If you try asking some of the most advanced guitar players why some guitars have what they call a “skunk stripe” on the back of their instruments’ necks, chances are, they’re just as clueless as you are.
A skunk stripe is a walnut strip running down the back of your guitar’s neck. It is commonly found in Fenders, as well as other vintage guitars. Skunk stripes are very apparent in necks that make use of light-colored maple, due to the contrasting wood color.
This unique but subtle feature is sometimes overlooked in guitars since they are not only often hidden from plain sight, but their purpose is also misunderstood by even some self-proclaimed guitar experts. In fact, there is a myth spreading around that skunk stripes are just there for aesthetic purposes.
However, even as they are dismissed as mere ornaments that don’t serve any particular function, skunk stripes are an enduring trait that has been present all throughout the evolution of stringed instruments. Actually, it wouldn’t come much as a surprise to know if these things stretch back to the earlier days of the truss rod’s usage, back in the first few decades of the 20th century.
It is important for guitar players and budding luthiers to be enlightened on this part of the guitar, which, by the way, is not present in all electric stringed instruments. So what exactly is a skunk stripe and what is its important role on your guitar?
In order for us to fully understand the purpose of skunk stripes on guitars, we will need to take a short trip into the past to gain some perspective on some instrument building fundamentals.
The introduction of the skunk stripe on guitars
A brief history of skunk stripes
Although guitar history buffs believe that skunk stripes have existed long before Fender adopted them, the feature became a standard on Fender’s one-piece maple neck and fingerboard setups from 1950 to 1958. They however became obsolete for quite some time after rosewood fingerboards were introduced on the Jazzmaster. Skunk stripes became irrelevant due to the fact the truss rods channels on the Jazzmasters were routed into the front of the neck and covered with glued-on fingerboards instead.
It was only in 1969, when one-piece maple necks and fingerboards made a return to the Fender lineup, that skunk stripes became an option again. Then in 1971, Fender introduced the “bullet” truss rod system on their Stratocasters, a change which saw the adjustment mechanism of the truss rod being transferred by guitar designers to the headstock, as opposed to the body end of the neck.
This shift in design required truss rod channels to be routed into the back of the neck once again no matter what type of wood is used for the fingerboards. This time, all Stratocasters that utilize the “bullet” truss rod system, started having skunk stripes and soon, other guitar models would follow suit.
The uses of a skunk stripes on guitars
In order for a piece of wood to accommodate the truss rod during the building process, a channel needs to be routed out of the back of the neck. The skunk stripe is needed later on to fill that channel. In cases when truss rods are either broker or warped and replacement is the only solution, the skunk stripe can be removed to expose and pull out the truss rod.
Believing that a truss rod needs two members to create a perpendicular force for tension and compression to support the neck steadily, some luthiers have already criticized this design a number of times. They believe that because guitar companies like Fender and Gibson use only a single steel bar, the neck itself enforces the compression, resulting in a less stable environment.
Skeptical luthiers are quick to point out that popular brands prefer this design because the production cost is cheaper. Some also claim that guitar repair centers can earn more from this flawed design because customers would come in more often for truss rod adjustments due to the weaker neck reinforcement
Guitar skunk stripe vs no skunk stripe
Skunk stripes may have its detractors, especially those who often accuse the well-known guitar companies of profiting off this design. However, almost all Fender instruments, except for vintage reissues that try to emulate the skunk stripe-less eras, also utilize the walnut strip. Even other modern brands such as Ibanez, employ the same design with more exotic woods like bubinga on their Prestige line.
Save for axes that either don’t have truss rods or at least have ones fitted underneath the fingerboard, most guitars today will have skunk stripes on their necks. If you aren’t exactly fond of having a skunk stripe on your guitar, keep in mind that this isn’t exactly a matter of personal preference, but a standard in guitar-making that builders have to adhere to.