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fretwork on new basses, what can I expect? (different pricepoints, brands, etc.)

Discussion in 'Basses [BG]' started by Nohrellas, Jul 1, 2020.

  1. Nohrellas


    May 11, 2016
    I'm shopping around for a few more "interesting" or "unique" basses, basses with piezo pickups, short or medium scale, headless, different pickup combinations, hollow or semihollow, that kind of thing. After getting burned by a purchase recently (thankfully I could return it) and testing out all kinds of instruments at different pricepoints I think that I might have a problem with the level of fretwork that I come across on most instruments.
    You can usually find info on whether or not the fret ends are dressed nicely and if the frets are polished out of the factory, but since I come from a very spoiled position (Sandberg basses, they PLEK all of their instruments and have excellent fretwork) and since I am used to playing with a very low action I've been disappointed quite frequently with the actual levelling job on many basses. My preferred action, measured at the 24th fret with a capo on the first fret, is .045 .055 .070 .095 .125 from G to B with very "normal" round wound light gauge strings (040 or 045 sets), neck relieve set properly.
    My Sandberg took that action without a problem, my Maruszczyk bass was almost as good, I had to raise the action just a tiny bit compared to that, but on many new basses that action would be unplayable since there would either be a few frets or larger spots along the fretboard where it buzzes or chokes out. That's obviously because the frets in that area are either too high or too low since they weren't levelled precisely enough, so it requires a completely new fretjob (levelling and crowning).
    Expecting perfect fretwork on a 200€ bass is unreasonable, I get that. But buying a 400€-800€ instruments just to realize that the action needs to be set to .100 even on the G string, because otherwise it would buzz on one or two frets along the neck, is very frustrating. As is buying a bass for almost 2 grand just to realize that my preferred action is too low and keeps buzzing in a few spots.
    I've been very apprehensive about buying online now, and I'm pretty sure that most music stores also wouldn't let me fiddle around with the action of a bass that I haven't bought just to check out if it can take this low action, so my options are pretty much limited to Sandberg now since this is the only brand where I can be pretty damn sure that the fretwork will be excellent. So I'd love to hear recommendations on brands and basses at all pricepoints that have consistent, good fretwork. It doesn't need to be perfect on lower priced instruments, I'd be fine with setting the action to .060 on the G string (progressively going up) on a lower priced bass for example.

    tl;dr: At what pricepoint (probably not that good of an indicator) can I expect really good fretwork? Or rather, which brands are known for their excellent fretwork out of the box? I've been looking at Ibanez, asian made Spector and Supro basses specifically.
    And if my expectations are completely unreasonable I'd also like to know that, maybe I'm just too spoiled here.
  2. elgranluis


    Feb 14, 2003
    Vail, CO
    I read some parts of your post.

    instead of looking at brands with amazing fretwork , I would recommend to buy any brand and then have the frets done.

    Just add 100 bucks to the price of the bass. You don’t need to pay 2 grand for a bass with amazing fretwork, just pay the extra 100 to get amazing fretwork ok any bass.
  3. Nohrellas


    May 11, 2016
    I'm aware of that option, and I did not buy a 2k bass just to get good fretwork. The problem arises when you want to try out a few interesting, weird basses (like I'm going to), maybe at lower price points, and then invest money into them in the form of a fretjob. 100€ for a fretjob on a 200€ or 300€ instrument hurts, especially when you sell it again down the line and you know that money is just gone.
    And buying a 1k bass just to find out that the fretwork is sub-par or even bad would probably make me instantly dislike the bass even if it can be fixed by throwing some more money at it.
  4. ModuMan

    ModuMan How many is too many? Supporting Member

    Feb 23, 2007
    Bristol, CT #19
    I think you will find that basses at every price point can benefit from a great fret job.

    You are looking at very specific tolerances and to achieve very low action. And that's fine! I wouldn't look at that as an "extra" expense, just part of making the instrument suit you perfectly.
    Greycode, Low Crow, DrMole and 2 others like this.
  5. Nohrellas


    May 11, 2016
    I would just say that, at a certain price point, I simply expect excellent fretwork out of the box. And at lower price points I'd like to have at least good or decent fretwork. I could choose not to look at the expense of a fretjob on a new instrument, but my bank account will still notice it. And factoring in another 100€ for every bass you buy, especially when you're in the habit of trying out new instruments and then selling them again after some time, quickly adds up. So I'd like to avoid sinking in that investment with zero return on my next purchases if possible.
  6. ModuMan

    ModuMan How many is too many? Supporting Member

    Feb 23, 2007
    Bristol, CT #19
    There's that word... "expect".

