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The original Strat tremolo was designed to float, meaning that the tremolo''s rear edge is raised up off the body. Anyone who doubts that this is true should look at the patent drawings submitted by Leo Fender. That doesn''t necessarily mean that you need to set your bridge to float - set it how you like it.
Pros and Cons
A floating tremolo has both advantages and disadvantages. One advantage is that the pitch can be modulated both above and below zero, or pitch. Another is that the action of the trem is really nice, especially if you use a tremolo bar to sweeten up chords, like Stevie Ray Vaughan on "Lenny" and "Riviera Paradise."
A disadvantage of a floating trem is if one string breaks, the others go out of tune instantly. Also, when you bend one string, any droning open strings go flat. This is caused by the fact that the trem assembly is balanced between two forces: the strings pulling up on top, and the springs pulling down on the bottom. When a string breaks, the force on the top is reduced, upsetting the balance. When you bend a string, this pulls the bridge forward, again upsetting the balance, causing the other strings to go flat. There is a tool called a TremSetter that was designed to minimize this, but I feel it really changes the action of a nice floating trem. Unless you can''t live with this phenomenon, you might want to steer clear of TremSetters, and this article doesn''t cover setting one up.
If your guitar has a trem and you want it to float, you will want to lock it in place until all of the other adjustments are made, especially if it''s designed to float at an angle. This applies even if your bridge seems to be floating in the correct position. Trying to make the action and intonation adjustments while the bridge is floating can be an exercise in futility, so do yourself a favor and lock it in place. The easiest way to do this is to use a wedge.
By the way, the "correct position" referred to in the last paragraph will vary depending on the bridge type. The Fender vintage trem and American Standard (two-post) trem are designed to float with their front edge down and their rear edge up, with approximately 3/32" gap between the bridge and the body at the rear edge. Floyd Rose and some Wilkinson trems, on the other hand, are designed to float parallel to the face of the guitar. If your trem is different than the ones mentioned, you''ll need to research how it should be positioned.
Locking the Trem in Place
To lock your trem in place while you perform the other adjustments, first loosen the two screws that hold the claw in the rear of the guitar (ideally, you''ll want a #2 Phillips screwdriver with an 8" or longer shank). This claw holds the springs that apply force to the bottom of the trem - loosening its screws will allow the bridge''s rear edge to rise. You don''t need to loosen them to the point where the screws fall out, but loosen them several turns so the rear edge of the bridge is higher than it should be.
In the rear of the guitar, look for the gap between the trem block and the rear wall of the trem cavity - closest to the butt of the guitar - and push a small wedge into it. This wedge is something you can make out of wood [Editors note: furniture shims from your local hardware store are cheap and work well for this purpose]. It should be about ½" wide, 1.5" long, and taper from roughly 1/8" to 3/8" in thickness, although the thickness is not set in stone and you may need to alter it, based on how wide the gap is. As you push the wedge into the gap, you''ll see that it forces the rear edge of the trem back down towards the top of the guitar. Push it in until the bridge is positioned in its proper floating position.
Be sure to push the wedge in at the center of the block - that way you''ll be able to use the long screwdriver a little later to adjust the two claw screws without moving the wedge.
Now with the wedge in place, you''ll see that you can tune the guitar to pitch without the bridge pulling up since the wedge has locked the bridge in place. Take care during the rest of your adjustments to not dislodge the wedge, since it will be sticking out of the back of the guitar. Also be careful when holding the guitar, especially when setting it on a bench or table.
Now you''re ready to make other adjustments.
Acme Guitar Works sells electronic components for electric guitars, including complete, prewired assemblies. Visit them at acmeguitarworks.com.