Troubleshooting Tuning: Tremolo (Pt. 2)

Here we are. Back with part two of our tremolo tuning tips brain-dump.

All of these ones are clustered around the Strat-style and locking trem systems — the ones with the springs ‘round the back and the wobbly bit on top. I hope there’s something here that helps you.

Before I get to them though, it’s definitely necessary to give another shout-out to Dan Erlewine and his fantastic book, “How To Make Your Electric Guitar Play Great” (Amazon US | UK Affiliate Link). There’s a strong argument to be made that heaps of the knowledge that I can pass on to you came, originally, from Dan but many of these tremolo tips in particular are stuff he worked out and shared when I was still hammering crooked nails into guitar tops. I’m massively grateful to him for how he’s shared his knowledge over the years. Thanks, Dan. 👍

So, on with the show…

Part two of our tremolo tuning tips.

Tremolo Balance: Floating Tilted Forward

On six-screw vintage bridges, this tilted position is pretty much ‘factory standard’. If you’ve problems, make sure your setup is right and, after that, try removing the middle four screws. How’s that? If it’s better, just leave it like that — two screws is plenty. If not, try replacing those two screws with two from the ones you’ve just removed — sometimes you’ll get a screwy screw. If you prefer all six screws, add them back one at a time and test as you go — there might be a slightly misplaced screw-hole mucking things up.

On a two point tremolo, floating parallel to the guitar top is ‘standard’ but some players like to tilt the trem forward so they get more ‘pull-up’ travel. These systems will work pretty well like this but I’ve always felt they return to pitch better when balanced parallel to the body. From the knife-edge’s point of view, this is the ‘zero position’ and where it should balance best. If you play ‘tilted’ but are having tuning woes, try balancing the trem parallel and see how it goes. I’ve seen it improve things.

Tremolo Balance: Hard to the body

Also on the balance subject, some like the trem to come back hard to the body when it’s at rest. You’d think that this would give the most tuning stability (it certainly does if you break a string 😉) but I’ve had weird stability issues with this setup on occasion. Vintage, six-screw, bridges seem to handle this better but two-points can sometimes fight back (my unconfirmed suspicion is that the knife-edges can ride up a little on the posts as the back of the bridge comes down to the body).

Double-check your setup everywhere else, check knife-edges are sharp and un-marred (see below) and, if all else fails, I’ve had some success by ‘partially blocking’ the trem travel around the back. I’ve built up some wood in the rear cavity — at the front of the tremolo block — so, instead of the bridge-to-body being the stop-point, the block stops against the newly-installed wood. This needs some precision but for some reason, it seems more stable in cases where this issue occurs.

Knife Edges

The knife edges (where the bridge bears against the posts) can wear and deform over time. With a two point tremolo, this is relatively easy to see (although it does require you remove strings and springs to take the bridge out). Look for any wear or ‘mashing’ of the edges that contact the post. It’s possible to clean them up with a fine file. Give them a bit of a polish too to get rid of any bigger scratches from the file.

On a six-screw Strat bridge, the edges that bear off the screws can also wear. It tends to be less of a problem but it’s worth a look.

Locking Nuts

Make sure the nut base itself is secure and tight. It can shift if not. Tighten the screws or bolts holding it to the neck.

On the string clamp nuts, they need to be tight too but don’t go crazy — you don’t have to over-tighten them.

Stretch your strings well before locking down your nut. Don’t assume you don’t have to.

Make sure your string retainer bar is properly adjusted if you have one. If not, try ensure you have sufficient wraps on the tuners so the strings sit flat right across your locking nut base

Number of springs

Doesn’t make any difference to how stable your trem is. It makes a difference to how it feels to use (stiffer/looser) but, once the trem is properly balanced, the number of springs shouldn’t matter.

However, there’s one important exception to this. You want the springs to be at least slightly open during normal balance. The coils should be slightly apart all the time. This ensures there’s some tension on the springs. If they’re slack, with no tension, there’s more potential for them to shift about and that's no good.

So, number of springs doesn’t matter unless they’re not under enough tension to open up a little. If that’s the case, remove a spring and re-balance.

Spring Orientation

All parallel or at an angle? Doesn’t matter. Unless putting them in a particular origination means they’re not open (see above). I would try to keep things symmetrical, though.

Type of springs

For Strats, there are two types of spring. The black ones, for the more modern two-point bridges, and the silver ones, for the vintage vibrato. These springs have different tensions. Strictly speaking, it shouldn’t affect the tuning stability if you put one type in a different guitar but, as a personal preference, I don’t like to mix them in the same guitar.

Also worth noting is that different manufacturer’s springs will likely have different tensions. Again, I prefer not to mix springs if I can avoid it.

Spring Condition

They’re not magic. They can get tired. Like anything physical and/or mechanical, the trem spring has a lifetime. If your trem is always pitching flat, replacement springs should be on your list of possible remedies.

Stabalisers

There are a few devices intended to stabilise a trem system. The Tremsetter by Hipshot is probably the best known of these (and the one I’m most familiar with).

And it can work pretty well with some caveats. It’s a bit involved to get it installed and it’s a pain in the ass to properly set up (and it really needs to be properly set up to work).

For some players it might be perfect though as it comes with a ‘stop’ in the neutral/balance position that can definitely help stabilise tuning. However, this stop does remove some of the ‘subtlety’ from your trem use. If you like fluid, fluttering, up -and-down vibrato from your whammy bar, you probably won’t like the Tremsetter. Otherwise, give it a go. Just expect to spend some time with it to get it just right.

Other trem stabilisers are just partial ‘blocks’. They stop upward pull but still allow you to dump the trem if you want. If you know you’ll never pull up on the trem, you can achieve the same by partially blocking around the back with some glued-in wood.

Ok, then. That’s it. I know these last two posts have been a little more ‘scattered’ than usual but I felt like this list of tips was the best way to go without having to write a book on the subject.

Hopefully you could find a useful needle in the tip haystack.