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Tremolo Tension: The Secret to a Great Strat

giantslayer

Inspired
It is known in the collective of internet guitar knowledge that a Stratocaster bridge can either be "floating" to allow tremolo use or "decked" for stability and arguably better tone (to those people with magic ears like Eric Johnson). The truth is far more nuanced as the tremolo system gives you full adjustability over the amount of tension behind the bridge saddles, which is the one of the main reasons for differences in tone and feel between different bridges (e.g. string-through vs top loader). [Edit: People more knowledgeable on the physics have pointed out that was not accurate. I can't explain the physics, but I do stand by the tone observations I've made here.]

Here is what I have come to contribute, that I have discovered:
1. The effect on tone and playability is dramatic.
2. There is a full spectrum of variation, not just 2 options.
3. Tension of bass and treble strings can be set differently, so we are actually adjusting two variables, not one.
4. There is a sweet spot of total tension. [Edit: For a decked setup. And by "total tension," I mean claw/spring tension, not string tension.]

A tighter tremolo will result in a punchier, stiffer, snappier tone and feel. Stronger note fundamental vs harmonics. Louder acoustic tone at a certain point. If it is too tight, notes start to feel plinky and dead.
A looser tremolo has a loose tone and feel. Strings bend easier. Notes sound airier because a weaker fundamental makes the harmonics more audible. Notes sound smoother, rounder, and less percussive. If it is too loose, notes feel weak and lack punch, snap, or impact.

Yes, these acoustic tone differences DO translate into the plugged-in tone.

When you tighten the tremolo in the back, there are two screws. The one on the side of the bass strings affects those strings more, and likewise for the other on the treble side. I have found that it is better if the treble side is set a little looser than the bass side, although that is personal preference (smoother highs and leads).

I have found there is a sweet spot of total tension, where the instrument sings a little more acoustically and feels more responsive to my playing. It's hard to describe, but there's some magic there that is lost if I adjust one of those screws even a tiny bit. For my strat, it is in a "decked" position, but the tension of the springs still matters past that point (which was honestly a big surprise for me).

Finding the sweet spot is challenging. I tend to focus on the other characteristics I mentioned and the balance of the treble/bass side, and when I suddenly think "ooh, that's really good," that usually means I'm at the sweet spot. From there, I can adjust the balance between bass and treble strings. Taking a smidge off of one and adding to the other sounds simple, but it usually takes me some trial and error to get back to the sweet spot of total tension because it is very small.


A fun little story: I recently adjusted the tremolo on a friend's strat. His was decked too tightly. I changed nothing else (except removing the trem cover). He came back and asked me if I adjusted the pickups because the tone changed so drastically, and asked me if I adjusted the action because the feel and playability had a night and day improvement.


P.S. Yes, Eric Johnson is right: it sounds better without the plastic trem cover. Here's how I figured that out: I tapped the tremolo cover while it was installed and listened to the sound it made. I then played the guitar and realized I could hear that same plastic tone resonating as the instrument was being played. No, I didn't take the time to try to figure out the effect on the plugged-in tone, but if even a tiny bit comes through, I don't want it.
 
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GlennO

Power User
I'm curious and just thinking out loud, but, for a floating bridge, is that right? The tension on the strings is determined by the pitch, string gauge, and scale. That tension is a constant and will never change. The total spring tension for a floating bridge must necessarily be exactly that same tension in the opposite direction, otherwise your pitch would be wrong. That means the total spring tension can never change, right? If so, then you have no choice in the matter for a floating bridge. The tension will always be the same.
 

Bakerman

Axe-Master
The total spring tension for a floating bridge must necessarily be exactly that same tension in the opposite direction, otherwise your pitch would be wrong.

Technically it's equal moments a.k.a. torque (springs applying less tension at a greater distance from the fulcrum, for most vibrato bridge styles anyway) but this detail usually gets skipped over and you have the right idea.

Note that you can change the number of springs or their stiffness (by swapping) to let a floating bridge move more or less during bends. Bar use would also require less/more force. This won't change the actual string tension and doesn't really affect the feel of normal fretting & picking.
 

GlennO

Power User
Note that you can change the number of springs or their stiffness (by swapping) to let a floating bridge move more or less during bends. Bar use would also require less/more force. This won't change the actual string tension and doesn't really affect the feel of normal fretting & picking.

Yeah, that's my point. In other words, the contention above that you can change the tension is, I believe, incorrect. You can change the stiffness of the springs, as you say. In the extreme you could use a solid bar in place of springs, which would require infinite force to pivot the bridge, but the tension remains the same.
 

Andy Eagle

Experienced
Maybe 6.7.8;:tearsofjoy:
The OP is basically totally wrong . If you use three springs however you place them the tension on the other side is the same as long as you don't move the claw. Fewer springs tighter sounds different as does the opposite but adding an angle to the equilibrium just dose not affect the tension on the other side as the block is rigid . the equilibrium is the equilibrium however you get it. You may hear a difference if you move the four spring but that is down to its proximity to particular strings and its subsequent vibration. I agree with EJ on the back plate off thing but he's not claiming anything more than what I've stated here. The whole Carl Verhayen claw angle thing is utter BS.
 

IronSean

Experienced
@GlennO for a floating bridge, you're right. The forces must balance to keep the bridge level.

But many strats don't have a floating bridge. They have a bridge level with the body (not floating above or in a route like a Floyd or floating bridge). They have downward motion on the trem arm, but no upward motion. So when the springs are above a certain tension the bridge is against the body and will not pull back futher. But the springs can still be adjusted tighter. I assume this is what he meant by decked.

