The thrilling second instalment in the terrific tremolo tuning troubleshooting series. If you’re having trouble keeping your vibrato bridge in tune when you wiggle that whammy, check it out. It might just help…
So, you might have heard along the way that the tremolo bridge should really be called a vibrato bridge. And you might have heard that it's Leo Fender's fault that we have to live with this heinous misnomer. Oh, the pedantic angst of it all!
Well, I wanted to confirm this and found some interesting stuff…
If you play in dropped tunings or you detune your guitar, you'll probably want to give some thought to the instrument's setup. Do you set up for the dropped or standard tuning? What sort of setup adjustments should you worry about. What's the low-down?
Get it? Low-down. Ha. Click through for more info and fewer jokes.
In an electric guitar or bass, it's usually necessary to 'ground' the strings.
By this, I mean that all the strings should have a path to ground — a wire that connects them to a ground point inside the instrument. Usually that ground point will be the back of a pot or the sleeve of the output jack.
When it's properly grounded, you can touch the strings of your guitar and you'll usually hear the background hiss reduce. Yay.
There’s a common misconception that by touching the strings you are grounding the guitar.
Removing a regular tremolo bridge and installing a Floyd Rose is something that most repairers will do from time to time. Going the other way isn't quite so common though. It's generally a bit more rare to uninstall a Floyd in favour of a non-locking trem.
And, in this particular instance, it threw up an issue that had to be dealt with.
The Floyd was to be removed from this Strat and a new non-locking trem installed in its place. Firstly, this meant plugging the existing Floyd post holes and drilling for new holes a little farther back.
Incidentally, here's something worth stating for the benefit of those researching this topic. You'll find information online that the Schaller 3801 bridge will retrofit a Floyd. This isn't the case exactly. While the 3801 shares the Floyd's unusual post spacing, its overall footprint is smaller and it will not intonate if you don't move the posts back as I've done here. You'll need to plug and re-drill 6mm farther back. Sorry—no drop-in retrofit for you.
When I drilled those new post holes (you can see the new hole overlaps the plugged one in front), the treble side hole was dangerously close to the cavity. I wasn't prepared to take the risk that this thin sliver of wood wouldn't crack or break in the future.
Best to play it safe and add in a little reinforcement here.
Because there's plenty of space between the new trem block and this front cavity edge, I shaped a piece of wood to run the full width of that edge—not just a chunk to glue into that recess behind the post. This should give things a bit more strength and further reduce the risk of catastrophes.
I'll sleep a bit easier knowing that this post is less likely to break through the cavity wall some night the owner gives his whammy a wiggle. ;-)
If your trem is giving you trouble, there are a number of things that can be done to try make it better behaved.
Sometimes, however, the issue is hiding a little more deeply that others.
The tremolo (let's not get into the vibrato/tremolo argument—we all know it should be vibrato but the nomenclature and popular opinion has won the day) on this guitar wasn't the most reliable. It's a copy, based on the vintage Strat-style bridge.
After a little investigation, the main culprit seemed to be some 'swarf'—a rough curl of wood left from the machining process—had been nicely lacquered over and was actually rubbing against the large trem-block.
A little clean-up with some sandpaper and the bulk of the tuning problems were sorted. Nice.
Despite the wonders of jigs and templates and CNC machines and whatever automation magic you can dream up, somewhere in the chain is a human with a brain of squishy meat and the potential to drop a spanner.
Sometimes things are misaligned in the world of guitars. It's rare to fit an after-market pickguard without having to plug and re-drill at least one screw hole. New tuners? Get the drill. Fit a Floyd? Ah, crap.
Misplaced and misaligned bridges happen too. They can cause some serious hassle for the player. That trem in the image above is not going to be the most reliable for returning to tune for instance.
Tun-o-matic bridges can sometimes be found loitering in completely the wrong position too. And not just on Gibsons. This mahogany-body Tele on the right is a cool little Gibson-like Squier. It'd be cooler if the bridge was in the right place, though. Cue the cutting of wooden plugs, the plugging of holes and the re-drilling of correctly-placed mountings.
Wherever possible, it's best to plug holes with the same wood as the material you're plugging. If the plugged repair will be visible, it's nice to match the grain of the surrounding wood as much as possible to minimise signs of repair.
Plugging with hardware-store dowels isn't generally the best route. These are typically made of soft wood and you'll usually end up with end-grain showing in the plug. This tends to stick out like a sore thumb in a repaired surface and is best avoided, if possible.
If you're doing your own plugging, cut your plugs from matching wood when you can. It's possible to increase the size of the hole to be plugged to match the size of your plug. If you go this route, be very careful—drill bits can wander and guitar finish can chip.
Take it slow and easy. Good advice in guitar repair and in life. ;-)
A better plan—if you've got a hole that's a different size to your plug-cutter tools—is to do things the old-fashioned way. Good, honest, whittling.
Cut a long, square-section of hardwood, just bigger than the hole to be plugged and get carving. Knock off the corners over and over until your four-sided section becomes eight, becomes sixteen, etc. A good, sharp chisel will give you better control than a knife. When you're almost round, switch to sandpaper. A good fit is important, so don't be tempted to go with something too small.
Go, my friends. Go and plug with confidence.
As a young man, I was largely immune to the charms of the Bigsby. All I saw was a cumbersome hunk of metal nailed to the front of an otherwise beautiful guitar.
So much wasted time. Now, I love 'em. Perhaps this is a change that only maturity can bring. Like the pleasures of a lovely old whiskey, realising that facial and body-hair isn't all that great, or believing that all teenagers are up to no good.
Either way, I now understand that Bigsbys look great and sound brilliant.
They can be a pain to string up though. One little mini-trick, however, can make an annoying job just a bit less fiddly.
What you'll want to do is to bend the string's ball end around something like a screwdriver. The string end takes on that rounded shape and it's easier to fish it around to hook onto the axle pin.
Once hooked on, it's generally not too difficult to keep some pressure on the string as you get the tuner end sorted out but you can jam a piece of foam or something under the Bigsby axle to stop it flopping off in you have trouble. I've never found it necessary, though.
Bigsby's own installation instructions mention bending the ball end to a 45º angle but I prefer this method—I don't like placing any hard kinks in a string as it could weaken it.