Should you loosen guitar strings before shipping?

Reader Question: Should You Loosen Guitar Strings Before Shipping?

Markus asks:

I just sold a guitar and need to ship it. Should I loosen the strings before I pack it up for shipping?

Ever so often, this question comes to me–usually from someone who just sold a guitar online, and is about to pack ‘er up for shipping.




There’s a lot of debate out there about whether you should loosen a guitar’s strings before shipping. The debate has become almost a religious one and gets quite heated on guitar forums and such. Here are my thoughts:

I Don’t Loosen Guitar Strings Before Shipping (But That’s Just Me)

Firstly, I never loosen guitar strings before shipping a guitar. I’d just like to throw that out there.

My view is: if this were necessary, then all the major manufacturers–Martin, Gibson, Fender, Ibanez, etc–would do it. Yet, they don’t. I’ve never received a guitar from a manufacturer or big online retailer that has been purposely detuned. A little out-of-tune upon arrival, yes, but that’s the normal result of being knocked around during shipping, climate changes between locations, etc.  Whenever you receive a guitar in the mail, it’s almost guaranteed that it’ll not only be out of tune, but probably need a complete setup.

Shipping a guitar with the strings at full tension doesn’t pose any danger to the guitar neck itself. However, there might be some validity to the argument that the headstock is more susceptible to breakage if the guitar takes a bad fall during shipping. The theory is, because the headstock has full string tension pulling it forward already, the sudden pressure of a good smack can be enough to crack the point where the headstock is connected to the guitar.

However, it would need to be a pretty catastrophic fall and the guitar would have to have been packed poorly to begin with.

If You MUST Loosen Guitar Strings Before Shipping…

Now, I fully understand that, for your own peace-of-mind, some of you may still want to loosen the strings before shipping. I get that.

Here’s the deal: If you ARE going to loosen guitar strings partially or completely in preparation for shipping, then you should also loosen the truss rod a proportionate amount (and be sure to let the person on the receiving end know you’ve done this). If you loosen the strings completely–so that there is NO tension–then also loosen the truss rod bolt completely. Turn the truss bolt counter-clockwise until it begins to spin freely.

If you ONLY loosen the strings you’ll have an imbalance where the truss rod is bending the neck backwards with little or no string pressure to pull it the opposite direction. In that case, you may be helping the headstock a bit, but now the neck itself is probably a bit more susceptible to damage during shipping.

A Note About Shipping Nylon-String / Classical / Flamenco Guitars

Nylon string guitars (Classical and Flamenco) can indeed benefit from having the strings loosened (but not totally slack) prior to shipping. This is because these guitars usually don’t have a truss rod. They don’t need one because nylon strings don’t exert enough tension on the neck to warrant a truss rod. The natural rigidity of the neck’s wood is enough to handle the tension. So, you can safely loosen the strings prior to shipping, but you still need to pack the guitar adequately, and this includes padding INSIDE the guitar case as well as outside.

Summary

So, in summary, loosening the strings probably isn’t necessary when shipping a guitar. However, if it makes you feel better to loosen them, be sure to also loosen the truss rod (and let the person receiving the guitar know). What is FAR more important is properly packing the guitar, inside the case and outside. The same packing recommendations I give for flying with a guitar apply to shipping as well.

Hope that helps!

7 replies
  1. Andrew
    Andrew says:

    I just received an immaculate condition, 19 year old guitar that is probably going to be destroyed because the owner loosened the strings to ship to me. The truss rod was also wagging around inside the neck but I assume that was just because there was no counter force to keep it tensioned. I’ve been working on it’s set up for over a week… Unfortunately, it’s just not happening.

    If you’re just dying to get your guitar returned for a full refund because your neck warped then, by all means, relieve tension on the neck. String tension counters the force of the truss rod. Both play an integral part in keeping the neck wood straight. Unless you’re one of the very few people that have gone in to a forest and found a perfectly straight, three foot long piece of mahogany or maple, then you’ll understand that wood naturally wants to bend and twist. Relieving tension on the neck only invites that carefully formed piece of mahogany to assume it’s more natural shape. A lot of care went in to setting up your guitar neck to stay straight while being pulled with over 150 pounds of force. Go ahead and set that force back to zero and then expose that guitar to several climate zones. Watch what happens. There’s a good reason EVERY manufacturer ships with A440 tension and the neck relief already set.

    You won’t find perfectly straight neck blanks just falling off of trees in the forest. You also won’t find people relieving tension on their guitar’s neck to place the guitar in their car, van or tour bus. There’s no difference putting the guitar on a FedEx or UPS truck. It’s simply going for a drive. Just because you can’t see it or it’s out of your hands is no reason to relieve tension. Leave the tension on the neck!

    NOTE If you’re a collector who doesn’t do regular maintenance, or you’re not going to play your guitar for a long time and you live in a place that has drastic seasonal changes – humid summers, cold, dry winters, the desert, high elevation, etc., then go ahead and tune down a 1/2 step and allow the guitar to safely expand and contract with the climate changes.

    Reply
  2. Garry McNew
    Garry McNew says:

    I’ve purchased a number of guitars online and I have to agree, no need to loosen the strings. More important to wrap and pack extremely well. I have had no bad experienced receiving guitars with tight strings.

    Reply
    • Guitar Answer Guy
      Guitar Answer Guy says:

      Thanks Garry, I had the same observation very early on: whenever I ordered a guitar online from a major retailer, it always arrived with the strings tuned up to pitch (albeit a little out of tune due to shipping).

      Since some people have a very strong opinion on this matter, I’ve recently started asking the buyer what their preference is.

      Reply
  3. Steve
    Steve says:

    Agree it is not needed to loosen strings upon shipping. But, even if you do guitar necks are not in a state of precarious balance when you change strings all at once. There’s not enough “bend” in a neck that is at risk loose strings or no strings. The neck is strong enough to hold appox 150 lb of string tension there is enough to stand on it’s own at any time; whether in a shipping case or not. However you are right on the guitar money about packing it properly and not taking shortcuts when shipping one. There are good boxes designed to ship guitars. Use those. And copy how luthiers and guitar makers pack one.
    You can Also use a transport case like airline flight cases to add further protection. Depending on your desire for care with high ticket guitars. Or even low ones.
    I agree with everything else in the article.
    Thanks
    Steve :=}

    Reply
    • Guitar Answer Guy
      Guitar Answer Guy says:

      You definitely see people online saying “never remove all your guitar strings at once!” That’s bogus. You’re correct, the truss rod isn’t going to bend the neck out of shape if all the strings are removed–not for short durations anyway. I wouldn’t advocate removing all strings and leaving them off for days or weeks though. The neck will still probably be fine, ubt if you ARE going to keep the strings off for many days (or weeks), I’d still loosen the truss rod for good measure. In fact, people shouldn’t fear their truss rod. I’m constantly loosening and tightening mine–such that I don’t have truss rod covers on any of my electric guitars.

      Reply
      • Andrew
        Andrew says:

        Removing all strings for a short period in a controlled environment won’t do any damage. Wood needs time and/ or extreme temperature changes in order to be reshaped. Leaving strings detuned for days in the back of a cross country UPS truck in mid-winter – good luck with that…

        Reply

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