If you play a guitar with a tremolo bridge, you know how difficult staying in tune can be. Using the whammy bar just makes the experience even worse. This is something that is uninspiring, demotivating, and even disastrous, especially when you are playing before a live audience.
It might seem that you need a professional’s help to fix, but what if you could do it on your own with the right tools? You would be playing confidently before your audience again in no time.
While it might look intimidating and very technical, the tremolo system is actually easy to grasp. And once you know the basics of the design and what is required for a good balance, you can set your tremolo spring tension easy enough.
What You Need To Know About Tremolo Spring Tension
The first thing that you need to identify and understand is the tremolo bridge design. This is the structure on your guitar that holds your strings on the body side of the instrument.
In most cases there are also screw type tuners and clamps to fasten your strings to the bridge. On the back side of the bridge inside the guitar body, you will find springs.
These springs work to counterbalance the bridge. Because the string tension will want to pull the bridge towards the neck, we need springs to offset that force.
There are several variations in design, such as vibrato and tremolo style bridges. Some of the modern and more classic designs of the tremolo bridge include;
- Vintage style six screw tremolo bridge
- PRS style floating bridge
- Modern 2 point Fender style
- Floyd Rose style tremolo
Recognizing the bridge you are about to adjust can be helpful. But the science behind the tremolo bridge is identical among most designs.
The effect produced by a floating bridge is called vibrato, and this is something that we will be referring to throughout the article.
Tools That Are Needed
To help you set up your tremolo spring tension, you will need some basic tools. Some of them will be used to tune the system, while others to open up the guitar. We will need to access the springs from the bottom side of the guitar body.
- Guitar Work Mat
- Guitar Neck Rest
- Guitar tuner
- New guitar strings
- Wire cutters
- String winder
- Teflon Lubricant
- Allen keys
- Radius gauges
While you don’t really need the guitar work mat or neck rest, they are tools that help a great deal with maintenance. They have come in handy so many times that they are an investment worth making.
The process of setting up your vibrato system is best done when it is time for new guitar strings. We want to be able to inspect the system to make sure all parts are in good shape.
Inspecting The Vibrato System
Once you have removed your old strings and guitar cavity covers, it is time to inspect the system. We are looking for worn out parts or areas of the system that might be causing binding or friction.
When it comes to a proper working vibrato, friction is the primary reason for tuning issues.
You will need to remove the springs from the back of the bridge at this point as well. Once the strings and springs have been removed, put the whammy bar on and move it forward and backward. You want to see if the motion is easy and verify that there is no friction or binding.
If there is, you will need to inspect the area around the bridge to see if something is rubbing. It can also be the knife edges that are worn out and binding or clicking. If you find damage then a replacement bridge may be needed.
Tremolo Bridge Knife Edges
The knife edges are the part of the bridge that pivot on the two studs or screws mounted to the guitar body. These are the only two points that should actually make contact with the body at all. Sometimes these knife edges can wear out or cause friction to develop.
This is when tuning issues can develop and so we need to make sure to inspect and lubricate these edges.
Once you have verified that the edges are ok, you will want to use some Teflon Lubricant on them. This will ensure that they will not cause friction or wear to develop. It’s a very easy way to maintain your knife edges. Do not use WD-40 unless you want a huge mess.
Lubricating The Knife Edges
Before you do anything, clean the bridge of all dirt, grime or build up that may have developed. Brasso can be helpful here to really shine it up!
To lubricate them, we will not need to remove the bridge from the studs. Simply turn your studs 180 degrees, put some lubricant on the opposite side of the knife edges and turn them back. This will get the lube right onto the mating surface of the stud and knife edge.
Some studs will require an allen key, and some will require a screwdriver. We suggest you use a tool and not just your fingers because you want to make sure to put it back to its original setting.
So just make sure that when you turn the stud to lube it, that it goes back the opposite way to keep the adjustment the same.
For example, if you turn the stud 180 degree clockwise, you will want to turn it 180 degree counterclockwise once there is lube applied.
String Up Your Guitar
Now that the system is checked and lubricated, it is time to clean your guitar throughout. While at this point it is also a good idea to check your nut for wear.
Once everything is clean and looks good, it’s time to put the new strings on your guitar. Just make sure you have the right gauge of strings. If you decide to change the gauge you will also need to set up and balance the tremolo system again.
Begin by first putting your springs back onto the rear side of the tremolo bridge. Then put on your guitar strings.
Once the new strings are on your guitar, proceed to tune them using your tuner. As you tune, the strings will fluctuate quite a bit until the spring tension is adequate. So it will take a little while to obtain proper tuning.
