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Things you can do to make cheap bass play/sound better

Discussion in 'Hardware, Setup & Repair [BG]' started by PilbaraBass, Jul 21, 2005.

  1. I just want to share some experiences as well as discuss things that can be done, without upgrading, to improve the playability and sound of your instrument...especially cheap basses.

    Why focus on cheap, mass produced instruments? Because, these are the ones that have the most out-of-the-box potential for improvement.

    I think that the following aspects are HUGE in affecting the playability and sound of a production bass, and are open for discussion in this thread.

    1. Setup - action, intonation, and relief are a MUST for getting the instrument to a point of playability. I also believe that with production instruments there are definite limitations and it is important to reckognise this. However, I believe with most instruments, the proper amount of tweaking can yield quite impressive results.

    2. Pickup adjustment - i believe that not enough focus is placed on getting the pickups raised to a position where the response is maximised without affecting the string vibration very much. IMO - Pickup adjustment has a HUGE effect on the tone of the instrument.

    3. Selecting the right strings - Lets face it, production basses usually come with sub-par strings and these WILL get replaced quite quickly. But before one just slaps on some new strings, I think that the player should learn as much as he can from the strings that he already has. Things like:
    - Best gauge for the neck (more tension, less tension)
    - Best type to compliment pickups and playing style (round wounds, flats, chrome, nickel...etc...)

    I've had some great results setting up my Yamaha RBX170, by focusing on these things.

    I'd like to hear what approaches people here have taken to improve their instruments without capital investment. And most importantly, how satisfied are you with the results.
  2. I enjoyed reading your ideas. I think that a good setup is the best place to start. But one thing a person really needs to do is to go over a bass from head to toe.. Sometimes a bass might be inexpensive, simply because it does not have expensive electronics, or isn't made from exotic woods. But then again, I've run across a couple that were just plain cheaply built with no attention to any detail.

    A well-built (inexpensive) bass won't have a sloppy electronics cavity. I've seen some that looked like someone used a spoon to carve out the cavity. I worked on one that had the cover plate's screws completely miss the wood on the bass.
    I've seen others that were very well done, and well shielded.

    The neck pocket on a bolt-on won't be sloppy either. Take the neck off, and check... I worked on one that looked like a dog had chewed the pocket on it.

    Neck: Well, sometimes a person can get a neck's truss adjusted with the relief set just right, and find that the bolt-on neck angle isn't right. Action is very high at the upper frets.
    This didn't happen by accident, but was probably overlooked during the design of the instrument. Or maybe even during manufacture.
    A shim is usually needed to help set the action in this case, but can transform a virtually unplayable bass into one with some potential.

    Pickups: Need to be adjusted on virtually every bass, cheap or not. Even variations in EQ settings can leave one with a boomy LOW string, or more mids can really makes those HIGH strings stick out.
    Funny thing, is that most of the cheapest basses still come with decent pickups. Many are the Fender-type splits that Fender still uses. Many have some sort of EMGs.
    Alot of cheap basses won't have good shielding. This is something that can be improved without spending a bunch of cash.

    Balance: Well, many cheaper basses are made of basswood. Basswood is not a bad body wood. It has a warm, distinctive sound. It happens to be lighter, and somewhat softer.
    Alot of cheaper basses will have a 24 fret maple neck, and won't be balanced worth a hoot because the neck's so much heavier than the body, and the strap buttons weren't properly located to compensate for this.

    Bridge: Many will have the Fender-type bridge, which still works quite well.

    I appreciate good craftmanship, even if a bass isn't exotic. There a many improvements that can made to electronics and other areas that could transform that bass into something you would be proud to take along to the gigs..

  3. Great stuff, Magneto...

    In the case of my RBX170, the neck pocket was nice and tight and when I set the relief and then adjusted the action, I got results that suit my playing preferences (not "sick low", but low enough for smooth fretting).

    My tuners are good and tight and move smoothly (no hang-ups), so they're keepers...I'll probably do a lube on them the next string change, however, for good measure.

