Myth: Don’t Touch the Truss Rod

Every new guitar comes with a couple of wrenches, usually the allen variety, to make adjustments. Most guitar players put them in a drawer and forget all about them. The larger of the two is for adjusting your truss rod, and even seasoned musicians I’ve met approach it with fear.

A few months back I signed up for guitar lessons to help me break out of 25 years of old habits and grow as a musician. My guitar teacher, a seasoned pro, has a spare Schecter guitar he uses in class. I noticed the action was a bit spongy, and asked if he liked it that way. “Not really, but since it’s a spare guitar, it’s not worth spending to have my guitar tech adjust it.” I asked if he’d mind if I took a crack at it, and 5  minutes later the fretboard felt tight and more playable. He was amazed. He’d heard horror stories of truss rod mishaps, and had steered clear of even the basics of how they work.

Truss rods were meant to be adjusted

Here’s the thing: every guitar comes with a truss rod adjustment wrench. The manufacturer wants you to use it. In almost every case, your shiny new fretted buddy will need it to adapt to your playing style. If I had a nickel for every customer review of a guitar which commented on how the action was terrible on their new guitar, I’d have lots of coin to support my guitar habit. You simply cannot expect every guitar to have great action when you get it home, and here’s why.

A truss rod is a simple device which helps you adjust the natural curve your neck will make when you tune up. As you tune, your guitar strings will put pressure on the neck, pulling the headstock “up” (you can observe this yourself; tune up a string, then tune the rest, and most likely when you return to the first string, it’s gone flat, sometimes by quite a bit). The truss rod allows you to counteract this pressure by applying force which pulls your headstock “down”, resisting the tension from the strings.

Wood is fussy; the truss rod helps you compensate

Here’s the freaky bit: wood changes. All the time. Humidity and temperature alone can cause your neck to tighten or loosen somewhat on any given day (or season, or region if you’re touring). That’s why sometimes you get your new axe home and a week later it feels off. Even if it started out perfect, the wood in your neck may relax or tense up, causing either a floppy feel (with slight intonation issues) or in the opposite case fret buzz.

This is why you need that big hex wrench that came with your guitar. By making slight adjustments, you can keep your neck as playable as the day you got it (or had it set up by a pro). And I mean slight; usually a quarter turn either direction is plenty to either loosen or tighten your neck. I check my necks every month or so, or during travel, to make sure they’re where I want them. I’ll be posting a video tutorial of exactly how to do this, but until then, Google is your friend. And don’t fear the truss rod; it was designed to be adjustable for a reason.

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About Dave Balmer

JavaScript guru, mobile app developer.

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