Manuals, Videos, Articles

"Stick Setup", By Greg Howard

The more you know about how to set up your instrument, the more you'll understand about what makes this way of making music so special and effective. Like a tennis player adjusting racquet string spacing, or a djembe player tightening a drum-head, preparing your instrument for play is a utilitarian ritual, and one that shouldn't be ignored.

The most important setup factor for your Stick® is a flat fingerboard with very low action. There are four components to adjust when setting up rear truss instruments, and three components for older, imbedded truss, instruments (pre-1989).

Rear Truss Rod

The truss acts as a foil for the strings, applying varying degrees of tension to the back of the instrument. Shorten (tighten) the truss and you pull the strings closer to the frets. The ideal setup is for the fretboard to be straight, making it just as easy to play at all fret positions. If the truss is incorrectly adjusted, the instrument can be curved in one of two ways, with the middle farther away from the strings (bowing), or closer to the strings than at the ends (arching).

First determine if the instrument is straight by holding it up to a light source and looking up the beveled fret edges from the nut to the bride. You should be able to see if the instrument is bowed. Another way to tell is to fret notes at each fret. The clearance of the string over the next fret should be identical for each successive fret.

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With the instrument on, insert the wrench from the left side. Push the wrench away from you to raise the action, and pull it towards you to lower it.

Put the instrument on to adjust the truss. If the fretboard is "bowed," with the middle of the instrument curving away from the strings, insert the truss wrench from the left side and pull it back towards your body slightly. It doesn't take much tension to get it straight. You will know you have gone too far if the strings buzz near the nut. If the instrument has an "arch", where the middle of the fretboard is curving closer to the strings, loosen the truss by pushing the wrench away from you (again with the wrench on your left side as you wear the instrument). In some extreme cases loosening the truss is not enough to correct an arch. If this happens, loosen the truss nut all the way until it is spinning freely on the bolt. Keep turning until the nut is against the wood at the end of the screw threads, and tighten it against the wood to lengthen the truss and compensate for the arch.

Check your truss adjustment frequently before you play, and get comfortable with adjusting it. The lower the action, the easier and more dynamic tapping is. Don't forget to check your tuning after you adjust the truss. Tightening the truss will make the strings sharper, and loosening the truss will make them flatter. For more information on truss adjustment watch this video:

Nut Height Screws

Each string should rest in the channel of the screw head low enough so that the damper can do its job, but not so low that the string buzzes at the first fret or rests on the first fret. Playing un-amplified you may hear occasional buzzing between the fretting finger and the nut. This will not be amplified and should not be of concern. On a straight instrument notes at the first fret should be as playable as at any other. Unlike at the bridge (see below), the string bottoms should be roughly the same height above the fret, no matter what the gauge.

Bridge Height Screws

Unless you change your string gauges or tuning, you shouldn't have to adjust the bridge screws unless you want to alter the action and playability of your instrument. Some people like higher action than others, but this comes with a price in terms of dynamics and, at the higher frets, intonation. Before you make any changes to the string height at the bridge, make sure your instrument is straight by adjusting the truss as above.

Because the thicker bass strings have a wider vibrating excursion they need to be slightly higher above the frets than thinner strings. If you look at each set of strings you should notice a gradual increase in the distance of the bottom of the string from the fretboard surface. Press down the set of strings you are not setting and look at the underside of the strings in question and not the top, because the increasing thickness of the strings can mask a string being too high or too low.

For the lowest action, turn the screws clockwise by half turns. Testing after each turn to see if the tightened string buzzes at any fret. If you get a buzz, raise the string height by one half turn.

Pickup Housing

The pickup housing and pickups may need to be adjusted if you change your setup. The ideal situation for getting a consistent tone with minimal crosstalk is that the housing is as close to the strings as it can be without the strings striking it even when played at the high frets.

The housing is held in place in from the top and bottom, with the mounting (under) and tensioning (over) screws each having a vibration-damping rubber component. If you want to lower the housing, first lower the rubber-tipped hex-head screws under the pickup by turning them counter-clockwise with a hex wrench. Try to keep the pickup housing level relative to the wood surface, and the strings.

Once you have the housing lowered to the desired height, tighten the two screws that hold the housing in place from above, but only so that the housing is snug. These screws are surrounded by rubber grommets, and if they are tightened too much they can flex the pickup housing.

