Upon becoming a Fodera artist, I would like to share how I maintain, setup and tone my beloved bass guitar.
Although this article focuses on my Fodera Emperor Standard Classic 5 as an example, the same approach can be projected to any bass.
Topics in this post contain highly subjective preferences. Your might (and probably will) differ from mine, but the general principles will be useful.
Detailed spec options of ESS5 can be found at http://www.fodera.com/emperor-standard-classic/ . My bass happens to have an alder body with black finish, maple neck and rosewood fingerboard. I have two Fodera/Duncan alnico humbuckers which can be switched to single coils.
Generally speaking; ash + maple produce a brighter tone with a pronounced top end, typically preferred for slapping. However, slapping is not the only application – many non-slapping bassist prefer this combination as well. Alder + rosewood produce a warmer tone with pronounced low mids. In both cases, you can even out things to a certain degree using EQ. Maple reflects too much of the fret & finger noise for my taste, so I prefer alder + rosewood.
Ceramic humbuckers produce a modern tone typically preferred by metal / progressive / etc players, while alnico (“al”uminum + “ni”ckel + “co”pper) produce a vintage tone. I seem to prefer alnico.
Rest of my gear can be seen at Pinterest .
I prefer to use medium gauge uncoated nickel roundwound strings.
Light gauges feel like rubber under my hands, and heavy gauges consume a lot of finger stamina. Medium gauges provide a happy balance.
Coated strings have a longer life span than uncoated strings. However, the ones I tried so far sounded dull to me. They also have limited grounding capabilities because the metal of the string can’t touch the skin. On certain situations, I hear sparky electric clicks through the amp when I move my hands up & down, which is obviously not desirable. Therefore, I prefer uncoated strings.
Steel strings are too bright for my taste, and they wear the frets much faster than some other materials. They also have a very strong magentic pull – the pickups of my Fodera seem to pull steel strings so much that the B string sounds off-pitch despite the perfect setup. I assume that cobalt strings would have an even greater magnetic pull. Therefore, I prefer nickel strings.
Flatwound strings provide have a very warm, deep tone with no finger noise. Roundwound strings provide clearer high mid & treble frequencies, which I happen to like a lot. That’s also suitable for the music styles I play. Therefore, I prefer roundwound strings over flatwounds.
Some typical strings I reach out for are;
Setup & Maintenance
I change my strings whenever they sound to sound dull to an extent where it can’t be fixed with EQ (what is lost, can’t be put back). If the string change is not part of my periodic maintenance, I change one string at a time to keep the neck constant and apply the maintenance steps (below) after the point of string change. Otherwise, I remove all strings so I can run through the entire maintenance procedure.
Normally, I run a full maintenance once every 6 months, which is based on the following steps.
Here are my measurements mentioned below in a clean format.
Neck relief: 0.25 mm @ 8th fret when 1st and last frets are pressed String height: 1.25 1.25 1.25 1.50 1.75 from G to B @ 24th fret Front pickup height: Bass side 2.5mm, treble side 1.75mm between the pickup + bottom of string when strings are pressed @ 24th fret Back pickup height: Same as front pickup String spacing: 19mm between the mid points of the strings
First of all, I remove all of the strings. Thanks to the easy string removal system on the Fodera bridge, this is as easy as it can be.
Next step is cleaning. I use an air duster to blow the dust off the cavities of the bass. Then, I clean the guitar with a good guitar polish applied to a clean soft piece of cloth on every place except the rosewood fingerboard. Afterwards, I dry it off with another piece of cloth.
Next step is fingerboard maintenance, which applies to rosewood only (don’t do it if you have a maple neck). The deal is, rosewood has tiny little horizontal dents all over the fretboard. If the neck gets too dry, those dents tend to grow and turn into cracks. If things get further and the cracks grow as well, you might end up having a ruined neck. Therefore, you need to oil the rosewood fingerboard from time to time. I use lemon oil for that, which I apply to the entire fingerboard generously. Wood between each fret interspace should “drink” a fair amount of lemon oil with the help of a clean cloth. After the entire fretboard is oiled, I let the guitar rest and dry for a day or two. At the end of this period, I dry off any remaining oil from the fingerboard and frets using a clean soft cloth.
If you have a neck without finish, you would need to apply gun stock wax to it as well; the same way you applied lemon oil to the fingerboard.