You may also notice that once in tune, the bridge may be at a drastic angle. This may happen if you’re changing string gauges or have altered your spring tension.
Balancing The Vibrato
Before we proceed to make any other adjustments, we need to balance the bridge. If it is angled too far in either direction, then we cannot set the string height accordingly.
With your strings now in tune, if the back of your bridge is angled up, you need to add spring tension. To do this, you need to tighten the two large screws on the bracket that your springs mount to inside the vibrato cavity.
When you tighten them, only turn them a quarter turn at a time. This is because you will be adding tension to your strings at the same time. This will require you to then tune your strings again. When you do you will find that they are tighter after the adjustment.
Once you loosen them to get back to proper tuning, the bridge will have relaxed a bit more which can make a large change.
Of course, if the back of the bridge is sunken into the body, then you will need to loosen the springs and tighten your strings.
But all this depends on whether you changed string gauge or if the guitar was badly out of adjustment.
Do this until the bridge is parallel with the body of the guitar.
Use Of The Radius Gauges
Radius gauges can be used now to set the saddle height to match that of the fretboard. This is not a mandatory step but you do want to verify that your strings are set to the same radius as your fretboard.
If this setting is not correct, it will negatively affect how the guitar plays.
In order to adjust, simply turn the adjustment screws to lower or raise each saddle. You will find that some saddles have 2 screws that will need to be adjusted depending on your bridge design. Just make sure you are using radius gauges to make these adjustments.
If you were never unhappy with how the springs played on the fretboard, you are probably OK to skip this step.
Setting The String Height
The overall string height can also be adjusted at this point. This can be done by turning the two posts that make contact with the knife edges.
This adjustment and setting the radius may need to be done together. In most cases you will be fine, but if the bridge is incredibly out of adjustment or has been replaced keep this in mind.
When you proceed to set the radius, you may need to adjust the string height. But again, if you did not experience any string buzz or discomfort when fretting strings, the adjustment can be skipped.
Setting The Intonation
Once you have your string height set and the radius matches your fretboard, it’s time to check your intonation. If it is out of adjustment then your notes will be sharp or flat at certain frets.
In order to verify this, simply play an open harmonic at the 12th fret on a string. Now play the 12th fret to see if the note is exactly an octave higher than the open harmonic. You can also use a tuner for this if you don’t quite trust your ear.
If the sound is sharp when fretted, you need to move the string saddle backwards or away from the neck. If the sound was flat, you need to move it forward or towards the neck.
Taking out All Discrepancies
When you have made these adjustments, you may find that your bridge is not balanced again. This can be because the strings are breaking in and stretching. Or because the adjustments affected the balance.
At this point you can make a small adjustment to the springs to correct this without affecting any other settings. It should be a very small change anyway.
Tuning The Vibrato
As your strings break in you may need to make some small adjustments. This will mainly be spring adjustments if all other settings were made correctly.
If you find your string height is not quite right, you can simply adjust the two posts to raise or lower the bridge.
Or maybe the radius is not quite right, again an easy adjustment with the gauges and some small screw adjustments.
You will find that as you play the guitar you may need to make some small adjustments to dial it in to where you like. This may take some practice to get right, but once you master this, your playing experience will change for the better.
This is a complicated process for sure, a lot of things can go wrong, but it is only an adjustment at the end of the day. If it doesn’t make sense to you or is too complicated, you can always seek professional guidance.
But remember, if you’re passionate about playing the guitar, being able to perform adjustments and do proper maintenance will give you a better experience. Not all players are the same.
We all like things a bit different, being able to obtain that however will take some practice. But once you’re there, the guitars will never play better!
How Many Tremolo Springs Should I Use?
This is determined by the gauge of string and the key you plan to tune your guitar to. The heavier the gauge is, the more springs you will need because the string tension will be greater. If you use a heavier set of strings but are tuning quite low then you won’t need as many springs.
For a lighter set of strings, you will require less springs as the tension will be lower when trying to tune to a specific key.
3 springs is usually the average with a regular set of 9’s. If you decide to go to a string gauge of 11 then you may require 4-5. Experimentation is key here.
How Tight Should Tremolo Springs Be?
Even if you were to stretch the spring to their max, this would still be OK. What you are trying to do here is balance your bridge. If you tighten your spring mount screws all the way to the body and you still cannot balance, add more.
You are primarily trying to balance the bridge, the tension on the springs is irrelevant. They will not be damaged if the adjustments in your guitar are maxed.
If you find that your bridge is balanced but your springs are stretched to the max, then your good.