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  • Setup specs for a fretless bass

    I'm making a new saddle and installing a UST on a beat up old Ovation fretless bass. What does everyone like for setup specs (relief, nut action, 12th or 17th "fret" action)?

  • #2
    Okay, since nobody else chimed in take this for whatever it's worth but I'd set it up like any other bass except the measurements would be from the fretboard rather than the frets. (Duh!) Fender recommends relief of .010-.014", measured at the 8th fret with the string fretted at the first and last "fret." Rickenbacker recommends zero relief, which doesn't make sense to me since a plucked string forms a curve. Fender recommends action of 6-7/64" on the bass side and 5-6/64" on the treble side, measured at the 17th fret. I'd err on the side of caution and go high, maybe higher than that. Does the bass you're working on have the equivalent of a 14th fret hump? It looks like the neck joins the body on those at the 16th fret so you should be good measuring there. You'll probably have to fudge the relief measurement if there's a hump. (And yes, I know you hate to "fudge" stuff ).
    Last edited by DeepEnd; 02-19-2018, 05:32 PM.
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    • #3
      Thanks Deep. As you know there is a big difference between zero relief and 0.010 to 0.014. For want of anything better I started with 0.005 relief, 0.010 nut slots and 0.105 action (the highest I could get without shimming the saddle but much lower than it came to me). The A string was "buzzing" a bit in the first few "frets" so I bumped the relief up to about 0.008 - seems to play cleanly all the way up the neck now. I'll return it to my customer and see what he thinks.

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      • #4
        I should have known you had already figured out what to do. Actually, the difference between 0.01 or 0.014" and 0.0" isn't huge unless you're used to working with angstroms or Planck lengths. The amount of curvature required to achieve .01" of relief is minuscule. 0.008" splits the difference between Rickenbacker and Fender nicely. I have the relief set at 0.01" on my electric bass. 0.105" is just shy of 7/64" so you're on target with the action. Acoustic bass players sometimes go for higher action in order to get more unplugged volume but playability should be much better the way it is now. Thanks for the progress report. With any luck, your customer will be well pleased.
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        • #5
          I do setups on my buddies fretless precision and also his 6 string fretless.

          What I do is get a ball park measurement using 2mm on the high side and 3mm on the low side.
          Next is relief and this is a matter of taste and a matter of what you can get away with. I typically check the high string holding the string down against the fret board at both ends and make sure the string clears the fret board between the two points.

          The heavier strings normally have more clearance then the high string but I usually check those too. Main point is to avoid string buzz by not having it dead flat or any humps along the way. On a bass I typically like relief between 10~12 but in the end its really up to the instrument and what it will allow.

          Intonation, while less important on a fretless is still a factor because of how it can change the string tension.
          I typically ball park those settings measuring them out.

          I set the high string to scale length using an extra long caliper. I measure between the nut and where the 12th Position Marker is on a fretless and lock the caliper. Then measure the distance from the 12th marker to the point of contact on the bridge. I then add the width of the first string in length. If its a .050 string then that's about 1/16 longer then scale.

          For the other strings I add that 50+70 to the next string, 50+70+85 to the next, 50+70+85+110 to the last in length.

          In other words use the second string and use it to adjust the second string longer by that width, use the 4th strings width to adjust the 4th strings longer etc.

          This will put you well within the normal ball park and give the neck the proper string tension for setting relief and height, then you can do any additional intonation tweaks to even up the tone vs pitch.

          On a fretless you cant get away with the same things you do on a fretted bass. The string tone and tension are by far much more critical. If the string length is too short you can wind up having string buzz all over the place. Too long and you tone goes out the window.

          You need to use the string harmonics and compare the note depressed like you would on a fretted guitar except you aren't moving down to be within a fret box. You want to make sure the 12th fret chime matches the 12th fret marker on a tuner. Use white chalk and draw a line at the 12th position if need be to get the depressed string intonation to match the harmonic position. Just realize both the harmonic and depressed note will move if you tweak the intonation.