Jason from Fodera Guitars has a wonderful video on oiling the fingerboard; which you might want to watch if you have never done this before.
Next step is to put on the strings. Not much explanation needed here; except keeping the neck in balance. I start with the A string (the middle string), and add an additional string to either side sequentially – which looks like A – E – D – B – G. Then, I tune the strings.
Next step is to setup the neck relief. I apply a capo to the first fret and press the first string at the 24th fret. Using a feeler, I measure the distance between the first string and the 8th fret. I have a light touch, therefore my ideal measure is 0.25 mm. In my opinion, this is as close as you can get without any buzz. If you have a harder touch, you might need to adjust the relief as needed.
You need to re-tune your strings after each truss rod adjustment.
If you are not experienced with this setup, get help & training from a luthier or more experienced player on the first few times. Jason from Fodera Guitars has a wonderful video on the subject; which you might want to watch – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cgmoRHr2cD8 .
String Height and Spacing
Next step is to adjust the string height via the bridge. Using a measurement tool, I measure the distance between the end of the string and the top of the fret at the 24th fret for each string. Due to my light touch, my ideal distance is 1.25 mm for A D G, 1.50 mm for E and 1.75 mm for B string. The reason why E & B have different heights is; they are stronger strings and they need to be a bit farther away so they don’t overpower weaker strings. If you have a stronger touch, you might need to raise the strings according to taste.
Most bridge saddles have 2 screws for each string. Make sure that they have the same height. And you need to re-tune your strings after each height change.
If your bridge supports string spacing adjustment, you can adjust to taste. My Fodera has a string spacing of 19mm, which provides a wide comfort. The key is, distance between the middle points of string should be equal. For example, distance between B – E should equal to the distance between E – A.
In case you need instruction, I recommend the string height video of Jason from Fodera Guitars.
If you lower a string as much as the bridge allows you to, but still can’t get as low as mentioned above, then your neck angle might not be properly setup. That wouldn’t be the case with a high end boutique bass; however, you might experince that on production basses. The solution is to remove the neck, apply a thin piece of card / wood between the neck & the body at the spot closest to the bridge, re-attach the bridge and re-run the maintenance procedure. A very thin shim goes a long way. This will change the bridge angle and lets you lower the strings further than before.
If you do a shim operation, you obviously need to go back and restart the setup with the neck relief. If you are not experienced with that, you might get help from a luthier. In case you need instruction, the commercial video of StewMac can give you a good idea.
After setting up the neck relief and string height properly, you shouldn’t experience any buzzing. Play around some with your regular touch. If you experience buzz between the 1st-12th frets, the neck might need more relief. If you experience buzz between 12-24, the string height might not be enough.
Please note that another reason for buzz might be unleveled frets. Ideally, each fret should have the exact same height all over the fretboard – that’s usually achieved with a plek machine. If some frets are higher than others, those might buzz despite a perfect setup matching your playing style. The quick but poor solution is to increase the distance between the string & frets by playing with the relief or string height. The good solution is to have your frets leveled by an experienced luthier. In case you are wondering, you can watch Stew Mac leveling frets. That’s not something I’d recommend doing on your own.
Next step is to setup your pickup height. Again, this is a matter of taste. If you set your pickups close to the strings, they will sound hotter. Set them apart, and you’ll get the opposite effect.
Please note that pickups produce magnetic pull. If the pickups are too close to the strings, the magnetic force of the pickups will affect the oscillation of the string and you’ll start to sound out of tune. Some string materials, such as steel and cobalt, are more susceptible to magnetic pull. Some materials, such as nickel, are less susceptible. Pickup type is also a factor: Ceramic pickups tend to produce stronger magnetic fields than alnico pickups.
In any case; the distance between bass strings & the pickup should be greater than the treble strings & the pickup. You wouldn’t want the stronger strings to overpower the weaker strings. We make up the power difference by making the weak string get closer to the pickup so they get heard better.
Here is my preference for pickup height measurement. When the the strings are pressed on the last fret (24th fret); bass side of each pickup should be 2.5mm and treble side of each pickup should be 1.7mm.
After setting the pickup height, play around your bass through your amp and ensure that all strings sound even. Due to your technique, you might be hitting some strings harder than others – or they might be other factors affecting the string to string balance of your bass. Minor pickup adjustments might be needed accordingly.
