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 ┬áminutes 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.

A Tale of Two Squier Telecasters

I recently got the Telecaster bug. Maybe it’s an age thing, I don’t know. Anyhoo, I ended up getting two Teles, both manufactured overseas. One from Indonesia that turned out perfect, and the other from India (India?) which took a ton of work to get playable. Enough work that my local luthier would have had to charge about what I paid for the thing in the first place. Not ideal.

Beatrix

I ordered a Squier Vintage Modified Special, butterscotch blonde. Basically it’s a Jazzmaster neck on a Telecaster body. For added fun, the tiny chrome Telecaster pickup on the bridge is replaced with a Jazzmaster pickup. I fell in love with the thing, and aside from a small wiring glitch, it was pretty much perfect out of the box. I love the pickups and the vintage touches like the ashtray bridge, glossy tinted maple neck, slotted tuners and semi-transparent gloss finish.

Beatrix

Work done:

  1. set intonation on the bridge; the factory didn’t even try (15min)
  2. lower the action; adjusted bridge saddle height and truss rod (30min)
  3. find the wiring problem; turned out to be a short in the bridge pickup wiring, sorted out with an xacto knife and electrical tape (15min)
  4. added aluminum foil under the pickguard; the static produced from touching it while playing was nasty (30min)

All in all, while the electrical goof is a little embarrassing for Squier, I absolutely love this guitar. Because of the yellow/black color scheme, I named it after Uma Thurman’s character from Kill Bill.

O-Ren

Emboldened by this first experience with a Squier Tele, I found another, the Squier Vintage Modified Telecaster SSH. Olympic white, gloss maple neck, and some interesting pickups: Tele bridge, Stratocaster middle, and a chrome mini-humbucker in the neck position. Basically, nothing but trouble on this guitar, and the more I found and fixed, the more I wished I’d just returned it.

O-Ren

The debugging laundry list:

  1. dressed the fret ends; they were digging into my hands like a cheese grater (2hrs)
  2. replaced the 6-saddle bridge with a 3-saddle from Stewmac; hated this bridge, it was ugly and rough on the hands (1hr and $30)
  3. replaced the Stewmac bridge with one that was the same as Beatrix’ which I found on eBay (1hr and $25)
  4. adjusted the nut slot heights on 3 of the strings (45min)
  5. oiled the truss rod nut; it seemed stuck (30min)
  6. adjusted pickup heights; balance between the totally different pickup types was ridiculously hard, I’m still not 100% happy with where I ended up, but at least I have 5 usable tones (2hrs)
  7. added a shim to the neck; the angle was diving the strings under the sides of the ashtray bridge (1.5hr)
  8. added vintage tuners; the ones that came with this Vintage Modified were the same crappy ones from, say, a Squier Bullet Strat (1hr and $45)
  9. at this point, during final adjustments, I discovered that the truss rod problem was deeper than some gunk in the threads; purchased a new neck from eBay because the labor of fixing the truss rod looked super daunting or expensive to drop off at a local shop (1hr and $100)

In all, about 12 hours of labor and an additional $200 later I have a pretty cool and fairly unique guitar. I know it’s unique because I’ve since seen several other people stuck with this turkey, and it’s been discontinued from most every online store out there. I say that was a good call. If you combine my out of pocket with the original price, I could have picked up a Fender Standard Telecaster; not my ideal choice, but it’s a sobering price comparison.

Lessons Learned

While it’s fun to do routine maintenance and mods to a guitar, it’s ultra important to check the truss rod functionality first. Don’t assume the thing won’t adjust because there is some gunk and move on; get that working or send the bloody thing back.

Just because a pickup arrangement looks cool or has potential to “do it all” doesn’t mean it’s going to be a great guitar. Basically, I have two good sounding tones (bridge and neck), and the other three are dodgy. While I can replace the middle pickup with something that has higher output, it won’t necessarily solve the problem. I run the risk of having to continue my search after some trial and error, adding even more money to an already expensive “fixer-upper”.

I’ve had good experiences the last couple years with Squier, but they use several factories. Try to check the country of origin before you buy, and compare with other people’s feelings on forums. Ratings and reviews on an online store don’t give you the full picture.