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Bass Setup by Harvey S. Citron

I’d like to demystify what players think is magic about the playability of instruments.  So much is measurable.  I think it is impossible to set up an instrument well without measuring.  Your fingers are incredibly sensitive.  I don’t think you can just adjust string height to feel—you need to adjust to measurements, then it will feel right.  Veer from that and your instrument will not play as well.

First of all, much of what would be considered a good setup is personal. I don’t believe that there is one perfect setup that will suit everyone.  I remember one bass player in an article insisting that the neck has to be dead straight.  That is so wrong.  Universal action height is a ridiculous concept.  I have set up basses for some truly amazing players, and their needs vary.  Some like what I would call an average setup- slight bow in the neck, string height 3/32” at the last fret on the first string, graduated to 1/8” under the E or B string.  Recently I saw Michael Dimin’s bass (he’s a pretty amazing player). His neck looked dead straight, and his strings were set so close to the fingerboard, almost no one else would be able to play his bass without it buzzing like crazy, ridiculous, but his touch is so light the instrument sings for him.  Steve Swallow plays with the highest action I’ve ever seen…that works for him.  You need to decide what works for your style of playing, with regard to degree of bow, nut height, and action height. Being able to measure permits you to know exactly what is going on and adjust in very fine increments.

The elements of a good setup that I think are universal include having a nut that is cut where the pressure to push down each string is even.  The height could be lower or higher depending on your playing technique.  If you have a light touch the nut can be lower. A byproduct of that is better intonation.  A heavy touch, the nut a bit higher.  Also, the bridge saddles should be set to mirror the curvature of the fingerboard, even if the low strings are higher off the fret board than the higher strings. It makes a huge difference to the way the instrument feels if you pay real close attention to that. I use a machinist’s steel ruler divided in 32nds of an inch to measure.  I set it on the last fret and look under each of the strings.

Pickup adjustment: Set the height of the bridge pickup so that it is as close to the strings as is comfortable for you, then adjust it so that the string volumes are balanced.  Then, set the height of the neck pickup to be perfectly balanced volume wise with the bridge pickup and make sure it is balanced across all strings.

I hope this makes a difference for you.

Harvey S. Citron



  1. Raul Amador

    Raul Amador

    January 2, 2012 at 5:00 pm

    Excellent Information Harvey!

    I still won’t try to set up my own bass but it sure will help me communicate what I am looking for!

    Have a Happy New year!

  2. Stefaun

    January 5, 2012 at 11:37 am

    I started to play guitar in 1965, in my last year of high school. Then, the instruments availiable then were the major American brands, which were out of my price range. The first guitar that I bought was one of the first early Japanese types that were very poor instruments in all ways. I paid about $60. new for it. I changed to playing bass in 1973.
    I have been making instruments and buying them all of these years. Setting them up to play is just automatic to me. I have never used any measuring devices in setting them up. Only the feel of my hands and fingers.
    Every person has their own special abilities in different areas. For some people, the measuring tools would be a better choice.
    All of the measurment methods do not automaticly work if the strings have a very loose tension, medium, or a tight tention, playing soft, or harder.
    In the end, your fingers, and your playing style will tell you how your instrument should be set up. Your set up should be that your fingers can so very easily express the music inside of you.

  3. Harold J Cagle

    January 6, 2012 at 1:39 am

    I like the points Harvey makes about no 2 players being the same. So many guys bring their instruments into my shop and want to dump it off for a “regular setup”. I tell them I want to see them play before we make any decisions on the setup. The new guys and gals are usually taken aback when you say you want to see them play. We gain a lot of knowledge about how to approach a set up by seeing the player and how they approach their instrument, because as Harvey said, every player is a little different. Nice piece of info.

  4. Harvey S. Citron

    Harvey S. Citron

    January 6, 2012 at 11:26 am

    Dear Stefaun,
    Your technique might work for you, however if you measured, you’d know exactly what your string height preferences are, and then you can adjust precisely from there without any guess work. Also, you can reproduce it on other instruments, and make minor changes knowing exactly what you’re doing.

    Keep loving your instruments and music- it’s the best,

  5. Randy Snell

    January 8, 2012 at 8:43 pm

    I use my Allen wrench set as a string height measuring tool(s). I use the short end laying with the flat on the fret and measure to the opposing flat like a feeler gauge. the long end is used as a handle. I never have had much luck with little rulers. On the nut end I measure with a new clean set of automotive feeler gauges. I also use feeler gauges to measure the neck underbow. I wholeheartedly agree that you must measure these clearances.

    A Happy New Year to all.

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