There is no worse feeling than encountering a problem with your guitar, only to discover that it is a problem with your truss rod. The truss rod is essentially the spine of the guitar, and the thought of operating on it is incredibly intimidating.
I will always remember the first time that I had to deal with this myself – I had put it off for ages, but once I finally got around to doing it, it turned out to be easy. I ensured that I knew exactly what I was doing, and I’ve taken that knowledge with me throughout my whole career as a guitarist.
If you’re also interested in learning how to properly adjust your guitar’s truss rod, this is the guitar truss rod adjustment guide for you. I’ll be explaining why it is important to do so, how to do it safely, and recommending some of my favorite tools to get the job done. Read on to find out more!
Bottom Line Up Front: A truss rod acts as the spine of an electric guitar, determining how bent the guitar neck is, how high the string action is, and how much much tension the instrument has.
This can be adjusted by using truss rod adjustment tools such as the Vencetmat 9Pcs Guitar Allen Wrench Set, allowing you to increase comfort and decrease intonation and fret buzz of your guitar.
What Is a Truss Rod?
Perhaps you have Googled some odd problems your guitar is having, or maybe you took it to the local guitar expert, and you’ve discovered that your truss rod needs adjusting. What even is a truss rod, and what function does it provide to a guitar?
A truss rod is essentially a long metal bar that lays throughout your guitar neck, much like the spine of the guitar. However, instead of holding the body up as the spine does, the truss rod helps prevent tension from strings from damaging the guitar neck.
Usually, truss rods are made from steel, but sometimes they are made from graphite or other materials. They are incredibly important components, and they must be set up correctly. Otherwise, you may encounter all sorts of problems with your guitar.
So, what exactly does preventing string tension achieve for the guitar? Let’s take a look.
How Exactly Does the Truss Rod Work?
One of the first challenges that every guitarist must face is tuning the guitar, and it can be a bit of a stressful experience. I can always remember the first time I tuned a guitar – I could feel this weird tension feeling, and I was terrified that if I tuned the guitar strings too high, the neck would bend or even snap!
Believe it or not, I was right to be worried about this – that is, if my guitar didn’t have a truss rod. Without a truss rod, tension from strings would eventually bend the neck, making the instrument completely unplayable due to a lack of flatness.
By countering the pull from the guitar strings, truss rods prevent this from being a problem and ensure that the neck always remains flat as a pancake.
However, this is only the case if the truss rod is set up correctly. The tighter the truss rod is, the further the neck will move away from bending forward, and vice versa. This is why it is so important to know what you are doing in this area – you are subtly bending the neck of your precious guitar, but it is necessary.
How Do Truss Rods Effect the Playing of a Guitar?
Now that you are aware of what exactly truss rods are and how they prevent guitar necks from bending, you might wonder what this means for the guitarist. After all, surely if the guitar neck is still intact, it shouldn’t matter whether the neck is bent or not? Goodness gracious no, that is not the case at all.
The ‘bentness’ of a guitar neck affects three key areas of the playability of a guitar; action, relief, and intonation. Let’s break down what each of these words means.
Relief is essentially the word used to describe to what extent your guitar neck is bent. Judging by my comments earlier, you may be assuming that the optimum amount of relief is absolutely none, to have your guitar neck as flat as a pancake. Well, you might be surprised to hear that this is not the case.
If you had a guitar in which the truss rod was adjusted to provide a large amount of relief (a.k.a a significant bend), this would be incredibly uncomfortable for your arms to play. However, a completely straight guitar neck will also feel very strange to play.
The best setup for this is to have a guitar neck that is straight but with a very slight amount of relief, providing an almost unnoticeable yet comfortable curve.
Explore your guitar neck and see how comfortable it is to play in different fret locations. If you notice that it is less comfortable in certain areas than others, it might be time for you to get that truss rod checked out!
Although relief is perhaps the most important effect caused by truss rod adjustment, the most common thing that guitarists tend to be aware of is action. Action is essentially a word used to define the distance between the strings and the fretboard, with higher action representing strings that have significant space between their frets.
Guitarists generally have their personal action preferences, with some favoring their strings very close to the fretboard and with others preferring to have a significant amount of action.
Half of the level of action on your guitar is provided by adjustment of the truss rod, but there is more to it than that. The other key contributor is the bridge of the guitar, which can be found at the bottom of your guitar.
Increasing the height of your bridge will increase the action on the lower end of your guitar, and decreasing it will reduce the action.
This ultimately means that you must adjust not only the truss rod but also your bridge to find the perfect action for your guitar.
