When I started stringing up my bass with some new strings, after making the bridge adjustments, I noticed something that led me to do a little research to speed my installation process. Even though I’ve been playing both electric and acoustic guitars for 40+ years, and owned my own (very inexpensive) electric bass during my teens, I didn’t truly understand how to properly install strings on a bass. I want to share the (slight for some;major for others) differences with my readership, so you might have a better experience, if you ever need to change the strings on a bass.
Most will already know this, but for those who aren’t already musicians or guitar/bass players, the strings on a bass guitar are much thicker than those on a regular guitar. The low E on a guitar is usually in the range of .052″ and .046″ (there may be some slightly thicker and some slightly less thick), which is the thickest string on a 6-string guitar. The high E on a guitar can range from .008″ thick to .013 thick. On my electric bass, the low E is .105″ thick, and the G string is .045″ thick (the G is the string that plays the highest pitch notes on a bass).
With the thicker strings on a bass, it is important to make sure the path of the string is in a straight line from the bridge all the way to the point where the string starts winding around the tuner’s post. The thicker strings, when tightened to playing pitch, are under a large amount of tension. If the string were to go over the nut (where the neck meets the headstock), and threaded to the wrong side of the tuner’s post, damage could easily occur (probably most likely either break the nut, or if this is the first string loaded, it could pull the nut loose from the slot and toss it aside) as the string’s tension was increased during the tuning process.
Okay, so we are all on the same page relative to how thick guitar strings are compared to their thicker counterpart, the bass. On many guitars, the tuners each have a small hole bored through the post, which the string is strung. Pretty simple, huh? On some of the updated tuners, they have this same setup, but they have added a locking mechanism to the tuner. Thick lock basically has a piece that is forced against the string, by an external knob that is tightened. This helps keep the string from slipping, when wrapped around the tuner’s post, and does a great job at helping to keep the instrument in tune. On most bass tuners, instead of having the hole bored through the post, they have a wide channel (seen in the photo below) cut down the post’s length. These tuners also have a hole bored into the bottom of the channel, that is parallel with the shape of the post. So, unfortunately it isn’t as simple as sticking the string into a hole, and locking it in place on a bass, but it isn’t that bad either.
Now that the background is built, lets install some strings. The bridge on my bass has four holes, each in line with one of it’s saddles, through which the strings are fed. Make sure you install the strings (each string usually comes in a paper pouch that has it’s thickness on the label) from thickest to thinnest, through that string’s hole, feed it until the ball-end is up against the bridge’s stop. If you have a bridge with side openings, you can instead just feed the ball-end into the opening, and seat it in it’s stop. If you have a bass that has four (or five, or six) holes through the body, it is likely setup to allow the strings to feed through the body, across the bridge saddles, and on up to the tuner. With your first (thickest) string fed through the bridge, hold it straight down the neck, with the end reaching beyond the headstock. Measure 2″-3″ beyond the tuner post that is for this string, and make a 90-degree bend in the string. Using heavy duty cutters, clip the excess portion of the string (just beyond the 90-degree bend point, to help keep the core and windings as one unit). Now place the end of the string (the portion still attached to the bass) into the small hole down in the tuner’s post. Push the string down so it bottom’s out in the hold. At this point, you have a string sticking straight up from the tuner, and without removing the end from the hole, grab the string close to the tuner’s post and bring the string down so it starts to wrap around the post. This will require a little effort, and make sure to start the winding in the correct direction, so the wound string again leads straight back to the nut and bridge. Keep tension on the string, up close to the tuner post, and start winding the tuner. You want to have the windings work their way down, from the fed string, so it helps apply a downward pressure over the nut. Depending on how much extra string you left yourself, after the earlier trim, the winding process can take a little bit of time. After all of the slack is taken up, making sure the ball-end of the string is still up against the stop, you can bring the string up to pitch. I like to use a digital strobe tuner, as I find they are the most accurate, but use what you have including tuning by ear. Follow the same procedure on each string, and after all are replaced, you might give the intonation a quick test. As strings get dirty or old, things change and this can effect the intonation. Just make sure the open string note is precisely one octave lower than the note played at the 12th fret, on each string.
If you are changing out your strings, just because they no longer sound nice and crisp, it is best to remove one string at a time, and replace the same before moving on. This helps to retain the majority of the tension that is working against the neck and truss rod, which is better than taking all of the tension off, and then re-applying. If you are doing work on your bass, where all four strings must be out of the way, just release the tension slowly so the bass is least effected. **(In other words, don’t cut the strings off, while they are under tension!) When replacing all of the strings at the same time (read no tension left on the neck), follow the same process I identified above, except don’t bring each string up all the way to pitch as they are loaded. Just remove all of the slack in the string, and apply a little tension. After all of the strings are loaded, you will come back and bring them up to pitch. Tuning to pitch at first is just a waste of time, as the neck’s tension will change as each string is attached, so you’ll end up coming back to re-tune again (or be way out of tune).
That just about covers the basics for installing your strings on your bass. Do remember to wear some sort of eye protection, whenever you are cutting a string, as pieces can just as easily launch as fall to the floor. One last thing, and it is related to any bass that doesn’t have a headstock that leans back away from the fretboard. Most basses that have a straight headstock also have what they call string trees, which are usually metal pieces that help apply a downward pressure to certain strings, which causes the string to make stronger contact with the nut. This can help those strings sound more pure, or less dead, so it sounds more like a note than just a thud.
