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more... GearGear HistoryApril 2009

Trem Wars: The Whammy Arms Race


Enter The Fender


Fender Synchronized Tremolo
Photo courtesy Fender
Since the tailpiece and the bridge were two separate assemblies, there was a need to consolidate them, making for fewer moveable parts. Fender was enjoying success in the 1950s with their solidbody guitar designs and was developing a guitar called the Stratocaster. This guitar would feature their Synchronized Tremolo; it would soon become the defining tremolo of that era. The idea of this tremolo was to combine the bridge and tailpiece into one assembly, and have it move in its entirety. The original design called for it to be floated (movement up and down), making it possible for guitar players to apply to vibrato chords and bent notes, as well as doing more extreme pitch bends.

The Fender tremolo was a feat of engineering. It is attached to the guitar both externally and internally, as a single assembly. This tremolo bridge consolidated the tailpiece and bridge into a single unit that pivots off six screws. The baseplate of the tremolo is mounted to a steel sustain block with a considerable amount of mass. Six bent nickel-plated bridge pieces are anchored to the baseplate and are adjustable to intonate each string more accurately. One outstanding feature in the Fender tremolo bridge is the ability to adjust the height of each string— something that could only be done previously with two screws on the treble and bass sides of a guitar’s bridge. The arm screws into the baseplate and continues into the sustain block, making the assembly move as a whole. With the strings tuned, the bridge is counterbalanced by three to five springs, anchored by a claw inside a cavity routed in the underside of the body. These springs pull the sustain block backward while the strings pull the whole bridge forward. It is a balancing act. This is what makes the Fender so much more responsive to the touch of its tremolo arm. The Fender tremolo was also easier to comprehend, because it was self-contained. The strings are threaded through the sustain block to the saddles. Because the strings are coupled with the steel sustain block and pivot from the six bolts screwed into the wood of the body, there is a more substantial tone compared to the Bigsby. The Fender tremolo also has a further travel, and was designed to have upward as well as downward movement. The tremolo arm has a stiffer feel and is much more responsive to the touch. As cool as that design is, though, there are some inherent problems.


Vintage Fender tremolo cavity
Photo courtesy Dave’s Guitar Shop
As mentioned earlier, all guitars have the element of friction at the nut, causing tuning problems. This is difficult to avoid when dealing with vibrato because of its stringslacking action. With the Fender tremolo bridge assembly, the strings slip or become disjointed from the sustain block when the bar is depressed. This adds some tuning discrepancies as well. During the slacking of the strings, the strings will loosen within the sustain block, and when the arm is returned to the resting position, the ball ends of the strings have a tendency not to return to resting position. Years later, Fender came up with strings that have bullet-shaped ends, to seat them more properly inside the block.

Regardless of small shortcomings, this Fender tremolo bridge was resilient to abuse, and if its design was understood, players had no problem maintaining it. To alleviate friction at the nut, many players chose to tighten the springs in the back to anchor the baseplate firmly to the body, giving it only downward motion, and limiting the amount of friction hang up in the nut.

The Fender tremolo bridge (and licensed versions of it) prevailed for most of electric guitar history so far. Fender has since made modern revisions to their tremolo. On some later-produced Stratocaster guitars, the bent steel saddles were replaced by solid block saddle pieces. Along with Bigsby, there were also others made by Mosrite and Gibson. But none rivaled the playability and action of the Fender tremolo. As the electric guitar entered the 1970s, more extreme conditions created a need to build a better mousetrap.

Hit page 4 for the "better mousetrap," courtesy of a man named Floyd...