Monday, August 8, 2011
Setting up or adjusting a Fender Stratocaster tremolo
Today's blog post deals with setting up a Stratocaster tremolo unit only. Everything else related to setting up the saddles, etc., can be found in the "How to set up an electric guitar" post here: http://diystrat.blogspot.com/2011/03/how-to-set-up-electric-guitar.html. If you’re going to adjust both the tremolo and the saddles, then do the tremolo setup (this post) first.
Let’s have a look at the Fender Stratocaster tremolo (also known as the whammy bar or the vibrato, and often misspelled as "tremelo"), as originally patented by Leo himself (as with all images, click on the picture for a bigger version):
It’s really quite a simple mechanism, engineering-wise. Looking at it from the side (FIG.2) we can see that it pivots on the screws that hold it to the top of the guitar body (the screws are marked "15" in the patent drawings). The tension from the guitar strings pulls the unit forward, but this tension is counter-balanced by the springs hidden below the unit (found under the cover at the back of the guitar), hence “floating” the tremolo unit. This is where you, the player, come in. To lower the pitch of the note(s) being played, push the tremolo arm towards the guitar body, thus adding to the string tension. Alternatively, pull the tremolo arm away from the guitar body to add to the spring tension and increase the pitch.
For such a simple mechanism, it really shouldn’t be difficult to set up. Unfortunately, there are many reasons why these are famous last words. One of the problems is that not everyone uses a tremolo in the same way. Some people like to both decrease AND increase the pitch, whereas others prefer to just lower it. Some want the tremolo to move really easily, while others prefer it to be quite stiff, so that it doesn’t move unintentionally (either from leaning on it accidentally, or even from the increased string tension caused by bending strings).
Another problem is that not everyone uses the same string gauge, so a tremolo unit that might be perfectly set up for light-gauge strings will probably not be set up well for medium or heavy gauge strings. Lastly, the starting position of the tremolo unit is a bit of a personal choice. Some people (usually the ones that only want to lower the pitch, or even not use the tremolo at all) prefer to have the tremolo unit sitting flush against the body of the guitar, while others prefer a gap, leaving enough room to pull pack on the tremolo arm, increasing the pitch of the note(s) being played.
Taking all of the above into account, this post will take you through a typical setup for an average player who likes to both raise and lower the pitch and uses fairly standard strings. You can, of course, feel free to adjust this setup to your liking.
One thing to mention here is that there are two common Strat tremolo types. One uses six small screws to attach the tremolo to the top of the guitar body, while the other style uses two bigger screws.
Vintage-style, or "synchronized" tremolo (six pivot screws):
American Series, or two-pivot bridge (two pivot screws):
The setup for both of these styles is almost the same, with the exception of step 5 (below), which will be clearly defined when the time comes. Here are the steps we will go through to set up the tremolo:
1. Remove tremolo arm
2. Remove back cover
3. Remove strings
4. Remove springs
5. Adjust pivot screws
6. Re-attach springs
7. Restring guitar
8. Screw in the tremolo arm
9. Adjust claw
10. Replace back cover.
Remove tremolo arm
Simply unscrew the arm in an anti-clockwise (counter clockwise) direction until it comes out. Be careful not to let it fall onto the surface of your guitar and scratch it.
Remove the back cover
Place your guitar face down on a nice soft surface, unscrew the screws holding the back cover on, and remove the cover.
Remove all six strings. You should now be looking at something like this:
Note: If you have a two-screw tremolo, once you remove the springs from the back of the guitar, there is NOTHING holding your tremolo unit in place. Be careful not to let it fall out or otherwise damage either the tremolo unit or the guitar.
Place your guitar face down and carefully remove the springs. You may have anywhere from two to five springs in there, depending on how it was previously set up. There are various different methods for removing these, but with the strings removed from the front of the guitar, you will probably be able to remove the springs by hand. Just grab them near the claw end, push the spring towards the claw, and lift out. If you’re finding this a bit hard, feel free to loosen the screws holding the claw in place a little. That should give you enough slack to get them off, and will make them easier to get back on later. Alternative methods involve screwdrivers, pliers or special hooks. If you decide to use any of these tools instead of your hand, do be careful not to slip and scratch your guitar.
