5-string

Setting Intonation on a Bass

Most basses have saddles that can be moved backwards and forwards to set the intonation. Usually, you access the saddle adjustment screws from the rear of the bridge but sometimes the adjustment is performed from the front. Either way, the extra ‘chunkiness’ of bass hardware, compared to guitar, tends to make the job a bit less fiddly.

First though, let’s recap the prerequisites.

The rest of your setup must be right for you before you start. Intonation is the last thing to set so get your action, relief, nut and pickups sorted out first. You should have fresh strings (of your usual gauge and brand) installed, properly stretched, and tuned up as normal.

Remember, always check intonation and tuning with the bass in the playing position (i.e. not lying on a table or counter but upright as if you were playing it).

The basic theory, as always, is this:

  1. Pick the open string and verify it’s in tune.
  2. Fret at the 12th fret and pick this note. Compare it to the open string—is it flat or sharp?
  3. If the 12th fret note is flat, move the saddle forward a little using a flat or philips screwdriver as appropriate.
  4. If the 12th fret note is sharp, move the saddle back a little by turning the screw clockwise.
  5. Retune the open string and go back to 1.

Setting intonation on a bass guitar bridge (a BadAss in this case)

 

NON-ADJUSTABLE SADDLES

There are basses, like some of Gibson’s EB models that have a bridge not unlike the ‘tailpiece’ or wrap-over bridges on some Gibson guitars. These bridges do not have an adjustable saddle for each string. Instead the bridge is adjustable ‘overall’.

Adjusting 'grub' screws alters angle of bridge and therefore overall intonation.

On the bridge, behind where it mounts on each post, is a small ‘grub-screw’. Adusting the screw on either the bass or treble side can change the angle the bridge mounts at.

For instance, if you adjust the bass-side screw clockwise, it pushes against the mounting post and moves that side of the bridge further away. Essentially, the overall angle of the bridge can be changed and this can be used to approximate a good intonation.

Now, bass strings tend to intonate in a (relatively) straight line to each other—unlike the more zig-zag line of a guitar’s saddles. This usually means having a bridge like this isn’t as much of an intonation drawback as it might be on a guitar.

When intonating an overall-adjustable bridge, set the outside strings first. Check the middle strings then and see how they seem. From there, you can tweak things a little to ‘balance up’ the intonation so that no one string is too far out.

5-STRING BASSES

The bottom B can be troublesome. If you’ve got a 5-string, you’ll want to pay close attention to the rest of your setup and make sure it’s good for that bottom string. Nuts, in particular, need to be spot on—too narrow a nut slot and the string will pinch (often choking the note or even giving weird overtones) and too wide a slot will allow the string to move, killing off the tone.

Pickups are another thing to be careful of. Too powerful a pickup, or one adjusted too close, can wreak havok on that bottom string in particular. If you’ve any problems picking up an accurate tuning signal, first thing to do is to lower the pickup.

My advice is to go heavy. Don’t be shy about banging a good heavy bottom string on. More string mass means more stability (usually). Go heavy, my friend, even if you’re buying just an individual string for the bottom and using your regular gauge for the rest.

Oh, and electronic tuners… Some older (or cheaper) tuners don’t have the range and get confused by that low string, misreading it or failing to realise it's there at all. Of course, if you have a 5-string and a tuner, there’s a good chance you know this already.

The Problem with 5 and 7-String Instruments

Got a six-string guitar? Great. Got a four-string bass? Super. You’ll be pretty well catered-for when it comes to advice on setup.

Add an extra string down the bottom end, though and things can get a bit more unsure. For the five-string bassists and the seven-string guitarists, that fat, floppy string might need a little TLC to get it to behave and to sound good.

So, for the low-down, B-stringers, here’s a few thoughts and considerations.

Tips for the Bottom String

That low end comes with a drooping drawback. Nobody likes a loose bottom so what to do? Weird tuning wobbles, unfocused sound. What to do?

Well, string tension for any particular tuning/pitch depends on the scale length and the size of the string. Let’s look at those.

Scale Length

A longer scale length can give more tension and focus to that wobbly bottom string.

Scale length is difficult to do anything about if you already own a particular instrument. Of course, if you’re still shopping around, it might make sense to at least try out something like a 35” scale five-string bass and there’s a choice of longer scales for a seven-string guitar if you dig around. Multi-scale might even be an option if you were feeling adventurous.

Assuming you already own the damn thing, though, what can you do about scale length? Erm… Not a lot, really.

“Oh, but I read this article about extending the string’s length behind the bridge with spacers,” you say.

“Stuff and nonsense!” I reply, really emphasising the exclamation point.

You can have a mile-and-a-half of string behind the bridge or at the other side of the nut and it’ll make no difference. The scale length and string size determines the tension for any particular tuning, and the scale length is only that bit between the nut and bridge*. If anybody tells you to add spacers to make your string longer feel free to disagree wholeheartedly, because PHYSICS.

*Note: The bit behind the bridge and beyond the nut may have an impact on the compliance, or elasticity, of the string but this is more a factor in the ‘feel’ than in the tone or floppiness of any given string. More on this another time. 

String Size, then?

Yep. All things being equal, a heavier string at the same pitch will have more tension than a lighter one.

If you’re playing a lighter bottom string, try popping on something heavier. This is one area where I definitely recommend going heavy if you can.

Also, remember that not all things are equal. Differences in construction between string manufacturers can lead to differences in the strings themselves. Even two strings that have the same apparent gauge (say, 0.130”) may have differing constructions internally and can behave very differently. It might be a slow business to shop around for a different brand every time you change strings but it can really pay off in this circumstance. Remember too, that you can buy individual B-strings so you could even mix and match string brands if you wanted.

To follow on from that point (and it might help speed your quest for the perfect string), don’t let your strings get too old. Their performance will degrade as they age and you’ll definitely notice it at the bottom end.

So What Else?

Setup is important. Remember that that lower string is going to vibrate in a much bigger arc than the others so you need to have your instrument set up with this in mind. You’ll want the action set to accommodate this bigger wobble.

Relief too has to be considered. You’ll almost certainly want a little additional relief than you might on an instrument with one less string.

Give some really close attention to your nut. Slot fit for that bottom string is really important. I’ve seen a lot of poorly slotted five-string basses in particular. Slots were either too narrow and pinched the string, choking it, or they were too wide and the string could move from side to side, losing energy. A good nut—material and setup—is really important here. Correctly sized slot with a nice rounded bottom is what you want. 

And lastly, don’t forget pickup height. Use your ears to get a good balance across the strings but do not raise the pickup too much. Seriously. The natural tendency is to keep raising the pickup higher to increase output. Don’t. Too close and the magnets in your pickup can pull on vibrating strings, especially strings that are prone to wobble about in the first place. Turn up your amp if necessary, but don’t go too high with pickups.

Is that it?

Pretty much. It’s worth mentioning that an instrument’s construction can have a bearing too. Some guitars and basses will have a bit more focus at the bottom than others that are superficially similar. Play around if you’re still on the sidelines.


Phew. I think I made it without any bottom jokes. 

IMG_8317.jpg