Truss Rod Adjustment & Setup on fretless Bass – Bass Practice Diary 82

Truss Rod Adjustment & Setup on fretless Sire Marcus Miller M7 – Bass Practice Diary – 12th November 2019

One of the most useful skills that you can learn as a bass player is to set up your own bass. It’s easy. Two weeks ago I released my review of the Sire Marcus Miller M7 fretless 5-string bass. It’s a good bass, but the setup was a mess when it arrived. So, on the same day that I shot the review, I also made a video about how I set the bass up, and here it is.

Why you should set up your own bass

When I was younger, I always paid a professional luthier to set my instruments up. I thought that a really good instrument needs a professional set up, and if I tried to do it myself I might ruin it. But there was one incident that completely changed my perspective, and I’m very glad that it did.

I was in my mid twenties and I’d been playing professional gigs for a few years. And I always took my basses to the same bass shop to have them set up. A very good shop where they make their own high end custom basses. So they know what they’re doing. I had just spent a lot of money on buying what was, at that time, the most expensive bass I’d ever owned.

The setup was almost perfect on my new bass, but there was a small issue on the first string, with the action being a bit too low. And so, on a few frets, the first string wasn’t ringing clearly. Naturally I took it straight to my usual bass shop where I knew and trusted them. And I paid them to give it a full setup. I didn’t mention the issue on the first string, I thought I didn’t need to. I assumed that as professional luthiers, they would make the setup perfect.

You’ve probably guessed by now, that when I came to pick up the bass two or three days later. The bass was in exactly the same condition that I had left it. Same issue on the first string. And while I was trying the bass out, I over heard the luthier say to his colleague in another room, that he hadn’t known what to do with my bass because the setup had been perfect from the start.

Only you know how you want your bass to be set up

Naturally I was dismayed to have wasted my time and money on a setup that had made no difference to my bass. I asked the luthier to make some extra adjustments, which he did, and they also made no difference. Then I left with my bass, not knowing what I should do. I didn’t complain, because I didn’t want to humiliate the guy, he had done his best.

When I got home, all I could do was try and sort out the issue myself, which I did in less than 10 minutes and I got the bass playing perfectly. And this was a revelation to me. I had always assumed that I couldn’t possibly set an instrument up as well as a professional. But I had fixed a problem in a few minutes that a professional had failed to even identify in three days.

Now, I assure you that I’m not trying to say that luthiers are incompetent or a sham. There is a reason why the luthier couldn’t get my bass setup right and I could. And that reason is because I’m a musician and he isn’t. I’ve heard all of the luthiers in that shop playing basses before, and their bass playing is very rudimentary and basic. Their skills are in making instruments, not playing them. So, when they set up an instrument, their approach is to make very detailed accurate measurements.

The problem with that approach is that it doesn’t take in to account the idiosyncrasies of each individual instrument. The luthier had performed all of the measurements on my bass, and found that everything was as it should be. That’s not really surprising, because it was an expensive bass, and I’m sure that the manufacturer had also made all the same measurements when it left the factory and decided it was perfect.

However, neither the factory nor the luthier in the shop had picked up on the issue that I was having, because they don’t play the bass like I do. And that is the key point. Only I know how I want my bass to be set up. Paying somebody else to do it doesn’t make any sense at all. They can only give me a generic set up based on what they think I want. But if I do it myself, I can make the bass play exactly how I want it to play.

How to set up a bass

There are only really five things that you need to learn how to do. And most of them are extremely easy. The most important, and possibly most difficult, is to set the relief in the neck by adjusting the truss rod. I’ve demonstrated in the video how a luthier adjusts the relief in the neck. But I tend to do everything by feel. I make small adjustments and then I try it out to see how it feels.

I think that is another really key point. Everything you do, just make tiny adjustments and keep trying it out. It might take ages to get it right, the first time that you do it. But it’s the best way, and it minimises the chances of you doing any damage to your bass.

Apart from the truss rod, the other four things that you can adjust are the saddles on the bridge for string height, the intonation on each string, the pickup height and the nut height.

As I mentioned in the video, most basses don’t come with adjustable nuts. I wish they did, check out Warwick’s Just-a-Nut III here. I don’t know why other companies can’t come up with a similar idea. If you don’t have an adjustable nut, you can lower a nut by filing it down. If you want to raise it, you need to replace it with a new nut. This is something that you probably should get a luthier to do, but most bass setup’s can be done without needing a new nut. I’ve only ever had to have a nut replaced twice in over 25 years of playing bass.