It’s a really important process to manage, as having the incorrect action for your personal guitar preference could lead to a reduction of intonation or even the dreaded “fret buzz”. Don’t know what these words mean? Let me explain.
Intonation and Fret Buzz
Adjusting the truss rod, bridge, and ultimately the action of your guitar will affect what is known as intonation. This essentially represents how in-tune your guitar is across each fret.
As you probably already know, every guitar fret represents a semi-tone. You could boil this down to frequency in hertz (Hz) if you wanted to, but to be short, this tonation has to be perfect. If it’s not, your guitar will begin to sound flat or sharp, inconsistently across different frets.
This isn’t all though – dodgy action will not only make your guitar frets sound out of tune, but they could also prevent it from making a tune in the first place.
Imagine that your relief is too high and your action is too low, and you place your finger on the fifth fret. The string will be sitting against the sixth fret due to the low action despite you having your finger on the fifth, and this will prevent the string from toning properly.
The result will ultimately be an annoying rattle sound. You might be able to hear the tone slightly, but it will not sound right. It will often sound tinny or even completely dead. It’s yet another reason why adjusting your truss rod carefully and finding the relief and action is essential.
Guide to Adjusting Your Truss Rod
By this point in the article, you should be fully aware of exactly what a truss rod is, the physics behind how it affects the tension of the guitar, and how it affects the experience of playing the guitar.
It’s now going to be important that you familiarize yourself with how exactly to adjust your truss rod. Let’s break this process down into a few steps.
Before You Get Started…
Before we go through how to adjust your truss rod, it’s important to make one thing very clear – adjusting your truss rod can potentially be harmful to your guitar if it is not completed correctly. Remember, you are dealing with the relief (or bendiness) of your guitar neck, and this is made out of wood.
One of the best ways to ensure that you protect your guitar neck and don’t cause it any damage is to make very slight adjustments. Once you have made a small adjustment to your truss rod, you should leave your guitar alone for a day or two to give the wood a chance to adjust.
If you feel like you have not adjusted it correctly, do not be tempted to continue making adjustments again and again. This is exactly how you will end up causing damage to your guitar neck, and trust me, it is not worth it.
Step 1: Preparation and Analysis
The first and arguably the most important step of adjusting your guitar’s truss rod is to spend some time looking closely at the relief of your guitar neck.
Analyze the current situation, investigate the action, and identify any locations on the neck where you feel there is intonation or fret buzz present. This will essentially allow you to figure out exactly what you are trying to achieve, and how you are going to do it safely.
To assess the bendiness of your neck, you should take a look at it directly down from your guitar’s headstock. Check how the action varies depending on location, and feel free to use a spirit level if it helps.
If the bend is too large, this means that the truss rod will need tightening. However, if there is a backward bend, fret buzz, or intonation present this means that you will instead need to loosen the truss rod.
Step 2: Loosening Your Strings
Now that you have figured out whether you need to tighten or loosen your truss rod, it’s time to make some practical moves. The first thing that you are going to want to do may seem pretty obvious by this point – you should loosen your guitar strings!
The reason for this is that the tightness of your guitar strings determines the tension that your guitar neck experiences. As you can probably imagine, tightening the truss rod when the guitar strings are completely taught could cause all sorts of complications.
To combat this situation, simply loosen your guitar strings. There is no need to completely remove them, simply loosen them so that the tension is not going to cause any problems. You should do this step after you analyze the situation because otherwise, you will not be able to investigate the action of the strings.
Step 3: Tightening and Loosening your Truss Rod
It is now time to bite the bullet and get to work, tightening or loosening your truss rod depending on your earlier analysis. Make sure you have carefully read through the previous steps, and then you can get to work.
To get started, you are going to need a truss rod adjustment tool. These are essentially Allen keys that are significantly longer and symmetrical.
The reason for this is that you will be inserting the tool into the location of the truss rod, and this will require you to maneuver the tool between either the machine head or the bridge. You can achieve this from either location, so I would recommend going with whichever feels easier.
If you want to loosen your truss rod to reduce a backward bend or the presence of intonation and fret buzz, you should insert your truss rod tool and turn it anti-clockwise.
On the other hand, if you need to reduce the front bend by tightening the truss rod, you will instead need to insert the truss rod adjustment tool and turn it clockwise.
Step 4: Analysing the Results
As I mentioned earlier, it is incredibly important that you only make small adjustments to your truss rod. As a general rule, I would recommend only completing a quarter turn at maximum before leaving the guitar for a couple of days to adjust.
Once this time has elapsed, you should then retune your guitars to the original tension to analyze whether the adjustment has been successful.
