Here's a little guide to how you can make your beloved bass feel better. I know this has all been said in the FretBuzz forums over at ActiveBass many times before, but I thought I'd make it a little more structured and easier for the beginners to understand. Remember, nothing is set in stone when it comes to bass set-ups. Some like the action high, some like it low, etc. This guide is an explanation of how I've always done my own set-up (and a few other peoples), and there are as many ways of doing this as there are bass players. You'll eventually find the set-up that suits you the best, and then you choose the way of achieving that set-up that suits you best.
This guide is based on a bass that has been used for some time, and is showing signs of wear. The strings are dead, the action is not what it once was, and the fretboard looks like it's thirsty for some oil. The guide will also apply to new basses that are coming up on their first string change. The bass might have been hanging on the wall of the store for a long time before you bought it, and it's probably been played by many people before you decided to take it home with you. Basses that are brand, spanking new also need some care after a few months of playing. The wood settles, and the neck adjusts to the humidity where you live. In any case, you might want to do something to restore your bass to it's original look and feel.
You'll need the following tools:
Step 0: Getting started
WASH YOUR HANDS!
Step 1: Remove the old strings
Lay out the blanket or towel on your table or bench. An ironing board will also work fine, but make sure it's a sturdy one. Use the rolled up towel to support the neck of the bass. Start removing your old strings. Start by loosening the tuner keys so the strings become floppy. Lift the string coil right off the tuning post, and cut the string right behind the coil. Pull the string out through the bridge. Repeat for all strings (yes, you can take them all off in one go, it won't effect your bass in any bad way). If your wife/girlfriend is against using the dining room table or any other precious furniture for bass repair, make sure you do this when she's not home. You'll need about an hour to get through the entire set-up.
Step 2: Cleaning the neck and fretboard
Now that the strings are off, you have good access to the fretboard. This needs to be cleaned before we apply the oil. The frets also need a good clean, especially if your old strings were stainless steel ones. Use the lemon oil to clean the fretboard. This works for both maple and rosewood fretboards. Always use the oils and cleaning products suggested by the manufacturer of the bass. I use lemon oil since it's what Ernie Ball recommends for my StingRay. Lemon oil is also the most common cleaner, so I'll stick to that during this guide. You can usually find out what your manufacturer recommends by checking their website. If you have an unfinished maple neck on your bass, and it's starting to look grayish, you can apply a very small and infrequent dose of gunstock oil to the back of the neck. Use a high quality oil. Apply the oil, let it sink in for about 5 minutes, and wipe off the excess. Then apply a few drops of an appropriate wax. For the StingRay, Ernie Ball suggests using Birchwood-Casey Tru-Oil, and Birchwood-Casey Tru-Wax. Again, check with the guys that made your bass about what products to use. Now for the oiling of the fretboard. Simply apply some lemon oil to a soft cloth, rub it over the fretboard, let it sink in for 5-10 minutes, then wipe off the excess. If the fretboard is extremely dry, you can repeat the process, but don't overdo it.
Step 3: Cleaning the body and hardware
Since the strings are off, you can clean some of the fingermarks and dust off the bridge. Use a q-tip and a soft cloth to get worst of it out. If you can't fit the q-tip into all the nooks in the bridge, use a pair of pliers to press it flat (the q-tip, not the bridge). Also try to clean the worst of the dirt around the pickups and wherever you can get to. Clean the body as best you can with a dry soft cloth.