    The bridge is absolutely OK...other than a little bit of mass, I don't see any benefit over this stock bridge than my Leo Quan BAII that I have on my parts P-bass.


    I bought the bass used and the original strings weren't on her (although I have them)...the previous owner had a lighter gauge no-name on them...not my cup of tea...so I changed these out before I before I set her up. I have a set of D'Addario XL-170 on it and they sound wonderful.

    This brings me to the electronics...

    The electronics cavity needs some attention...pots are sub-par and there is no shielding...I'm going to have to put out a little for some new pots and do a proper shielding and star-grounding on her...

    but she's pretty quiet now, I just don't like the limited adjustment range of the pots...and since I'll have the pots out, it's time to shield.

    The tones are pretty good (not all that happy about the J-pup...but I love the P-pup soloed), so I'll stick with the current pickups now, for sure...I'll do some research...but I'm not jumping at a $100+ investment that won't have any real benefits.

    Overall I paid $170 AU for her, delivered ($130 US)...and, for the price, I couldn't be happier...
  4. Sonorous


    Oct 1, 2003
    Denton, TX
    I usually file my frets to make sure they're nice and level. You can take a sharpie and mark on each one and then make a few sweeps. If any of the frets have more sharpie left than the others, then the frets aren't even.
  5. thedoctor


    Jun 20, 2005
    Actually, this applies to the cheap guitars as well. I love to find a bass that has some real redeeming factor, like a nice neck, and make it a "player", so to speak. I LOVE the cheap Rogues (I shall now duck)! You shield the electronics cavities, replace the crappy wiring, where needed, split the pickups, if possible, put the hammer on a complete setup (nut, frets, bridge, pickup-hieght) and tighten up anything they could have been sloppy on. Good set of strings and a quality output jack-----good to go! ESP guitars are my favorite non-basses to do this to as their necks are quite nice for under-$140.00 axes. IMHO
  6. I find that a lot of inexpensive basses have poorly cut nuts. This can cause the action to be too high on the lower frets if the slots are not deep enough. Also, if the slots are too narrow for the strings, the strings often hang up in the nut causing tuning problems. I believe this is the reason so many people complain about the tuners on their instruments. If the nut slots aren't wide enough, it doesn't matter what tuners you have.
  7. This is so true.. And most of them are cheap plastic, many times not secured well to the neck. That type of plastic is hard to glue too. Not many glues work well with it.
    Then if the slots are not cut right (too tight in this case), the string pulls through the nut as you tighten it (everytime), eventually causing the nut to break free from the neck.. Bassists go to change strings, and the nut falls off without warning.

  8. Since most everything has been gone over, I will state the obvious non-setup answer - a good amp will make your bass sound much better. Cheap basses will sound very good through a good rig, which is more than could be said about the contrary.
  9. I do some things additionally to the Essex's I get my hands on that help greatly. In fact some of my mods help every bass I've done them too - not just the ho's.

    1. Blueprint the bridge - This is a humorous takeoff of the hotrodding term for totally disassembling the motor and rebuilding it to exact factory specs. In this case, I will deburr edges - especially where the strings have to pass through holes. I'll replace setscrews if they are too short to be useful for easy adustment. I've replaced the wood screws used for attachment with threaded inserts. You can do the same thing to open gear tuners too. Filing off the sharp edges can do wonders for smooth operation of the gears.

    2. Replace pots - most cheap Asian imports have substandard potentiometers. If you do one single thing to the electronics it should be upgrading the pots to quality units.

    3. Install neck inserts - I do it to all of my bolt-ons and that's just the way it is. Then it really doesn't matter if the neck pocket is a little loose - the bolts hold like nothing else so it doesn't matter.

    4. Replace plated screws - On chrome color schemes, I will always replace the plated chrome screws with stainless steel versions to avoid the rust down the road. The look good too.
  10. flexo


    May 3, 2005
    Perth, Australia
    Stupid question for you hambone,

    What are the neck inserts that you're talking about? What exactly do they do and how much are they?