Welcome to Bass Gear Magazine’s Luthiers’ Round Table! As we have done in the past, with this column, we tap into the collective minds of some of the best luthiers on the planet. The Round Table Luthiers include (in alphabetical order): Sheldon Dingwall, Harry Fleishman, Vinny Fodera, Randall Wyn Fullmer, George Furlanetto, Mike Kinal, Kenneth Lawrence, Gerald Marleaux, Carey Nordstrand, Michael Pedulla, Roger Sadowsky, Pete Skjold, Michael Tobias, and Joe Zon.

Here is the question for this installment:

Q: How do you (generally) set up your instruments when they leave your shop, and what tools/instructions do you provide the customer with regard to adjusting the setup after they receive the instrument?

Michael Tobias – We have a setup video on YouTube, titled, “Michael Tobias Design : Setting Up Your Bass.”

We also send the following instructions along with every bass we ship out.

MTD initial set up
Optimal set up is individual but I generally use the low B or E (or the low E string on a guitar) as a straight edge, holding it down at the 1st and 16th fret and adjusting the truss rod until there is about .010- .015 space between the top of the 8th fret and the bottom of the string.

Then I adjust the high string so that it is 1/16 (2/32, 1.5mm) from the top of the last fret. Check for buzzing … if that is good, then I adjust the rest of the strings following the curvature of the board and moving them up slightly until the low B which is a 3/32 or about 2.5 mm.

The rest depends on your technique and attack.

Pick up heights are generally set by holding down the outside strings at the 24th fret and raising or lowering the bridge pick up to about 3/16 under the strings, top parallel to the strings when loose. Then I use the blend pot to raise or lower the neck pick up to match the output.

BFTS instructions
I use a Peterson VS-II or a regular strobe. The Korg DT7 has the offsets burned into the chip for intonation. But if you have a tuner that will adjust 1 cent up or down, you can do the following:

When I string a bass or guitar with new strings, I usually stretch them for a bit before doing BFTS intonation … play for about ½ hour or put them on and leave them overnight. Make sure the neck is set like you want and that the action is also. Tune the bass to pitch using the tuner.

Match the:
F string open at pitch against the F at the 12th fret 1 cent flat
C string open at pitch against the C at the 12th fret 1 cent flat
G string open at pitch against the G at the 12th fret 1 cent flat
D string open at pitch against the D at the 12th fret 1 cent flat
A string open at pitch against the A at the 12th fret 1 cent sharp
E string open at pitch against the B at the 7th fret 1 cent sharp
B string open at pitch against the F# at the 7th fret 1 cent sharp

If the note is sharp, that means the saddle is too close to the 12th fret, if it is flat, then it is too far away.

Guitar off sets:
E open at pitch against E at the12th fret at pitch
B open 1 cent sharp against B at the 12th fret at pitch
G open 2 cents flat against G at the 12th fret 1 cent sharp
D open 2 cents flat against D at the 12th fret 1 sent sharp
A open 2 cents flat against A at the 12th fret at pitch
E open 2 cents flat against E at the 12th fret at pitch

Pete Skjold – Typically, I ask each customer what type of setup they prefer and how they actually play the bass (light touch or very hard touch) to determine the ideal setup for that player. Regardless of where I have the action set (the height of the strings off the fingerboard), I try to keep the neck as straight as possible, so no matter the height, the bass plays very easily. There are always exceptions to this rule, though. Some players play with such attack that more relief must be introduced to allow for string movement and for the strings not to fret out. When a customer gets the bass, there is always a follow-up call to ensure we got it right, and if adjustments need to be made I walk them through it or have them contact me when they are ready to do any adjustments. Stock basses have a low-action setup to begin with, and then before it is shipped to a customer, we go thru the same process to ensure proper setup for that customer. The standard low set up is 2/32″ at the 24th fret on the G string with slightly higher measurements as we go to the heavier gauges, winding up with around 5/32″ on the B string. The basses are supplied with all the wrenches you need to adjust everything and access all compartments.

