Problems With Martin Guitar Necks

Written by carlos mano
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Problems With Martin Guitar Necks
Martin guitars are prized by collectors and performers. (guitar image by Earl Robbins from

Christian Frederick Martin was born in Germany, and apprenticed to a luthier in Vienna when he was 15. In 1833 he moved to America and started making guitars in Nazareth, Pennsylvania, where Martin guitars are still made today. The Martin company manufactures mandolins, ukuleles, steel-string guitars, nylon-string classical guitars and acoustic-electric guitars. The Martin guitar that is prized by collectors and performers is the flat-top steel-string guitar--unfortunately, this model sometimes has a neck problem.

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Steel Strings Cause a Neck Problem

When the guitar was invented in the 1500s, the strings were made of animal gut (today classical guitar strings are made of nylon). This instrument was primarily played alone or as accompaniment for a single voice. The tension that the six gut (or nylon) strings exert on the guitar when properly tuned is approximately 13.6 Kilogram. When steel strings replaced the softer strings to make the guitar louder, the tension went up to more than 45.4 Kilogram. This increase in tension has caused a problem--over the years the strings pull the neck away from the body, which changes the angle of the neck and seriously interferes with the playability. This is especially true of Martin guitars, which have always been built with thin wood chosen more for its beauty and acoustic properties than for its physical strength.

Truss Rods Solve the Neck Problem

The solution to the tension problem was solved by Martin (and most other guitar manufacturers) by putting a "truss rod" through the neck. This rod counteracted the tension of the strings by pulling the neck back to the correct angle so the strings lay above the frets at the proper distance all along the neck. If the strings are too far above the frets the guitar is hard to play, and if the strings are too close to the frets they will buzz. This clearance must be consistent all along the neck. Guitars age and the correct tension needs adjusting after years of operation.

Adjusting the Neck

To adjust the neck on the classic Martin steel string guitars, lay the guitar on a table or work bench. With one hand press the bass E string down at the first fret. With the other hand, press the same string down at the 14th fret. In this position. the bass E string should clear the sixth fret by exactly 0.013 inches. The truss can be adjusted with a 5mm Allen wrench. The end of the truss rod is accessible by reaching inside the sound hole and inserting the Allen wrench into the proper place where the neck meets the body. Turning the Allen wrench one way will increase this clearance and turning it the other way will decrease it. Obviously, this process is a lot easier to do if you have two people.

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