In case you need a demo on pickup height, you can watch Jason from Fodera Guitars adjusting his pickups .
After making sure that your bass is in perfect tune, it is time to check your intonation. We need to ensure that each string produces the desired frequency on the 12th fret. For example; your E string might be in perfect tune, but if the string length is not correct, it will sound off at the 12th fret and won’t be in tune overall.
For each string;
- Let the string ring and ensure that it is in tune
- Press the string on the 12th fret and check your tuner
- If the note is in tune, move to the next string
- If the note is flat, you should shorten the string via the bridge
- If the note is sharp, you should lengthen the string via the bridge
In case you need a demo on intonation, you can watch Jason from Fodera Guitars intonate his instrument.
If you have an active bass, changing your battery every 6 months is a good idea. It is also important not to leave the jack on the bass, otherwise the batteries will drain extremely quickly.
Tone is a highly subjective matter of taste with no universal rights and wrongs. How you should approach the tone of your bass depends on many factors such as your gear, technique, band, style of music, acoustics and size of the stage & venue, etc. I can’t guide you through a walkthrough of absolute tonal success, but I will talk about my approach which might inspire you to develop your own.
I do my main tonal setup by leaving my bass flat and tweaking the EQ of the amp. I use the EQ of my bass for minor tweaks during the gig, which involves tiny boost & cuts here and there (we will talk about this later). The idea is, it is hard (sometimes impossible) to turn back to your amp, tweak the sound, and get back to playing. But it is very easy to make a small adjustments via the onboard EQ with a small hand gesture.
Another reason is; once you cut a frequency, you can’t put it back any more. Think of old dirty strings that don’t ring that well any more – no matter how much you boost your treble, you can’t make them sound sparky when slapping. The same applies to your bass EQ. If you cut some frequencies onboard, you can’t put them back on the amp. Therefore, having a flat EQ on the bass initially is important in terms of frequency abundance as well.
The distance between the amp & your standing point is very important. Assuming that you have a mid sized amp, you should be staying around 2m away from your amp in order you can hear yourself. If you are too close, you will be standing behind the point where the sound is actually formed, and you won’t hear yourself well while your band members complain that the bass is too loud. If the stage is small and you can’t get the ideal distance, you might be better off using the amp as a DI only and mainly hearing yourself from the monitor speakers. Or, in-ear monitors. So, keep your distance (if possible) while shaping your EQ and playing on stage.
Your rig isn’t the only factor shaping your sound. The venue size & shape, ceiling height, stage material, amp placement and many other factors play a role on how you sound. You should imagine your bass + head + cabinets + the entire environment as a big giant rig producing your sound. Whatever you setup on the amp is only a starting point for your sound. Since you can’t shape your material environment, you’ll shape your amp EQ so that the amp -> material environment will produce the sound you want. Whatever EQ sounds good at home might sound bad on stage, or some EQ sounding good on a certain venue can sound bad on another venue. This means that you can’t have a fixed global EQ setting which works everywhere. You can have a certain sound you like, but how you’ll achieve this sound EQ-wise will differ from venue to venue. So you need to learn and love the EQ.
How you sound alone will differ from how you sound in the mix. After doing your initial EQ, be prepared to tweak it further after you play all together. Another point is; how you sound outside will differ from how you hear yourself on the stage. After setting your amp EQ to your taste, you are going to need to trust the sound guy for how you sound outside. Talk to him/her about your sound preference, but let him/her be the final judge. I also recommend sending him/her your flat signal so they can add / subtract frequencies more accurately (another reason to leave your bass EQ flat initially). Many amps have a pre/post switch or a dry out output (pin or XLR) to enable that.
Having covered the principles, we can move forward and tweak the EQ on the amp.
Start of by setting your bass flat. If you have a passive bass, you’ll want to leave the EQ wide open. If you have an active bass, you’ll want all EQ knobs centered. If you have a StingRay Classic and don’t have a center detent, good luck finding the flat spot.
Set your amp EQ flat as well. If you like the sound coming out with the flat setup, then fine! Don’t play with anything. You may get off with a good sound using a flat EQ at times. However, you’ll need to tweak the EQ in many other cases.
