One question that’s commonly up for debate, is whether or not you should loosen the strings of an acoustic, electric or bass guitar prior to shipping it.
One could argue either way that leaving the strings fully tuned, as well as detuning them both makes the guitar susceptible to certain types of damage. While leaving the strings at full tension may cause the headstock to become damaged if the guitar falls, detuning the strings can cause issues with the neck.
With such conflicting opinions out there, who should you listen to?
Long story short, there is no clearly defined answer. As with shipping anything, the distance, delivery vehicle (airplane, truck, boat…) length of time, climate differences etc all come into play.
However, I would like to say that I personally do not detune guitars before shipping them, including basses. Although, I always take extensive measures to insure that the instrument is well-protected from potential damage due to how carelessly UPS or Fedex handle them (which is a much more serious concern in my opinion.)
The concern about the headstock is this – if the instrument were to fall with the full string tension pulling it forward, a hard hit to the instrument could cause a crack where the headstock is located.
In my opinion, the guitar should be adequately protected against impact damage like this anyway, making it a practically moot issue.
Pack your guitar as if it could be treated like this!
Anyhow, the potential issues with detuning a guitar is why I never bother to do so whenever I ship one, and there are a number of reasons I’ve come to this conclusion.
The first, and perhaps the most important is that the guitar neck is not built to be detuned for lengthy periods of time. Inside of the neck guitars (with the exception of most classical guitars) is something called a truss rod. This is essentially a hard rod – usually made out of steel, that supports the neck of the guitar. It balances the tension introduced by the strings, to help keep the neck straight and prevent it from bowing.
When the strings are loosened and no adjustment is made to the truss rod, it can cause the neck to start to bend backwards as there is less string pressure pulling it back in the opposite direction. This is particularly an issue if the instrument will take a significantly long time to reach the recipient, such as if it’s going across the ocean on a ship.
The other primary reason I’ve avoided it, quite simply is because the major guitar manufacturers like Gibson, Fender, Ibanez etc. do not detune the instruments either. Because they ship such a large volume of guitars, they have surely ran the numbers and have solid data to back up their decisions.
Note: Some people have reported that UPS, Fedex and DHL may require the strings to be detuned in order to be eligible for insurance coverage, in spite of all this. When in doubt, you may wish to ask them before dropping it off. This way, you won’t end up potentially paying for insurance that would be effectively worthless. If insurance is important to you, than follow their exact instructions – or even have them pack it themselves if possible, so they have no easy excuse to deny your claim.
If You Are Going To Loosen The Strings…
If you are going to loosen the strings anyway, you can minimize the risk for potential issues by only detuning the guitar slightly – say a quarter-step or a half-step at most.
If you decide to loosen the strings beyond a whole step, you’ll also want to loosen the truss rod inside of the neck. Otherwise, you are leaving the neck of the guitar more susceptible to damage as it is no longer in balance with the tension of the strings.
Of course, if you decide to do this, you’ll also want to let the person receiving the guitar or bass know that you’ve done so.
If you are selling a guitar to a beginner (or the model of the guitar is commonly geared towards beginners), keep in mind that they likely do not know what a truss rod is, or how they would go about adjusting it. This is another thing to keep in mind before making the decision to detune it.
Finally, if you are shipping a guitar with a Floyd Rose tremolo, you’ll want to make sure that it doesn’t tilt far enough to rest on the body. If it would, place something soft like a small piece of foam underneath it to protect the guitar from potential impact damage.
What About Classical Or Flamenco Guitars?
Most nylon string guitars, such as classical guitars or flamenco guitars, have a much lower natural string tension.
In fact, the tension of nylon string guitars can be less than half the tension of steel-string acoustics.
Additionally, most of these guitars do not have truss rods inside of them.
For classical guitars and flamenco guitars, it is safe to detune them slightly during shipping, without having to worry about the neck warping at all.
Just make sure that you package the guitar to the same standard as you would a steel-string acoustic, electric, or bass guitar.
While the subject of detuning guitars prior to shipping is still a hot debate, we believe the potential risks of doing so outweigh the potential benefits.
That being said, it’s important to consult with the company you’ll be shipping with regarding their specific policies and best practices. The insurance claims may be invalidated if you do not adhere to their requirements, which could potentially cause significant losses to you.
We’d love to hear your personal stories, thoughts and opinions regarding this topic. Feel free to share them in the comments below.
Thank you for reading!