The Importance of a Good Setup

Paul Warren's picture

I want to talk briefly about bass guitar setup. Many of us think we have a handle on setup issues, I know I did, but this isn't always the case. Let me tell you what happened to me and how it has affected my playing then judge for yourself how important proper setup is.

I bought my Gretsch bass in 1981. I picked the Gretsch because it looked good, was well made etc., sounded nice and most importantly because I was offered a very good price.
After purchase I put on a new set of quality strings (Rotosound) and set the intonation and string height. I had some difficulty getting the strings down low enough because of excessive fret buzz but I thought this was just the design of the guitar.
Years went by and although my playing improved somewhat I always had trouble with sore fingers, blisters and cramped hands. In addition, because of the excessive string height I had problems with the strings vibrating out from under my fingers before I could get them on the fret.
These kind of problems contributed to my playing less and less until I was only bringing my guitar out five or ten times a year. I guess I felt I was never going to learn to play well. Never did I think there was a problem with the bass.
Now, before you say I should have had the guitar set up professionally, I did. More than once. At least three times I had my bass looked at professionally. I described my complaints, discussed possible causes and cures and each time the guitar was returned with assurances that it was fixed (and with a healthy bill I might add) but it never felt any better to play.
I might never have known what was wrong except for a bit of luck. About 2 1/2 years ago I did some internet research to find out the current value of my bass. I was a little surprised how rare it is and how much it is worth. This started me playing a bit more with all the same old complaints. Then the volume pot went bad. I took the guitar into Act One Music here in Langley BC and had Steve Brand look at it. He is the resident guitar tech at Act One Music.
I asked him to change out the volume and tone pots and at the same time look at the setup. I didn't even need to tell him all the problems I had playing it. He immediately said the setup was all wrong starting with the truss rod being too tight and the strings too high and the nut groove for the E string was cut too deep. I had him go ahead with the the work and crossed my fingers that he was right.
When I got my bass back it was like a new instrument. The action was light, low and fast with no fret buzz. I found my playing improved 100 percent overnight. I no longer get sore fingers or blisters or cramps. I very seldom miss a string any more.
If that was all the improvement I would have been ecstatic but there was more. When Steve changed out the pots he found the guitar was wired wrong in the factory. It turned out that the pickup was never working right. I gather that instead of hum cancelling it was signal cancelling!
I think guitar setup is sometimes taken too lightly. Even some professional techs don't seem to realize that a bad setup can make a guitar so hard to play that a beginner may quit because of it.
My advice to any new player would be this. If you find your bass excessively hard to play or if you have blistering and excessive soreness or cramps and the symptoms don't go away, look at your bass as a possible cause. Remember though not all techs are equal. If, after setup, the symptoms persist don't give up, Have someone else check the setup. Keep looking until you find a tech who can fix the problem.