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How I Get the Lowest Possible Action

Discussion in 'Hardware, Setup & Repair [BG]' started by Sgt. Rock, May 1, 2010.


  1. Sgt. Rock

    Sgt. Rock

    Apr 10, 2010
    ...and that doesn't have anything to do with meeting women. :)

    I know it's a cliche, but I really do prefer the lowest possible action I can get away with on any bass I currently own and play. When most other players pick my basses up, the fret-buzz is overpowering. I like it this way, for a number of reasons I'll list later.

    One of the best things I ever did was to learn how to do my own set-ups. Changing string gauges, changes in seasonal weather and atmospheric conditions, shipping an instrument, even normal wear can result in the instrument needing a partial or full set-up, and it can be a real pain to find a shop that can do the work for you exactly to your liking. There are a million website tutorials on how to get that ultra-low action that requires barely touching your strings to fret a note, but most of them just haven't worked for me for one reason or another. So I kind of developed my own way of doing it and I find it works very well. I figured I'd list it for anyone looking to get that "light-touch" low action that I prefer.

    Ideally I do this through an amp, using the same touch on the strings I will use when playing with other instruments. First, I don't capo the 1st fret and the last and slide any kind of feeler under the 7th. I know it makes sense and it works for a lot of guys, but through trial and error I have found a way that is much simpler, faster and ultimately works out better for me. What I do is sight down the neck from the headstock on the E-string side (B, obviously, for you fivers). I adjust the truss rod to get the smallest amount of relief (bow) possible, using the string itself as a straightedge (loosen the strings before adjusting the truss rod). What I am trying to do is get the neck as straight as possible, with the smallest amount of relief I can get away with. I actually set the relief so straight that the strings themselves pull the neck into postion when tuned. Then I tune the instrument to get the string tension correct and consistent with proper pitch for the next step.

    Next, I will flip the bass around and sight down the neck to get a good look at the action from the bridge. Since the neck is basically as close to flat as possible at this point, you are in an ideal position to see any twisting, high spots, or other neck issues that are going to need to be addressed to get a good set-up. I will use the bridge adjustments to lower the E (or B) until it's ridiculously close to the frets. I actually WANT excessive fret buzz at this point, as I'm looking to raise that string to just above where it is happening, but no higher. I play whole notes, chromatically up the neck from the first fret with a light touch and stop as soon as the fret buzz is too noticeable for my tastes. Then I adjust the action of that string up at the bridge by just a hair at a time until the buzz is gone. Retune the string, start over, and repeat the procedure until I can play every fret on that string without excessive buzz. I finish out the rest of the strings in this manner, paying attention to fingerboard radius, and intonate the instrument as a final step.

    The end result is that I get the lowest possible action on the instrument without shimming, which can be done later if necessary.

    Of course, actually playing an instrument set up in this manner requires slightly different technique or you're going to sound horrible. You can't really dig in hard, especially near the neck, or your strings just bottom out. You also can't apply any backwards pressure on the neck with your fretting hand or ALL of your strings will bottom out (I find it helps immensely to keep my thumb in the center of the neck and consciously avoid pulling back). Instead, turn your amp up and play as softly as possible. Let your amp do the work for you. Think Bruce Lee-economy of motion. Use the minimum amount of force necessary to get the job done and no more. If you want to create an aggressive sounding string attack, it's still there and it's actually easier than before. All you have to do is pluck with just a little bit more pressure to bring out that rattle. If your amp is turned up and there is just a little bit of string rattle, it will sound like you are playing much, much more aggressively than you actually are. This will save wear and tear on your hands, too.

    I hope this was helpful for some of you.
     
  2. Thanks for sharing your way of setup! I need to setup my new SX P and will see if I can incoporate some of your tips.

    One thing that came to my mind regarding ultra-low action is that it might work great for "normal playing" but when moving around much at a gig, I need to have a litte extra increase in action to even out my imblanced playing.
     
  3. DanAleks

    DanAleks Cleverly disguised as a responsible adult

    Mar 5, 2009
    Helpful indeed! Thanks for the tips.
     
  4. I do something similar but find that my touch at home or even rehearsal's is much different than when the adrenalin starts flowing at the gig.
     

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