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Bass string height adjustment

Postby BJG145 » Sat May 01, 2021 9:35 pm

I've got a Washburn Force ABT 5-string that I haven't played for about a year. I just picked it up again and the string height looks well out, unless I've just forgotten what a bass guitar feels like.

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I do kind of rely on this; it's the only thing I play at actual paid gigs, which are finally starting to come round again. I'm not very confident when it comes to setting up guitars, so should I simply take it to the local guitar shop, or would that be unnecessary expense and it's something I could probably sort myself in half an hour with the right YouTube video? I'm also slightly concerned about the strings which look a bit strained with the excessive height. Will they need replacing, or doesn't it matter...?
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Re: Bass string height adjustment

Postby Humble Bee » Sat May 01, 2021 9:59 pm

Check your neck relief to see if it needs straitening up...
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Re: Bass string height adjustment

Postby Funkyflash5 » Sat May 01, 2021 10:22 pm

If you're even slightly handy, I'd give it a go yourself. Others are probably better at explaining the process more precisely, but the short version is to first sight down the neck to see if there needs to be any adjustment to the truss rod, then adjust saddle heights on each string to bring them down to low enough without buzzing and then intonate each saddle. None of it is irreversible as long as you don't force it. If you're relying on this without a backup for gigs it may be worth just changing the strings to avoid breakage during a gig, but I wouldn't be overly worried unless you really dig in with your right hand when playing. I've had strings last years if I'm not going overly hard.
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Re: Bass string height adjustment

Postby blinddrew » Sat May 01, 2021 10:26 pm

Train.
Tune - first off make sure you've got the right tension on the strings.
Relief - check the neck relief by sighting down it or using a long straight edge - adjust with the truss rod.
Action - you'll know what you're comfortable with here.
Intonation - you can probably do it by ear but a decent tuner helps, especially with really low notes.
Noodle - have a play and let it settle for 24 hours.
(then repeat).
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Re: Bass string height adjustment

Postby Wonks » Sat May 01, 2021 10:56 pm

Right. Hold down the bottom string at the first and last fret. How big a gap is there beneath it and the 7th and 8th frets?

If it's more than 1mm, then you've almost definitely got more neck relief than necessary and a simple tightening of the truss rod should straighten the neck out and bring the action down.

First, tune up to your normal tuning.

If you haven't got the truss rod key that came with the bass, then you'll generally need a 4mm or 5mm hex key.

Take the truss rod cover off and put the hex key in the nut. You're straightening it, so you'll want to turn it clockwise (when looking from the headstock down the neck), so get it angled to the left, so you can turn it to the right.

Give the nut about 1/4 of a turn, then hold the string own at the ends again and have a look at that 7th/8th fret gap. Repeat this truss rod turning and checking until the string is about 1mm above the frets.

If the truss rod suddenly becomes very stiff after it has been moving OK, then it's nut has probably come to the end of its thread. Don't try and force it beyond this point as you could strip the thread or even snap the truss rod. You'll have to leave it as it is at that point. A luthier can normally cut more threads or make other adjustments to the truss rod nut to get more adjustment from it, but it's not easy and can be quite expensive. But it's far more expensive if the nut breaks off or the truss rod snaps!

But assuming that all is well, you should hopefully already have a much more playable bass. If you've made quite a few turns of the truss rod, I'd probably wait until the next day before doing any more, to let the neck settle in the new position.

You may already be happy with where you are, as log as there aren't any rattles, action height is a very personal thing.

If you'd like it still lower, you now want to check whether you can drop the saddle height on each string so that you can still play each fret without any buzz. Each time you lower (or raise) the saddles, you'll have to retune the string to get back to your normal pitch.

Once you start to get rattles, raise the saddle vary slightly, retune and move to the next string. Repeat until all strings are done. Don't forget to pluck as hard as you normally would when gigging, as you can get a lot more string amplitude when you do that and induce buzzing at a higher action than when playing softly.

Are you happy with the action? Still a bit high for you, especially in that 7th-12th fret area? Then hold the string down at the 1st and last frets again and see what the gap's like now. Lowering the saddles will have changes the string tension on the neck slightly so the gap may be a bit less.

If you haven't got any high (or low) frets, then you should be able to get the neck pretty straight if you want to before buzzing occurs around the 7th fret area. So you can give the truss rod another 1/4 turn tighter if you want to. This will bring the strings down lower, especially on the upper frets, so you'll have to raise the saddles slightly to compensate. But you are really just raising them back to where they were above the upper frets before you adjusted the truss rod.

The truss rod doesn't extend all the way down the neck but typically stops having an effect at about the 17th fret. So the upper part of the neck isn't affected by the truss rod and stays fairly flat. So the playability on the upper frets often determines how low you can get the strings. Get them playing OK and then check on the lower frets.

You don't want the neck totally flat, you always want a little concave relief in it. But for a very low action you can generally get away with very little indeed provided the frets are level. With high or low frets, you'll either need more relief or more saddle height to compensate.

If you tighten the truss rod and you start to get buzzing just around the 5th-7th frets, then the neck's too straight and you'll need to loosen the truss rod a bit (turn anti-clockwise).

You should eventually end up with a much more comfortable action. If at any point you feel happy with the set-up, then stop. No point going lower for the sake of it.

