Keeping Trems In Tune
Published in PM April 2008
Technique : Stagecraft
A trem-equipped guitar that won't stay in tune can turn what should be a joyous experience into a miserable and frustrating one, but most tuning problems can be solved using just a little logic and ingenuity.
The simplest thing you can do to improve tuning stability is to give your strings a good stretching when you fit new ones — something that rarely happens in music stores or at guitar factories, judging by the way most new guitars behave. I usually tune new strings to pitch, then grab the string above the pickups, give it a fairly hard tug away from the guitar body, and sustain this for two or three seconds. The pitch will invariably drop, so I use my tuner to get it up to pitch again and repeat the exercise. After doing this two or three times, you should find that the string pitch remains constant, which means you've taken the stretch out of the string and also ensured that the string is tight on the tuner post.
So, assuming your strings are in good condition and correctly stretched, what else can cause tuning problems? Slippage on the tuner post is one possibility, so if you fit your strings in such a way that the string winds back over itself, you're less likely to get slippage than if you simply poke the string end through the hole. The simple way to fit the string is to feed it through the hole in the tuner, then bring the trailing end back under and around the string before you wind it onto the peg. In effect, the trailing end gets trapped between the post and the string.
Always ensure that the string winds downwards in a tidy fashion, as this increases downward pressure on the nut and also helps prevent the windings shifting during performance. As a rule, three or four turns of string around the post is enough. With slotted pegs, cut the string so that it extends around three inches past the post, then push the cut end into the hole at the bottom of the slot before winding on the slack.
Locking tuners that trap the string inside the hole through the post are a good investment if you use a tremolo extensively, but don't want the bother of a locking trem and nut. A cheaper (but equally effective) solution is the Wilkinson EZ Lock tuner, which has two holes in the post. The string goes through one hole, then through the other, which is at right angles to the first.
There are several other areas worth checking, including the tightness of bolt-on necks and the screws or nuts that hold your tuners in place. If these seem OK, then the problem is probably friction at some point along the string's length.
Whenever you bend a note or use a tremolo, the strings stretch by a millimetre or two, which means that the string actually moves through the nut slots, through any string guides that are fitted and over the bridge saddles. If there's appreciable friction in any of these places, the string will 'hang up' so that it doesn't return to its original pitch when you stop bending or stop using the tremolo. Often, it is the tremolo itself (correctly called 'vibrato', but Leo Fender had us all calling it 'tremolo') that gets the blame, but the fulcrum system pioneered by Fender and adopted by the majority of guitar makers is actually pretty reliable if adjusted correctly.
Poorly cut nut slots that pinch the strings are a main cause of tuning problems, whether or not a tremolo is fitted. Try tuning your guitar to your tuner, then play some blues bends and check the tuning again. If any of the notes have gone flat, pull the string at the other side of the nut and test again. If the string returns to somewhere near the original pitch, you almost certainly have a sticking nut slot.
Although you can modify the slots yourself using a ground-down junior hacksaw blade, you're better off leaving the job to a professional who'll use proper nut files, as there may be nut slot depth issues that can be fixed at the same time. If the slots don't appear to be pinching the strings, you can try a simple string lubricant, such as Big Bends Nut Sauce, or a home brew of Vaseline and powdered soft pencil lead. And while you're at it, apply some of this to the underside of any string guides, as these are potential sticking points too.
If there's enough of an angle over the bridge to keep the strings pulled down into the nut slots without having to use the string guides, then it may be worth removing them. On many Strats fitted with two sets of guides, you can remove (or simply thread the strings above) the guide that holds down the D-string and G-string. Of course, locking systems where the nut clamps the strings in place avoid most potential friction points, and so offer very good tuning stability, but the downside is that changing a string takes longer and you need to have the correct tools to hand. They also offer a different playing feel when bending strings, which not everybody likes.
I fit Graph Tech nuts and string guides to many of my own guitars, as these parts are made from an extremely low-friction material and noticeably improve tuning stability. I've even used their nuts in conjunction with locking trem systems, and if you can fit and adjust your own nut slots, they're a very cheap upgrade. They effectively 'sweat' lubricant, so you don't need to use additional lubrication. Bone nuts are also better than plastic, as bone is lower in friction.