I hope you’ve enjoyed the information. As always, please let me know if you have any questions or comments.
I recorded some music a few days ago, and after creating the drums, I went back in to lay down a bass track. While I was tuning up the bass, I happened to glance at my strobe tuner and noticed the intonation was off quite a bit, so I grabbed my tools.
[**For anyone that doesn’t know about intonation on guitars and bass guitars, I’ll give a brief explaination. Most electric instruments have adjustable saddles in their bridge, which are there specifically for setting the intonation. When an open string is played, say the low E string, an E note sounds (big duh, huh?). When you pluck the string again, while pressing against the 12th fret on the same string, it also sounds an E note, but it is one octave above the open string’s note. If the intonation is not set correctly, the note at the 12th fret can be either sharp or flat, relative to the open string. By moving the bridge saddle, you can adjust it until both the open note and fretted note are precisely one octave apart, rather than just shy of an octave (if the fretted note is flat) or just over an octave (if the fretted note is sharp).]
During the adjustment of the intonation, the saddles on the E string and the A string both ran out of travel, meaning they could not adjust far enough so the two notes were exactly an octave apart. To fix this, it was necessary to move the physical bridge further away from the headstock. Since the D string and the G string both intonated with the bridge in it’s current location, it was important to make sure I didn’t move the bridge too far rearward, or I could reach the point where the D & G could no longer intonate correctly.
I made a paper pattern, that I fit around the bridge in it’s current location, and I taped it directly to the body of the bass. This allowed me to mark directly onto the pattern, keeping the important information close at hand, and not needing to clean up the surface of the bass when complete.
Once I determined the location of the bridge, I marked through the three screw holes this model has, to find where I needed to drill. The body on this bass is somewhat thin, so I made a wooden jig that prevented the bit from going deeper into the wood than I wanted, as well as helping to keep the holes perpendicular to the top of the bass. I used a small compass like an awl, to mark the precise location where I wanted each hole. On a previous test, I used a 1/8″ drill bit for these holes, and I was able to muscle the screws home, but it was just a bit more tight than I wanted. On this upgrade, I used my 9/64″ drill bit, which seems to be the perfect fit for the provided screws.
After I drilled the holes with my cordless drill (the back of this bass is curved, so it was not really an option to use the drill press), I hand-fed each screw until it bottomed out. I make sure to use a fairly fresh Phillip’s bit that fits the screw properly, which helps to prevent “camming” out or other damage to the screw’s heads. I like to pre-feed the screws, so there is less chance I’d slip (as it doesn’t require as much force, after the threads are cut in the wood, the first time) with the bridge in place, and possibly gouge the bridge.
With the bridge back in place, I strung up the strings, and set the intonation. Everything worked great, and all four strings were spot on, with room to travel if needed in the future.
As I now was certain the bridge is where it will function correctly, I decided to recess it slightly into the top of the bass, to bring the string’s action down a bit. This will serve two purposes; First it will make it easier to fret notes along the neck, but more importantly, when the string has less distance to travel, before hitting the fret, there is less chance it will cause the note to play sharp. As the string stretches (even though it isn’t much), as you press the string down to make contact with a fret, this can cause a note to go sharp, just as if you bend a note that is already fretted.
I measured the distance between the bottom of the E string and the pickup, when I fretted the string at the 24th fret, to make sure it wouldn’t make contact. (Obviously, if it did, I could also recess the pickup in the same fashion as I will do for the bridge.) I also measured to see how deep the bridge could sit into the wood, and still have access to the screws that adjust the saddles, in case a different set of strings behaved differently. Based on these measurements, it looked like the maximum depth I could recess the bridge, would be approximately 0.1″.
With the bridge screwed solidly to the bass, I used a sharp marking knife to score around all four sides. Start with a light scoring, and progressively get deeper, until you are done. I removed the bridge and set it aside, so I could remove the waste wood in between the score lines. I started this operation with a small chisel, which I used to remove the inside “lip” on all four sides. I do this so I can follow up with my router plane, and this allows me to stay a decent distance from the “good” wood, helping to prevent any accidents.
Make sure the iron in your router plane is as sharp as you can get it, so there is less lifting of the wood, and more pure cutting. Start with the iron set so it is just barely below the router plane’s sole. It is quite easy to overshoot the target depth, especially when the max depth is only 0.1″! Take it slow and steady, and you should end up with a professional job.
I stopped with the bridge approximately 0.05″ deep, and plan to play the bass like this for a while. I can always come back in and make it a little bit deeper, which is usually easier than the alternative. BUT, don’t despair if you happen to go too deep. You can find a range of materials that you could use as a thin spacer, underneath the bridge, to raise the bridge as needed.
Now that the bridge is repositioned and lowered slightly, I’ll see how it plays and decide if it feels like I should remove a little more wood from underneath the bridge. Time will tell when/if this bass is ever totally complete.
Thanks for stopping by and checking out my blog. As always, please let me know if you have any questions or comments.
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