Your Strat®-style tremolo bar is one shifty character. It can wreak havoc on your guitar’s tuning, without ever getting its own hands dirty. It accomplishes this by recruiting others to do its dirty-work, while it sits quietly in the background, pulling the strings. It’s like the don of a large crime syndicate, and to keep your guitar in tune you’re going to have to take control of not just your tremolo bar, but its entire organization.
To get control of Don Tremolo, you must first identify his associates. You can begin to ferret them out with a simple wiretap: follow the path of the guitar strings from one end to the other. Every component that touches them along their path is suspect. On a Strat®-style tremolo, these include the tremolo block, bridge plate, and saddles on the body end, and the nut, string trees, and tuners on the headstock end. Each one creates a point of friction, and that friction can cause the strings to catch, bind, stretch, and go out of tune.
There are also a few components which, while they don’t touch the strings directly, still generate friction within the organization. It’s like this, see: a Strat®-style tremolo unit is a fulcrum that balances the tension of the guitar strings on one side with the tension of springs on the other. Those opposing forces hold the bridge suspended on its “knife-edge”, which rests against six screws (traditionally), or two bridge studs (modern versions). The point at which the tremolo sits at equilibrium between these two opposing tensions is called the “zero position”. The correct zero-position for a Strat®-style tremolo is with the back end angled slightly upwards, above the guitar’s body. Anything that alters this delicate balance can affect the tremolo’s ability to return to the correct pitch – the zero position – properly. This includes misalignment between the knife-edge and the screws or studs, friction between the springs and spring claw, or changes in the tension of either the strings or the springs. (We will talk more about this last one later.)
Grease Some Palms
Now that you have uncovered all the key players in the scheme to throw your guitar out of tune, they must be dealt with one at a time. Start by keeping all those friction points well lubricated. Look for any place two surfaces move against each other. Obvious lubrication points include between the bridge posts/screws and the knife edge, and between the saddles and the strings. For the most friction-free setup possible, you can even put a dot of lubricant where the tremolo springs contact the spring claw.
Of key importance is the nut. Making sure the nut slots are cut correctly is the first step in keeping strings from binding as they pass across it. Once that has been done, make sure those slots are as slippery as spaghetti sauce. Bone is the traditional nut material, and a bone nut will function fine when properly lubricated. However, many guitar players and builders now prefer synthetic, self-lubricating nut materials like TUSQ XL. They are far slipperier than graphite, and don’t require nearly as much maintenance.
Don’t overlook the underside of the strings trees. A dot of lubricant there can work wonders for tuning stability. Modern string trees are also now available in the same self-lubricating materials as string nuts.
There are several good commercial guitar lubricants available. Big Bends Nut Sauce is a good one, and even comes with a handy applicator. If keeping it in the family is more your style, a mixture of graphite and chap-stick works well. The graphite provides the lubrication, and the chap-stick keeps the graphite in place. Use a toothpick or the end of an old guitar string as an applicator.
Put it On Ice
For a tremolo bar to stay in tune, it is critical that the equilibrium between the strings and the springs is maintained. A change in tension on either side will affect the other. So what happens when a string breaks? The tension on the string side is reduced, and the tremolo (the fulcrum) shifts to a new zero-position further towards the spring side. As a result, the remaining strings are pulled sharp. The only recovery from this is installing a new string and re-tuning – not the best use of your time while on stage in front of an audience. If this worry keeps you looking over your shoulder, your best solution is to “deck” the tremolo. Rather than allowing the back end of the bridge plate to float, tighten the springs until it is pulled flat against the body. This means the tremolo bar will no longer move in both directions. Its motion will be limited to downward only. The benefit is that your strings will no longer pull sharp if one of them suddenly takes a dirt nap.
If tuning instability is still giving you night-sweats, you can go a step further and put your trem bar on total lock-down. Remember: when otherwise good components like tuners, springs, and string trees act bad, it’s only because Don Tremolo set things in motion. Stop the motion, and the whole corrupt organization stops colluding to ruin your tuning. You can do this by “blocking” your tremolo, either with a wooden block inserted between the tremolo block and the body so that the tremolo is held in a fixed position, or with a mechanical device such as the TremelNo. “Blocking” your tremolo is different than “decking” it, because you are stopping the tremolo’s motion in both directions, essentially turning it into a fixed bridge.
Tuners can be a huge source of instability within the organization. Traditionally, strings are wrapped around the tuner’s posts when they are installed. However, this can lead to tuning trouble. Any time the tremolo bar is lowered and the string tension is reduced, the wraps around the tuning posts loosen slightly. As the bar is returned to normal pitch and tension, the wraps may not cinch back up to their original position. This is especially true of wound strings such as the low E, A, and D, because of the additional friction between adjacent wraps.
If your tuners are committing this crime, consider replacing them with a set of locking tuners. Locking tuners work by mechanically clamping the strings within the posts, which eliminates the need for wrapping. No wraps means one less point of potential friction and instability.
Swim With the Fishes
At the end of the day, one of the best strategies for keeping your Strat®-style trem in tune is to simply use it within the range of motion it was designed for. Go with the flow, my friend. If dive-bombing and other hot-rod techniques are what you’re after, you would probably be better served by using a locking tremolo system such as the Floyd Rose. On the other hand, if you prefer the look, feel, and tone of a vintage-style unit, just play it a little more judiciously and bada-bing: your guitar stays in tune better.
Enter Witness Protection
Have you ever witnessed illicit tremolo activity on one of your guitars? What’s the craziest thing that’s every caused one of your guitars to go out of tune? How did you manage to keep the Tremolo Organization in check?
Go ahead: sing like a canary.