Fender's tremolo and its derivatives rely upon a tremolo bridge that is free to pivot on a chamfered edge, but held in its neutral position by between two and five springs that are set into a cavity on the rear of the guitar body. These hook onto a metal claw, which can be moved to increase or decrease the spring tension by tightening or loosening the two wood screws that hold it in place. It is important that the springs don't touch any parts of the woodwork, or the backplate where one is fitted. Note that a ground wire is attached to the claw to provide a ground path for the strings via the springs and bridge assembly. If this isn't fitted or comes loose, you may find that the guitar hums when you touch the strings.
If you don't want to use the tremolo, or if you only want to be able to flatten notes, you can simply tighten all the springs so that the tremolo backplate rests flat against the body, rather than floating a little way above it. One advantage of this non-floating setup is that you can do double bends without the other strings going flat, and the tuning won't go haywire if you break a string.
If you wish to set the tremolo up so that you can bend notes both sharp and flat, you'll need to adjust it, and there are several important points to bear in mind. The original Fender trem and its clones are held to the body using six wood screws that act as pivots, allowing the tremolo to rock back and forth. For this to work the screws can't be fully tightened, otherwise they interfere with the rocking motion. Some guitar techs remove all but the outside two screws, as the more screws you have, the more friction there is. Apparently, this works fine (even with heavy-gauge strings).
If you're changing strings, it is worth removing these screws to allow you to clean the guitar surface below the tremolo. Ensure there are no wood splinters and then clean the bottom of the tremolo, checking that there are no burrs around the screw holes. If there are, you can use a fine file (flat side on) to clear them. Smear a little Vaseline or candle wax onto the underside of the tremolo plate beneath the screw holes, and then refit the screws. Adjust the screws by holding the tremolo arm down, then tighten the screws one at a time until you can just feel them pulling on the tremolo. At this point, back them off a quarter of a turn or less and you're done.
If you have a two-post trem, as is fitted to the US standard Strat (and many other guitars too), check that the knife-edges on the tremolo are clean and undamaged. Again, you can lubricate with Vaseline, but don't use more than you have to or it will simply attract dust. When the tremolo is fully assembled, check that the block that holds the strings doesn't bind on either side of the body cavity, or on the front or rear lip of the body cutout. You can see this easily from the back of the guitar once the spring cover has been removed. If it does bind, you may need to ease the fit slightly by sanding away a little of the inside of the cavity using a Dremel power tool or something similar.
Before tensioning the tremolo springs, you need to decide how far up in pitch you want to be able to bend the strings. For surf-style vibrato, the rear of the bridgeplate needs only 1/16 of an inch or so clearance above the body. But if you like to be able to bend up by a whole tone or more, then you may need three times that much clearance.
The easiest way to set the spring tension is to use a temporary wooden wedge pushed under the rear of the bridgeplate to hold it the required distance above the body. You'll need to push down on the tremolo arm to fit it into place, and then the tension of the springs will hold it there. Fit your new strings, tune to pitch and adjust the spring tension by gradually unscrewing the two wood screws holding the spring claw in place until the temporary wedge comes loose.
You may also want to lubricate the tops of the bridge saddles using Nut Sauce or even WD40 sprayed onto a cotton bud. This lessens friction and can help extend string life, especially if your guitar is fitted with stainless steel bridge saddles, as these react with sweat to weaken strings where they make contact with the bridge.
You'll need to retune slightly once the wood block comes out, but you should now have your tremolo correctly adjusted, so that when the guitar is tuned the bridgeplate floats off the body by just the right amount for your playing style. But remember, if you use a floating tremolo, tuning will be more difficult, as every time you adjust one string the tension of all the others will be affected, and you may need to go around the strings four or five times before they're all in tune. Furthermore, if you break a string, the other five will go massively out of tune, so there's no way to bluff your way through to the end of the song!
If you follow these guidelines, you should be able to locate and fix most of the commonly encountered tuning problems, but I have a couple of tips for players who get frustrated by screw-in tremolo arms that work loose and flop around. Early Fenders had a spring in the bottom of the tremolo hole to apply some pressure to the bottom of the arm, but many modern models have dispensed with this. The simplest solution is to wrap a little PTFE plumber's tape around the threaded section of the arm before fitting it, but I've also had success applying a little Superglue to the threads and letting it dry overnight before screwing the arm back in. 0
Published in PM April 2008
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