What a Relief! A Lesson on Guitar Necks and Neck Relief

by Armani Guitars

Guitar Necks and Truss Rods: How They are Made and What to Adjust

Do you feel like your guitar isn’t playing as easily as it did?

Is your string action higher than it should be towards the middle of your fretboard?

Do the strings touch or buzz at high parts of your fretboard when you’re playing in the lower registers?

All the above issues are likely to deal with neck relief – the amount of curvature in your guitar’s neck.
A little concave relief (the neck appears to dip very slightly as you look down the neck) is good for the guitar’s playability. It allows for lower action and ease of playing
A lot of relief (down-bow), on the other hand, can be harmful. It causes the guitar to feel harder to play, can make the guitar sound slightly out of tune, and can cause the neck to warp over time.
A perfectly straight neck will often cause buzzing, or require action to be raised at the bridge, which is bad for playability.
A convex neck (up-bow) will be unplayable in the lower registers. This happens because the strings will contact higher frets and not produce sound. This is called “fretting-out.”

Here’s how the guitar neck works:
Your guitar’s neck is made of a few pieces. These pieces are the neck itself (wood), the fretboard (wood), and the adjustable truss rod (steel or composite). When a neck is first made, it is relatively straight. When the guitar is first strung, string tension creates a small, favorable down-bow in the neck. As the guitar ages, time, climate changes, heavy playing, and tension from the guitar’s strings can cause the wood to bend, creating a concave or convex bow in your guitar’s neck. This is where the truss rod comes in.

The truss rod is an adjustable rod that runs down the center of the neck, under the fretboard. The truss rod counteracts exterior forces that cause your guitar’s neck to bend over time. It is typically adjustable with an allen wrench, with one direction correcting up-bow, and the other direction correcting back-bow. Truss rods are usually accessible from one of two places: Some guitars have truss rod access at the top of the neck (usually under a cap on the faceplate), while other guitars have truss rod access on the bridge side of the neck (usually in the body of an acoustic guitar or under the pickguard on an electric guitar).

So, now that you know the parts of the guitar’s neck, this is the best way to look at your guitar when evaluating neck relief:

*Before you get started, realize that making adjustments to your truss rod can cause damage to your guitar. Do not attempt to adjust your truss rod if you are unsure of what you’re doing. If you’re unsure, take the guitar to a professional. Luthiers and Guitar Techs do these kinds of adjustments all the time, at affordable rates.

  1. Lay your guitar on a safe, flat surface where it will not move or fall
  2. With your head at the nut-side of the neck, close one eye sight down the side of the neck.
  3. As you sight down the neck, look for curvature in the wood. Evaluate the wood, not the frets.
  4. Move your head to the other side of the nut and repeat. Hopefully, the curvature will be the same on both sides. If the curvature is different on each sight-line, your neck may be warped. Do not attempt to adjust the truss rod if this is the case! You could further damage the neck, take it to a professional.
  5. Determine how your truss rod works: check the specs of adjusting your truss rod on the Manufacturer’s website.
  6. Once you what direction to adjust your truss rod, take it slowly. Never turn your wrench more than 30 degrees at a time, small adjustments can have a major impact.
  7. Give the guitar a moment to rest, then re-evaluate it. Pick it up and see how it’s playing. Take your time with it and repeat the steps if necessary.

Hopefully this has been helpful to you in understanding neck relief. Please also realize that there are many other things that factor into the guitar’s playability…fret height and evenness, nut height, bridge height and intonation that are beyond the scope of this writing.

Happy playing!

-Joe Armani, Armani Guitars


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