          Once you get the 12th you can check the 5th 7th harmonics against the 17, 19 markers. They should be fairly close if all is set up right. If not string height makes a big difference. Typically you have to use height to balance between string buzz and a decent round tone when plucking the strings with the fingers. Its OK to get a little buzz digging in hard but you also want to be able to slide notes fairly effortlessly. Getting the right feel for a bassist who usually had stronger hands then a guitarist is very important.

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          • #6
            I guess I didn't mention that its an acoustic bass (actually A/E) so I don't have an opportunity to mess with the intonation and changing the action height isn't straightforward. I'll see what the owner thinks - he can always bring it back if it isn't perfect.

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            • #7
              Originally posted by Freeman Keller View Post
              I guess I didn't mention that its an acoustic bass (actually A/E) so I don't have an opportunity to mess with the intonation and changing the action height isn't straightforward. I'll see what the owner thinks - he can always bring it back if it isn't perfect.
              You didn't per se but "making a new saddle and installing a UST" pretty much implied it was an acoustic bass. I went from there with minimal trouble. Note that I asked about a "14th fret hump," which wouldn't be present on an electric. BTW, just being nosy, what was the issue with the UST that you needed to install one? Had the original been removed?
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              • #8
                Originally posted by DeepEnd View Post
                . BTW, just being nosy, what was the issue with the UST that you needed to install one? Had the original been removed?
                This was a very used Ovation bowl back A/E. I don't know its history but apparently the new owner just got it and wanted me to work on it. It had a generic UST (maybe a Fishman) that was obviously added later (it has an electronic pack that was cut into the side but doesn't fit the curve). He told me that when he got it the fretboard was filthy - he had cleaned it up pretty well but the nut end had some damage.

                When it came to me the action was 0.140 to 0.150 at 12, it looked like when they added the UST they failed to sand the saddle down the appropriate amount. Saddle was loose in the slot and tilted forward. Nut was sitting at an angle, slot spacing was off - just a basic cluster... Interesting that the f/b was basically flat (2 or 3 thou) and no real hump - from the condition of the rest of the guitar I thought I would be planing the board.

                Owner didn't say what was wrong with the Fishman but he included a Braggs saddle/transducer combination (I've installed them before, somewhat unforgiving). These are usually passive but he wanted me to hook it up to the Fishman preamp - said if it didn't work we could go straight out. From measurements I knew that the new saddle was going to end up about 0.100 at the 12th - that seemed reasonable but since I don't play these things I thought I'd better ask before I screwed up an expensive saddle.

                It also makes sense that the nut slots be as low as possible but I wanted to confirm that by someone who actually plays. Ten thou is much lower than I would ever set a fretted instrument but it seems to work fine

                Came out fine in spite of not knowing what I was doing - guess that's why I get the big bucks

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                • #9
                  Originally posted by Freeman Keller View Post
                  . . . It also makes sense that the nut slots be as low as possible but I wanted to confirm that by someone who actually plays. Ten thou is much lower than I would ever set a fretted instrument but it seems to work fine

                  Came out fine in spite of not knowing what I was doing - guess that's why I get the big bucks
                  You're braver than I am. In the case of the nut I would have probably gone for the height of a fret, 40-50 thou. Then again, I've never worked on anything that didn't have frets. IMHO, you get the big bucks because you can figure out what to do and then figure out how to do it. Ingenuity is surely worth something.
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                  • #10
                    Originally posted by DeepEnd View Post
                    You're braver than I am. In the case of the nut I would have probably gone for the height of a fret, 40-50 thou. Then again, I've never worked on anything that didn't have frets. IMHO, you get the big bucks because you can figure out what to do and then figure out how to do it. Ingenuity is surely worth something.
                    No, the reason you need 40 or 50 thou with frets is the open string has to clear the frets - with a fretless in theory it an be right down on the deck as long as you have a hair of relief. Took it back to the shop today, two bass players played it and said it was fine. Haven't heard from the owner yet.

