people sighting
down the neck from all angles
and making some very ballpark
assessments about neck relief.
But the precise and accurate way
to measure relief is to use the
strings as a straightedge. Here’s
how to measure neck relief:
1. Tune your bass to pitch.
Use the primary tuning you
put this instrument in when
performing or recording.
2. With your fretting hand,
hold your lowest string
against the 1st fret as if you
were playing that note.
2. To gauge the amount of relief in your neck, use both hands to simultaneously
fret the 4th string at the 1st fret and somewhere between the 14th
and 16th frets. At the mid point between these two fretted notes, look at
the gap between the bottom of the string and the top of the frets. To get
another perspective on this gap, bounce the string against the frets with
your picking-hand index finger.
3. Stretch your picking
hand across the fretboard
with your thumb aiming
towards the bridge and
index finger extended
toward the nut (Photo
2). Open your hand as
far as you can comfortably
stretch and fret the
lowest string with your
thumb. The object is to
move your thumb as close
to the bridge as you can,
while allowing your index
finger to touch the lowest
string approximately halfway
between your fretting
finger at the 1st fret and
picking hand thumb.
(Depending on the fretboard
scale length, my
picking hand thumb lands
on the 14th, 15th, or
16th fret.) Now the lowest
string is fretted at two
points with two hands.
With the lowest string
secured at the 1st and, say,
15th fret, you can now use
it as a straightedge.
4. With your picking-hand
index finger, tap the string
against the middle frets.
By repeatedly tapping and
releasing, you’ll be able to
gauge how much space lies
between the bottom of the
string and the top of those
frets. The gap (if any) is
the amount of relief. How
much of a gap you need
depends very much on
your playing style, but
to get started, I adjust an
instrument to have a gap
that’s equivalent to the
thickness of one or two
Tip: Make sure you continually
check the tuning
of your bass so it stays at
pitch. This is crucial for
making accurate measurements
Adjust the Truss Rod
This is very important: If you
don’t feel comfortable adjusting
your truss rod or don’t have the
proper tool, take this to your
local qualified repair technician.
You can really mess up
your instrument by stripping
the threads on your truss rod
or over tightening and breaking
this critical part of the
neck. Whether the truss rod
is adjusted via a male hex nut,
a female socket, or a Phillips
nut at the neck heel, make sure
your tool has a snug fit so you
don’t strip out this vital part.
3. To remove the neck to expose a
truss rod that’s installed at the heel,
take off the strings and back out
the screws at the neck plate.
4. Once the screws have released
the neck, gently pull it free from the
body being careful not to scratch
the neck on the exposed screw
The vast majority of truss
rods adjust clockwise to
tighten and counter-clockwise
to loosen. If your truss rod is
located at the headstock, look
down the neck from headstock
to body to determine clockwise
direction. If your truss rod
adjustment is at the heel of the
neck, you’ll need to remove it
(Photos 3 and 4). The movements
will be the same when
you look from the heel down
Tip: If you have any doubts about
how to adjust a truss rod, get a guitar
repair book or study the manual
that came with your instrument.
Many manufacturers offer free
online instructions for adjusting the
truss rods on their guitars.
If you decide you want to
change the gap between the
string and fret, here’s the process:
1. To reduce the gap between
string and fret, tighten the
truss rod. Conversely, to
increase the space between
string and fret, loosen
it. Move the truss rod in
2. Retune and recheck relief
each time you move the rod.
Continue the process
until you get the desired
gap between the string and
fret. Again, unless you have
a specific gap in mind,
shoot for the thickness of
one or two business cards.
5. Truss rods accessed at the
neck heel are often adjusted with a
screwdriver. 6. Whether the truss
rod is installed at the headstock or
neck heel, the vast majority adjust
clockwise to tighten and counterclockwise
If your bass requires
adjustments at the neck
heel (Photos 5 and 6),
rather than the headstock,
you’ll face the tedious
prospect of reinstalling the
neck and restringing to
check each adjustment.
Tip: If your truss rod seems very
difficult to adjust, or stops moving,
or makes a loud noise, see a
local repair tech. Although adjusting
a truss rod may be foreign
to you, all qualified technicians
understand how it functions. It’s
definitely worth paying the price
to have this done right.
There are several adjustments
that affect action,
but they need to be done in
the correct order. Because
your decisions about all
the other action-related
adjustments are based on
neck relief, it’s important
to deal with the truss rod
first. Once you’ve made any
necessary truss-rod adjustments,
you’re ready to move
on to the other factors that
7. To reattach
the neck, carefully place the heel
into the neck pocket and then insert
the screws by hand, slipping them
through the body and seating the
tips into their respective holes. 8.
Tighten the neck screws securely.
As you do this, use your free hand
to control the screwdriver tip so it
doesn’t slip out and mar the body.
If you’ve removed the
neck to make truss rod
adjustments, reattach it
now (Photos 7 and 8),
restring, and retune.