Fender Standard P-Bass Setup – Part 2

The Bench & a pile of tools…

Real life got in the way for a few weeks and I didn’t get the uninterrupted time I needed to do the fretwork until a bit later. I knew this would take at least 3 hours and I didn’t want to get into it and have to stop… but at last I had time.

So, what needs doing? – three problems:

1) Rough fret ends.

2) A couple of high frets.

3) Top two nut slots a touch high.

Only the first thing badly needed doing, the others could have been left if I was short of money and needed to pay someone else to do the work. That is why it is nice to have the skills and tools to do all the work yourself, it’s just having the time needed to do the job as the materials cost is tiny.


I like to do a “map” of the fretboard high/low spots first just so I see what I am looking at and get an idea of the amount of work. Here it is:

Fret 19 was the worst and fret 18 was also high so it would be a bit chancy just shaving the individual frets down, it is easy to end up playing whack-a-mole chasing the high spot between frets. It’s more efficient and safer to do the whole lot with a levelling beam and get everything dead level and consistent. I was going to have to polish the frets anyway as fixing the sharp ends and doing a slight fretboard edge roundover would involve sanding and polishing the end part of the frets, may as well run the beam over the lot and do a complete job.

First task was to sort out the rough fret ends by filing them smooth. The little Stewart McDonald fret end dressing file is the best one I have found as it is small, precise and a fine cut. There is one safe side that is rounded with no teeth and this rides against the fretboard to avoid digging in and damaging it.

Unfortunately the numpties at Fender had decided to part-lacquer some of the rosewood edge of the fingerboard (and not do a very good job) so my little file safe edge started to flake this lacquer off, but only at the headstock end where it had ended up much too thick. This looked terrible!1

The “After” picture… they’ll never know 🙂

After a bit of experimenting with using a single-sided razor blade as a scraper I found that this excess lacquer came off quite easily leaving a nice smooth rosewood finish underneath and I only had to part-scrape the first 5 frets on either side anyway. I had placed masking tape along the line between maple and rosewood to make sure that I didn’t touch the neck, so this made a nice line to scrape up to2.

Having solved the lacquer drama I carried on with my little file taking all the rough fret ends off. This is pretty quick and you can immediately feel the massive difference it makes. The ends had already been part-filed at the factory when doing the bevel, so it didn’t need a lot of work, just the sharp edges softened.

Next step was to smooth the filed ends with various grits of sandpaper to make them really nice. I also wanted to do a slight round-over of the fretboard edge as it was really a dead right-angle, so felt a bit uncomfortable under the fingers. There is not much information on-line about ways to do this with an already fretted neck and I wasn’t that happy with my previous test attempts on various scrap necks3.

Fortunately, I had recently seen a Crimson Guitars video on YouTube which demonstrated a technique that I had never seen before to do a combined fret-end polish and slight fretboard edge bevel. I wanted to keep the round-over mild so I skipped the levelling beam step (and the filing part that I’d already done) and went straight to the 240 then 320 grit tightly-rolled sandpaper cylinders (3:45 onward in the video) and then the higher grit papers and fret erasers to do the polish. This worked great and gave a really nice result with a lot less chance of going wrong than the other methods I had looked at and tried. Tick V.G. to Crimson.

Next up, the fret level. As I said earlier, I could have got away without this as it wasn’t buzzing, but the fret end finishing had left the ends of each fret really shiny and it looked odd with the rest of the fret quite dull. I’d have wanted to do a full fret polish anyway to make them all look nice, so may as well level first.

First step is to get the neck dead straight and flat by adjusting the truss rod with a notched straight-edge on the fretboard. This was really easy on this neck, it went flat as soon as the truss rod was backed off – always a good start. I re-checked with the fret rocker with the neck flat to see if any of the high frets had changed in any way; nope, exactly the same.

400mm Levelling Beam

Next the tops of each fret were marked with a black sharpy so the effect of the beam could be seen. I usually use 320 grit paper on the beam as it cuts quite slowly so is quite forgiving. This levelling went pretty quickly – most of the frets were level anyway so the beam just kissed the tops. I had to do a bit more work on the two high frets to get them level, but still not too bad4.

Then I re-marked the fret tops with a sharpy and crowned with a 300 grit diamond crowning file – also very quick as most frets hadn’t got a flat top so only needed a few strokes of the file.