Randall Fullmer – Here, here on what Pete has said. I kept thinking he wrote about his process for me, as well!

I learned in about five minutes at my first NAMM show that one player would tell me a setup was perfect and he would play away with no fret buzz at all. [I’m thinking I’m a genius at this point] Five minutes later, another player with a super strong attack would sit down and grab the same bass, start wailing away and all I could hear was fret buzz… [thinking about killing myself at this point] Okay, had to level-out my emotions and start paying attention to how much the setup can vary depending on taste, preference, and for sure, right-hand playing technique. With customers around the states and the world who I often never meet in person, I really need to sus out from them a description of their specific playing style and string height preferences.

When I finish a bass to the point of stringing it up, I play it and gradually adjust the truss rod as the bass stabilizes over three weeks’ time. I like to set the neck to almost flat, but with a very slight amount of relief through the center simply allowing string vibrations a bit more room to vibrate. We’re talking subtle relief, here. I set the bridge saddle heights as low as I can get them while allowing minimum-to-no fret buzz. I set the intonation of the saddles. I play and play and play and play each bass, putting it through what I would consider “real world playing conditions.” I then refer to my notes on each player’s response to their playing style and adjust to the height I believe they will be happy with.

I include a full set of instructions and adjustment tools, and make it clear that I’m available for any issues that come up or guidance needed to put the bass into perfect playing shape for each customer.

My hope, of course, is when they play the bass for the first time, it’s perfect. Short of that, usually the only thing necessary is to slightly raise or lower the bridge saddles, which is an easy adjustment that all players should be used to making.

Pete Skjold – Randal, you touched on a few points I left out that echo my process, as well. In regards to setting up the bass, I also play it for a couple weeks, which I call the “settling in period.” This allows the strings to stretch and come to pitch properly for intonating and it allows the truss rod to engage as much as possible before the bass gets sent out. This is also usually the time I figure out what the customer wants, and if he has measurements he already knows from other basses, I will try to match them, but usually go a bit lower, because I have found a lot of players would prefer lower action or straighter necks, but generally they can’t achieve them on off-the-shelf production basses. This is just what I have found in my experience. I would be curious to what others have experienced here. I find that because of this ability to get the action playing effortlessly along with a good straight neck and level frets, this is exactly what customers are looking for when they make an investment in a handmade bass guitar. At least that is the general sentiment I have gotten over the years. I have played just about everyone’s bass here on the Round Table and I would say this is a major focus of all of ours.

Harry Fleishman – This probably sounds absurd, but I don’t have any specific methods or measurements for setups. They vary too much. I have a few things I tend to do, however. I set the nut slot depth to half the string diameter, more or less. I set the depth by fretting at the second fret and lowering the nut slot until the string clears the fret by about a phone book page thickness, unless it’s for a bassist with brutish technique, in which case I go a bit higher. I like the neck pretty straight, but with a relief rise at about the 6th fret; again varying with the technique of the player and how hard she or he plays. For an electric upright, I go higher, generally. For a compact acoustic bass, I go for some “zizzz,” but also clear tone and strong attack. For repair-type setups, I try to elicit from the player how it needs to play, and watch them play before diving in.
For a 35″ scale EUB, like this one from 1978, or 42″ from 1995, I set the low B pretty high to allow for strong digging in, and for bowing. The rest are each a bit lower across the fingerboard up to the G at about .150″ or so.

Sheldon Dingwall – We have three setup specs depending on price point. The higher the price, the lower the action.

We measure in imperial using thousandths for nut height and neck relief measurement, but use 64ths for bridge height. This may mean we use fractions improperly (I.E. 4/64″) but it makes things easier to understand and keep track of. As an added bonus, on our domestic bridges the thread pitch of our saddle height screws is 32 tpi, so a single revolution of the saddle screw equals 1/32″ (2/64″) of change at the saddle, which equals 1/64″ change at the 12th fret. Easy-peazy.

