Mythbusting: 8 ways to improve tuning stability of tremolos

There is a common belief that budget guitars with tremolo are mostly equipped with crappy bridge and they can’t keep the tuning.

Is that true or not?
Well, the truth is out there, I mean, it’s much more complex issue than to blame it on the tremolo bridge only. But wait, what is “tremolo” exactly?

Actually, the name “tremolo” is a misleading term for such kind of bridges. Tremolo in music means mostly two type of “effects”:

-Rapid reiteration: a certain note played with fast repetition (typically balalaika picking)

– Amplitude modulation: the quick, periodical change of the amplitude (say the volume). Every guitar player would recognize that mellow trembling effect.

But what does the “tremolo bridge” actually do? It changes the pitch and has nothing to do with the volume. Repeat it periodically and you get the vibrato effect – that’s not a tremolo

The misleading name comes from the ingenious Leo Fender – he called his bridge in the newborn Stratocaster the “Synchronised Tremolo”. Perhaps he wanted to distinguish it from the competitor’s products. Despite the confusion, the proven construction and the unbeatable popularity of the Strat has carved the name into the guitar vocabulary forever.

Leo Fender's tremolo patent

Leo Fender’s tremolo patent

My Definition: the tremolo is a guitar bridge with moving mechanics that allows the player to change the tension of all strings against spring(s) prior to detune them to flat or sharp momentarily.

The function of the spring(s) is to force the bridge to return to the neutral position and the strings to the original tuning.

This post is about the Fender Strat type of tremolo because that is the most popular and widely used. Neither Bigsby, nor Floyd Rose type bridges will be covered.

Springs of a typical tremolo

Springs of a typical tremolo

Alright, if we have the springs, why the system could not return always to the original position?
Many beginner players blame the bridge/springs itself. Of course, weak springs can not maintain enough tension to pull back the bridge to its original position. It can be adjusted by the tensioner or more springs can be added

Settings of tremolo bridges.

There are basically two ways to set tremolo bridges.

First: the bridge lies flush to the body. Pushing the arm will lift the back of the bridge loosening the strings, dropping the pitch. The springs actually pull the bridge down to the body. It’s a bit more stable tuningwise and more easy to setup.

Second: the bridge contacts the body only at the knife edges of the fixing screws. I has a certain low clearance over the body. The tension of the strings are compensated by the tension of the springs. The neutral position is the “in tune” state. Pushing down the arm it will detune the strings down, however, pulling the arm up will detune them up, so it can work both ways. It’s called the floating tremolo.

The low-neutral-high positions of the floating tremolo

The low-neutral-high positions of the floating tremolo

The low-neutral-high positions of the floating tremolo

The low-neutral-high positions of the floating tremolo

Well, it seems to a relatively simple mechanical system, however, there are more things to consider. The bridge, the strings and the springs are in motion. If any of these elements have some unwelcome obstruction against moving freely, it will dramatically raise the risk to don’t let the bridge or the strings to return to the original position that is the source of tuning problems.

My experience is that the springs are the least guilty. They can be tensioned or we can add more springs if we find them not strong enough. They can be also hooked in V-shape to get more tension. You should only take care about their free moving.

The bridge is much more interesting question.

The whole tremolo concept based on the principle of so called “knife edge pivot” that creates a low-friction bearing for the moving bridge. Rumors say that Leo Fender got the idea from the kitchen scales.

Kitchen sale with knife edge

Kitchen sale with knife edge

The actual device originally consist of the steel bridge plate beveled long on the front to form a sharp knife edge pivoting on the top of the body. The plate has 6 countersunk holes beveled on the bottom side of the plate and the 6 supporting hardened wood screws with unthreaded upper segment. The beveled holes are a bit oversized, so they can let the bridge swing on that pivots. Actually, the bridge not only swings, it slightly slides up and down on the screws.

Typical tremolo design

Typical tremolo design

The original Fender tremolo with the 6 screws seems to over determined because there are more pivot points than needed. Advanced construction called the 2-point synchronized tremolo with 2 screws only and open front hole for the screws released in 1986 by Fender. Most of the modern simple tremolo constructions follow that concept (Gotoh, Wilkinson, Schaller, etc.), while vintage style bridges still use the 6-point design. The 2-point tremolo makes less friction than the original and improves the tuning stability.

6 screw vintage tremolo with sustain block - the knife edges are clearly visible

6 screw vintage tremolo with sustain block – the knife edges are clearly visible

 

2 screw modern tremolo

2 screw modern tremolo

Last but not least let’s check the strings contacts. I consider this the most complex topic because it has way more points where problems can arise.

– Contact #1 is the bottom of the sustain block where the end of the strings seat in the holes.

– Contact #2 is the bridge plate where the strings come into sight and turn towards the saddles while strongly pulled onto the edge of the string holes.

Contact points on the base plate and the saddles

Contact points on the base plate and the saddles

– Contact #3 is the saddle itself on the front edge.

The upper edges of the saddles are strongly effected

The upper edges of the saddles are strongly effected

– Contact #4 is the nut.

