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How do I Check the Relief (Bow) in my Guitar Neck?

Checking the relief in your guitar neck is crucial for optimal playability. To assess the bow, hold your guitar at eye level and look down the neck from the headstock. You should see a slight curve. Use a capo and fret the last fret to measure the gap at the 8th fret. Is it too high or low? Discover how to adjust it for the perfect sound.
R. Kayne
R. Kayne

A guitar neck may look flat at first glance, but a closer inspection will reveal that most necks have a slight forward bow or relief to them. This tiny amount of curvature keeps strings from buzzing against fret tops, particularly when chorded. A truss rod runs internally through the length of the neck to help maintain a comfortable degree of bow. When the truss rod is adjusted correctly and the rest of the guitar is set up properly, it should be a pleasure to play.

It’s a good idea to measure neck relief from time to time, especially if you’ve noticed the guitar has become more difficult to play. It could be that the degree of bowing has increased. This can occur as a result of changing string gauges, exposing the instrument to extreme weather or humidity, or as a result of sheer time. If the neck needs adjustment, it’s easy enough to do. If the neck is not in need of adjustment but the guitar is having problems, you can look elsewhere for the culprit.

Acoustic guitar neck.
Acoustic guitar neck.

To measure neck relief, you’ll need a feeler gauge and a capo. Place a capo on the first fret, then use your finger to fret the E-string (uppermost string) closest to where the neck deepens to join the body. If you have two capos that’s even better as you can keep both hands free. The fretted string will create a straight line or plane, leaving a tiny gap over the fret tops. This gap reveals the degree of bow.

Eye the gap to find the largest space between the top of a fret and the bottom of the E-string. It will likely be about halfway down the neck at the fifth or sixth fret. Slip a feeler gauge into the gap to measure it.

Feeler gauge.
Feeler gauge.

There is no single measurement that represents ideal relief for all guitars. The most efficient degree of bow varies among individual instruments, and is also partly determined by strumming or picking styles and string choice. That said, a general guideline for jazz enthusiasts or those who enjoy fast, light picking might be a gap of 0.004 to 0.006 inches (0.102 - 0.152mm). Heavier strummers, rockers, or those who like lighter gauge strings will probably be happier with a gap that falls between 0.007 and 0.012 inches (0.178 - 0.305mm) to avoid unwanted string buzz.

Capo.
Capo.

If the bow gap is excessive, the truss rod can be adjusted to reduce relief and return the guitar to optimum playing condition. If there is no gap at all (i.e. the string lays on the fret tops), the neck is either dead flat or back bowed. A truss rod adjustment can also help in this case. If the rod is already adjusted out, switching to a heavier gauge string might help.

The bow in the neck of a guitar is designed to keep the strings from buzzing against the fret tops.
The bow in the neck of a guitar is designed to keep the strings from buzzing against the fret tops.

If you decide to adjust the truss rod, re-measure neck bow between each adjustment to avoid over-correcting. Note too that although a poorly adjusted neck can cause string buzz, you might also get buzzing with a perfectly adjusted neck. This can occur if the problem lies in a worn nut, for example, that is allowing the action (strings) to sit too low. Finally, measuring the degree of relief should not be confused with determining the action, or how high the strings sit off the fretboard when unchorded.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is neck relief and why is it important for my guitar?

Neck relief refers to the slight forward curvature of a guitar neck, which is essential for optimal playability. It allows for enough space between the strings and the frets to prevent buzzing when the strings vibrate. Proper relief ensures that the guitar can be played with ease and produces a clear tone. According to Fender, one of the leading guitar manufacturers, a typical relief measurement is around 0.010 inches at the 8th fret when holding down the first and last frets.

How can I check the relief of my guitar neck at home?

To check the relief of your guitar neck at home, first, tune your guitar to standard tuning to ensure string tension is correct. Then, hold down the low E string at the first fret and the last fret. Use a capo to keep the string in place if necessary. Now, look at the gap between the bottom of the string and the top of the 8th fret. A feeler gauge can be used to measure this gap accurately. If there's no gap or if the string is touching the frets, you may need to adjust the truss rod.

What tools do I need to measure the neck relief of my guitar?

To measure the neck relief of your guitar, you'll need a capo, a feeler gauge, and possibly a ruler. The capo is used to hold down the strings at the first fret, while the feeler gauge measures the gap between the string and the fret at the designated fret (usually the 7th or 8th). A ruler can help you check the relief if a feeler gauge is not available, although it may not be as precise.

How often should I check the relief in my guitar neck?

The frequency of checking your guitar's neck relief can depend on several factors, including how often you play, environmental conditions, and personal preference. As a general guideline, it's a good idea to check the relief every time you change your strings or if you notice changes in playability or intonation. Seasonal changes can also affect the wood in the neck, so checking with the change of seasons can be beneficial.

Can adjusting the truss rod be dangerous for my guitar?

Adjusting the truss rod can be risky if done improperly. It's a sensitive component designed to counteract the tension of the strings and maintain the neck's proper relief. Over-tightening can cause the neck to bow backwards, while loosening it too much can lead to excessive forward bowing. Both extremes can damage the guitar. It's recommended to make small adjustments (quarter turns) and to consult the guitar's manual or a professional if unsure.

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Discussion Comments

anon1002200

I don't think that your tutorial sheds any light on bow relief and tension. However, your article has succeed somewhat in giving the impression that what is needed is some kind of dark art or codex by blurring the facts of how to actually set your truss rod. You could have just summed it up as trial and error using the string method.

ocasek

I own a nylon string acoustic guitar and I find even high-gauge strings sound better with a high degree of bow, if you've got the finger strength to make for it. It might not make a difference if you're finger-picking, but it's never good when you start strumming hard only to hear that dreaded fret buzz.

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    • Acoustic guitar neck.
      By: Lucky Dragon
      Acoustic guitar neck.
    • Feeler gauge.
      By: Duncan Noakes
      Feeler gauge.
    • Capo.
      By: jipen
      Capo.
    • The bow in the neck of a guitar is designed to keep the strings from buzzing against the fret tops.
      By: schankz
      The bow in the neck of a guitar is designed to keep the strings from buzzing against the fret tops.