You need to be aware of the gain knob that most amps have. This knob will set the strength of the initial signal coming from your bass. A very low gain setting will leave you sounding weak. A very high gain setting will overpower the amp so you can’t distinguish the nuances of your technique. You need to find a sweet spot inbetween; where you sound strong enough to be satisfied while you can still hear your nuances. In many cases, gain & volume on the amp need to be balanced simultaneously. This means, the amount of gain you’ll need will be different on low & high volume situations. On my Aguilar ToneHammer 500, I tend to set the gain at 10 o’clock while the master volume is around 12.
In terms of EQ setup, you need to know what each frequency does. In case your amp has 4 EQ knobs;
- Bass will define how boomy your sound is – think of the subwoofers
- Low mid will define how punchy your sound is – think of the Precision Bass sound
- High mid will define the nasal / bite amount of your sound – think of Jaco
- Treble will define your presence in terms of string / fret noise – think of the top end of slapping
In case your amp has 3 EQ knobs;
- Bass will command your bass + a bit of the low mids
- Mid will command your low + high mids
- Treble will commad a bit of the high mids + your treble
In case your amp has 2 EQ knobs;
- Bass will command your bass + low mids
- Treble will command your high mids + treble
Different amps will have their knobs set at different frequencies; the information above is just a casual general guide.
Some amps have the option to switch to a graphic EQ. Now this is where you have the most control, but it might be overkill for many players which are not sound engineers. Talkbass has a good explanation of frequencies , but I rarely get there on live situations. If I’m in the studio, I leave that level of granularity to the sound engineers anyway.
As a general principle, cutting gives better results than boosting. If your bass sounds too boomy and you can’t hear your highs, cut the bass instead of boosting the treble. If your bass sounds too punchy and you can’t get enough bite, cut the low mids instead of boosting the high mids. You get the idea. Perceived frequency balance is as valid as actual frequency balance – when you cut the treble, people will perceive the sound to be “boomier” despite you didn’t boost the bass frequencies, and you don’t overpower anything, ending up sounding cleaner.
Most of the time, a little cut or boost goes a long way. If you feel like you need extreme EQ changes, chances are you don’t have the correct rig to produce the sound you like.
Here is how I setup the initial tone of my Fodera. Leaving the bass and the amp flat, I leave the pickup balance at 50% and switch to single coil mode. In this position, I tweak the EQ of my amp aiming at a good slap sound leaning towards Marcus Miller. Once I’m happy with that, I can tweak my bass from song to song aiming at different sounds.
- Single coil mode, %75 neck pickup, slight mid boost will lean towards a precision bass sound. Treble cut & slight bass boost gets me into motown territory.
- Humbucker mode, %75 neck pickup, treble cut will give me a sub bass sound. Usable for dance, R&B, reggae styles; plus a a double bass emulation depending on right hand technique.
- Single coil mode with centered pickup balance will give me a good slap tone. Also nice for chords.
- Humbucker mode with centered pickup balance gives my default fingerstyle bass tone. I use this position most of the time.
- Single coil mode, %75 bridge pickup, passive tone cut will give a nice mellow solo tone.
- Humbucker mode, %75 bridge pickup, slight bass boost will give a nice Jaco-ish tone. Passive tone cut is optional for some mellowness. If I don’t boost the bass, I get a good framework for compressed fuzz effects as well.
Active basses with 2 / 4 band EQ’s or passive basses will require different approaches, obviously. But how I approach my Fodera can inspire you into the right direction.
Note that your hand placement and technique also plays a great role in terms of shaping your tone. Leaving your pickup balance centered, try playing close to the neck and attack the strings softly with the meaty part of your fingers – this will produce a very warm and deep tone. Now, play close to the bridge and attack the strings with the top of your fingers as if you would scratch / claw the pickup. This will produce a very bright tone and will also allow you to play 16th notes tighter. Now, play between the neck – bridge pickup with the side of your fingers. This will produce a low mid oriented balanced sound.
The combination of amp EQ, bass EQ and your hand technique will define your initial sound output, and the venue will shape the rest. I have provided my own initial preferences, but you’ll need to work out your own over time and with experience.
After you are happy with your amp EQ and how you can shape the sound with your bass, you can set the EQ of individual effect pedals. Don’t attempt setting the EQ’s of your pedals earlier.
I feel like this is one of the most comprehensive articles I wrote about bass setup. When it comes to music, there are no universal rights & wrongs. What sounds good to someone can sound bad to another person, and what works in a certain context might not work so well in another one. Having said that, I hope that my approaches will give some inspiration to the entire community of bass players.