Friction at the nut might be the most critical

Friction at the nut might be the most critical

– If there are string retainers  they are contact #5 (most Fender Strats and similar guitars have them on B and treble E, some have also on D and G).

String retainers can also cause friction

String retainers can also cause friction

– The last contact point is the tuner shaft.

Strings should have a few tight and clean windings on the shaft

Strings should have a few tight and clean windings on the shaft

That means 4-5 contact points for each strings to move on using an average Strat-style tremolo. Multiply it with 6… there are 24-28 points where they must move easily!

What’s the whole story about?

If any of the mentioned position has some higher friction it can prevent the strings to return to the zero position that results tuning inaccuracy.
While the bridge can have friction problems on the 6 or 2 pivot bearing points, there are way more risks at the string contact points.

Alright, let’s talk about why the string friction could be a problem.
Wound strings are like small cheese graters. When they move (using tremolo, string bend, finger vibrato) they literally work on he contact points as fine abrasives. Combine it with the dust and other tiny particles and it just makes it worse. The weaker/softer is the surface the faster it wears out. The tiny particles can also stuck in between the string and the contact surface. Any of these issues will obstruct the smooth string movements.

The most critical part is the nut. Its material, design and production quality strongly effects the string motion. The proper design and precise craftsmanship is essential to avoid the problems.

The proper string angle at the nut should be between 5-12 degrees

The proper string angle at the nut should be between 5-12 degrees

The proper cut in the nut is arched downards

The proper cut in the nut is arched downards

 

Top view of the nut: the cut should  be expanding towards the rear edge

Top view of the nut: the cut should be expanding towards the rear edge

I’ve recorded a short closeup video about how the strings move at the nut and the saddles. It’s clearly noticeable that the string windings are going to roughen them.

The saddles move together with the bridge, so it’s less noticable how big is the string motion but it’s clearly visible how the strings lift and drop – it has already made the saddle knurled. Imagine how many times it happens when you play – and you can understand that it could be a real issue.

The pivot points of the bridge can have similar issues. The pressure and motion on the edges can wear them out, creating small deformations on the contact points.

And now let’s get back to the first question: is the reason of the tuning stability problem of budget tremolo guitars the cheap tremolo bridge?

My “research” shows that the bridge is only one of the issues causing tuning problems. If the material and finish is low quality, obviously it can wear out more quickly.

Top of a tremolo knife edge, with visible signs of wear

Top of a tremolo knife edge, with visible signs of wear

 

Bottom of a tremolo knife edge, visible wear

Bottom of a tremolo knife edge, visible wear

Beside the bridges there are the mentioned 24-28 string contact points! The cheap plastic nut with low quality workmanship, the flimsy bridge with rough edges and finish, cheap string retainers and tuning machines are all major players in the big tremolo game. All the above can cause tuning problems.

And the most important question: how can we improve the string motion?

To keep the guitar well maintained you can do the followings:

  1. Ensure the smooth string motion. Use lubricants at each contact points. You can buy special string lubricants (Tri-Flow, Big Bend Nut Sauce, Guitar Grease, etc.) but any teflon or graphite lubricant will do.
  2. Lubricate the spring hooks, the string holes on the bridge, the saddles, the pivot points of the bridge screws, the nut and the retainers.
  3. It could be a good idea to don’t tighten the tremolo screws fully to let it move a bit less stiff.
  4. You may need to setup the floating bridge after replacing the strings again.
  5. Check and maintain the contact points regularly. If you find some rough parts use fine needle file, sandpaper and polishing paper to smooth it.
  6. Some used to remove 4 of the 6 screws on vintage tremolos and keep the 2 on the left and right only. It should keep the bridge fixed but decrease the friction points. As an alternate, you can enlarge the middle four holes to prevent the contact with the screws – it’s a cosmetically more appealing solution.
  7. You can replace the parts by improved ones (Wilkinson, Gotoh, Schaller, Hipshot, Babicz, Callahan, KGC, etc.), use roller saddles, self-lubricating saddles and/or nut (Graph Tech TUSQ), roller string retainer – if you don’t mind the higher price.
  8. Replace the tuners with locking tuners (Sperzel, Hipshot, etc.)
  9. Use staggered tuners that makes the string retainer unnecessary.
Gotoh staggered tuning machines

Gotoh staggered tuning machines

There is a DIY solution: prepare a wedge shaped wooden piece with holes for the tuner shafts.

DIY staggered tuners

DIY staggered tuners

Some more improvement can be done by rounding the edges of the string holes on the bridge with a radius bit and the sanding-polishing mentioned earlier. It can also reduce the chance of string break.

Rounding the edges of the string hole on the bridge plate

Rounding the edges of the string hole on the bridge plate

Of course, the most perfect solution is the double-locking tremolo system like Floyd Rose or Kahler – it worth an another post.

Sources:

SoundOnSound

Dan Erlewine: Guitar Players Repair Guide / How to make your electrig guitar play great

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