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                    • #11
                      Originally posted by Freeman Keller View Post
                      No, the reason you need 40 or 50 thou with frets is the open string has to clear the frets - with a fretless in theory it an be right down on the deck as long as you have a hair of relief. Took it back to the shop today, two bass players played it and said it was fine. Haven't heard from the owner yet.
                      The Gibson site says typical fret height is 35-55 thou. I was going from that. You'd actually need a nut height slightly greater than that on a fretted instrument, say 55-75 thou, so the string clears the first fret when it's depressed at, say, the third. 40 thou isn't a large gap, it's a bit more than 1/32. If you look at the nut on a violin, the strings have some distance above the fingerboard. It seems like the same thing should apply:

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                      • Freeman Keller
                        Freeman Keller commented
                        Editing a comment
                        DE, for what it is worth, my "standard" setup for whatever kind of instrument I'm working on is to have the strings clear the first fret by somewhere between 12 and 18 thou.. If you look at your picture, the strings are damn close to the fretboard at the nut and rise dramatically as they go down the neck. As I said before, in theory they can be on the deck (ie fretted at the nut) as long as you have relief or action as you move down the neck.

                        Edit - your article is nice but doesn't say anything about fretless basses. I thought by posting on a bass forum maybe somebody who actually played bass would know how they were setup.
                        Last edited by Freeman Keller; 02-20-2018, 10:38 PM.

                      • DeepEnd
                        DeepEnd commented
                        Editing a comment
                        And for what it's worth, I do play bass, just not fretless. I also do setups, again not on fretless instruments. My comments were intended to help and I hope you got some benefit--or at least a good laugh--from them. WRGKMC chimed in but, as usual, didn't say much that was useful. I also mentioned that I'd be inclined to err on the side of caution. The Gibson article wasn't about fretless basses or about basses at all, it was about frets since I mentioned leaving a gap about the height of a fret, again erring on the side of caution. I don't know how violin string gauges run but the G string in my pic appears to be about a string width above the fingerboard. I had to resize the pic but the original clearly shows a wound string, maybe 20 thou? So twice again that on a much larger instrument doesn't seem too bad. Anyway, I'm glad your customer is happy.

                    • #12
                      post script. Owner just sent me a text - said he has been playing bass for 40 years and this it the best setup he has ever had (he also complemented my nut making skills, but tha'ts another subject). Maybe I need to raise my rates.

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                      • #13
                        By your description it sounds like it may have been a bass like this.

                        Image result for Ovation fretless bass

                        Since it uses a piezo system you aren't limited to using steel or brass strings. You can use synthetic or nylon if you choose to get a sound more like a double bass. These kinds of acoustic basses don't hold up very well to bass tensions and you can get a much longer lifespan from the instrument using nylon, plus its real comfortable playing with your fingers.

                        My buddy has an acoustic fretless he bought and within a year it was starting to buckle up on him. I switched him over to Nylon strings and it pretty much arrested the warping that was going on. The string height does need to be slightly higher because the elliptical orbit of the strings tends to be greater cause more issues with buzzing. In my buddies case I actually had to raised the nut a bit to give it that classical guitar feel to the strings. I love playing that thing now as does he.
                        Last edited by WRGKMC; 02-21-2018, 10:51 AM.

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                        • #14
                          Originally posted by WRGKMC View Post
                          By your description it sounds like it may have been a bass like this.

                          Image result for Ovation fretless bass. . .
                          Sounds likely. It would have had a preamp installed like that one does but the preamp that's in it is probably a replacement since Freeman mentioned that it didn't fit the side of the body. Given his other comments, it's probably been through a lot.
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                          • WRGKMC
                            WRGKMC commented
                            Editing a comment
                            I always found those round back synthetic bodies a bit uncomfortable on guitars. They aren't too bad sitting down but a flat back is a bit easier to keep wedged under your arm standing.

                            I'm wondering is this one suffers from a heavy neck. A light body doesn't have allot of counterweight. My hollow body Hofner Club balances does because the neck is thin and short scale. It would definitely neck dive if it was long scale. Maybe the resin back on this one has extra weight.

                        • #15
                          Originally posted by WRGKMC View Post
                          By your description it sounds like it may have been a bass like this.

                          Image result for Ovation fretless bass
                          Is that an Applause fretless? How cool! I never even knew they made such a beast.

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