    I wish you luck in finding what you are looking for. :)
    Last edited: Jul 1, 2020
    jmattbassplaya, Low Crow and DrMole like this.
  7. BB Brian

    BB Brian

    Apr 15, 2020
    West Texas
    It sounds as if you know your way around setting up a bass. Ever thought about taking the next step and learning how to level, crown, polish and dress your own fretboards? The tools are an expense to be sure, but you do 3 fret jobs and they have paid for themselves.
    Greycode, Jackcrow, RSBBass and 5 others like this.
  8. godofthunder59

    godofthunder59 God of Thunder and Rock and Roll Supporting Member

    Feb 19, 2006
    Rochester NY USA
    Endorsing Cataldo Basses, Whirlwind products, Thunderbucker pickups
    Any retail establishment should be willing to do a setup on bass to help facilitate a sale, basic stuff, tweak the truss rod, adjust the bridge etc.
    imabuddha likes this.
  9. Nohrellas


    May 11, 2016
    I actually have the tools already and I practiced on several beater basses and old necks, the truth is I can level and crown to an acceptable level, but not to the degree where I would be absolutely satisfied with it. Also, it takes me over 3 hours for a complete fretjob and when the result ends up just being "okay" that can be quite frustrating. I know I can practice and keep getting better at it but I'm not sure how much of a timesink that would be to learn this very specific skill that I won't be using all that often.

    That's not really the issue here, I do my own setups anyway. The problem is that the frets are not perfectly levelled to a point where I'm happy with them on most basses, so I need to raise my string height to avoid buzzing or the notes choking out. And pretty much all retail stores I've been to either don't know how to setup basses or they simply don't do it.
    M0ses likes this.
  10. Turxile


    May 1, 2011
    I have an Ibanez BTB846v purchased new last year and the fret work was immaculate out of the box. The action on it right now is fairly similar to yours, about .05 for G and upwards.
    However I might have been lucky with this one of course. And I have to add that while fretwork was excellent, the electronics were put on hastily and I had to get those fixed.
    Nohrellas likes this.
  11. fishdreams

    fishdreams Supporting Member

    Sep 4, 2010
    Brooklyn, NY
    Endorsing: Arkham Vacuum Tube Amplification and and Martin Keith Guitars
    If you say consistency at all price points I say Yamaha

    That said I've had basses that developed action problems over time, and that had simply to do with the climate I live in with sometimes big overnight humidity and temperature changes. It's not always the fault of the manufacturer if a fret job isnt perfect.
    Andre678 and Lackey like this.
  12. BobKos


    Apr 13, 2007
    For mass produced basses you will always have a crap shoot for fret work. Just as your skills don't meet your satisfaction, same is true for maybe 50% or more of people doing it in the factories (if they're doing it at all on some models). My best advice is to take a fret rocker with you when you go look at basses. It can be a bargaining chip that will allow you negotiation room to offset the cost of having the job done professionally. Answer to your question - Sadowsky is famous for good fret work. That is the price point where you can EXPECT good fret work every time.
  13. dune

    dune Supporting Member

    Jul 5, 2019
    Ivins, Utah
    You mentioned Ibanez...

    I bought a BTB845V online. 33" E to C strung bass - price point $999. It arrived here as it had left the factory. Retailer hadn't opened the box. It needed a truss rod adjustment and had 2 high frets, which I took care of myself. E is 5/64" at the 12th fret (measured per your technique, E is ~.105 at 24th). I had similar issues to Turxile with the electronics. I think the stock Ibby preamp sounded OK, but it was, shall we say - less than robust. I never cared for the way mine was finished (stain job was sub-par to say the least, ramp was a different color), so in addition to USA Barts/NTMB I stripped it, re-contoured the body to make it more comfortable to play and put an oil finish on it.
    ibanez btb845v (4).jpg 20200530_154738.jpg
    Last edited: Jul 1, 2020
    sirdude23 likes this.
  14. aproud1

    aproud1 Don't surround yourself with yourself. Supporting Member

    Aug 13, 2007
    Cincy, OH
    You pay a price for really low action. You can pay before or after the sale. I buy every bass expecting to have to tweak something on the fretboard. As others have indicated, I see three options for you.

    1. Buy new, higher end instruments and let the builder/shop know your expectations (any decent shop selling a premium bass should do a very detailed once over, especially if they know the buyers preference)
    2. Buy whatever bass you want knowing you will likely need a fretjob or touch up. You'll need to find a shop you trust that understands your precise expectations.
    3. Buy an inexpensive bass, watch several youtube videos, invest in some files and learn to do your own fretwork.
    I too like really low setups and play with a light touch. I rely heavily on option 2 and 3. Have bought many, many basses and the only thing consistent with fretwork is that it is inconsistent. IME no one and no wood is perfect. A great fretjob now could change in a year. So option 2 or 3 can come back into play.

    I think I could count on my hands how many basses I've owned that needed zero fretwork. Zon, Roscoe, Warrior, Music Man and an Ibanez (my current Ibanez) come to mind. I've bought very expensive custom basses from "boutique builders" that I had to send back for fretwork. One from a very respected US company.

