Intonation, Pickup Height and Low Action

I will be the first to admit that I'd rather pay someone else to do the dirty work and do so on a daily basis, only to realize that I'm always 90% satisfied and end up finishing the small details I actually care about.  I've spent hundreds of dollars and countless hours driving to this person and that person because they're the "best" within a 1/2 mile radius of their own community and it just so happens that I live 10-100 miles away from this person.  Well, quite frankly... I'm over it.  I hope this debunks the mystery and saves you from the countless purchases in search of "your tone."  Oh, and don't mind my grammar cuz it sucks, but thats another story :p.

A lot of us are struggling musicians and a lot of us are well off and have enough money to take care of GAS when it rears its ugly head, but a lot of us have GAS because we're just not satisfied with our current gear and I'm now a true believer that it's all about having a proper setup.  I'm sure I am not the only person who has spent thousands of dollars on different bases in search of a bass that felt "right" in our hands.  My first bass - Warwick Streamer Stage I 5 :

Warwick Streamer Stage I 5
Figure 01

My Warwick has been a horrible experience and a total money pit in terms of setups.  In my opinion, the bass has too many setup variables for a lazy novice to fully grasp in one sitting, since we all want to play a brand new instrument the moment we obtain them.  I feel this phase is where a person that wants to start playing loses interest or spends +- 30% of what they paid on the instrument and just give up and sell their instrument at a huge loss just because it just doesnt sound right.  This is also the stage where a person with more determination and income will just start purchasing more instruments and selling them @ a loss because they just can't find the tone, but have enough money to continue their GAS.  I am part of the latter group and have been pretty bitter for quite a while.  As stated before... I have a gardener, cleaning service, dry cleaner, love to eat out vs. cook @ home... etc.  So, of course this mentality was transplanted onto my new hobby - the bass guitar.  I've spent a little over $500 between all the new sets of strings and setups that technicians promised would deliver, but ended short... and left me frustrated and wanting more.  This of course led me to purchase another bass a few months ago and then another one last night.

I got home around 11pm last night with my new purchase and pulled it out of the case and was just in awe.  It's a beautiful bass, but the setup was totally just not working with me.  So last night I started searching talkbass and came onto a thread where someone commented along the lines of, "people buy boutique bases and sell them at a loss because they just dont know how to set them up - so it's a win win situation for us who have a clue."  That post really got to me - because I realized that I didn't have a fricking clue, or I just didn't want to have a clue.  But as we know... not having a clue is extremely costly and sends a lot of us into purchasing other instruments when all we needed to do was just take the time to properly set up our own instruments to our own liking.  Well, last night I came home with my new baby:

Fender American Deluxe Precision V Fender Precision Fender Maple Neck Fender American Deluxe Precision V fender maple neck Fender American Deluxe Precision fender alder body

As I fiddled around for a bit I started regretting my purchase because it sounded like crap.  I then started to regret my purchase because I started thinking about all the money I was going to spend on finding someone to properly setup my new instrument.  This is about the same time when I finally sat down and tried understanding what setting an instrument up actually entails.  I find it comical that I've always felt like "winging" it when it came to doing a proper setup was sufficient.  Hey, I know it all... this cant be that hard.  Boy, was I wrong.  I tried setting up other instruments up in the past, but without the proper tools.  It's like trying to use a small flat head screw driver in a phillips cuz you can just angle it properly to make it move just a little.  Earlier that day I went out and purchased a feeler gauge @ Kragen Auto Parts and started scrounging around the garage for my metric wrenches cuz I was going to give the good ole warwick another shot. 

Well, when I realized that my new fender just wasnt doing what I wanted it to do I decided to do something about it, but I then realized that a lot of the information on the Internet goes on the premise that you actually have some sort of a clue - and since I didn't have a clue brings me to this webpage - I've been up since PST 11pm 2006/07/08 and it's now PST 9pm 2006/07/09 and it's been an interesting journey I want to share with setup n00bs without a clue and that still have questions but need some visual help as well.   I know my rant above is long but hopefully you gleam something off my ranting and can make good use of the good and disregard the junk. 