You will essentially need to return to step 1, investigating the bend of the beck from the headstock downwards and analyzing the action.
Play a few chords and notes, and don’t forget to pay particular attention to any fret locations that were particularly affected. If you are satisfied that the problem has gone – congratulations, you have successfully adjusted the truss rod of your guitar!
On the other hand, if you feel that the problem is persisting, it’s time to get that truss rod adjustment tool out once again and get back to work. Don’t worry – you will rarely have to do this more than a couple of times.
The best thing to do is to assume your guitar will be out of action for one week, and this way you can avoid any disappointment and inconvenience.
My Top 3 Truss Rod Adjustment Tool Recommendations
All of the information that I have provided should make things a lot easier for you when adjusting your guitar’s truss rod, but that’s only going to be possible if you have an adjustment tool in the first place. Here are three of my favorite examples that I have encountered!
MusicNomad Premium Truss Rod Wrench-5mm for Martin Guitars
I personally own a Martin acoustic guitar and purchased this tool years ago, it’s super effective and does exactly what it says on the tin.
The tool is designed at a perfect right angle and has a fantastic handgrip for optimum ease of use, and if you have a Martin guitar, there isn’t going to be a better tool out there. However, let me state an obvious problem – this is going to work with Martin guitars or guitars that have the same sized truss rod as Martins.
- Designed specifically for Martin Acoustics
- Formed out of a perfect right-angle
- Excellent hand grip for ease of use
- It will only work with Martin acoustic guitars and equivalent truss rods
- $19.99 is quite expensive for a truss rod tool
Vencetmat 9Pcs Guitar Allen Wrench Set
If you love guitars as much as I do, it’s likely that you will have a variety of guitars – not just a Martin acoustic. Thankfully, you don’t have to buy adjustment tools as single items, you can buy wrench sets such as this one.
It includes 9 different sizes which cover just about every guitar out there including electrics, acoustics, and even ukeleles! Plus, it’s only $11.99 which is an absolute bargain in comparison to the last tool!
- Includes 9 different wrenches for almost any guitar
- Only costs $11.99 for a universal tool kit
- Can even work with banjos, ukeleles and more
- The tools do not have hand grips
TIMESETL Guitar Repairing Maintenance Tool Kit
If you’re not only looking to adjust your truss rod but also experiment with other guitar maintenance, this could be the tool kit for you. It features a huge range of tools including leveling tools, string organizers, and guitar files, allowing you to tackle just about any guitar maintenance issue – including truss rod adjustment!
For $10.99 it’s an absolute steal but bear in mind that it only includes three truss rod tool sizes.
- Includes a variety of 13 different tools for many repairing scenarios
- It only costs $10.99, huge value for money
- Comes packed in a convenient case
- Only includes three truss rod tools
- The truss rod tools do not have hand grips
Throughout this guide, I’ve covered a ton of information ranging from what a truss rod is, why it does what it does, and how you can adjust it to improve how your guitar sounds. To summarise some final points, let’s finish up with a quick FAQ. Hopefully, it will help answer any final burning questions that you might have.
Question: Do All Guitars Have a Truss Rod?
Answer: No – many guitars which use low-tension strings (such as nylon acoustic or classical guitars) do not use truss rods, but all electric guitars do.
Question: What Tool Do You Need to Adjust Your Truss Rod?
Answer: The appropriately named “truss rod adjustment tool” is required to adjust your truss rod. It is essentially a long and symmetrical right-angled Allen key and can be purchased online or in DIY stores.
Question: How Can Your Guitar Benefit from an Adjusted Truss Rod?
Answer: Tightening your truss rod can prevent neck damage if the frontward bend is too large, whereas loosening it can recover a backward bend or the presence of intonation and fret buzz.
Question: What Precautions Should You Take Before Adjusting your Truss Rod?
Answer: Before adjusting your truss rod, you should read this guide carefully, analyze the problem, determine which way you need to turn your tool and detune every guitar string to reduce tension. Don’t forget to leave your guitar for two days after adjustment to allow it to recover.
I hope that this guide on truss rod adjustment has been useful to you. I will always remember how scary it felt to go through this process for the first time as a beginner guitarist, but these days, it feels so easy with products such as the Vencetmat 9Pcs Guitar Allen Wrench Set.
With a bit of practice and experience, I am sure that you will soon feel the same. Take your time when analyzing the situation and don’t hesitate to take your guitar to a music shop and ask for a second opinion from a guitar expert. You will be thanking yourself when they notice that you have made a slight error in judgment!