Here is an article I've been meaning to write for some time. Many beginner players and even some people that have been playing for years get confused as to what a truss rod actually does. Many people think that the purpose is to adjust the action (string height). This is really not accurate. It does EFFECT the action but it is NOT there to adjust the action. Which are two very different things.
Let me tell you a story. We had a customer a while back that bought a guitar from some where other than NWG. He wanted to adjust the action him self since most big box houses and mail order place don't have the ability or inclination to set the guitar up to play correctly. We, on the other hand, give a free setup with all purchases of guitars for a reason. There is a correct way and an incorrect way to set a guitar up to play it's best. This person kept coming back and complaining about buzzing and when he turned the rod the wrong way it would mess with the action. He said the guitar was defective. (Spoiler Alert: It was not.) Eventually he decided to let us do it for him and walked away happy. So what was going on?
A truss rod effects the curvature of the neck. It is there to correct a back bow or a forward bow to create a buzz free playable experience. In this picture you can see a an extreme example of a back bow. Notice what it does to the strings.
A back bow will make the action feel shallow but that's because its changing the curve of the neck.
Now here is a forward bow example. Again take a look at how it effects the strings. Take note to what it does to the tension of the strings.
Now here, is a corrected truss rod with high action caused by a tall nut and bridge.
This is a nice straight playable neck but with the action being high as a result of the nut and bridge being incorrectly cut.
Lastly here is a corrected guitar set with a lower action but making sure the trust rod is straight with lowered strings. There is a science to this. There is actually suppose to be a slight curve to the neck. How much? I have no idea. That's something we have our tech Shawn take care of.
One thing you can't see from pictures is the intonation which ensures that as you play up the neck, the guitar doesn't go out of tune. All of these adjustment effect each other. Mess with one thing and it throws off another. In addition there is the nut and saddle height and nut slot size that needs to be based on the string gauge you are using.
All examples are very extreme examples. On a real guitar, these adjustments are minuscule and are mostly felt. They require special tools to do the job correctly. It is difficult for the untrained eye to see whether or not you need a setup. This is probably why so many people have misconceptions. So should you do this yourself?
You can, but probably shouldn't. Yes, you could learn if you took the time. It takes training and a lot of experience to be able to make the proper adjustments. Just like learning any new hobbie or skill it takes dedication and experience. What's more, an inspection by Shawn is FREE. If it doesn't need the work he won't charge you.
This is the reason I go to a pro like Shawn DeMots at Six Strings Service inside Northwest Guitars. Even being the manager I still have him do all my guitar work. He's gone through extensive training and has years of experience to back it up. Once in a while I'll turn a knob or crank a screw but anything beyond that, I just give it to Shawn because every time I get my guitar back it is clean, it has fresh strings, the action feels perfect and it even sounds better from the pickup adjustments he does. I can definitely afford to spend $70 once or twice a year to make sure my $500+ instrument is playing and sounding great. Otherwise what is the point of spending hundreds of dollars to get a nice guitar if it plays poorly due to neglect.
Here is a great video I found on Youtube that gives you a visual of the truss rod.
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