We only have a height spec for the G, A and B strings. For simplicity, we quote the G-string height spec only. The A string is always 1/64″ higher than the G and the B string is always 1/64″ higher than the A. For example G = 4/64″, A = 5/64″, B = 6/64″. The in-between strings (E, D and C on a 6-string) are adjusted after the G, A and B strings so that they form a smooth arc along the tops of the strings with relation to the G, A and B.

The specs for our import line are: Nut height – .006″ (+/- .001″), Neck relief – .015″, G string @ 12th fret – 5/64″.
The specs for our flat-headstock domestic models are: Nut height – .005″ (+/- .001″), Neck relief – .015″, G string @ 12th fret – 4/64″.
The specs for our angled-headstock domestic models are: Nut height – .005″ (+/- .001″), Neck relief – .010″, G string @ 12th fret – 3/64″.

We include pickup and electronics specs with our basses but setup specs are dealt with on our Forum and in a series of YouTube videos.

Here are some of the tools we use to measure these specs.

Pete Skjold – Haha, Sheldon, good point about the fractions. I do almost everything in millimeters, but I started doing the imperial for this process, since I know have an assistant doing it and this made it easier than these slight changes in millimeters. I could have said 1/16th but it is easier to start at 2/32 for reading purposes. I thought I was the only one who thought like this!

Roger Sadowsky – OK guys, my turn!

Regarding the truss rod, we like to set our necks straight. Obviously, if we know a player digs in hard with his right hand, we will allow a little bit of relief. When Peter takes an order, he asks the player if they have any particular action preferences and we do our best to accommodate them.

Our default string is our Sadowsky Stainless 45-65-85-105-130.

For saddle height, we work in inches. We measure at the 12th fret, from the bottom of the string to the top of the fret, while holding the string down at the first fret. As others have commented, I will give the height for the G and B, with the understanding that the middle strings are slightly radiused to accommodate the fingerboard radius.

Low 2/32” – 3/32”
Med 5/64” – 7/64”
High 3/32” – 4/32”

High action guys tend to be players who double on upright bass and are used to playing hard.

We supply each bass with a truss rod tool and a Bondus Allen wrench for the bridge saddles. We do not provide any set-up instructions. I do the final setup on each instrument before they go to shipping. I set up all the basses we send to Japan with our low action. I set up all the others a bit between my low and med specs, depending on the bass.

Michael Pedulla – The process begins with tuning the strings up to pitch, adjusting the truss rod to set the neck perfectly straight (no bow), then adjusting the bridge to a comfortable action in the upper register of the fingerboard. I have already set the general height of the nut slots, but at this point, I file the string slots as low as possible for a comfortable action at the 1st fret (this helps with intonation also; if the strings are too high at the nut, the pitch will be sharp on the first few frets). Obviously this will not need to be done in future setups. With stings up to full tension (the Pedulla truss rod is placed to accommodate adjustment with strings tuned to pitch), I go back and forth between the truss rod and the bridge saddle adjustment to get an action that is tight and consistent from lower to upper registers and mimics the radius of the fingerboard, with slightly more allowance for the thicker strings. In the end, the neck normally is set straight, with little to no forward bow. The easiest way to check is to hold an outer string down at the 1st fret and the 24th fret and look at the space between the top of fret 9 to the bottom of the string. There should be little to no space between them (a thin pick worth at most). Too much forward bow in the neck makes for a mushy action in the middle part of the neck and a back bow will cause the lower register to rattle. If the neck is made perfectly level and the truss rod applies its force in the right place (very important), this process makes it easy to find that sweet spot that everything works and the action is effortless.

I do not measure anything, it’s all feel. Yes, different players like different actions, but the vast majority of players I have met all love the lower, even, and more facile action, that seems universal at a high proficiency level of playing. For those that like slightly higher actions, it’s simply a matter of adjusting the bridge saddle heights slightly; a properly set neck relief does not change with bridge height. The Buzz bass is set up much the same process, the playing test being that it growls evenly up and down and across the fingerboard.

The pickup height is then set. Pickups are set as close to the string as possible when the string is depressed at fret 24, the exception being the soapbars in the Thunderbass, which are set about ¼” below the string due to the higher output. If the pickup is too low, there will be a loss of response (speaking of Pedulla basses only).

