The most common tremolo system is the 6-screw “vintage” tremolo that was on the original Strat and still appears on many guitars now. The influence of its basic design can be seen in more modern tremolos such as the Floyd Rose, and “vintage replacement” tremolos from such manufacturers as Hipshot, Wilkinson and Schaller.
This type tremolo system balances the string tension with tension from springs in the rear of the guitar. The point around which these two forces balance is called the “pivot point”. On a modern two-point tremolo system, this pivot point is spread across two screws which a knife-edge on the bridge plate comes into contact with. This minimizes friction as two is the minimum number of points that could be in contact and still maintain stability. However, on the six-screw bridges, the bridge is in contact with all six screws, and pivots across them all. This can make a key difference to “tuning stability” – a key factor in tremolo usage that can be the cause of serious headaches to any player.
Imagine you perform a dive bomb on your vintage vibrato system. The springs get tighter, and the strings get looser. The reason they get looser is because the distance from the ball end to the tuner is being reduced. And because this distance is being reduced, it is necessary for the string to move a little. It will move over the saddle, it will move over the nut, and indeed it will move a little in the distance where it is wrapped around the tuning posts.
Now imagine you release the vibrato. All the moving parts revert to their original positions, and the string is now back to its original tuning. Right? Well, yes, in an ideal world. Incidentally, if you ever find an ideal world, could you let me know? I want to move there.
Of course the thing that we’re not taking into account here is friction. Everywhere the string is moving, it is rubbing against something. If for some reason it gets a little bit stuck on one of these points, then the string will not return to tune properly. To visualize this, imagine your divebomb again. A part of the string that was just in front of the nut is now in the nut slot. When the bar is released, if this part of the string stays stuck in the nut, the string will now be tighter, and so it will sound sharp. This also applies to the string sticking on the saddle, under a string retainer or at a point around the tuning peg.
With the six-screw bridges, there is another problem. The bridge is not pivoting across two sharp points. It is rubbing against six screws. These screws are threaded. This gives the bridge all kinds of opportunities to snag or get stuck. Of course, once that happens, the bridge stops returning to the same neutral position when the bar is released. This, again, can cause havoc with your tuning.
So we have strings snagging at the tuner, the nut and the saddle, and we have the bridge snagging on screws. There are solutions for all of these problems, but even using just one of these solutions could solve your stability problem outright.
Snagging at the saddle
String snagging at the saddle is less common than the other issues. The saddles are usually a smoothly curved piece of metal without much opportunity for snagging. However, any burrs should be removed, and if deep notches have appeared then it’s worth thinking about replacing the saddle completely. In addition to these precautions, every few string changes, you can apply a tiny film of 3-in-1 oil to the saddle surface using a Q-Tip. Smoothness and lubrication are key aspects we’ll return to as we look at the rest of the guitar.
Snagging at the nut
Snagging at the nut can be spotted quite easily. When picking up the guitar for the first time in a while, put your ear an inch or so from the nut and depress the tremolo arm. If you hear a “ping” come from the nut, then one or more of the strings was probably snagged in the nut.
The number one thing necessary to prevent this is having a properly cut nut. A full exploration of nut cutting is beyond the scope of this article, but suffice it to say that the slots should be comfortably wide enough for the strings and the bottom of the nut should be smooth. A good luthier will be able to either fix or replace your nut if you think this is a problem.
Once you have a well-cut nut, it’s essential to keep it lubricated. There are many ways you can do this. A very common one is to use graphite from a pencil in the slots. You can do this simply by scribbling across the nut slot – some powder from the pencil will fall into the nut, and then you can drop the string on top of that. Some people put Vaseline or a similar product into the nut slots, and this works fine too. Or you can try mixing graphite powder with vaseline to create a very slippery substance indeed. Various lubricating products specifically designed for nuts are available.
There are also materials that are “self lubricating”, such as Graph Tech’s Tusq XL, from which a nut can be made. These usually work by forming a small coating of PTFE (also known as Teflon) on the surface, which is very slippery.
Finally, you might consider replacing the existing nut with a roller nut, such as the Fender LSR. These allow the strings to “roll” backwards and forwards on ball bearings, rather than sliding across the surface.
Snagging at tuner or string retainer
If a string is snagging at the string retainer then of course it should be checked for smoothness and lubricated. Everything that applies to nuts applies to retainers, including the possibility of acquiring self-lubricating or roller retainers.
Eliminating snagging at the tuner is more complicated. Quite often the string is sticking to itself, and obviously getting lubrication between the wraps isn’t very easy. The solution is to minimize the wraps on the tuner; however, this is difficult with vintage-style tuners. One way is to “tie” the string to the tuner by threading it back under itself before tightening it. This can reduce the number of wraps and stop string slippage.
Another way to almost completely eliminate snagging at the tuner is to replace the tuners with locking tuners. These are made by many manufacturers, and indeed they come standard on a lot of higher-end guitars. These work by clamping the string into the hole in the tuner. Using this method you can pull the string tight, clamp it, and then simply tune the string to pitch. If done properly, it will take less than a full revolution of the tuning peg to bring the string into tune, which means there is barely any surface at all over which for the string to move. A bonus feature of these tuners is that string changes are much, much quicker.
A lot of locking tuners also have staggered heights – this means that as the strings increase in pitch, the height of the string hole above the surface of the headstock is reduced. This increases the break angle of the string over the nut, and can often mean that a string retainer is no longer required. This further helps to reduce the surface area over which the string must move.
Bridge not returning to neutral
With a six-hole tremolo, there is a common technique to solve this problem. By tightening all six screws until the bridge is in the required position, and then loosening the middle four screws by half a turn each, you “emulate” a two-point tremolo to some extent. The outer two screws become the main pivot points for the bridge, which vastly reduces the potential for snagging. It’s still not perfect but it’s a huge improvement.
If this is happening on a two-pivot bridge, it’s likely that the knife edges are worn so that they’re no longer sharp. Depending on the design of the bridge, these edges may be replaceable. If not, it’s time for a new bridge plate.
One thing that can be done to help with both types of bridge is to screw the spring claw down far enough that it pulls the bridge hard against the body. This means that you can no longer raise pitch with the vibrato, but on the other hand, means that the springs will always pull the bridge back hard to its original position – and no further.
By the time all these details have been looked at and fixed, it’s highly likely you’ll have a guitar that returns to pitch well after even heavy vibrato use. If it’s still not working properly, then check it all again! 99% of guitars can be made stable with vintage tremolo systems. But if you really can’t get it to do what you want, you might have to replace the bridge. There are lots of options here – most of which attempt to replace the six-screw pivot system with a two-point system, or a pivot of some other kind.
I hope this has helped you to understand how to achieve tuning stability with traditional tremolo systems. If you have any questions, as always, just post a comment and we’ll try to get back to you as soon as we can.