Guitars are manufactured in such a way that there is a certain amount of relief or bow in the neck. Relief is a term that is used to describe how much concave or curve, is in the neck, which looks like the same curve as in the inside of a bowl.
The bow is a term we use to describe the degree of outward curve in the neck, or what’s called the convex. Sometimes, however, a neck can curve sideways which is what many called a “warped neck.”
Generally, you can tell if a guitar neck is warped by putting a straight-edge along the length of the guitar neck on both the low E and high E sides of the fretboard. If one side has a gap while the other side is touching, this may indicate a twist. You can do the same thing diagonally, as well.
When setting up a guitar, there is a proper amount of bow or relief expected – in fact, I already explored the topic here – which depends ultimately on the type of guitar as well as the player’s individual preferences.
However, there is one standard, and that is that the guitar’s neck doesn’t have a back-bow, which means the neck is protruding upward (toward the strings), or up-bow, which means there is too much of a concave curve (away from the strings).
How To Tell If My Guitar Neck Is Warped?
1) The “Eye-Ball” Method
To determine whether your guitar neck is warped (not to be confused with scalloped which I’ve talked about here), grab your guitar and look down the neck from the top of the headstock, or from the bottom of the guitar up to the headstock.
It’s important that this is done with good lighting because you won’t be able to tell otherwise. If the neck is warped, it will look like a winding and twisting staircase.
This is without a doubt, the most common way of determining whether or not a guitar neck is warped, however, there are other, more precise, ways of distinguishing between a properly curved neck.
As it was already mentioned, there should be a certain amount of inward curve (also called concave), in the guitar’s neck, and never any outward curve (convex).
2) Using Feeler Gauges
A much better way of figuring out whether or not your guitar neck is warped is to use something called a feeler gauge, which goes for a good price.
A feeler gauge is a set of, small, thin, pieces of steel that are manufactured precisely at a particular measurement. It looks something like a Swiss-army knife, however, instead of having individual tools, it has a bunch of small paper-like pieces of steel.
Each feeler gauge is carefully measured and created at a specific measurement, for example, 0.010″ or 254mm. To use the feeler gauge, you have to figure out the best measurement for figuring out how much bow or relief there is at each part of the neck.
For an electric guitar, a common amount of concave curve, or relief, as it’s called, is around 0.010″ or 254mm.
You would take this feeler gauge and insert it underneath the string on top of each fret across different parts of the guitar neck, while at the same time holding a straight edge, or a ruler, against the frets of the fretboard as a tool of comparison.
Another thing that can be done to determine how much twist is in the neck is to grab a feeler gauge, hold down the low-E string at the 7th and 15th fret, and then put a feeler gauge underneath that point and measure the distance between the string and the 12th fret. Do the same thing to the other side of the guitar on the high-E string.
It’s normal for there to be a small difference between the two measurements, one on the low-E string and the other on the high-E string side, but if the gap between the two measurements is too large, this means there could be an unnatural twist.
Symptoms of a Twisted Guitar Neck
There are a few different symptoms or signs of a twisted guitar neck, many of which are quite annoying and disconcerting. With that in mind, a small amount of twist in the neck may not actually be much of a problem for the guitar’s overall playability, but there is a point where too much twist and turn will severely impact the guitar, and it might need to be taken to a luthier or replaced altogether.
It’s worth mentioning that some of these signs and symptoms are commonly seen with other problems, including an improper set-up, so don’t freak out or panic if you experience fret buzz, fretting out, or improper intonation. There is a good chance that the instrument just hasn’t been set up properly.
Assuming that your guitar is properly set up, a twisted neck can cause certain problems like fretting out on particular parts of the guitar neck but not the others.
For example, the string could be hitting the fret at the 17th fret of the high-E string but not fretting out on the 17th fret on the low-E string. This is also called “fretting out,” and it just refers to the fact that the string won’t ring out anymore because it’s smacking against the fret.
A warped guitar neck can also cause intonation issues, which means that the guitar will be tuned differently at certain parts of the neck.
For example, the guitar could be perfectly tuned across every string on the open strings from E to E, but then when you play those same notes at the high 12th fret, which is just one octave up, those same notes will be wildly or just a bit of out tune.
Similar to “fretting out,” fret buzz means that the string isn’t allowed to ring out properly because it’s hitting against the string. The difference between “fretting out” and “fret buzz,” is that “fretting out” is “fret buzz” but taken to the extreme.
A bit of fret buzz is normal, but when the string is so close to the fret that it can’t ring at all, there may be an issue with the set-up or perhaps even a twist.
As I just said, a small amount of fret buzz is normal and it gives the guitar an interesting sound, but there is a certain degree of it that’s just unacceptable for a lot of guitarists.
Impossible To Set-Up The Guitar Without Problems
If you find yourself unable to set up your guitar without some kind of fret buzz, fretting out, intonation issues, or any other problem, it may be because of a twisted neck. Some guitars use what’s called a volute to reinforce the neck (I’ve talked about that in this article).
With the right amount of adjustments and specificity, it should be possible to get the perfect setup where there is a compromise between the playability of the instrument and a small amount of fret buzz.
However, if you find that it’s practically impossible to set up the instrument properly, then there may be an issue with the neck, whether it’s twisted, warped, or whatever the problem may be.
In this case, I would recommend just taking it to a luthier and having them analyze it for you because it’s going to save you a lot of time and headache at the end of the day. If you do want to do it yourself, I would recommend getting a set-up tool kit.
YouTube Video Tutorial
To put it simply, a warped guitar neck is when there is too much bow or relief on one side of the guitar compared to the other. If you want to know if your neck is warped, use feeler gauges to get a precise measurement of the distance between the guitar string and the fret at different parts of the instrument.
A warped guitar neck is a relatively common problem among guitarists, but many luthiers argue that most people think they have a warped neck when really the instrument just needs a proper adjustment.
It’s best to take the instrument to a luthier and have them inspect it for you, rather than trying to fix everything by yourself and wind up breaking something.