Guitar and Bass Setups For Drop Tuning

Do you keep your guitar or bass drop tuned? Have you ever noticed that your instruments’ intonation is a little off, or the strings are a little too loose when you leave it drop tuned for a long time? You can correct a lot of the quirks caused by long-term drop tuning with a few of the simple adjustments described in this article.

Measuring the Initial Setup

(Please follow the link at the bottom of the article to view the associated figures)

Before performing any of the following adjustments, tune your instrument to the desired pitch and record measurements of its action, relief and intonation. You’ll need a set of feeler gauges or a ruler with 1/64 inch or 1/10 millimeter increments and a chromatic tuner (spend $20 or more on the tuner). To measure the relief, fret the first and seventeenth frets of the lowest string at the same time, then measure the distance between the seventh fret and the bottom of the string. Repeat for the highest string. Next, take your fingers off the frets and measure the distance between the 12th fret and the bottom of the lowest string, this is the action. Again, repeat for the highest string. Measure the intonation of each string by comparing the difference between its tuning when played open and its tuning when played at the 12th fret. For a more detailed guide to reading and setting intonation, read the Xylem article I Can’t Get My Guitar to Tune Up! A Little Thing Called Intonation.

Strings for Drop Tuning

Drop tuned instruments sometimes suffer from strings that feel too loose or “floppy.” Using the right set of strings can help improve this problem. Heavier gauge strings of the same brand and type that you are currently using on your instrument can reduce string flop, as thicker strings will require more tension to reach the same pitch. Additionally, some string brands/types feel “stiffer” than other strings and will also help reduce string flop. To find a stiffer set of strings, call a few string manufacturers and explain that you are looking for stiffer strings for a drop tuned instrument that are not necessarily a heavier gauge. Some string manufacturers even offer strings that are specifically designed for drop tuning. Finally, many four-string bass players want to know if they can string their bass with the four lowest strings of a five string set for drop tuning. This is fine, but you will have to modify the nut to accommodate the larger gauges.

Even if you are using strings that are only slightly heavier gauge, you may still want to widen the nut slots of your guitar or bass. To widen the slots you should purchase a set of nut files (pictured in Figure 1) that are slightly larger than the string gauges you have chosen (try to get files that are about .003″ larger than your string gauges, but don’t exceed .004″ larger). You can get gauged nut files from most luthier supply companies. When filing the slots, make sure to maintain the angle and depth of the current slots. Be careful and go slow, file too much and you may have to replace your nut. If you are uncomfortable filing the nut yourself, take your instrument to a good luthier or repair technician for the modification. Once the nut slots are the correct width, string your instrument and let it sit for a day or two at your desired tuning before making any further adjustments.

Setting Relief and Action

After the instrument has adjusted to the dropped tuning, play all of the frets for each string, listening carefully for buzz. If the instrument does not buzz you can skip ahead to the intonation section. If the instrument buzzes you may need to adjust the relief and/or raise the action. Read your instrument’s relief once again to see if it has changed from your original record. If the relief has decreased, loosen the truss rod slightly, if it has increased, tighten the truss rod slightly, restoring the relief to its original setting. You can even adjust the relief a little more if the instrument still buzzes, but be careful not to add too much. Generally, you want some relief, but not more than the thickness of a credit card. In most cases, if only the frets near the nut buzz, the neck needs more relief. Conversely, if only the frets around the 12th fret and beyond buzz, the neck needs less relief. If the instrument buzzes all the way up neck, raise the action. If the action must be very high to eliminate the buzz, consider taking the instrument to a luthier or repair tech for a thorough setup to match the dropped tuning.

Note: If you are not familiar with adjusting truss rods it is recommended that you ask a qualified luthier or repair tech to adjust them for you. For more information on truss rod adjustments, review the Xylem article Improve Your Tone, Action and Sustain without Spending a Nickel Parts 1-3.

Setting Intonation

Once you have adjusted the relief and action you should re-set the instrument’s intonation. Once again, use a chromatic tuner of decent quality. If you have an electric instrument with more than one pickup, turn its volume and tone controls all the way up and use only the neck pickup for this procedure. To set the intonation, hold the instrument in playing position, tune the lowest string to the desired pitch, then play its 12th fret. If the fretted note is sharp compared to the open string you need to adjust its saddle away from the neck. If the fretted note is flat compared to the open note you need to adjust the saddle toward the neck. Be gentle when fretting as you can get a false reading from the tuner if you inadvertently bend the fretted note.

Once you have made all these adjustments your bass or guitar should have no buzz, play in tune more accurately, and the strings should have the right feel for your dropped tuning.

Thanks for reading, see you next month!

Copyright ?Anthony Olinger, Xylem Handmade Basses and Guitars 2009.

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