Once you are happy, then you should have a look at the nut and the string height over the 1st fret. There shouldn't be a huge gap, probably 0.5mm at the most, and the strings should be easy to fret. It should be almost as easy to fret on the 1st fret as the 12th fret. If a nut slot is too high, then it takes more force to fret the string, and that introduces more tension into the string which makes it play slightly sharp on the first few frets.

If the gap is large, then those nut slots really need to come down. Whilst adjusting the truss rod or saddle heights are actions that can be easily reset, adjusting the nut isn't, and whilst you can lower the slots yourself (I use the end of a round needle file on a bass), going too low will result in 1st fret buzzing and you'll need a replacement nut (this is a actually pretty easy thing to do, it sounds more daunting than it is).

So this is probably where you want to stop and get someone with more experience involved. But getting those nut slots lower (if high) will reduce the open string action all the way up the neck without causing the fretted string angles to change (and so won't cause any buzzing on frets 2 and above). It makes the bass easier to play in the lower positions and can also allow you to then raise the saddle height a bit (if you want) without making it harder to play the strings compared to before the nut was lowered, but reducing the chance of any buzzing if you pluck a string really hard.

Once you've set up the action, then now is the best time to check the intonation, as lowering the action will reduce the extra tension caused when you fret the string, so the string may play a little flat compared to before. Always loosen the string before moving the saddle, then back up to tension and check the intonation with your tuner. Adjust until satisfied. If you pluck hard when playing, then pluck the same when you intonate, don't just stroke the string, as harder plucking will sharpen the note.

If you think you've got some high or low frets, then you can have the frets levelled and re-profiled, but as your frets seem pretty low anyway from the photos, you may need the neck refretted. Both levelling and refretting is really luthier territory. You can learn to do both tasks yourself, and on my kit guitar forum I've seen many people do it successfully their very first time. But here you are also talking about finish repairs along the edge of the fretboard and it all gets quite complicated. You'll also need to invest in a few specialist tools, so it makes it far more cost-effective to get someone else to do it.

You are probably way out of your comfort zone here, so I'd leave it at truss rod and saddle height adjustment, then just looking at the nut and seeing where you are for now.
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Re: Bass string height adjustment

Postby dpete » Sun May 02, 2021 12:44 am

I just got done setting up one of my basses, did the other last week. Usually, its just a truss rod adjustment to set the relief. Seems like the seasonal transitions are responsible. I suspect its cumulative, but I've noticed by spring I usually have to deal with it.
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Re: Bass string height adjustment

Postby BWC » Sun May 02, 2021 5:49 am

dpete wrote:...Seems like the seasonal transitions are responsible.

Yes, these things really don't like rapid temperature / humidity changes.

...which leads to the question that came to my mind when I read...

BJG145 wrote:...that I haven't played for about a year.

How was it stored for the last year? These things also don't like to be leaned against walls, or a corner, or a desk, etc. If that's how it's been sitting, there's the root cause of your problem. When not in your hands, they really prefer a nice comfy case or a proper stand, in a consistent, stable climate. Even in the ideal environment though, setup will need to be revisited from time to time, but much less often.
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Re: Bass string height adjustment

Postby BJG145 » Sun May 02, 2021 8:43 am

Thanks for the advice, especially Wonks' excellent step-by-step guide. I just went through the truss rod adjustment (have to confess, I didn't even know it had one), and normality is restored.

Cheers! :thumbup:
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Re: Bass string height adjustment

Postby Wonks » Sun May 02, 2021 8:49 am

Hurrah!
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Re: Bass string height adjustment

Postby Aled Hughes » Sun May 02, 2021 10:47 am

Good to hear!

Although I must say I find Wonks’ suggestion of 1’m neck relief a bit much - I tend to go for around the Fender suggested spec of something like 0.3mm and I find it works well (although my late 90’s MIM Fender Jazz won’t get there.)

Then 2.0 to 2.5mm between the open string and top of 12th fret.
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Re: Bass string height adjustment

Postby Wonks » Sun May 02, 2021 11:05 am

1mm is meant to be a starting point, and without using gauges, 1mm is fairly easy to guess by eye. I certainty don't leave any of my guitars or basses with relief that high as I like the lowest action possible and end up with as little neck relief as I can get away with. It was also very late at night (for me) and I didn't have the inclination to dig out a bass and measure the relief so I picked a reasonable figure to start with.

But some bassists so like a lot of neck relief. I bought my Lakland bass from Neil Murray (it was his 'We will rock you' house band bass, and when I picked it up the relief on that was nearer 2mm and the action a mile high!
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Re: Bass string height adjustment

Postby Albatross » Sun May 02, 2021 12:00 pm

I remember our own IvanSC is a fan of a lot of relief.
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Re: Bass string height adjustment

Postby Wonks » Sun May 02, 2021 2:42 pm

Yes, Ivan likes a decent amount of neck relief and a fairly high action. He certainly dug in hard on his bass strings. Though these days his arthritis stops him from playing bass and he even struggles with his electric guitars.
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Re: Bass string height adjustment

Postby Albatross » Sun May 02, 2021 4:33 pm

Shame.
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Re: Bass string height adjustment

Postby SecretSam » Wed May 05, 2021 7:52 am

Bass guitars, and especially 5- and 6- string bass guitars, are finicky beasts. You won't regret spending money on a good luthier.
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