Published On: Tue, Dec 11th, 2012
Uncategorized | By Huw Price

Critical But Stable – Tremolo Workshop

Fender Strat trem units can be a vita and life-affirming part of a guitar player’s arsenal. However, getting them set up correctly so they can take a hammering and still do you proud can be a tricky business. Huw Price is here with all the info you need…

The history of vibrato guitar bridges is long and complicated, but the ruler of the roost – at least until 1954 – was Bigsby. They’re still very popular and work efficiently enough within their limits, but they’re probably best suited to archtop guitars. The Bigsby B16 for Telecasters was introduced in 1953, but Leo Fender reckoned he could come up with something a bit more sophisticated for his new Stratocaster model. With help from Freddy Tavares, he nailed it… as usual.
 
Maybe Fender was trying to distance his design from Paul Bigsby’s by calling his new bridge a ‘tremolo’. It’s a misnomer, because ‘tremolo’ actually describes fluctuations in volume rather than pitch. Consequently, Fender amps have ‘vibrato’ channels when in fact they actually produce a tremolo effect. To avoid confusion we’ll just use the term ‘trem’. 
 
Of course musicians loved Leo’s Stratocaster trem and it had a huge impact on music over the next decade or so, and Jimi Hendrix was the first to really explore its full potential. Behind that potential, however, lie a number of limits. The Strat trem is a mechanical device and, like all mechanical devices, it requires proper maintenance and careful adjustment to function correctly. 
 
Setup information wasn’t readily available in the ’70s and ’80s so many players of that era threw in the towel and simply blocked off their trems, or turned to ‘locking trems’ from the likes of Floyd Rose and Kahler. At this stage the traditional Fender trem’s days seemed to be numbered, but once the novelty of two-octave dive-bombs had worn off, it became apparent that ‘locking trems’ created as many problems as they solved.
 
When Paul Reed Smith introduced his own trem in the mid-’80s, he was able to apply the lessons he’d learned from years of setting up Stratocasters. His design was surprisingly traditional and it demonstrated that Fender’s original design could be made to work reliably as long as the designer has thorough understanding of friction points, proper nut setup and spring adjustment. 
 
How it works
 
The fundamental difference between the Bigsby units and Fender’s design is that the Fender bridge ‘floats’. Bigsbys work with fixed bridges and a roller bearing turns to raise or lower string tension – thereby altering pitch. Fender’s method counterbalances string tension with the pull of springs housed in a body cavity. The arm moves the entire bridge and the springs and strings supply the restorative forces needed to bring the bridge back into position. 
What could possibly go wrong with such a simple system? Plenty, as it happens – but the problems are often integral to guitars in general rather than specific to trems. Unfortunately trem systems tend to expose issues that might otherwise go unnoticed. The primary cause has to be friction. Anything that impedes the free movement of the strings and the bridge will prevent the trem from returning to a state of equilibrium after use. The PRS trem was successful because it minimised or eliminated friction points wherever possible. You can do the same with your trem when performing routine maintenance.

TOOLBOX

– Cross head screwdrivers
– Allen key for saddles
– Ruler
– Guitar Tuner
– Wet & dry paper
– Chrome polish

Published On: Tue, Dec 11th, 2012
Uncategorized | By Huw Price

Critical But Stable – Tremolo Workshop

Fender Strat trem units can be a vita and life-affirming part of a guitar player’s arsenal. However, getting them set up correctly so they can take a hammering and still do you proud can be a tricky business. Huw Price is here with all the info you need…

Friction Point 1: the nut

Most guitar tuning instability can be traced to the nut. The strings pass through narrow grooves with a lot of downward pressure, so they have a tendency to stick and bind in the slots. Nuts are often pre-slotted (or slotted in a hurry on a production line).

Making a nut work smoothly requires time and effort, but it’s something you can do yourself. If you notice pops or clicking sounds from the headstock when you bend strings or use your trem, the nut may need attention.
 

Nuts are often left too high above the string slots, so even if the depth of the slot is correct, the string sits too deep (see pic, above). The top of the nut only needs to be high enough to hold the string securely in the slot, so in effect the top half of the string can be proud of the top of the nut. This helps keep the contact area between the string and the nut to a minimum, thus minimising friction (see below).
 