Once the nut, neck, and pickups are all adjusted, I adjust the intonation with a strobe tuner, fretting at 12th fret and moving the bridge saddle towards or away from the fingerboard until that note is in tune with the open string octave. To set the intonation on the Buzz, I use a thin edge (like a credit card) applied directly on the 12th line.

Carey Nordstrand – We generally set them up pretty low. At least at first to see if we got everything right. Which, these days is really not a problem. Next, we will set the bass up to our best approximation of what the customer’s taste is. And we definitely make sure we get that info before we ship the bass. I think it’s super important to get things as close as we can to what their ideal setup is. That way we get the best possible first impression and a better chance for the beginning of a long lasting happy relationship between the bass and the customer.

We include two wrenches with the bass when it goes out – one for the saddles and one for the truss rod. We’ve never put instructions with the bass. I’m not really sure why, but maybe I just like the idea that if the customer doesn’t know how to adjust the bass, it’s probably better they figure it out on their own than for me to invite them to experiment and make a mess.

That said, if a customer inquires about how to set up a bass, I’m extremely encouraging that they dive in and learn how everything works. My first suggestion is to get a small ruler that’s graded in 64ths. Then start measuring stuff with it, like the string height at the last fret and the 12th fret. Then look at the relief, etc. Once one starts to get familiar with these measurements, they can assess and address any issues that might arise quickly and efficiently and get the bass dialed in to their taste.

And if a player likes really low action, then they need to understand there will likely be more maintenance to keep the bass in optimal setup. Hopefully, if the bass was dialed in right when it left the shop, then the only thing that will need to be tweaked is the truss rod as it reacts to humidity changes.

Joe Zon – Each bass comes with some basic tools (truss rod wrench, Bondhus bridge wrench, polish cloth) and an Owners Guide, which lists the specs of the bass (woods, pickups, electronics, etc), D.O.B and other useful information, including instructions for a general setup.

Nothing is intensely detailed, because players all like a different “feel” and it’s our opinion that kind of micro-tweaking is best done by an experienced repairperson. Over the years, there have been a number of times where we have fielded calls from players “who have been setting up their basses for 20 years,” only to have them ask which way to turn the truss rod. It’s good to have practical knowledge on how to adjust the neck, bridge saddles, pickups and intonate the bass, but anything beyond that leave to the pros. However, if you’re the kind of person who does like to tweak, take some classes with a luthier or repairperson to learn how to do it right.

Generally speaking, we string all our basses with ZON UltraSonic regular gauge (45-105 w/130) nickel strings. Due to the stable and rigid nature of composites, our basses are set up to have straight necks with the lowest and clearest action possible without fret buzz. Adjustment is rare, if ever at all, and relief has to be adjusted into the neck via the rod, if desired.

We don’t provide specs, because some players get too caught up in those numbers, not realizing those numbers may not translate into a good set up for their playing style. By setting the action as low as possible, players can immediately sense how fast the bass can play. It’s less mystifying to know the action can be raised as opposed to how low can it be adjusted before it starts to buzz.

Kenneth Lawrence – My default is to set up basses with a low action so that it can be a “starting point” for the client. I pretty much set everything to my personal playing taste, and that has proved to be a good reference point. Strangely enough, I’ve never had a bass client give me a specific set of numbers for the setup, like I have with some guitar clients, so my default setups must be working.

Along with the bass, I send along all Allen wrenches for bridge, truss rod, etc., a nice organic cotton polish cloth, the straplock caps, and – as most of my basses are oil-finished – a “Care and Feeding” document for that finish and a White/Extra Fine “Scotch Brite” pad to assist when re-freshing the wax part of the “oil and wax” finish. If there is a more involved control setup, I will include a legend for that as well. There is additional info on adjusting the wooden bridge height on my ChamberBasses, so that accompanies those instruments.

Lastly, I include a cool “swag” pen that has a very handy LED light feature.