    Either way, good luck. Hope it works out for you.
    imabuddha and dune like this.
  15. smtp4me


    Sep 30, 2013
    Philadelphia, PA
    I have to agree here. The more expensive the instrument, the more I expect the craftsmanship to be higher - after all - better craftsmanship and better components are exactly what you pay for with a "higher-end" bass.
    Bassaga, Nohrellas and dune like this.
  16. murphy


    May 5, 2004
    Toronto, Canada
    Sadowsky and F-Bass come to mind

    I lucked out with my AM Performer Precision too
  17. Every lakland bass i have purchased has had immaculate fretwork. All skylines. 1500 down to 800 bux. New basses that require fret leveling are unacceptable.
    Skillet and Nohrellas like this.
  18. In my area of Japan the amount the local shop charges is twice what I paid for the tools I needed including buying a very cheap bass to practice leveling and crowning on! Of course time is valuable, and I would have gladly paid up to around $150 US to someone competent to do it. I just couldn’t justify paying about $320 though!

    Edit: Nohrellas, I just read your comment where you wrote that you have the tools and some experience but aren’t able to get good enough results for the low action you desire. You also mentioned that it takes around 3 hours to do the level and crown. All I can say is that I wish that I could do it so quickly! I’ve only done two necks so far, and I didn’t record the exact amount of time it took, but I think I spent closer to 10 hours per neck. That includes the dress & polish after crowning.

    My action is set a bit higher than yours as my touch is not so light… My Tokai 4 string P bass copy is set from 2.25mm on the E to 1.75mm on the G with neck relief of 0.3mm and I get no buzzing anywhere unless I play much too hard. Maybe it’s possible for you to go more slowly/carefully during the leveling step to get the precision you desire.
    Last edited: Jul 1, 2020
    Greycode and Andre678 like this.
  19. One would think.

    In 3 separate purchases (yes, a small sample size), I was presented with the following:

    [StanHash ~ 2013]
    Me: "I'm buying this new (floor model) Fender Blacktop bass. Any chance I could get a set-up with that?"
    Store: "No, we don't do that anymore. Too many people taking advantage of us."

    [SittarCentre ~ 2015]
    Me: "I'm buying this Ibanez Sr500. How much extra would a setup be?"
    Store : "We don't have anyone right now who knows how to do that; our tech is on vacation, should be back next week."

    [Mom&Pop ~ 2019 via Telephone]
    Me: "Hi! I have four basses I would love to bring in for a professional setup, since I have never had a professional setup."
    Store: "Uh, I'm not sure what you mean? Do you need strings? We sell bass strings."
    Me: "Well, I will probably purchase a new set of strings for the basses, but my question is about setups and how much is charged, and if there is a good time to come by, to let the tech know about my "personal playing style?"
    Store: ".................."
    Me: "A setup includes truss rod adjustment, setting intonation, string height; right?"
    Store: "I'm sorry, I really don't understand what you want. Maybe you should come in to see our large selection of bass strings?"
    Me: "No thanks, I must have dialed the wrong number."
    pellomoco14, DrMole, bpc and 2 others like this.
  20. luciens


    Feb 9, 2020
    I feel your pain and I agree with other folks. The general rule of thumb is, as you lower your preferred action, the cost of the bass goes up exponentially and the PITA goes up hyperbolically. Meaning, at some very low preferred action setting, there isn't a bass available that you don't have take some tools to to get it setup to your liking and won't make you break a sweat as you start grinding/carving into your brand new baby.. :)

    The only exception that I'm aware of is the rickenbacker 4003, where I somehow managed to not have to touch the frets on any of the ones I bought (4 or 5 over the years), and was able to practically run the action at the proverbial gnats rear end with no tools other than a socket for the truss rods and a set of nut files. That may have just been luck, because I've seen others complain about fretwork on ricks also. Go figure.

    Otherwise, this is why a) I went fretless around the year 2000, and b) started doing my own setup work.

    As for a) the move into fretless was how I partly got around my own crappiness as a repairman/tech. Like you, I just wasn't able to put the years of work into it required to really learn how to do good fretwork. But I found that if I got an unlined fretless fingerboard, the chances that I could get a very low non-buzzing action out of the box went up a little bit. I estimate about 15-20%. Accordingly in the last 20 years, I've only had to rework 2 fingerboards on FL basses I've owned. And I've only had to return 1/3 of my recent fretless bass purchases due to fatal fingerboard problems out of the box (1 bass had to go back, out of the 3 that I now own that are good OOTB).

    That's not much of an improvement from getting rid of frets altogether, but it has been significant over fretted basses. It's saved me a little bit of money and spared me a slight little bit of pain. There are a lot of downsides of doing that, though, the main one being a pitiful instrument selection compared to the fretted bass, and of course everything associated with learning to play the FL.

    As for b) that's been a mixed bag too. I won't go into detail but, a general rule of thumb that I've found is, once I get to 3 basses, it starts to become both cost effective and PITA effective to buy my own tooling for doing basic setup work. 2 basses or less, it's not worth it, but once you get to 3 or more, it starts to get prohibitive to have someone else maintain and repair your basses. Again, I won't dwell on the details of how I arrived at that conclusion, but that's generally my finding.

    Anyway, I know that's not very encouraging, but this is generally kind of what I've found over the years for us low-action types. There's really no escape from having to do at least some tinkering even on moderately expensive basses. If you can accept a higher action, the cost and pain drops dramatically, but otherwise, it's just part of the game.....

    Last edited: Jul 1, 2020

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