Bytes and Beats: A Strumming Engineer

Engineering and Jamming

First Post!

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        I’ll just say it, keeping up a working acoustic guitar in college can be quite a challenge. If you are like me, you haphazardly place it between a wall and a dresser when not playing it, and hope that no one lets it fall over. It sits in a case in a room with variable humidity all day long with the same old strings, because where would I find a shop to buy new ones at, let alone have the hour or so left over to replace them? And then there is what happens to almost all guitars when left around in awkward positions for too many months: a warped neck.

        Maybe, if you do not play a string instrument, you never thought about how often this might happen. A neck (the part where the strings of the guitar meet frets) becomes “warped” as it bends in any sort of direction it shouldn’t, such as twisting or bending inward/outward. This is an obvious problem, with symptoms such as major string buzz (ugh) and intonation problems, which means that frets do not play the exact tones they should. In my case, the bridge of my Bedel bent itself outward over the past few weeks, causing string buzz to such an extent that some frets are universally unplayable, which I have never had happen to me before. It requires repair rather urgently, in other words.

        There are a couple of reasons this might have happened to my good old Bedel: not changing the strings, not keeping it in a moisture-controlled environment, and a misbehaving truss rod. Though no amount of internet research will yield a sure answer for me, I think could be any mixture of these. First, I have not changed the strings in months. I’ve been too lazy, to be completely honest. The second may be part of the climate change I have just put it through; I bought it in Dallas, used it on a beach in Oahu, and now have brought the poor thing to a city known for notoriously cold weather compared to the previous two, St. Louis. Whether it has become too “wet” or too dry, I think it is no coincidence that the warping came along with the winter months. There are humidifying products to help with this, but I will have to wait on that until I get a proper diagnosis.

        Now for the third reason, I think it would only do justice to this post to explain the mechanics of a “truss rod”, the really mover and shaker that acts from inside essentially all acoustic and electric guitars. The truss rod is metal rod that runs through the length of the guitar’s neck, and can be adjusted and tightened as needed. This little rod counteracts the tension of the strings, acting as a structural foundation for the neck of the guitar. The strings of a guitar typically sustain between 70 and 150 pounds of tension from the combined strings, so the truss rod has the very important job of keeping the guitar from warping, or more cataclysmically, snapping. It is adjusted to give the desired straightness of the neck, which in turn directly affects the “action” of the guitar, or how far the strings are from the frets they are set above. The action is not always a matter of correct or incorrect, and can be adjusted to the player’s preference. It’s a tricky business though, and no one without experience or training should mess with their truss rod’s preferences, as getting it wrong can have irreversible consequences (like the “snapping” mentioned earlier). Thus, since I enjoy my beautifully sounding acoustic, I will not be handling this situation myself. Unlike my laptop, restart is not the easy go to when things go awry.

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