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How To Setup Your Electric Guitar Part 1: Adjusting the Truss Rod

Electric Guitar Setup

In this three part series, we’ll discuss everything you’ll need to know to start doing your own professional-grade setups at home. Each article will focus on a different part of the setup process (Relief, Action, and Intonation) and we’ll include links to related articles, deeper explanations, and tons of tips and tricks we’ve learned over the years. Setting up your own guitar can seem daunting at first, but this series will get you the know-how you’ll need to make your setups just as accurate as the pros.

Click to enlarge.

Before You Begin

Before you begin, you’ll want to ensure you have all the necessary tools and enough space to do a safe and accurate setup. While a mat or padded workbench is preferred, simple solutions such as a blanket, towel and pillow will work just as well. However, if you are not sure of the proper tool or wrench size, consult your Owner’s Manual or contact the manufacturer to avoid risk of damaging your instrument.

The list below is a great reference, but don’t forget the most important tools of all; your eyes and ears.

Tools You’ll Need
Optional Tools
  • Capo
  • Wire cutters
  • Neck Rest to secure the guitar
  • Radius Gauge
  • Long Straight Edge

How to sight a guitar neck

The first step in any setup is to take a look at the neck and see what correction we may need to make. By sighting the neck, we gain insight into how the neck is reacting to the string tension and truss rod relief. At this point, we’re just trying to get an understanding of whether the neck is straight or not.

SIghting Neck

Click to enlarge.

1. Tune the guitar to pitch.

2. Turn the guitar on its side, close one eye, and look down the neck from the headstock towards the bridge (left).

3. Look down the profile of the fretboard on both the bass and treble sides of the neck. Is the neck straight or is there a curve?

If this is the first time you’ve ever tried to sight your instrument’s neck, you may be a little unsure of what to look for. If your guitar’s neck is not straight, it is likely to have either upbow or backbow. While upbow will cause the string to be too far from the frets and impede playability, backbow will move them too close and produce fret buzz.

Tip: Because the truss rod will affect the middle of the neck most, be sure to pay special attention for upbow or backbow in the area between the 3rd and 9th fret.

The Tap Test

Don’t be discouraged if you aren’t able to sight the neck right away, it takes some practice. Another method for assessing the neck’s playability is the Tap Test. The Tap Test is an easy way to “feel” the amount of neck relief by using the string as a straight edge.

  1. Tap Test performed without capo.

    Start by fretting at the first fret and then use your pinky finger to fret near where the the guitar joins the body (right).

  2. Lightly press the string until it touches top of the fret, you can feel how much space is between the strings and the frets.

The space between the string and frets will reflect the bow of the neck. If there is too little space, it is likely the neck suffers from back bow. If there is too much space, the neck has upbow, or too much relief.

Click here for more details on the Tap Test.

Making The Proper Adjustments

Now that we’ve learned how to sight the neck and use the “tap test” to see how much relief we have, let’s make some of the necessary adjustments to get this neck into shape. Remember that neck relief should be adjusted only when it needs it.

Adjusting the Truss Rod

Click here to enlarge

Correcting Backbow

To add relief to the neck, you’ll want to loosen the truss rod, or turn the truss rod nut counter-clockwise.

Correcting Upbow

To reduce the amount of relief and make your guitar a little easier to play, you’ll want to tighten the truss rod, or turn the truss rod nut clock-wise.

Tips

  • Don’t adjust too much at once. You’ll want to turn the truss rod about a ¼ of a turn at a time until you’re familiar with how your truss rod will react.
  • Always re-tune the guitar before checking your adjustment.
  • Don’t force anything. If you feel excessive resistance during an adjustment, your truss rod could be maxed out. Further adjustment could damage the instrument. An inspection by an experienced technician is recommended.
  • If you feel that you’re loosening the truss rod and it isn’t making any adjustment, you may have a dual-action truss rod. Check your instrument’s specifications. If you do, your truss rod will eventually catch and you’ll be able to make the proper adjustment.
  • Some necks will not adjust right away. In some cases, it’s better to make adjustments and let the neck settle overnight to ensure you don’t over-adjust.

 


A couple good rules of thumb:

  • A guitar that buzzes at the first five frets will likely need more relief.
  • A guitar that buzzes above the 12th fret or across the entire fretboard will likely need the action raised if the neck relief is properly set.
  • Action and Relief go hand in hand and your guitar will play its best when they are both set properly.
  • If your guitar buzzed in middle of the neck and now buzzes above the 12th fret, you’ve likely added too much relief.

Now that the truss rod has been adjusted, click here to proceed to Part 2 and set the action of your guitar.


 

Helpful Links

Guitar Setup Part 2: Setting Action

Guitar Setup Part 3: Intonation

Guitar Setup: The Right Tool for the Job

Guitar Setup: What is neck relief?

Guitar Setup: What is the correct string height for my guitar?

Guitar Setup: How much string buzz is normal?

 

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