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Though the Fender Strat’s “Synchronized Tremolo” from 1954 is arguably the most-used vibrato system in the world (see the U.S. patent diagram at right), in the ’60s far more players were using the trem found on the company’s Jaguar (left) and Jazzmaster guitars. Photo by Tim Mullally
A Legend Is Born Perhaps the most enduring and influential solidbody vibrato is Fender’s Synchronized Tremolo, one of the many innovations introduced in 1954 with the debut of the Stratocaster. Countless solidbody trem variations have come and gone over the years, and nearly all of them owe a lot to Leo Fender’s masterpiece of engineering.
This design is what’s referred to as a “floating,” fulcrum-style tremolo. It can only be used with solidbody guitars, and it features a base with a steel block connected perpendicularly to its underside. This block extends downward into a cavity extending through the body. From the back of the guitar, strings are threaded through holes in the bottom of the tremolo block, which is visible through a route cut in a plastic plate. The same plate covers a shallower cavity where three to five springs connect the block to a “claw” screwed into the body. The two screws securing the claw can be loosened or tightened to adjust spring tension and accommodate different string gauges. The springs counterbalance the pull of the strings and facilitate the floating design, which can be set up to allow both downward and upward pitch bends. It can also be set up for down-only movement. In fact, to ensure that the bridge can’t go upward, some guitarists even wedge a block of wood between the steel block and the cavity wall.
The Synchronized Tremolo also enables action and intonation adjustments. Each string has its own saddle made of case-hardened stamped steel, and each saddle features two screws for adjusting string height. Behind each saddle is a screw that moves the saddle forward or backward to fine-tune each string’s intonation.
Despite all its advances, the Fender Strat trem still has limitations. Under extreme use, it typically has tuning issues. Some remedy the situation by making sure their Strat’s nut slots are smoothly cut and lubricated, or by reducing the number of string winds around the peg. Ultimately, though, some tuning compromises are virtually unavoidable if your playing calls for aggressive bar action.
Although today far more players use Strat tremolos, in the late ’50s and throughout most of the ’60s, Strat sales were in a major slump and other Fender models were selling much better. When the Jazzmaster guitar was introduced in 1958, it featured what the company touted as its “top-of-the-line” tremolo system. Unlike the Strat, the Jazzmaster had a separate bridge with six saddles, and the mechanisms of pitch transposition were mounted to a chrome plate set into a shallow cavity on the guitar’s top. The trem also had a slider to lock it in place to keep the guitar in tune in case of string breakage.
Introduced in 1965 on the Mustang guitar, Fender’s “Dynamic Vibrato” was mechanically similar to the Jazzmaster/Jaguar tremolo. Its redesigned bridge featured saddles with a single, deeper string groove that solved many problems with the prior setup, making it a popular upgrade for many Jazzmaster and Jaguar owners. Photo by Tim Mullally
In 1962 Fender debuted the Jaguar, which used the same floating trem as the Jazzmaster. Both guitars are infamous for their troublesome bridge designs, which often let strings slip out of their multi-ridged saddles under even moderate attack. That said, the design became integral to surf players, as well as guitarists who would use the instruments’ unique appointments as a foundation for more raucous styles in later years. Today, many players replace the original Jazzmaster bridge with a Mastery or Tune-o-matic-style bridge.
In 1965 Fender released the Mustang guitar, whose floating Dynamic Vibrato shared similarities with the Jazzmaster and Jaguar systems, though its bridge was mounted to the vibrato plate. While the Mustang’s bridge was similar to the one on Jazzmasters and Jaguars, its saddles featured a single, deeper groove that alleviated many of the earlier design’s problems. Introduced in 1967, the Bronco student guitar used a variant of the Strat trem called the Steel Vibrato, which had two pivot points rather than six.