Step 4: Putting on the new strings
Now it's time to put on the new strings. Go wash your hands again. You don't want lemon oil, wax, or any other dirt on the new strings as you put them on. Start with the thickest string. Roll it out, and thread it through the bridge. Use the sharpest pliers you can get your hands on to cut the string down to length. If you use dull pliers, they won't be able to cut all the way through the thickest strings in one go, and you'll end up with sharp edges on the strings, and in the worst case scenario they will start to unravel. Use the ruler to measure 4-5 inches from the tuning post belonging to the string you're putting on, and cut the string. Push the end of the string into the top of the tuning post, bend the string 90 degrees over so it locks into the groove in the top of the post, and start turning the tuner to add tension to the string. Use your free hand to keep the string tight as you wind it on, and make sure each new winding falls below the previous one. Once you start feeling the tension in the string, check that it runs across the correct bridge saddle. Also check that it's in the correct groove in the nut (a.k.a. top saddle), and that it passes through any string trees on the head of the bass if it's supposed to. Wind the string up enough so it stays on by itself and don't fall off the bridge saddle. Don't tune it up to pitch just yet. Repeat the process for the other strings. Once you have all the strings on and everything is as it's supposed to be, get your tuner and tune all the strings to pitch. Since the strings are brand new, they will stretch and loose tuning. To help the strings settle, make a hook with your right index finger. Hook the finger under one string (start with the thickest one) just in front of the bridge. Put your left thumb over the string just as it passes over the nut. This is to prevent the string from jumping out of, or breaking, the nut, so you'll need to hold on tight with your left hand. Now run your right index finger down the string to about the 4th or 5th fret. This stretches the string, and helps it settle at it's final length. Repeat for all the strings. Doing this 3-4 times for each string should set it pretty good. Be careful not to pull too hard with your index finger as you run it up the string. That's it, the new strings are in place. The pictures below shows the stretching off the strings, and how the windings look when done correctly.
Step 5: The set-up
Now for the part that many beginners fear, the set-up. If you use common sense, and you're careful in everything you do, I promise you that your bass will survive. If at any point you feel that you are not up to doing this, let a pro do it. Better yet, let a pro do it, and learn from him/her by watching and asking question. Firstly, if your old strings had a tapered or open core E or B, and the new strings don't, you'll need to adjust the string height for the E or B at the bridge. Use the small allen key to bring the saddle up to a point where the string no longer touches the fretboard above the 7th fret. The saddle should still be just a little lower than the one next to it. This is because the height of the bridge saddles follow the curve of the fingerboard. If your new strings are the same as your old strings, disregard this point. We'll start with the truss rod. If you hear the strings buzzing against the frets as you play the strings open, your neck is to straight. An easy way to check the string height is to press the string down at the first and the last fret, and then seeing if it clears the 7th/8th fret. The easiest way to do this without growing a third arm, is to use a capo at the first fret. If you don't have a capo, you can use your left hand to press the string down at the first fret, then use the elbow on your right arm to press the string down at the end of the fretboard. Use just enough pressure with your elbow to make the string touch the last fret. Your right hand is now free to touch the string at the 7th/8th fret. If there is room to move the string down before it hits the 7th/8th fret, the string height is ok. The picture below shows me checking the action using this method. As you can see, I use my elbow to keep the string pressed against the last fret, and I use my left hand to fret the string at the first fret. This leaves my right hand in a perfect position to tap the string at the 7th/8th fret.
If you're having trouble feeling or seeing how high the string is at the 7th/8th fret, you can try sliding the credit card in between the string and fret. If it fits, you're ok. I sometimes use a feeler gauge to check that I have about 2mm clearance between the string and fret at the 7th fret. I allow a bit less for the G-string since it's so much thinner than the others. This is down to personal preferences, but I use 2mm as a guide. I mostly measure by how the action feels. If by doing this, you think the string height is good, try playing the strings open one more time to make sure there is no buzzing. Now try playing the first 4 frets and listen for buzz. If there is none, and the action is comfortable, move on to step 7. If you experience buzz, and the action is uncomfortably low, you'll need to adjust the truss rod. If you suspect that the neck on your bass has back-bow, that is when the neck is bowed away from the strings and all the strings hug the fingerboard tightly in the middle of the neck, I suggest you take it to a tech for a closer look. Same thing goes for a warped neck.
Step 6: Adjusting the truss rod
To adjust the truss rod, get the allen key or screwdriver that came with your bass, and insert it in the screw at the end of the neck. To give the neck more bow, and thus lifting the strings away from the fretboard, turn counter clockwise. To give the neck less bow, and thus moving the strings closer to the fretboard, turn clockwise. The strings and the truss rod work together to adjust the bow in the neck. When you tighten the truss rod by turning the screw clockwise, make sure you loosen the strings a little first since you in effect make the neck longer.
Turn no more than 1/4 turn each time you adjust the truss rod. After each 1/4 turn, retune your bass to pitch and check the string height again. If you are not able to turn the truss rod adjustment screw any more, don't force it. If you thighten the screw too much you can end up stripping the threads, or in the worst case, break the truss rod. If you have reached the end of the screw's capacity, and you're still not happy with the action, take the bass to a tech for advice on what to do. If everything turns smoothly, repeat until you're happy with the action, but don't spend too long. After each adjustments of the truss rod your bass will need some time to settle. Don't do any more than 2 or 3 adjustment a day.
