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May 2014
more... GuitarsGearPremier BlogDIYHow-TosGuitar & Bass ModsUpkeepGuitar Shop 101August 2013Floyd Rose-equipped

How to Set Up a Floyd Rose-Style Trem

How to Set Up a Floyd Rose-Style Trem

Last week, a client brought in an Ibanez solidbody for a setup. Overall, it was in great condition, but the Edge tremolo was out of adjustment and the action at the locking nut was ridiculously high. My client wanted to perform with the guitar, but it was unplayable in its current condition. At first glance, it looked as if it was going to be a typical setup, but as you’ll see, looks can be deceiving.

The project guitar. The instrument we’re dealing with is a 1987 Steve Vai signature model Ibanez Jem. My client wanted it set up in standard (A-440) tuning with D’Addario EXL120 strings, which are gauged .009–.042. The guitar appeared to have been previously set up (and I use that term loosely) for a .010 set of strings. The action was very high and the tremolo was tilted back against the body (Fig. 1). This guitar is designed to have a “floating” tremolo, which means it should have been level with the body. However, my biggest concern was the locking nut.

Fig. 1: When a Floyd Rose-style tremolo is tilted back against the body—as shown here—you can’t use the system to its full potential.

Locking Nut Pitfalls
There are three common issues I run into with the locking nuts in a Floyd Rose-style tremolo system:

(1) The radius of the locking nut doesn’t match the fretboard radius.
(2) The locking nut sits too high and there are no removable shims.
(3) There are deep grooves in the string blocks caused by overtightening.

When the radius of the locking nut is rounder or flatter than the fretboard, the action will be inconsistent at the nut. When the nut is too curved, the middle strings will ride higher than the two E strings. When the nut is too flat, the middle strings will be low and the E strings will be too high. Make sure you have the correct locking nut for your guitar.

If the entire locking nut assembly is too high—as in this project—you’ll probably have to remove some of the wood under it. Don’t try this unless you have the proper tools and training to do it correctly.

Take great care when you tighten the string blocks at the nut. If you overtighten them, it will ruin the blocks and you might strip the bolts. The blocks just need to be snug. When grooves appear in the blocks, it’s time to replace them. Otherwise, the blocks won’t lock down the strings and can cause them to break.

Preliminary evaluation. The first step in evaluating a guitar’s condition is to tune it to concert pitch and take four primary measurements: action (string height) at the 12th fret, neck relief (or gap between the strings and frets), action at the 1st fret, and intonation.

To measure the action, I place a capo on top of the 1st fret and then use an action gauge (a specialized ruler available from stewmac.com) to measure the string height at the 12th fret. Measuring from the bottom of the string to the top of the fret, the string height was 3/64" on the 1st string and 5/64" on the 6th string. The action was way out of balance!

To measure the amount of relief in the neck, I hold down the 6th string at the last fret and measure the greatest distance between the bottom of the 6th string and the top of the frets. The relief was .020"—a little more than necessary.

For string height at the 1st fret, I remove the capo and measure again with the action gauge. At the 1st fret, the 1st string was 2/64" and the 6th string was just over 3/64". Again, this is extremely high action at the locking nut. To make this guitar playable, I’d need to slightly tighten the truss rod, float the tremolo, and lower the locking nut.

Adjust the truss rod. With the guitar tuned to concert pitch with .009 gauge strings, I began by adjusting the truss rod (Fig. 2). Tightening the truss rod reduced the relief from .020" to .012"—the proper amount of relief for my client’s shred-oriented playing style.

Note: On single-action truss rods, clockwise motion tightens the rod, lessening the relief. Counter-clockwise motion loosens the rod, increasing relief. Just think “lefty-loosey, righty-tighty.”

Fig. 2: Adjusting the truss rod to reduce neck relief.

Adjust the trem claw and bridge base. As I mentioned, the Edge tremolo was tilted back against the guitar body. On a Floyd Rose-style system, you can’t use the tremolo to its full potential if the bridge base isn’t level with the body. When properly adjusted, the tremolo should be able to pivot forward and backward.

Using a medium Phillips screwdriver, here’s how I adjust the trem claw to get the bridge base level with the body:

  • Tune to pitch.
  • Check the tremolo to see if it’s tilting back toward the body or lifting up too much away from the body.
  • Inside the trem-string cavity, adjust the two screws holding the claw to the body of the guitar (Fig. 3). Loosen the screws to lift the bridge base away from the body. Conversely, tighten the screws to pull the bridge base back toward the body. Always adjust both screws equally.
  • Retune the guitar and inspect the tremolo to determine if it needs more adjustment. Expect to turn the claw screws and retune repeatedly before you level the bridge base.

After several attempts, I finally got the bridge floating parallel to the body with just enough clearance to pull the tremolo in both directions (Fig. 4).

Fig. 3: Adjusting the trem claw to bring the bridge base level with the guitar body.

Fig. 4: On a correctly adjusted Floyd Rose-style trem, the bridge base is level with the body.

Once this task is complete, adjust the overall bridge height by raising or lowering the two screws located on either side of the base (Fig. 5). The goal is to raise the bridge to have enough clearance to actually use the tremolo. Note: This is a balancing act between the amount of “float” and “height.”

The measurements that matched my client’s playing style were a little lower than on a typical guitar. I set the action at the 12th fret to 2/64" on the 1st string, graduating to 3/64" on the 6th. This was a comfortable action that worked perfectly for my client’s preferred .009 set of strings.

Fig. 5: Adjust bridge height by raising or lowering the two screws located on either side of the bridge assembly.

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