So I grudgingly went back to The Gary Willis Setup Site ... I say grudingly because I've been trying to digest that information for weeks now and it's just aimed for people that have a clue and a manual to follow along with the website.  Well, with the manual a lot of us probably think we're going to wing 0.20mm or 2.8mm or 5/64" but when we really sit down and think about it... yeah, I spent a majority of the night looking for fractional inches, trying to figure out what the hell a mm was and where I could find a mm ruler etc.  This post is for us... the clueless setup n00bs :)

I didn't pay much attention in elementary school, so I spent quite some time trying to figure out where I could find a mm ruler, heh.  Anyways, just remember that there are 10mm in 1cm... I suggest you cut the ruler as close to the printed lines as possible and then dispose of said ruler, or keep it as a good luck charm.  This is where I said, "what the heck" and just followed the provided Fender Basses - Adjustments and Care Setup Guide even tho I knew that my eye was much better @ figuring out a 5/64" (2 mm) and a 6/64" (2.4 mm) height from the top of the 17th fret to the bottom of the bass strings.  This is where I was kind of puzzled as I realized that the height was actually a little over 5.0 mm.  I then for the hell of it used my automotive gapper gauge I bought for less than $3.00 US @ Kragen Auto Parts and checked the relief of the neck @ the 8th fret 4th string and realized that the space wasnt .012" (0.3 mm) but was more than .024"... more than double!  This got me thinking... can I actually make this instrument sound better?  Yes!

I kind of got excited at this point and dissed the GF to spend some time with this new project.  I looked down the neck and realized that the neck had an extreme forward bow.  I pulled out the truss rod adjustment tool with the special ending so it fits at the proper angle and then was trying to figure out if i should turn the tool clockwise or counterclockwise.  Notice the fretboard has a radius and isnt 100% flat.  I'll comment on that in a little bit.

truss rod counter clockwise
Figure 04

So I figured that since the neck was bowed I would turn clockwise while holding the feeler gauge in place on the 4th string 8th fret while holding down the 1st fret and the strings from the bottom of the bass like so:

feeler gauge intonation
Figure 05

As I turned the rod it was tight and as I turned... nothing happened... I figured what the hell and continued turning and i came to a place in the truss rod where it just went soft for a good turn then engaged again... lo and behold as I gave it another turn the 4th string started getting closer to the feeler gauge!  Woot Woot!  I started getting excited and actually turned the girl down to finish this instead of her, haha.  Anyways, I went from a nasty forward bowed neck to this:

Fender Low Action Maple Neck Fender - Low Action Bass Side Fender - Low Action - Treble Side

On with the show... I was able to get the neck relief to the point where the all maple neck felt like butter and was just a pleasure to play.  But when I would plug the bass in it would just sound uneven.. as I was starting to lose focus I remembered that the strings were high when I checked them over the 17th fret on each string.  First of all - if you're like me... you don't have a fine grade metal ruler or the school rulers you have laying around dont start @ 0 but have a little bit of space on the plastic and then start... I found these worthless and were actually what led me to spend $100-$200 for a setup vs. just going to Home Depot / Lowes and purchasing an actual ruler... duh.  So anyways as late as it was I went online and downloaded some printable paper rulers - I downloaded the first one and then cut it up like so:

printable paper ruler
Figure 03

I then went ahead and used the paper ruler and put the cm end on the 17th fret and then eyed the bottom of the bass strings to as close as I could get them between 2mm and 2.5mm and the bass started to come alive!

Here are some examples:

paper ruler 17th fret intonation string height paper ruler string height examples

Strings 01-04 were feeling pretty sweet, but the 05 string was just flabby and felt like booboo... took me a while to figure out that I could variate from the above reference marks and as you can see I brought the 5th string to the 3mm and the bass went from a rattler to a... growler!

As you know... you change the height of each string thru the bridge - here is my final setup for my bridge:

fender bridge bridge strings treble strings low action bridge - low action

At this stage - the bass felt like a dream while unplugged and the StroboStomp Virtual Strobe Tuner / Active DI made the intonation a breeze!  I couldnt be happier... I couldnt put the bass down as its probably the best feeling bass I've felt in a long time... but, fortunately, I wasnt finished.  This last step is where I think a majority of us have problems and spend hundreds of dollars in upgraded electronics, when the electronics are just a okay!