When you have found the right height for you, this is a good time to take a break. Retune to pitch, but the bass back in it's stand and clean up the mess before your wife comes home. The neck will need some time to get settled with the new bow, so you should leave it alone for a few hours. Go watch a movie or something, and come back later to finish the setup. After having left the bass alone for a while, retune it to pitch and check the action again. If it feels good, you're done. If not, let it rest over night, then continue with more adjustments the next day. You don't want to rush this.
Step 7: Adjusting the bridge saddles
I do all the adjustments of the string height by adjusting the truss rod. The only time I use the bridge saddles to adjust string height, is if the saddles don't follow the curve of the fretboard, or if I go from tapered / open core strings to untapered strings. Use a small allen key to adjust the height of the bridge saddles. Only do this if the string height is uneven across the fretboard, and make sure you keep the saddle itself even. If you prefer a very low action, and experience a slight buzz on one of the strings, you can use the bridge saddle to adjust the height of that string. If your bass is way out of pitch when you check the intonation (see step 9), the height of one or more of the strings can change noticably after you have corrected the intonation. If this is the case, you can use the bridge saddles to compensate.
Step 8: Adjusting the pickup height
I use a little over 4mm as a guide for the pickup height. Use a ruler or a feeler gauge to measure the space from the top of the pole piece on the pickup to the bottom of the string. It should be just about even all the way across, but it's no need to be too picky. The important thing is that the string is close enough to give a good signal, but not so close that the sound gets distorted if you pop the string or dig in hard. Use 4mm as a rough guide, and rely on your ears. If it sounds good, and you feel comfortable with the height of the pickup, leave it alone. Don't fix it if it ain't broke.
Step 9: Setting the intonation
Now for something really important, intonation. For this you'll need to break out your most accurate tuner. If you have a stage tuner with LED's, that will work fine. A high quality needle tuner will also be very accurate, but for the best accuracy you should use a strobe tuner. I use my Boss TU-2, and it works great. Start by playing the open E (or B if you're on a 5-string). Then play the E one octave up at the 12th fret. The tuner should show the same pitch in both cases. If the E on the open string is not spot on, retune your bass back to pitch.
If the E at the 12th fret is off, you need to move the bridge saddles. Use a screwdriver to turn the screws at the back of the bridge (they are right next to the hole you pulled the new strings through). Turn clockwise to move the saddle towards the bridge. This makes the effective length of the string greater. If your E at the 12th fret was sharp, this is what you need to do. If the E at the 12th fret was flat, you need to move the bridge saddle forwards towards the pickups. This is done by turning the screw counter clockwise. You don't need to move the saddles much, 1-2mm is enough to get a change in the intonation. If your put a finger against the bridge saddle, and then turn the screw, you can feel the saddle moving. Since the movement is so small, you might not see it, but you'll be able to feel it with your finger.
When working on the intonation, make sure the saddles move back and forewards without any resistance. If you force the screw, you can strip the threads or damage your bridge. If you find that an abnormal amount of force is needed to move the saddles, try loosening the strings a little. If that doesn't solve the problem, remove the strings from the bass and check that the saddles haven't corroded in place or dug themselves into the bridge plate. This shouldn't be an issue on newer basses, but if it's been a very long time since the bass was last worked on it's a definite possibility.
Step 10: Last finish
That's it! Your bass should be good as new. All you need to do now is to take good care of it, and it should stay in top shape for a long time. Washing your hands before you play is an easy and effective way of keeping the strings fresh, and fingermarks to a minimum. If you want to bring back some shine to the finish, apply some guitar polish. You can pick up polish from any decent music store, and depending on the finish on your bass they should be able to sell you the right type. Just follow the directions on the bottle, and your bass will get it's shine back.
As I said in the beginning, this is how I do it. Other people might prefer other methods, but I find this to be the best one for me. As you get more experience in both playing and doing set-ups, you find out what works best for you. Being able to do simple maintenance and set-ups can save you some money too. Many music stores charge a fair bit to do an overhaul on your bass. Good luck, and keep bassin' !!
Thanks to those of the ActiveBass community who provided me with valuable input on this article.