Finding the right neck relief
Preface: basically my goal is to fine tune my setup. I don't use standard tunings and string gauges, so there really has to be a method to finding the best setup for each instrument/player.
1. The neck doesn't have a back bow since I cannot think of any circumstance when that would be desirable
2. The bass is played with somewhat consistent technique
3. Nut, saddle height and frets are all ballpark where they should be.
I've heard/read "set the relief to the thickness of a business card" or "0.XXX inches" over and over, but there has to be a better way to figure out what relief you should have based on your specific instrument and your playing style. I've been searching for the answer for a while now, I have yet to find anyone go into any depth on the subject.
So I've been doing some thinking and thought I'd ask y'all if this sounds like I'm on the right track.
If you have too little relief, I would think you would get string buzz in the lower half of the neck, most likely increasing as you move lower, until the first fret.
If you have too much relief, I'd think you'd get buzzing starting from the most concave point in the neck (somewhere around the middle of the neck) and up.
And just when you get it set right the humidity levels change and the neck moves.
As I understand it, relief is to allow space for the string to move in while it is vibrating. The greatest movement will be in the middle of the 'speaking length' of the string. The shorter the speaking length, the less the movement will be; therefore the greatest relief should be in the middle of the neck because when you fret the string up at the top of the neck, that produces the greatest speaking length. You with me? So, if you don't have enough relief, you will get fret buzz; too much relief and you get nothing but bad action! The string will be higher off the fretboard than necessary. I'd have to look it up, but I thing it's 3/64" UNDER the string at the 7th fret (middle of the neck).
Any more thoughts?
I have a very non scientific way to do this. Look down the neck like the barrel of a gun. It should be almost straight and not have a big bow shape or any weird kinks at one fret or another. Then push a string down at the second fret or so with your left hand. Stretch your right hand as wide as you can from pinky to thumb. Put your pinky on the string up at the 12th fret. Tap with your thumb. It should have enough relief to make a click. It should not already be flat on all the frets. Repeat on different strings and different parts of the neck. Do it on a bass that plays well for you. Do it on one that plays poorly. You'll get an eye and a feel for set up, so when you make adjustments for seasonal weather changes or a new string gauge you have a clue. I've never had a set of feeler gauges, but I can get my basses to play really well.
First things first, you need a nice level fretboard for the measurements to be meaningful. Once I learned to level and dress the frets myself, I realized how setups are just shooting in the dark without a leveled neck.
A general statement. For light touch and attack, very little relief to a straight neck. For heavier touch and attack, one or two business card gaps around fret #8 or #9.
It's best to not get too hung up on relief because necks being made of wood change almost daily according to temperature and humidity.
Any kind of up tuning or down tuning changes relief dramatically. The MusicMan truss rod wheel is so cool for quick and easy tweaking for neck relief.
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