Adjust pivot screws (two screw model)
Note: If you like (I recommend this), you can take this opportunity to remove both pivot screws and add a little Vaseline to the threads before reinstalling them. Add a little Vaseline to the points where the tremolo unit pivots on these screws too while you have this opportunity. The Vaseline adds a little bit of lubrication, helping things to move more smoothly, and also helps to minimise strange pinging noises when you move the tremolo.
Have a look from the side of your guitar to see how the tremolo unit is sitting against your guitar top. It will hopefully be sitting flush, but if not, adjust each of the pivot screws until it does. Remember that there is currently nothing holding your tremolo in place at this point, so you may have to push it forward with your hand. Alternatively, leave ONE SPRING in the centre position to hold the tremolo unit in place. Unlike the six screw tremolo, the two-screw model is pretty much idiot proof and you can often just screw both pivot screws all the way in without raising the tremolo unit off the surface of the guitar.
Adjust pivot screws (six screw model)
Have a look from the side of your guitar to see how the tremolo unit is sitting against your guitar top. It will hopefully be sitting flush, but if not, slacken each of the pivot screws until it does. Now slacken all the screws one turn more. Finally, tighten down the outer two screws only until they are just touching the top of the tremolo unit. The unit will now balance on these two screws, while the other four will be used solely to keep the unit in place.
Time to re-attach the springs at the back of the guitar. Use the same method as when you removed them, but add a little bit of Vaseline to the two ends of each spring first to lubricate the contact points just a bit. In general, three springs located in the centre and the two outer locations is the most common configuration for standard string gauges.
Just a few notes about springs (since I have your attention), as follows:
1. Not all springs are the same, so if you find that you only have two springs and want to increase to three by just buying a single new one, you could end up with mismatched ones. Better to buy three new ones.
2. If you are using three springs and are tempted to place the outer two springs at an angle so that they are not parallel to the centre spring, but rather taper towards it or away from it, this will end up giving you unevenly-matched springs, as the centre one will be shorter than the other two. Generally, I would say not to do this, but plenty of people are happy with this configuration and don't seem to have any problems. You're certainly not going to break your guitar by trying it, so feel free to give it a go.
3. More springs will give you a stiffer feel. If that’s what you want, then by all means feel free to try it out. Similarly, fewer springs will give you a bouncier feel.
4. Heavy strings might require more springs and lighter strings might only need two.
Restring the guitar
Restring your guitar in the normal way. I’ll be putting a blog post up about that in a few days if you’re unsure of the best way to do that. EDIT: Here it is - http://diystrat.blogspot.com/2011/08/stringing-guitar.html
Screw in the tremolo arm
We’re going to need the tremolo arm for the next step, so it’s a good idea to screw it back in now.
Adjust the claw until the tremolo unit is at the correct distance from the guitar body
This is quite possibly the most important step of the whole tremolo setup. The claw is the fine tuner that will leave your tremolo unit sitting in just the right place for optimal balance. Before adjusting it, make sure you tune your guitar to pitch. Use the tremolo a bit while you’re at it to make sure everything is loosened up, and keep doing this until the guitar stays in tune even after tremolo use. Now look at the side of the tremolo unit and measure how far off the surface of the guitar it is sitting at. Fender recommends that it sits at about 3.2 mm (1/8").
If it is sitting too high, then tighten the two screws holding the claw in place. Alternatively, if it is sitting too low, then loosen the screws a little. Each time you adjust the screws, you will need to re-check the guitar tuning and use the tremolo a bit, then re-measure the height. Once it consistently sits at 3.2 mm and the guitar is in tune, you’re done. Be prepared to take some time doing (and repeating) this step.
Replace back cover
Like it says, put the back cover back on and replace the screws.
Well that’s the tremolo unit set up and balanced nicely. For other setup tips, feel free to go to the setup post mentioned at the beginning of this one. Otherwise, feel free to ask any questions in the comments below.