Regardless of the bass guitar model, the bass bridge saddles will play a huge role in the overall setup of the instrument. They are (in part) responsible for the string height, intonation, and correct vibration, and their adjustment is quite easy to mess up if you don’t know what you’re doing.
Whenever you face the need to set up or correct minor imbalances regarding pitch, intonation, and string action (which is directly related to comfort when playing), you will probably need to check if the saddles are in their intended position, both in terms of height (which is related to the Allen screws) and the distance between the saddles and the base of the bridge (which is tweaked by tightening os loosening the Phillips screws at the back of the bridge itself).
Before we dive deeper into bass bridge saddle adjustment, here’s a complete list of tools and accessories you’ll need:
- A bench or a surface covered with the proper mat (prevents scratching and “dancing” when working on the instrument)
- Phillips screwdriver
- Correct size allen wrench (size will vary depending on the instrument, so it’s ideal to have a complete set)
- Guitar Action Ruler
- Neck Radius Gauge
How to adjust bass guitar bridge saddles
Before anything else, note that these procedures will need very fine-tuning, and are easy to screw up if you don’t have prior knowledge and experience.
If your instrument is correctly set up and needs minor adjustments, it’s always a very good idea to take notes of the measurements, and even pictures, in case something doesn’t go the way you want, so you can undo the changes easily based on the previous setup.
Intonation – Bass bridge saddle adjustment
The main idea regarding intonation is that your bass guitar is playing the same note (not the same pitch though) when it’s played open (the “0” fret) and the 12th fret.
For instance, the open E (and other open strings conversely) must sound exactly one octave higher, when you play it in the 12th fret.
The saddles’ distances from the bridge are what determine if the intonation is correct. In other words, the notes are right across the fretboard.
- To measure if the notes played open and on the 12th fret are the same, it’s crucial to use a good digital tuner, that will show you the exact pitch whenever you play the intended notes. It’s possible to do by ear, but you’ll need to be a master luthier before doing that.
- If you play the 0 fret and the 12th fret on the same string, and the tuner shows different notes, here’s what you need to do:
- Press and play the string on the 12th fret and check if the note is flat or sharp.
- Using a Phillips screwdriver, tighten or loosen the Phillips screw until the tuner shows the correct pitch.
- Now play the open string again, and tune it back. You’ll notice it’s gone a bit off the intended note, since tightening or loosening the Phillips screw will move the saddle back and forth, increasing and decreasing tension, and thus will result in the open string changing its pitch.
- Repeat the process until the open string and the 12th fret show the same note, exactly one octave apart. This might require a bit of patience and very gentle tweaking since every small movement will affect the distance between the strings and the nut at the base of the headstock.
In case you’ve done this and cannot get the correct results, there might be other bass guitar setup procedures that are not directly related to the saddle that needs attention. Such as in the case of a warped/bent neck and other common bass guitar problems.
Solving intonation is relatively uncomplicated, provided that everything else is in order and the proper tools are in use.
Also important to notice, every time you change strings, you might move the saddles a bit, even if unintentionally, and thus it’s recommended to check the intonation once again to guarantee everything is in order.
Adjusting String Height on the bass bridge saddles
Bass guitar string height setup will vary depending on the preferences of the player, the thickness of the strings used, and the style that they want to play. Some will prefer it low, some will like it a bit higher.
Regardless, the best possible practice is to have some sort of reference before attempting the setup.
For instance, you can always resort to measuring the string height on an instrument that you find comfortable to play on, and replicate it on your own bass guitar. Remember that string height does not depend solely on the saddles, but they do play a huge role in it.
Bass Strings that are too high, away from the fretboard will require more strength (and time) to press down and thus are preferred by heavier musical style players.
Strings that are too low might make unintended contact against adjacent frets, and result in buzzing.
It’s a somewhat delicate balance involving many components, but our focus here is to understand how to set up the saddles’ height.
Bass guitar bridge saddles will have 2 Allen screws that you can access through the top of the saddles themselves.
These screws are adjusted by turning both screws in each saddle clockwise or counterclockwise. This will result in the screws pressing against the base of the bridge and thus elevating or lowering the saddles.
Using a guitar action ruler,
- Press the 1st fret
- Measure the string height against the 12th fret, by positioning the string ruler right on top of the fret.
- Tweak it to your liking, according to the reference you obtained before.
As a general rule, these are considered to be a good starting point for most musical styles, if you’re unsure of how high or low the strings should be:
- The low E string in standard tuning should be at 6⁄64 inch (2.4 mm)
- The high G string should be at 5⁄64 inch (2.0 mm).
These measurements should always be taken using a proper guitar height ruler while pressing the strings on the 1st fret, and measuring their height against the 12th fret.
The remaining strings (usually D and A) will need the radius gauge measurement.
Since the fretboard isn’t completely flat, you’ll need to measure its radius by sliding a fretboard radius gauge underneath the strings at the 12th fret, and comparing it against the top of the bridge saddles, until the 12th fret matches the bridge saddle’s height profile.
Testing and finishing up
When you’re done setting the height and intonation of the saddles, meaning that the octaves all match, the E and G strings are at an acceptable height, and the D and A strings are matching the neck radius profile, tune the instrument and start testing.
You should ask yourself if this is comfortable enough to play, while also checking each and every fret for buzzing, across all strings.
If you find some notes are buzzing, or some strings don’t feel quite right, both in terms of height and pitch, go back to adjusting height and intonation.
If you got it right, you now have an instrument that will play the correct notes all over the fretboard, which makes it ideal to play single notes and chords, while also having the perfect action for your desired musical style.
In case you followed these procedures and something is still off, rest assured that by now, the saddles are not the problem here, and if you cannot find the culprit, it might be a good idea to take the bass guitar to the shop to investigate further.
In conclusion: Bass guitar bridge saddle adjustment
Every attempt at the bass bridge saddle adjustment should be done with utmost care and respect. Luthiery is a very serious profession and depends on lots of knowledge and experience.
Though none of the procedures described in this article are irreversible, sometimes it might be hard to find the sweet spot again if you mess it up. Do them consciously, having good references so you can revert things back to the way they were before.
At the end of the day, regardless of whether you’re successful or not, the experience will always be gained.
But it’s much better if it’s a rewarding experience, rather than a frustrating one, right?
Knowing how your bass guitar works will always give you valuable insights related to musical development.