How hard the bridge is pulled into the body could potentially have an affect on things.
 

GlennO

Power User
@GlennO for a floating bridge, you're right. The forces must balance to keep the bridge level.

But many strats don't have a floating bridge. They have a bridge level with the body (not floating above or in a route like a Floyd or floating bridge). They have downward motion on the trem arm, but no upward motion. So when the springs are above a certain tension the bridge is against the body and will not pull back futher. But the springs can still be adjusted tighter. I assume this is what he meant by decked.

How hard the bridge is pulled into the body could potentially have an affect on things.

Yes, that's why I was careful to use the word "floating" :).
 

Joe Bfstplk

Fractal Fanatic
Note that you can change the number of springs or their stiffness (by swapping) to let a floating bridge move more or less during bends. Bar use would also require less/more force. This won't change the actual string tension and doesn't really affect the feel of normal fretting & picking.
After years of using 4 springs with 9-46 strings and a floating setup, I switched to 3 springs and adjusted the claw tighter to compensate. The bar feel is much lighter now, and string bends feel a little easier - probably due to needing to push them a bit further to make the target pitch because the resistance to bridge movement is lower. The tone seems to have less fundamental and comes out a little more delicate and 'Stratty'....
 
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Andy Eagle

Experienced
After years of using 4 springs with 9-46 strings and a floating setup, I switched to 3 springs and adjusted the claw tighter to compensate. The bar feel is much lighter now, and string bends feel a little easier - probably due to needing to push them a bit further to make the target pitch because the resistance to bridge movement is lower. The tone seems to have less fundamental and comes out a little more delicate and 'Stratty'....
This is my observation as well. Classic strat tone requires the trem to float but there are notable exceptions (SRV.) Same as you need bent steel saddles and true single coils. I'm not saying you can't get great tone without these things on your strat but if you want that "54 plugged direct in to a tweed twin" tone they are part of it. I particularly like the sound of a 54 ( alnico 3 43AWG 6k ish and an ash body.)
 
Technically it's equal moments a.k.a. torque (springs applying less tension at a greater distance from the fulcrum, for most vibrato bridge styles
anyway) but this detail usually gets skipped over and you have the right idea.

Note that you can change the number of springs or their stiffness (by swapping) to let a floating bridge move more or less during bends. Bar use would also require less/more force. This won't change the actual string tension and doesn't really affect the feel of normal fretting & picking.

This point is spot on and easily illustrated.

Tune a floating bridge system to pitch. Now, significantly raise the saddles on the bridge and change nothing else. Re-tune the guitar to pitch. Now look at the bridge and you'll see that it's lifted in the back. To re-level you'll need more spring tension. Retune to pitch. The force reacted at the pivot post(s) is now increased, but the string tension (at pitch) is the same.

Raising the saddles increases the string action. To get that back the original height, the bridge will need to be lowered (at the expense of travel).
 

mr_fender

Fractal Fanatic
Yeah, raising the saddles moves them further from the bridge fulcrum point, giving the string side of the system a little more leverage. Even though the string tension is the same (tuned to the same note), the added leverage it now has requires more spring tension to rebalance.
 

Dave Merrill

Power User
Classic strat tone requires the trem to float but there are notable exceptions (SRV.) Same as you need bent steel saddles and true single coils.
@Andy Eagle, have you played an EJ Virginia strat? I'm asking because they have a GraphTech saddle for the High E. I think that's to even out the response of that string, and I noticed that issue on my non-Virginia EJ, before I knew about this aspect of the Virginia.
 

Andy Eagle

Experienced
Only the custom shop one and yes it knocks down the treble and emphasises the mids. It suits EJ but I don't think you absolutely need it, it is not that bad on a really good strat anyway.
 

Dave Merrill

Power User
My used EJ is my first strat since high school, didn't think to check that. I definitely notice thinness on the E string, and less but still some on the B. Wish you could buy singles of those, not just whole sets. Wonder if I'd like a full set...
 

Joe Bfstplk

Fractal Fanatic
My used EJ is my first strat since high school, didn't think to check that. I definitely notice thinness on the E string, and less but still some on the B. Wish you could buy singles of those, not just whole sets. Wonder if I'd like a full set...
I have a full set of Graphtek saddles on mine. They take a little of the 'immediacy' and thinness away, but I break a lot less strings at the saddle and they seem to stay in tune better. I am trying to find some Wilkinson WLS130 locking saddles, as they work great on my PRS SE 24 Standard, but they seem to have dried up worldwide....
 

Andy Eagle

Experienced
My used EJ is my first strat since high school, didn't think to check that. I definitely notice thinness on the E string, and less but still some on the B. Wish you could buy singles of those, not just whole sets. Wonder if I'd like a full set...
If you find an old picture of EJ with Virginia (the real one) it had a brass saddle on the high E
 

Dave Merrill

Power User
I have a full set of Graphtek saddles on mine. They take a little of the 'immediacy' and thinness away, but I break a lot less strings at the saddle and they seem to stay in tune better.
Hmmm, I've barely broken any strings on my EJ, and I swear, it stays in tune better than any guitar I've ever had, knock rosewood. Comes out of the case in tune, doesn't budge. I'm not using the trem, but I'm not using it on my Ibanez Andy Timmons either, and that's not bad, but nothing like as solid as the EJ.

That said, I bet I'd like the bit of added mellowness from the GraphTeks, just might have to try em.

And an HS-2 while I'm at it...
 
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