This is, without doubt, the biggest fear that most people have when they even think about setting up their own guitars or basses.
Actual quote I read: “Do not try and screw around with the truss rod yourself. You will most definitely snap your neck.”
My actual quote in response: “Phooey!”
Won’t someone think of the truss rods?
Can I break a truss rod?
Have you seen broken truss rods because people over-tightened them?
Yep. ‘Fraid so.
And you’re still telling me to try set up my own guitar?
You see, as long as you’re careful, all should be well. In a properly working guitar or bass, the truss rod (or your neck) isn’t going to snap off with some minor adjustment.
And the key word here is ‘minor’. It’s reasonably rare for an instrument to require big truss rod adjustments. If you take things in small increments all should be well.
Take an eight of a turn and see where that gets you. Another ⅛ if you need it. How’s it looking? In most cases, that’s probably enough. If your instrument had a lot of relief/bow (maybe it hadn’t been set up in years or it was badly adjusted to begin with), try an other eight of a turn.
Taking things slowly and repeatedly checking the effect your adjustments is having is the safe way to go.
No forcing it
If you feel like you’re making too many small turns and not seeing the effect you want, stop!
If you feel like it’s taking more pressure than you’re comfortable with, stop!
If the truss rod already felt tight to begin with, stop!
If you get a lot of creaking or groaning (from the guitar), stop. This might not be a problem but play it safe and let a good tech make that call.
But… those scary warnings… I thought it was safe
Think of it this way:
When you change your guitar strings, a string could break and snap into your eye. I’m guessing you probably don’t wear safety goggles when you restring though. Nope, you proceed carefully and probably don’t stick your face into the fretboard as you tighten that first string three steps higher than normal.
Same thing. Risks do exist here, however slight. Being aware of those risks means you’ll be more mindful when you’re adjusting your truss rod.
Despite the guy quoted at the start of the article, if you’re careful, it’s massively unlikely you’ll “snap your neck”.
The exception that annoys the rule
Early Rickenbackers (pre-1984) need some special care. Don’t try to adjust your vintage Ricky without reading my post on Rickenbacker Truss Rod Adjustment.
Oh, and use the right tool
Seriously. Use the right size wrench. Doing this incorrectly is more likely to ruin a truss rod than someone snapping it.
Truss Rods Made Easy
A while back, I wrote a short ebook to dispel these sorts of myths and scare-stories about truss rods.
You can download it for free at Truss Rods Made Easy.
Great Setups: Easy Peasy
I’ve also written a number of setup guides to walk you through all the steps (including truss rod adjustment) to a great playing guitar or bass.
You can check them out at Sketchy Setups.