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Bass Neck Relief...What's Standard?


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A friend of mine asked for my opinion on this recently, he's got an old '80's Yamaha bass (it was his dad's) that he wants to get the neck perfectly flat with no neck relief.  The truss rod works to a point, but he says that he can't seem to completely adjust the relief/upbow out of it.  Right now, he's got the lightest strings on it that he can find (I think he said they're D'Addario nickel XLs in a 40-95 'Super Light Gauge'), and he said this did help some, but that there is still a little relief left on the neck.  He says that he has the truss rod adjusted as tight as he dares, I've played this bass and the action seems OK to me, but I'm a hack bass player...as long as the strings aren't so high that they look/play like overhead power lines, I'll give it a go.  I told him to be thankful that the neck isn't backbowed, and it's still playable.  :rolleyes:

So, the question...is a little neck relief OK, or even desirable, on a bass guitar?  Or should the neck be as flat as Kansas?  Or is it simply a matter of taste, depending on playing style, string gauge, or whatever else could factor into it?  What's the consensus for setting the action/adjusting the neck on a fretted electric bass?  A Google search on the topic didn't seem to be much help.  Also, would loosening the truss rod and manually 'adjusting' the neck to taste, then retightening the truss rod (like they used to have to do on old '60's/'70's Rickenbacker basses) work?  TIA!  :)

Edited by crunchee
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You're going to need some relief for a bass to play clean, unless you have a VERY, VERY gentle right hand attack, or your idea of "low action" isn't actually that low.

I typically aim to set up basses with 45-105 (the most common gauge with my clients), for my guys who say "low action," with 3/64", 3/64", 4/64" and 5/64" unfretted at the 12th fret, the measurement being the bottom of string to acme of fret bead, with relief about the thickness of about a Fender medium gauge pick in the F(ret) 9 area. With a fifth low string, we shoot for 6/64" unfretted at F12. 

I say "aim" because it's, again, dependent on the player's right hand attack. Start at that point, then ubertweak the rod and the individual string heights to taste.

Mind you, this is assuming we're working with a properly slotted nut and a bed of frets that is level the entire span of the fingerboard. That fret bed dictates how low you can get your strings, how little relief you need, etc.

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I've always dialed in some relief on my bass necks to achieve a forward bow yielding roughly the thickness of a dime in the middle register when fretting the string at the body-end of the fingerboard. Flatter than that, and I tend to get too much fret buzz when digging in... Subjective, but that works well for my playing.

The old washer trick sometimes helps the Fender-ish necks in cases where the rod is maxed out - i.e. spin off the truss rod nut, add a washer (or two, depending...), re-tension...

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By the way - just adding this if it helps... If I recall, the washers I've used have around 5mm inside diameter, and about 9mm outside diameter, and roughly 1.5mm thick. You can find 'em being sold for this specific purpose on Ebay and elsewhere at a markup, or just go grab some at Ace for pennies :)  Last I had done this was on an old ESP tele w/heel adjust, and I just spun the rod adjusting nut off and took it with me to size up the washers.

Hard to say whether this could help the max'ed rod on your friend's bass, as there could be other things at play... and I have seen folks do as you describe and clamp and heat the neck to coax it back into shape. Haven't personally had to attempt anything like that yet (knocking on all the wood around me...).

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I can attest to the washer trick working when the truss rod is maxed out.  Worked fabulously on the most-expensive / worst Strat I've ever owned.  Allowed for additional adjustment (In the end, the additional adjustment was no help as we discovered the neck was twisted - replaced by Fender under warranty and promptly sold at a loss).  

I am definitely watching this because I have a fantastic P-bass (no congratulations due me: Fender built the bass) and knowing no better I set it up like I would a guitar.  Plays great to me, but it would be interesting to have an actual bass player provide some feedback.  

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