The next bit is the very tedious process of polishing each fret by working up through the grits of sandpaper from 400 to 25005. I tried a new method and started out doing each fret individually using a metal fret protector as I have seen some people do, but this was so fiddly and annoying that I quickly gave up and went back to my normal method of taping up the whole fretboard with masking tape so I could use a foam pad with the sandpaper round it and run it along the whole fretboard in one go. Much quicker!

Looking nice now!

Once I had finished the polish I took off the tape and cleaned the fretboard with naptha6 to get any dirt or sandpaper dust off and then finally applied a conditioner to the rosewood. I have started using Howard “Feed-n-Wax”, an American product that I saw recommended by one of the Luthiers on YouTube.

I really like it as it very slightly darkens the wood and leaves a nice smooth slick finish7.

This fretboard was quite light in appearance before I conditioned it, it actually looked a lot like the new Pau Ferro fretboards that Standard P-Basses are made with post the CITES regulations. I think it looks nicer slightly darker, so I was pleased with the effect.



Nut files – 48 / 65 / 85 / 105

The final step was to sort out the high nut slots on the D and G string.

Now; I always find it quite nerve-wracking cutting the nut slots. It is very easy to over-cut the depth and write the nut off 8, so I am always very careful. I used my 65thou and 48thou nut files to deepen the slots slightly and I stopped as soon as a 22thou feeler gauge was a sliding fit.

That was enough to play comfortably, but still a conservative clearance, so no danger of the dreaded 1st fret buzz9.


And that was it – job done. Put the bass back together, set it up again and it’s ready to go. I dropped the action down to 5/6410 (E) to 4/6411 (G) while I was at it and the fretwork handled that no problem12.

I’ve got some new strings ready to go on when I get round to it and I’ll tweak the intonation then and go back over the setup to get it just right.


Fender Standard P-Bass Setup – Part 1

2012 MIM P-BassAfter playing bass for years, but never owning an actual Fender P-Bass1 I recently got this nice clean 2012 Candy Apple red Mexican Standard P-bass second-hand for very sensible money.

I wanted a MIM P-Bass as it is much cheaper than the US models and also easy to modify. It doesn’t deviate much from the “standard” 1960s design, so almost all the aftermarket parts just fit. Post-2008 is also a good period for Mexican Fenders as the designs got pretty close to the US instruments and the quality improved too.

It was owned by someone that had hardly played it or messed about with it, so it was pretty much in mint condition and completely stock specification.

Over the years, due to lack of adjustment, the neck had got rather bowed with a massive relief (over 40thou) and the overall action was very high, over 9/64in at the 17th fret. So I had to fix that so it would at least play before doing anything else.

After about 2/3 of a turn of the truss rod and a bridge saddle adjustment I got it to 12thou relief and 6/64in (E) – 5/64in (G) action (Fender stock suggestion). The intonation was very close already so I didn’t touch that. The first fret action was a bit high on the highest 2 strings – not painful, but 30thou-ish instead of 20-22thou so a tiny bit stiff. I went with it for now.

Result – it plays. The sound is pretty respectable on just the stock pickup, so my plan of doing an immediate pickup upgrade is not the priority I thought it would be2.

The only serious snag as far as I am concerned is that the fret ends are a bit too rough to be comfortable when sliding my hand up and down the neck. It’s the G-side where it shows up mostly, the frets don’t stick out proud of the fretboard edge, but the bevel isn’t smooth at all. I also quickly went over the frets with a rocker and there were 2 up the dusty end that were a touch high, not high enough to buzz at the action I had set, but they would be a problem if I tried to go much lower than my usual action for any reason.

Ironically, it’s the fact that this bass is almost unplayed that is the problem, normally a 5-year old bass would have seen a guitar tech at some time in it’s life and the neck issues would have been sorted out with a decent fret dress and thorough setup (£95-ish maybe outside of London).

Now, at this point on the discussion forums everyone piles in with “Mexican Fenders are rubbish, should have bought a US Fender…” etc. This kind of misses the point that I would have had to pay at least 2-3x as much for a s/h USA P-bass and it is still not guaranteed to be perfect3. The cost of a MIM P-Bass and a setup is still far cheaper than a USA P-Bass and the MIM instrument is a great modding platform. Yes, the US P-Bass has slightly better components4, a better finish and so on, but the MIM bass can play just as well as the US bass when the setup work is done.

Fortunately, I do all my own instrument teching and I have all the tools to do fretwork. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this bass that I can’t fix.

To the workbench!