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Floating Tremolo Systems: A Basic Set-Up Guide

When I first started playing guitar, I was informed by many people that having a complicated tremolo on my guitar would cause no end of issues. They told me that it wouldn’t stay in tune, you can’t play it if you break a string (this one is mostly true!) and it doesn’t serve any real musical purpose. For that reason, I refused to play a guitar that wasn’t a hardtail instrument, or at least had the traditional style bridge blocked off like I did to my old Fender Stratocaster (this is where you use a piece of wood to block the tremolo system in place so it can’t move, essentially making it a hardtail). 


Only when I was asked to join a band shortly after I turned 17, and I finally actually had a need for one. This was because the band I joined was a tribute to 1980s era hair-metal, complete with dive bombs and whammy tricks in nearly every song - my guitars at the time were just not equipped to deal with this so I bought an Ibanez RG550EX, super strat style guitar that had all of the necessary hardware. I soon fell in love, and I used it so much that my hand would instinctively reach for the whammy bar even when playing my acoustic guitar!


Note: The term ‘tremolo’ typically means the rapid fluctuation of a note’s volume, whereas ‘vibrato’ would be the correct term for the pitch of a note changing. However, in this context, the terms are interchangeable. I may use either term, or ‘trem’ and even ‘whammy’ to mean the same thing.


In this blog post, we will discuss some of the big names associated with floating tremolo systems, as well as some important points for a basic set-up that you can do at home with very few tools and skills.  


Big Names

As far as I am concerned, there are two main companies that are synonymous with tremolo systems, especially floating ones. These are Floyd Rose and Kahler - both of which rose to fame in the 1980s and have leagues of loyal fans. Other brands include:


  • Ibanez (the Edge family of products is exclusively used on Ibanez guitars),

  • Schaller,

  • Babicz,

  • And Bigbsy (this is not a floating style trem, but is worthy of note).


There are many legendary players that use one of these products as part of their signature sound. Here are some of my favorites: 


  • Jeff Beck,

  • Eddie Van Halen,

  • Steve Vai,

  • Joe Satriani,

  • Jimmy Herring,

  • John McLaughlin.

 

Things to Watch Out For 

I discussed this in another blog post, though I feel it is important to repeat it here. You get what you pay for with hardware, and a cheaper system will not perform as well for as long. This is down to the quality of the metal itself, and also the finish applied to it (if there is one, obviously!). Most of these tremolo systems operate on a knife edge, and are balanced between the tension of the strings and a number of springs in the back of the guitar. If the quality of the metal is poor, then that knife edge dulls quickly and causes a number of issues.


For example, a Licensed Floyd Rose, made cheaply and in large numbers in China and similar locations, can be set-up to perform great initially but will soon cause problems. On the other end of the spectrum, I once had a custom built guitar that was fitted with a Floyd Rose Original made in Germany during the 1980s - period correct though you wouldn’t know it! It still remains to date one of the most solid guitars I have ever played, largely in part due to the quality of the hardware which still looked brand new.


Tuning the Guitar

Although there are exceptions to this rule, most of these bridges are fitted with fine tuners (1) which allow precise tuning of the guitar - they are also necessary due to the use of the locking nut (Fig. 2) that helps keep the tuning stable under extreme use.

In order to set the tuning properly, first make sure that the fine tuners are exactly half-way between both extremes (fully tight/loose). Once you have done that, remove the locking nut parts with the allen key provided - make sure you make a note of what order they go back in and what direction they face (see Fig. 2 if needed). At this point, you can then tune the guitar as normal with the tuners, replace the locking nut firmly (not too tight!) and then make final adjustments with the fine tuners. You may need to repeat the process a few times if the strings are new.


Bridge Angle and Height

If you look at 2 in the picture above, you will see that the edge of the bridge is exactly in line with the body, though not perfectly flush. This is the ideal position to be in because it shows the balance between the springs and the strings is correct. 


If your guitar is tuned, as we discussed above, and the bridge is not level then you will need to adjust the angle. To do this remove the locking nut as before, and remove the backplate if your guitar has one. Now you will see the trem claw (Fig. 3). To adjust this, you need a Phillips head screwdriver. The claw will need to be tightened if the bridge is raised out of the body, or loosened if it is sunken into the guitar.                                                


Note: If you have to tighten the screws to lower the  bridge angle, make sure you detune the strings a little bit - this is why we removed the locking nut again. The reason is that we have to allow the strings to stretch, which can cause them to break if they are already at the correct pitch. 


On rare occasions you may notice that you need to adjust the height of the whole bridge itself, higher or lower, and there is not necessarily an issue with the angle. This will affect the height of the strings on the fretboard too - this is called the ‘action’ of the guitar. Some players prefer a low action, others prefer the opposite - you will soon figure out what you like. 


To do this, use your allen key again on the two hex bolts (see 3 in Fig. 1). Tighten the two bolts (one on each side of the bridge) to lower the unit, and loosen to raise it up. Make sure you do this in equal measures; a good rule of thumb is to do a quarter turn on each bolt and in the direction you need, then check the height again. The ideal height will differ owing to your guitar and preferences for action, but it should typically be around 2mm. You may need to rebalance the tremolo after this, so make sure you check it!


Final Thoughts

There are many other aspects of setting up a guitar, even more so those with a floating tremolo system like we have discussed today. The points I have discussed are what I consider to be the most basic level of maintenance with this hardware, though if you continue to have issues then you should probably take your guitar to a professional. What would be really useful is asking your guitar teacher if they can teach a lesson based around basic maintenance.


There may be some very minor differences between all of the brands I discussed earlier, but the general concept is the same and this advice should help you out of a tight spot. 


I mentioned a few tools in the blog post, so let us talk about those briefly. If you buy a new guitar with a trem system such as these, it will likely come with at least the allen keys (sometimes called a hex key or allen wrench) necessary. Failing that, you could always buy them on Amazon or similar very cheaply (the main size you will need is 3mm) - screwdrivers are also inexpensive, you don’t need an expensive one for basic guitar work. 


There is one final point that I would like to make, which is that the guitar will immediately go out of tune if you break a string - the balance is offset due to less tension. Unless you are 100% sure of your guitar, and you trust that there will be no issues in a live performance scenario, then always bring a spare guitar. 


A tremolo system, in all of its forms can be used in many musical ways, and in a lot of silly, fun ones too! Ask your teacher for some advice on how to use them and to set you on the right path.

Alex

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