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May 2014
more... GearGear HistoryApril 2009

Trem Wars: The Whammy Arms Race

Trem Wars: The Whammy Arms Race

The Better Mousetrap

Jackson Phil Collen PC1 with
Floyd Rose tremolo
Photo courtesy Fender
The name Floyd Rose has become synonymous with the tremolo since 1977. That’s when a guitar player decided that something needed to be done about the friction at the nut and at the bridge, the two ends of the strings’ vibrationary movement. His name was Floyd Rose. He came up with an advancement of the Fender tremolo by eliminating the element of friction points along the scale length of the strings.

The Floyd Rose tremolo system consists of a locking bridge that works in conjunction with a locking nut. The concept is to lock the strings into each individual bridge saddle. Then, once the guitar is tuned, the nut is locked. The strings are clamped at either end and there isn’t anything in between. As simple as that sounds, the assembly of Floyd’s tremolo has almost twice the number of parts as the Fender.

The Floyd Rose, being influenced by the Fender tremolo, uses the same kind of body routing, with minimal changes in the width of the rout for the top of the body. The six individual bridge saddles are mounted to a thick metal baseplate that also allows the saddles to intonate individually. At the rear of each of these saddles is a long, 3mm Allen screw, which tightens a small metal block inside, clipping off the ball end of the string. This block is what holds the string in the saddle. The original Floyd Rose tremolo arm is attached to the bridgeplate through a series of adjustable bushings that can be used to limit the amount of swing in the arm. Or, if you wanted, the arm could simply be tightened to stay in a fixed position. The arm itself was thicker than the Fender, which rendered it unbreakable. The bridgeplate assembly is bolted to a steel block, much like the Fender. When tuned to pitch, the strings are counterbalanced by springs in the rear cavity rout of the body. The whole assembly was originally designed to float above the surface of the body and pivot off two screws (on the bassand treble sides) that couple it with knife edges in the baseplate of the bridge.

Floyd Rose locking nut with retainer bar
Photo courtesy Dave's Guitar Shop
On the other end of this system is the nut. The strings are tuned in a normal fashion and clamped into the nut, which makes them stay in pitch. The key to making the Floyd Rose system work is in the nut, which replaced the conventional bone or plastic nut. The nut area is cut to form a shelf, and the Floyd Rose nut is bolted directly to the wood, either from behind or in front. There is a curvature to the surface of the nut the strings pass through. With the use of a retainer bar just past the nut, the strings maintain a flush contact to the nut surface, so when they get locked, they don’t go sharp. The locking mechanism on the nut consists of three steel pads (covering two strings each) that are tightened by three stout, 3mm Allen-head bolts.

The beauty of regular maintenance on the Floyd Rose system revolved around a single 3mm Allen wrench. This was the key to changing the strings and locking the nut. If the Floyd Rose is working properly, one 3mm Allen wrench is all you need to do the necessary maintenance—that, and a pair of wire cutters.

Because the strings are locked in both areas, a guitar player can now take guitar playing to extremes, like dive-bombing notes by forcing the bar down all the way to the body. Notes could also be raised a third, fifth, or even the seventh pitch above the picked note. Special effects like chirping, howling and squealing could be achieved by working the bar. Through all this musical abuse, the guitar would stay in tune.

The shortcomings of the Floyd Rose are minimal. Unlike the Fender bridge, the Floyd Rose bridge doesn’t have individual string height adjustments. This adjustment is important to follow the radius of the neck. The six saddles of the Floyd Rose have three compensated heights: the highest two are positioned for the G and the D strings, the middle height for the B and A strings, and the low-height saddles for the high and low E strings. Although this makes a good approximate arc, it is not conducive to accurately adjusting the action to match the radius of the neck. Shimming the individual saddles is the only solution to fine-tuning a radius match with the saddle heights.

In addition, breaking a string in the middle of a song rendered the guitar completely out of whack, because its balance would be off. Unlike the Fender, which could be adjusted to a non-floating position, the Floyd Rose was permanently injured until a break in the evening’s set when the broken string could be properly changed.

Early users of the Floyd Rose either used it successfully or had problems understanding it. As mentioned earlier, the key to making it work was in the locking nut. However, if the strings went sharp due to a maladjusted retainer bar at the nut, guitar players found themselves purposefully tuning strings flat to approximate correct tuning when the nut was locked. By the mid 1980s, a revised version of the Floyd Rose appeared on the market that remains in production today. It now features fine tuners at the bridge. It became easy to tune the strings, lock them at the nut and fine tune each string. One other design refinement was the tremolo arm’s tightening adjustment. It is now a screw-on collar on the arm itself, threaded to the bushing attached to the baseplate.

Hit page 5 for the conclusion, with a look at Kahler and other more recent developments...

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