To raise the housing, first loosen the two Phillips-head screws on top then raise the pickup by turning the hex-head screws clockwise. Again, try to keep the housing level. Once the desired height is reached tighten down the top-screws until they are snug. Be careful to not over-tighten these screws.

Stock Stick pickups have adjustable pole pieces that can be raised or lowered to compensate for volume differences between strings. To adjust the volume, turn off all compression, flatten equalization settings, and play each string with the same force in several different places. If the pole piece top is above the surface of the housing the string may strike it when playing at higher frets. Always test this after raising pole pieces and string heights. The closer you can get the pole pieces the warmer and fuller the strings will sound and the less cross-talk you will experience.

Changing Gauges and Tunings

If you change your tuning or the gauge of your strings, you may have to make adjustments to your setup, including the string height, intonation at the bridge, pickup pole piece height, and truss rod tension.

From Light to Heavy Gauge

The biggest difference is in the bass strings. The heavy strings have only the core passing through the bridge, not the windings, and as a result may need longer bridge screws to raise the strings to the correct height. If you are changing from light to heavy gauge make sure you tell Stick Enterprises when you order your new strings so they can send you longer replacement bridge screws for the two lowest bass strings. Follow the instructions above (under bridge height screws) for setting the string height.

You will also need to change the height of the pole pieces in the pickup housing as well to compensate for balance changes between the strings, as outlined above.

You will need to adjust the intonation at the bridge, especially where the string is changed from a plain to a wound string (See intonation adjustment below). The first Sticks with adjustable truss rods did not have fully intonatable bridges, so when you change from light to heavy strings, you may need Stick Enterprises' modified bridge screws which can lengthen the vibrating length of the string if the new strings are sharp (see Changing Tunings, below).

After your new strings are on, check the nut height screws to see that the strings are clearing the first fret, but not resting so high above the damper that they aren't damped. Adjust these screws by half-turns until the string heights are correct. Caution: do not put heavy gauge strings on an instrument without an adjustable truss rod. The tension of the imbedded truss rods is designed for light strings. If you have an older instrument and want to use heavy strings, it can usually be retrofitted with an adjustable truss. Contact Stick Enterprises for more information about this retrofit.

From Heavy to Light Gauge

The bridge height screws for the two lowest bass strings are too long in the heavy-gauge setup to accommodate light bass strings. If you are switching from heavy to light gauge strings, make sure you tell Stick Enterprises when you order your strings, and they can send you the two shorter bridge screws.

Follow the procedures above for setting up the bridge and nut screws, and adjusting the pole pieces. You may also need to alter the intonation. The first Sticks with adjustable truss rods did not have fully intonatable bridges, so when you change from heavy to light strings, you may need modified bridge screws which can lengthen the vibrating length of the string if the new strings are sharp (see Changing Tunings, below).

Changing Tunings

Stick players often decide they want to change their tuning. The most common change is from standard ten-string to Baritone Melody™. If you make this change you will need to adjust the pole pieces. Take note of the height under the strings before you start, and try to match them as you shift the strings from the inside to the outside. You can order shaved bridge screws to lengthen the vibrating length of the string if the strings in the new positions are sharp. This can happen as strings that were closer to the center of the instrument are shifted to the outside.

Intonation Adjustment

On newer Sticks, with the fully intonatable bridge, if you change your tuning or your string gauges you should check the intonation to see if it needs correction. Tune each string at the second fret then check each again at the 14th fret. If a string is sharp at the 14th fret its vibrating length needs to be increased, if it is flat, then the vibrating length need to be shortened. Loosen the string and remove it from the saddle, and loosen and move the slide-block accordingly. Tighten the string and check the tuning again. Once the intonation is accurate, tighten the slide-block screws, but be careful not to over-tighten. Make sure the action is set up and the truss adjusted properly before checking the intonation. If the action is too high, intonation adjustments may not be accurate. Also, adjust each string individually, and try to make reference of your starting point so you can go back to the beginning if you go too far.

Happy Tapping,

Stick is a federally registered trademark of Stick Enterprises, Inc.
Baritone Melody is a trademark of Stick Enterprises, Inc.

©2001 by Greg Howard.