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How to Set Up a Fender Precision Bass

Fender Precision Bass

The Fender Precision bass, or "P-bass," is the staple and icon of electric basses. After being brought into creation by Leo Fender in 1951, the P-bass quickly became the most highly distributed and loved electric bass in the world. The split-coil humbucker pickup gives the bass its unique sound and warm tone. The P-bass is still to this day, one of the largest selling electric basses and there are no questions why. A question one might ask, however, is how do I set up my Fender P-bass? The steps are rather simple and take just a little effort and some attention to detail, but the end result is well worth it. Set-up is an important part in the playability, sound quality and aging of a bass, and should be done at least bi-yearly for most basses--depending on the climate and how much the bass is played.

Change the strings. Remove the old strings by loosening the tuning pegs on the headstock of the bass. Do this beginning with the highest string--the G string and work you way up to the lowest string--the E string. It is done in this order so that the intonation of the bass doesn't get skewed in the process. Once the string is loose enough, you should be able to pull it out of the tuning peg slot on the head stock. Pull it out of the hole through the saddle so that it is entirely removed. Once you complete this, insert the new string through the saddle and string it up through the hole in the tuning peg--doing the opposite of the removal process. Cut the tip of the string about 4 inches from the top using your wire cutters. You will notice that the string gets smaller up there, so cut it right around where it gets thick. Wrap this around the tuning peg and tighten it until it is in tune in accordance to the note of the string. Use your tuner for this to be precise. Do this with each of the strings until it is entirely re-strung. Tune all of the strings and then the play the bass a bit to allow the strings to rid any unwanted tension. You will hear an immediate improvement in sound quality and feel an immediate difference in the bass playability.

Adjust the truss rod. Hold the bass so that the headstock is facing your eyes and the body of the bass is either on the floor or resting on a table. Look down the fretboard of the bass and see if you can spot any place on the neck where the bass is bowing a little bit. Bowing of the neck is a common occurrence to basses and happens with change of weather, increased playing or the manner in which the bass is stored. The neck typically bows downward in the direction away from the strings. If the neck is straight, and there are no visible bows in it, you can move on to the next step. If it is bowed, then use the Allen wrench (truss rod adjuster) that came with the bass. If you don't have that, then a standard 1.3 to 1.5 mm Allen wrench will do. Insert the Allen wrench into the truss rod adjuster (which is located on the headstock right where the neck begins at the nut) and give the wrench a quarter turn to the right. Look at the neck to see if this is the right amount of adjustment. If it is not, then give it another quarter turn to the right. Sometimes it is necessary to loosen the strings a bit to allow the truss rod adjustment to work. Once the visible bowing is gone from the neck, you are ready to move onto the next step.

Adjust the saddle. At the bottom of the bass where the strings end at the body, there is a square piece of metal called the saddle. This piece holds the strings at a particular height and helps keep the intonation steady on a bass. Once you have adjusted the truss rod, you will most likely have to adjust your bridge saddle as well. Use your smaller Allen wrench and simply put it in each side of the saddle and screw them until they are raised evenly. You will be able to eyeball this to make sure that they are matched properly. Do this to each saddle until they are all adjusted evenly.

Adjust the intonation. Now that the bass is far along into the set-up, you must make sure that the notes of the bass are intonated. To do this, plug into your tuner and play a string open and make sure that the string is in tune. Now play the octave note on the twelfth fret of the same string and see if the tuner gives you the same reading. If it does, move on to the next string and check all of them. If it doesn't, then get your Phillips screw driver and once again look at the bridge saddle on the butt of the bass. The adjustment screw for each string is located on the very back of each of the saddles that we adjusted previously. Go to the string that needs intonating and turn the screw to the right (or clockwise). This will move the saddle towards the headstock of the bass, matching the intonation of the open note to that of the twelfth fret's note. Do this until they read the same on the tuner. Do this to each string that needs this adjusting.

Adjust the height of the pickup. Now that the bass is intonated, you will want the pickups to be at the right height so they receive the vibrations exactly as they are meant to this. This also makes sure that they are not too high so that they don't make contact with the strings (this creates and unwanted licking sound). Using the Phillips screwdriver, adjust each screw of the P-bass pickup to make it a comfortable level for your playing. Tighten the screws to lower the pickup and loosen the screw to raise the pickup. Plug in the bass to test that the sound is exactly as it should be and that it is resting in a comfortable position.

Polish the bass. To polish your bass and maintain the health of your bass wood, you can purchase an instrument polishing kit at any music store. If you don't want to take that route, then feel free to use some common lemon oil, as it will not damage the bass. Use an old rag or a sock, or discarded T-shirt and dab the oil onto the cloth. Rub circles all over the body of the bass to remove and smudges or worn down areas. This should provide your bass with a "like-new" sparkle. It is important to do this at least twice a year and sometimes more depending on your location and the climate. You bass is not all setup and ready to play.

Tip

If you are not comfortable with setting up your bass, find a local luthier or music shop that does set-ups. It will typically cost you around $40 to $60 but can be worth it if you want to take great care of your bass.

Take your time when setting up your bass. The more you rush, the more you might miss a step or miscalculate something. Enjoy the process.

Set your precision bass up regularly. An instrument is only as good as the condition it's in, so set your P-bass up regularly. Mark on your calendar when you last set it up and mark a date to remind yourself of when it should be set up again.

About the Author

Jonathan D'Auria is a successful journalist who has written for some of the most popular music magazines in the world including "Bass Player Magazine," Bass Guitar Magazine," "Premier Guitar Magazine," "Guitar World Magazine," "Blender Magazine," "Paste Magazine," "iBass Magazine," "Guitar World's Bass Guitar Magazine," "Carved Magazine" and "The Grixer Music Magazine." He also currently writes for health and Eastern-thinking publications, along with various other outlets of all subject matter including Zocalo Magazine and Natural Awakenings.