Tremolo Bar

Instructions on replacing a whammy bar on an electric guitar.

The tremolo bar (or whammy bar) accessories were at first considered a novelty at best. These early electric guitar accessories have certainly come a long way since their introduction in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s.  Among the first to actually incorporate the tremolo bar into the writing of songs were the surf music pioneers of the mid 1960’s. After the use of the tremolo bar the guitar usually needed to be re-tuned. This problem with tuning persists even to this day due to a variety of factors. There are solutions to this common problem available to anyone willing to identify and address the issue.

The tremolo system of today, bears little resemblance to its predecessor and performs exceptionally well. So well in fact, that the tremolo is an absolute part of many forms of modern music. Incredible dive bombs and screaming bends are interspersed throughout the shredding guitar solos of today’s guitar heroes without even a thought or concern of ever going even slightly out of tune. How is all this possible? And more importantly, how can you achieve the same results? First one needs to understand the basic tremolo system.

The early tail piece tremolo bar, which is often found on the early hollow body electric guitars, simply bent the suspended floating bridge up or down creating the desired result. With a gentle hand and minimal use the guitar might stay in tune. Fender revolutionized the tremolo bar with its spring loaded bridge system that is still in use today. This is what most of the surf music guitarists were using to create their unique sound.

The floating bridge is anchored using a set of springs set in the body of the guitar. This system has several advantages over the tail piece tremolo bar. The first is that the springs give a smooth tension transition to the strings. It’s the springs rather than the strings themselves that absorb most of the movement. This allows deeper bends and higher pulls without breaking the strings. The other advantage is that springs can be added or removed according to the type of string gauge used. If a player likes heavy gauge strings then they simply add more springs. For lighter strings springs can be removed. This keeps the floating bridge centered in its cavity and puts the tremolo bar in the optimal position regardless of tension created by different gauges of strings. But even the technologically advanced spring tremolo system has its disadvantages.

The most obvious is – if a string breaks the other five will instantly be thrown out of tune due to the spring tension. Also, as a string is tightened the subsequent tension on the other strings is changed facilitating repeated tuning of all strings until equalized pressure is achieved. This can be somewhat frustrating to the tremolo newcomer but once mastered it becomes routine. The other notable shortcoming has to do with hardware. If the guitar has inferior machine heads (the tuning keys on the crown) the guitar will most certainly fall out of tune each time the tremolo is used. This common problem is what will most likely prompt a replacement tremolo as a solution.

Sometimes simply changing the machine heads to a higher quality tuner such as Grover machine heads will solve the problem. But even if it doesn’t fix the problem, having superior machine heads is always a good idea so your money won’t be wasted either way. This solution might work for someone with a vintage guitar that only uses the tremolo bar occasionally and without much vigor. But if you’re after that extreme tremolo action you’ll probably need to replace the tremolo unit and possibly add a lock nut. The modern aftermarket tremolo units are built with the extreme user in mind. They have a much wider range of movement than most original equipment tremolos. Many will have fine tuners on the bridge for use with a locking nut. This system will generally produce the most reliable method of staying in tune under hard use. When choosing your new tremolo bridge you will find three types, each with their own strengths and weaknesses.

The first type is the one with small dial shaped fine tuners that sit on the top of the bridge. The advantage to these is they are easy to operate. The disadvantage is they are easily bumped with the pick hand. The second type uses small pin type fine tuners that extend out of the back of the bridge. While these are well out of the way they are rather difficult to operate. If you’re going to go without a lock nut you can buy a traditional tremolo bridge that does not have fine tuners built in. Your playing style will largely influence your decision. For occasional, relatively mild use, a no lock nut system will be fine. For well controlled string hand playing, such as studio work, a top dial may be ok. For animated live performance a pin type will be the best choice. Most of these aftermarket tremolo systems will easily fit in the old tremolo bridge cavity without any modification to the guitar body. The spring length is generally the same also. If this is the case with your guitar then it’s simply a matter of removing the guitar strings, disconnecting the springs, removing the old bridge, dropping in the new one and reconnecting the springs. However, if the new unit is too large to fit in the cavity then you will need to enlarge the opening with a router. This is delicate work that would best be done by an experienced wood worker.

Once you have the new tremolo bridge in place you can install a lock nut. This is the piece that will ultimately keep you in tune under hard bending and pulling of the tremolo bar. First you need to remove the old nut. The nut is the part at the base of the crown and top of the fret board that the strings pass through and rest on, are usually made of plastic and are simply glued in place. They can be removed with a sharp chisel and few light blows with a mallet. It’s best to work from the edge that meets the crown rather than where it meets the fret board. Take your time and be careful, you don’t want to cause any damage to the wood under the nut. Once the nut is removed you can clean the area with a file. This will remove any glue residue and give the area a good “tooth” for the new adhesive you will be applying. The best lock nuts are made out of graphite. You may want to rough up the base of the new nut with sandpaper to give it a better “tooth” as well. To install the lock nut you should use a good two part epoxy. Apply a small amount to each mating surface. Make sure the surfaces are completely coated and place the nut precisely in its position. If you feel the need to clamp it in place while it cures, be sure to use very light pressure so as not to squeeze the adhesive out of the joint. Allow it to cure a full 24 hours before re stringing the guitar. After everything is dry and you’ve re strung the instrument you can begin the long tuning process.

As stated earlier, the pitch of each string will change as the tension changes. It will take quite a while but eventually the tension will equalize and the strings will all stay in tune. At this point make sure the fine tuners on the bridge are backed almost all the way out. This will give you the room you’ll need for fine tuning the strings. Now check your tuning again. Once it’s in tune you can use the lock nut to lock the strings in place. All lock nuts are different, some clamp down, others are screwed in place and some use hex nuts. With the nut locked the machine heads can no longer be used to tune the guitar. This is also why the tuning will be impervious to the action of the tremolo bar. For tuning once the nut is locked use the fine tuners on the bridge.

Finally, a few words about the tremolo bar itself. Most tremolo bars that come with the unit will be fine. However, occasionally one might want a longer or shorter bar, a bar with a handle or one without, or perhaps a different finish to match the rest of the hardware. The bar itself is removable by simply unscrewing it from the bridge. However, all bars are not interchangeable. Some will have fine threads and others use coarse threads. Therefore always make sure the replacement bar you’re choosing has the correct threads for your bridge.

Now that you have a working tremolo system that matches your playing style take care of it! You should always remove the bar when storing the instrument in its case otherwise the lid of the case can put pressure on the bar which, over time, can cause the springs to lose tension. When changing strings be sure and use the same gauge as the strings you’re replacing and only change one string at a time. This preserves the equalized tension and will greatly reduce tuning time. And finally one last tip – if you’re going to be performing with a whammy bar always have a back up guitar tuned and ready to go. That way if you break a string on the guitar you are playing you can quickly grab your back up guitar and keep playing otherwise, your performance will come to a screeching halt as all the remaining strings will be thrown out of tune! Of course you could alleviate that risk by using an old tail piece tremolo but I doubt you would be doing many bends with it! Life is full of compromises and the whammy bar is no exception. Just try not to break any strings and you’ll be shredding with the best of them!