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Bass – Properly installing strings

Posted by is9582 on October 23, 2015 with No Commentsas , , , , , , ,

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.

Red arrows show how the string, as it meets the tuner, is in line with it's position across the nut.

Red arrows show how the string, as it meets the tuner, is in line with it’s position across the nut.

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.

Bass headstock with strings attached. Note: the red arrow is pointing towards the hole down in the tuner, and you can see the string coming up from that point.

Bass headstock with strings attached. Note: the red arrow is pointing towards the hole down in the tuner, and you can see the string coming up from that point.

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.


Lee Laird