Guitar Truss Rod Adjustment: Loosen or Remove Strings?

Many things go into a great sounding and playing instrument. 

Proper string height and clean-sounding notes coming off the fretboard are certainly indicative of such an instrument. 

Many components exist to keep your instrument playing its best, including your guitar’s truss rod.

The truss rod provides counter tension to the force that the strings put on the guitar. Loosening the strings helps when you are trying to correct the upbow on the neck, but is not necessary when correcting the back bow. There are also a couple of easy ways to tell what kind of adjustment you need to make.

Let’s begin!

Why would you need to adjust the truss rod of your guitar?

Adjusting the truss rod helps with two things: fret buzz and adjusting string action.

Fret buzz happens when you actually get a buzzing sound when fretting a note, rather than a clean, pristine sound. 

The buzz is actually caused by the string hitting a neighboring fret when it’s not supposed to, causing the fret to interfere with the string’s vibration. 

Typically, if notes in the first five or six frets are buzzing, it would mean that your neck is back bowed and the truss rod needs to be tightened.

String action refers to the height of the strings off the fretboard. 

Neck adjustments can help correct this if the action is high. 

If you find that the stings feel too far off the neck, it can mean that your neck has an upbow and the truss rod will need to be tightened to correct this.

You can determine the neck’s bow by doing the sight test. 

This one is easy (but does require some practice. 

Tune your guitar to pitch, then turn the guitar to its side and look down the fretboard with one eye. 

You should be able to see if the neck is back bowed, up bowed, or straight.

You can also do the tap test if you have a hard time sighting the neck. 

Place a capo on the first fret, then run your fingers gently over the strings. If the strings are touching the frets immediately, there’s a back bow. 

If there is too much distance between the strings and frets, there’s upbow 

Which way do you adjust the truss rod?

You can think of the truss rod the way you would think of a screw (the “lefty-loosey-righty-tighty” rule). 

Turning the truss rod adjustment to the left loosens the rod’s tension on the neck, allowing relief on the neck (or allowing the neck to bow up).

Turning the truss rod to the right tightens its tension on the neck, causing the neck to bow back.

Is it necessary to remove guitar strings when adjusting the truss rod?

Removing the strings from the guitar to adjust the truss rod is unnecessary. 

You do need to have them handy to make sure that your adjustments worked (checking for fret buzz, string action, etc.). 

However, there are situations where loosening the strings would be needed.

Will loosening up guitar strings be enough when adjusting the truss rod?

Loosening the strings is recommended if you need to tighten the truss rod. 

Tightening the truss rod adds counter-tension to the tension that strings put on the neck; loosening the strings before tightening the rod will help make adjustments easier (and remember, only go 1/4 turn at a time!). 

Once you’ve made your adjustments, just tune up the stings again and see if all is good!

Just note that if your truss rod won’t move clockwise anymore, it’s reached its limit and you may risk damaging the neck if you try to force it. 

At the same time, if the rod won’t move in either direction or feels too loose, it’s indicative of a larger issue with the rod and is best handled by a luthier.

Are there any reasons to do one over the other?

Guitar strings do put a lot of tension (and I mean a LOT! A normal set of 10-46 gauge strings tuned to standard pitch places over 100 lbs of tension on a guitar’s neck). 

Because of that, if you need to tighten the rod, loosening the strings will make the job easier.

Can you adjust your truss rod without loosening or removing the strings?

You actually don’t need to loosen the strings if you are loosening the truss rod (or removing the counter-tension that it provides). 

You can make your adjustments to add a bit of back bow (if needed) since the strings are already pulling on the neck. 

Just remember to go a bit at a time (1/4 turn max!), retune, check the adjustment, and redo if necessary.

How to know if your truss rod adjustments are successful?

You can redo the sight or tap tests to check to see if the adjustments increased or decreased the bow the way you want it. 

You can also play the guitar. Are the strings set to the right height and the buzzes on the early frets are gone? You probably nailed it!

Sometimes the adjustments are not always apparent. In that case, it would be best to leave the guitar tuned overnight to give a chance for the neck to settle and reset before checking again. 

With a bit of practice, you can easily adjust the truss rod to get your instrument in top shape. 

However, if you don’t feel comfortable making these adjustments, a skilled luthier will get your guitar playing its best.