How To Set Up Your Bass: The BassBros Way

Not all bass guitars are made equal. In fact, almost no two basses are the same – even straight from the factory floor. The nature of their construction, with a series of individual parts bolted together and a material that can shift over time, leads basses to need some TLC to stay in tip-top shape as the years roll on. 

Whether you’re picking up a pre-loved vintage beauty or a freshly-built workhorse, a setup is the first port of call to get your bass in the best condition. We set up all basses that pass through the BassBros doors before they leave again, and this is how we go about the process. You can follow this guide to work on your instruments, though we always recommend going to a guitar technician or trusted luthier if you’re not confident in making these changes.

Why is setting up your bass important?

Above all else, a bass guitar is a tool for your expression. The more you have to fight the bass itself due to poor action, bad intonation, or lack of playability, the harder it will be to just enjoy playing. 

Basses come with a swathe of adjustable elements for this exact reason. They’re meant to be adjusted and altered to suit your needs and to keep the instrument playing great. We’ve seen far too many high-quality basses suffer from a lack of long-term care leading to out-of-shape necks and sky-high action, and proper care and maintenance can avoid this! 

The four-step checklist to a bass guitar setup

There are four main points of adjustment that a simple setup will tackle, focusing on getting the instrument in a great playable shape without the need for a kitted-out workbench of expensive tools. The one caveat here is the nut, which does require the use of specialty files to do the job right. For the other four adjustments, all you will need is a ruler, a set of Allen keys (hex keys) in various sizes, a tuner, and a Phillips head screwdriver. Let’s get started. 

Truss rod adjustments for neck relief

All too often bad action or playability across the neck gets attributed to the bridge saddles, leading people to drop them to the deck and still have issues. More often than not the neck relief will be the larger culprit and should be the very first thing you check. 

The goal of adjusting neck relief is to ensure that the neck is almost completely straight, with a very small concave bend. Adjusting the neck relief is achieved through either tightening or loosening the installed truss rod.

The truss rod is a metal rod installed inside every bass guitar neck and is designed to help keep it straight under tension and to add or remove relief when adjusted. Truss rods can be adjusted (typically) using an Allen key at the headstock for most basses, though some will be adjusted at the heel using either an Allen key or a Phillips head screwdriver.  

Important: Truss rods that haven’t moved in a while will likely be stiff. If you feel too much resistance from the truss rod when you attempt to turn it, do not force it! This can snap the truss rod and cause all manner of problems. In this instance, consult a technician or luthier to investigate further.

Here’s how to adjust neck relief: 

  • Place a capo on or fret the 1st fret
  • Fret the fret where the neck meets the body, typically around fret 15
  • With both frets fretted, measure the distance between the 7th fret and the E string, aiming for 0.25mm (0.010”)
    • Fret each note up the entire fretboard and check for any fret buzz 
      • If it’s buzz-free, you can straighten the neck further
  • Loosen your strings and find the right-sized Allen key for your truss rod (most often 4mm)
    • Ensure a snug fit to avoid damaging the truss rod nut
  • If the distance is larger than 0.25mm, turn the truss rod clockwise in 1/8th turns at a time, and reverse this process if there is less than 0.25mm distance
  • After each turn, tune the bass to pitch and measure again
    • Make sure to play each note up the string to check for buzzing
  • Repeat this process until the desired relief is achieved

truss rod neck adjustment

Bridge saddle adjustments for string height

Your bridge saddles provide two points of adjustment – backward and forward for intonation, and raising or lowering for string height. We’re going to focus on string height first now that the neck is in the ideal position. 

Your string height refers to the distance a string sits above your frets when not being fretted and will be a large factor in how playable your bass is. For most basses, setting a string height of 2mm (5/64”) across the strings will be both very playable for most bassists and achievable for the vast majority of bass guitars, though some basses can be set up as low as 1.5mm (4/64”). String height is both a personal preference and a limitation of some basses – typically down to fretwork and neck stability. 

Here’s how you adjust your string height:

  • Measure the height of your E string at the 12th fret
  • Slacken the string slightly, a few turns are plenty
  • Find the Allen key that snuggly fits the bridge saddle screws
  • Adjust both screws by a quarter turn, keeping the bridge saddle itself level
    • If the bridge saddle isn’t level, adjust one screw until it is level
  • Tune the string up and check the string height
    • Play each note up the string to check for any buzzing frets
      • If the string plays buzz-free, you could lower the string action further
  • Repeat the process until the desired height is achieved
  • Follow the above steps for each string

Once you’ve done that process for each string, ensure that you set the string height for each to match. This will keep the radius of your strings the same across the fretboard and ensure optimal playability. This will mean potentially raising certain strings to meet the highest one.

bridge saddle height adjustment

Bridge saddle adjustments for intonation

The next step is to make sure your bass plays in tune across the whole fretboard. Intonation is a simple change, simply requiring a Phillips head screwdriver and a tuner. 

  • Tune your string to pitch
  • Fret and play the 12th fret note, which is the octave of your string
  • Note the reading on the tuner and check it’s still in tune
  • If the note is flat (below the target note), bring the saddle forward to shorten the string. If the note is sharp (above the target note), bring the saddle backward to lengthen the string. 
    • Slackening the string slightly can help when bringing the saddle back 
  • Retune the string and repeat the above steps
  • Follow this process for each string

Simple as that! 

Pickup height adjustments 

Your pickup height can be the difference between a killer tone and a wispy mess. As a general rule of thumb:

Pickups closer to the string

  • Higher volume
  • Increased treble response
  • Less sustain

Pickups further from the string

  • Lower volume
  • Reduced treble response
  • More sustain

Pickup height is far less critical than other adjustments here, but will still make a big difference to how good your bass sounds. Factory specs for a Fender Jazz Bass suggest a 2.5mm (6/64”) gap, though you are potentially able to go closer. 

To adjust your pickup height: 

  • Measure the distance between your string and the pickup pole piece below
  • Use a screwdriver to raise or lower the pickup height as required
  • Measure again and play the string to check tone
  • Make this adjustment for each string and pickup until satisfied

If you’re playing a Jazz pickup arrangement, be sure to measure with both pickups at solo and both full volume to check their respective volumes are balanced and complement each other. 

Other points of bass setups

There are a few other areas that basses will need adjusting, though this requires a host of specialty tools that are expensive and need additional knowledge to use. Unlike the above four steps, which can all be reverted and adjusted as you set fit, both of these processes are also destructive in nature, as they remove fret material and nut material that cannot be replaced. 

We do check and adjust these factors too, but don’t recommend anyone doing a simple setup to take on and absolutely advise a tech or luthier to handle. 

Nut filing

Nut filing is the process of deepening the grooves that each string sits in so it is closer to the fretboard. This can help improve playability in the lower frets and avoid extreme cases where intonation is affected by the height of the nut. 

Fret filing

In instances where high or uneven frets are common, filing and levelling the frets is a critical step in improving the playability of a fretboard. This is mostly reserved for either heavily played instruments, those with fewer quality assurance checks from the factory, or older instruments that may have some fret wear. 

The low down

Setting up a bass isn’t the mystical quest some might make it sound like, and once you’ve gotten used to the process will be a go-to task for any fresh bass. We check over and set up every single bass that we stock, so you can be confident you’re getting a trusted instrument that will stand the test of time.