So it's about 9am by now and I go and plug into my stack:

stack stack stack

And guess what... it sounded like total crap!  I couldn't believe my ears... I was exhausted... had adrenaline rushing thru my body and yet... sheer dissapointment is all I can say went thru my body.  I went from 11pm to 9am in the morning with no breaks between reading and tuning down tuning back up with the strobe and just getting the action on this bass 100% perfect to my fingers and i almost felt like throwing the bass across the room.

This is where I took a good 30-60 minute break and just lost all hope.  I was completely devastated at the thought of having to take this instrument to a tech afterall :(.  Just then I realized... hey, maybe its the settings on my head?  Nope, went thru every setting flat, high... in between. nothing helped.  During this time is when I remembered I hadnt set up the pickups to what the fender manual stated.  I found hope again and spent a little bit of time looking thru and figuring out the elusive pickup settings for a p-bass.  I was confused at all the conflicting information... some people said something that worked for them... then others said something that worked for them.  I was tired and frustrated.  I at this point and in hopes of having the fender manual lead me to the right direction plugged in again... waited... played and ... dissapointment again :(

The bass sounded like utter rubish... again!  What was I doing wrong?  This is where it took me a few hours of just playing the bass and just trying to "get used to it the way it was" but totally dissapointed in the sound and the expenditure of cash and the wasted hours the prior night.  About 40 minutes into my little session of dissapointment I started paying attention to what I was doing and what was happening.  I realized, hey... some strings sound louder than the others and when I slip into the bass strings they totally dissapear.  I went ahead and just turned all the settings on my head to flat and all the settings on my bass to flat and ensured that the pickup was 100% to the neck.  Then I just started plucking a consistent pluck on one strings then the other... this is where I started messing with the pickup heights as I plucked with my right fingers and changed the height with my left.  When everything sounded great and even I jumped for joy and just started playing again... the bass sounded like crap again in a few minutes as I started plucking harder.  Ahhhh!

By this time I had gotten pretty comfortable with the paying attention to my right hand part when I realized... hey, I'm sometimes hitting the pickup magnets with my strings.   This was the answer to my problem!  The bass was sounding great when I plucked the strings after the previous adjustment because I wasnt actually fretting anything, but when I fretted and plucked with my normal attack it went all wacky again.  Here you see a picture of me just pressing down enough for the string to touch the 24th fret:

pickup height2
And here you see me pressing down  to where I'm digging in - the answer to my problem was pressing down as far as possible and setting the pickup height *while* holding down the string and then letting go to ensure the vibrating string never came into contact with the pickup poles:

pickup height2

This is where I started playing with the phillips and the pickup height following the curvature of my strings - I did this with each string.  First pressing down just enough for the string to come into contact with the frets and *then* pressing down as much as I would ever press down while moving the pickup to a level where I the vibrating string wouldnt come into contact with the poles and the sound of each string was even with the other:

pickup height2 pickup height2 pickup height2 pickup height2

This is how my pickups ended up - they follow the strings to a T - I now feel this is something only you can figure out on your own and not something another person can do for you since only you know how hard you press down on the strings when you're in a group of people playing:

pickup height2 pickup height2 pickup height2 pickup height2 pickup height2

You can see how they follow the curvature of my strings:

pickup height2 pickup height2

The bass sounds like a dream!  All the dissapointment was gone this time around.  Each string sounds even and none are louder than the others.  When I fret them they sound perfect and every note sounds even from the first to the fifth string.  The best part was when I put all the settings back to normal on my amplifier and bass.  Oh man... the best part was everything worked and this time around there was ZERO dissapointment with this bass.

I point of this rant filled post is the time spent setting up your own instrument is invaluable and is probably the answer to a lot of us wanting new instruments.  I'm going to set up my Warwick next weekend and will see what it sounds like this time around.  I'm excited and can't wait to set up my Warwick to *my* specs and not what another person thinks is satisfactory.  I was starting to feel like the person that takes their car to a mechanic and it only works for a few weeks / months and then something is wrong again.  Not anymore! 

I'm hoping this helps another clueless n00b like myself figure out what is going on with their setup.  In total, I think this whole ordeal took me a little over 12 hours, but then again... I did say this was aimed to another clueless and incompetent setup n00b. :p

Keep it positive and love your life :)