Nut files can leave grooves in nut slots. Once the depth of the slot is optimised, the inside surfaces of the slot can be smoothed out with wet and dry paper. Try 1200 or 1500 grit, maybe wrapping the paper around cut-off lengths of string. You can follow up with some polishing compound; we find that chrome polish is particularly effective on bone. 
 
Once the slots are super-smooth, you can add some lubrication. Guitarists have been using graphite from soft pencils for decades, but this leaves the slots looking mucky. Vaseline or wax can also be used, but there is some anecdotal evidence that these can damage guitar finishes. We prefer propriety products like Big Bends Nut Sauce (see pic, below right).



Published On: Tue, Dec 11th, 2012
Uncategorized | By Huw Price

Critical But Stable – Tremolo Workshop

Fender Strat trem units can be a vita and life-affirming part of a guitar player’s arsenal. However, getting them set up correctly so they can take a hammering and still do you proud can be a tricky business. Huw Price is here with all the info you need…

Friction Point 2: the String tree

Vintage-style Stats will have just one string tree for the B and E strings, but modern examples generally have a second for the D and G strings. Through careful string winding (see Strings & Tuners) you can get away without using string trees at all.
 
If you do prefer to use them, then do ensure that the factory spacers are installed under the trees themselves. If the trees are screwed flush with the face of the headstock, the string angle will be too great and the sting will rub excessively against the tree.
 
Reach for that chrome polish again and buff up the underside of the string tree to make it as smooth as possible. Some players choose to strip the insulating plastic off the wire, thread the string through the centre and then place the plastic under the trees to make things run smoother. Alternatively, another dab of lube can’t do any harm.

Strings and Tuners

New strings always require a settling down period before they’ll stay in tune. You can hasten this process dramatically by giving new strings a thorough stretch. Don’t go too crazy, because you’ll snap them. Just stretch a little at a time, with your fingers under the strings, pulling away from the fretboard. Work along the length of each string, check the tuning and repeat until the string has stopped stretching.
 
Tuners have often been unjustly blamed for unstable trems. If you have diecast tuners, tighten up the screws holding the buttons on to stiffen them up. Vintage-style tuners tend to be pretty stiff, so they should be fine. 
 
The break angle over the nut is important. The well-known US luthier Dan Erlewine recommends an angle of between 5 and 12 degrees. If the angle is too steep, the strings may catch in their slots; if it’s too shallow you may experience buzzing sounds from behind the nut, and open strings won’t ring cleanly.
 
You can set the break angle by wrapping the string around the tuner post. If you take it all the way down you can increase the angle, which may allow you to dispense with the string trees. You can also wrap strings upwards to shallow the angle (see pic below).

Published On: Tue, Dec 11th, 2012
Uncategorized | By Huw Price

Critical But Stable – Tremolo Workshop

Fender Strat trem units can be a vita and life-affirming part of a guitar player’s arsenal. However, getting them set up correctly so they can take a hammering and still do you proud can be a tricky business. Huw Price is here with all the info you need…

Friction Point 3: the bridge screws

Many of Fender’s current trem systems work on knife edge pivots with one screw at each side of the bridge. This was also Leo Fender’s preferred arrangement during his latter years at G&L. Obviously a knife edge ensures minimal physical contact, and these trems generally have a very free and smooth action. But what if your bridge has six regular screws?
 
Fender counter-sunk the screw holes on the underside of their bridge plates to create knife edges, but some cheaper replica bridges won’t have this feature. If yours doesn’t, you may be able to countersink the holes yourself. You could also try removing the four centre screws. This may appear reckless, but SRV got away with it using 12 and 13 gauge strings – so two screws with a set of 9s or 10s should be okay. 
 
If you want to keep the original looks, you may decide to drill the four centre screw holes in the bridge plate over-size; then the screws can be reinstated without making physical contact with the bridge. This mod is not recommended for collectable guitars! Once again, use a dab of Vaseline or Nut Sauce under the screw heads.

 

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