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Getting to Know Your Bass: How Your Bass’s Action Influences What You Can Do

Bass action
Photo by billaday

Keeping up with Getting to Know Your Bass series, today we’ll take a look at the action of your bass and how that influences what you can play.

While your action doesn’t necessarily impact your note choice, it certainly factors into the amount of force necessary to play the instrument and the techniques that you use while playing. Ultimately, you want your instrument to allow you to play whatever you’d like, so if you’ve recently discovered the joys of tapping, but find the execution of it to be difficult, it may be because your instrument is working against you. At the same time, if you don’t care for any fancy-shmancy stuff and just want a solid, clear tone for finger style playing, your instrument should be able to give you that as well.

Just in case you’re unfamiliar with the term action, it refers to the distance between the strings and your fretboard. A bass with low action will have strings that are closer to the fretboard, while a bass with high action will have strings that are farther away. The action of your bass can be changed according to personal preference and, although you can try to make certain adjustments yourself, you may be better off bringing your instrument to a tech. The height of the screws at the bridge adjusts your action, but the slots in the nut and the relief in the neck will play a role as well. Also, your action may change from time to time, depending upon seasonal changes and the warping of your neck, so it may need to be tweaked every now and then.

If you’re just starting out, keep in mind that you can make adjustments to the instrument that you got from the music store, your neighbor’s garage, or off of Craig’s List. Even some of the “Starter Pack” basses can be set up to play well, so once you get a new instrument, try to find an experienced player to take a look at it. I remember having a true light bulb moment when a friend did a quick adjustment to my Squier P-bass. After a few minutes with a screwdriver and tuner, I felt like I had a new instrument in my hands. Suddenly, I was more willing to practice since it was easier to play and I got better results.

Years later, I found myself teaching lessons to many beginner students who didn’t know what the strings names were, let alone what the instrument should actually feel like. Very little attention is paid to beginner instruments, or even higher-level instruments that haven’t been played in a long time, because the player doesn’t know any better. So, if you’re an educator, or if you happen to befriend a low-end newcomer, take a few minutes to examine the person’s instrument and point out any glaring problems.

Usually, you’ll find that the instrument’s action is far too high, making it difficult to press the strings down on the fretboard. A bass with high action requires more effort and can create problems for younger players who don’t have enough strength to get a good tone. Another common problem is low action, where the strings are practically touching the fretboard without any help from the player. If the action is too low, it will result in string buzzing and you may end up pressing down strings that you don’t intend on. If you’re trying to fret a note on your E string, and you accidentally press the G string with the inside of your finger, then you’ll probably have to do some adjusting (both with technique and with the set up of the bass). Remember, you want playing to be easy, but not too easy.

In addition to the overall playability of your bass, you want to make sure that your set up allows you to incorporate any technique you’d like. For example, if you’re working on tapping, you need to make sure that it’s fairly easy to press down the strings because you need enough force with just one finger to get an audible note while fretting. Also, since the majority of your playing will be higher up on the neck, the action will have to be fairly low and uniform across the whole neck of the bass. If you’re trying to develop your speed chops, you’ll find it easier to play faster on a bass with lower action as well, due to the lesser amount of force needed to hold down the string. On the other hand, if you want more room for dynamics within your playing, you may want to have higher action since you’ll be able to apply more force with your plucking hand without getting a clacking sound. Depending upon how often you delve into these other techniques, you may want to have certain instruments that are set up slightly differently, giving you the flexibility to use the best bass for the job.

Quick exercise: Even if you’ve been playing for a while, take a moment to examine the neck of your instrument. Identify whether your action is high, low, or in the middle (you may have to go to a music store, play a couple of basses, and compare the feel of those necks). Then think about how your bass helps to define your style of playing and why you like your current set up. Think about what, if anything, you’d like to change about the set up of your instrument and how that may influence your playing. If you’re dissatisfied with the current state of your neck, try bringing it to a tech.

Ryan Madora is a professional bass player and educator living in Nashville, TN. In addition to touring and playing sessions, she fronts an original music project, The Interludes and teaches private lessons. Visit her website to learn more about her music or to inquire about lessons.

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