When you’re looking to buy a new guitar you’ll notice that an awful lot of the guitars on the market today have a floating tremolo system, often called a Floyd Rose (after the name of the first bloke to make them). Whether it’s actually a Floyd Rose trem, or many of the other variants available on the market, you are presented with a certain set of consideration to think about before you know if you really need one or not.
What is a Trem For?
Back in the day (and I’m no historian) guitars like the Strat had tremolo systems installed. This is basically a bridge with a fulcrum and some springs to keep things in balance by acting as the opposite side of the see-saw to the strings. An arm is attached to the bridge, and by moving this arm you can pull the strings sharp, or push them flat, the “tremolo” effect. Actually, the name is wrong – tremolo is actually increasing and decreasing volume, not pitch (the correct name is actually a vibrato arm) but they were called tremolo systems regardless. Anyway, I digress. if you listen to The Shadows, you’ll hear Hank Marvin using his trem in a subtle warbling style that’s become quite familiar.
Enter the Double Locking Trem
As music progresses, artists such as Eddie Van Halen started to use the trem in a more aggressive manner. Dive bombing the strings until they were completely slack, and then pulling the bar up as far as it would go. The original Strat type trems were never really designed for this, and as such would go out of tune. EVH recalls much of his early guitar career was a battle to try and keep his guitars in tune.
Well, engineers love a challenge, and Mr Floyd Rose invented the ‘double locking’ tremolo system. This utilises a locking nut (essentially clamping the strings tight at the nut point) and string clamps that also lock the strings tightly in place at the bridge end. The trem fulcrum was also improved. Strat type trems simply pivoted on the screws that held the trem to the body, and they could do this because they weren’t screwed in all the way. Double locking trems use special posts that are inserted into the body, and the trem baseplate has knife edges that precisely sit on these posts. A well set up floating trem, with good strings that have been stretched in stays in tune great, even if you really abuse it. Thanks to Floyd, we’ve had a generation of whammy bar abusers who’s never really had to worry too much about going out of tune and all the woes that EVH had in the early days.
So Do I Need One? What Are The Benefits?
There is one main benefit to a floating trem, and another small benefit. This may sound stupid, but floating trems allow you to do wild string divebombs, subtle tremolo effects and everything in between without worrying too much about tuning. The smaller benefit is that trem systems like this have fine tuners on the bridge, which I certainly find most useful. And that, as they say, is just about it.
So, do you need to be able to do this kind of pitch bending stuff? If you’re in two minds, let’s look at the potential downsides of having a guitar with a floating trem. maybe that’ll help you decide if it’s worth it.
The Bad Points of having a Floating Trem / Floyd Rose
If your floating trem is not set up right you’ll have no end of problems trying to keep your guitar in tune, even if you stretch them in properly before tuning up. There are a lot of factors in setting up and balancing a trem, and if all of them aren’t spot on, wild trem use is going to put you out of tune – usually right in the middle of a song. A fixed bridge is MUCH less likely to cause issues like this.
Restringing & String Stretching
Changing strings on a floating trem is a big pain in the backside. When you remove the strings, the trem will drop into the body cavity and might even dislocate itself (depending on the spring arrangement, action and spring tension). After that, you have to unclamp the old strings with an allen key, cut new strings to length and reclamp the new ones in. Then you’ve got the laborious task of tuning the new strings up to pitch. get the low “E” in tune. okay. Now tune up the “A” string. What’s happened to the “E”? it’s gone massively flat. As you tighten each string, it pulls the trem forwards on it’s springs and causes all the other strings to go flat. As you can imagine, this means you can’t just tune each string once – more like five times before you’re close.
Then you’ve got to stretch the strings. If you don’t, they’ll stretch as you play, and go out of tune. If one string on a floating trem equipped guitar stretches and goes flat, all the rest will go a little sharp… So you stretch each string by pulling it away from the fretboard all along its length, and then checking it and retuning it until it refuses to go flat. You have to do this for all 6 or the strings. If it sounds like a major pain, that’s because it is.
Add to this another bonus: if you restring your guitar with a different type/gauge of string, you’ll almost certainly have to have the trem setup again, as the springs in the back will need adjusting to counterbalance the different amount of pull from the new strings.
String Wear & Tear
Once your trem is set up and your new strings are stretched in and ready to play, you’ll be all good. For a while. A lot of whammy bar use will eventually wear out your strings, and they will often break at the bridge end where they have been repeatedly bent back and forth, effectively causing metal fatigue. Heavier strings help, but nothing cures it properly. All this means that you’ll have to change strings more often, and as I’ve described already, changing strings if not a ten minute job.
If You Break a String
If you break a string mid song during a gig, you’re basically screwed. ALL of the other strings will go massively out of tune instantly, and there’s nothing you can do to fix it. If you have a guitar with a floating trem, you’ll also definitely need spare guitar if you’re playing live.
This happens because as we’ve said, the trem is the see-saw between the pull of the strings and the pull of the springs (in the guitar’s back cavity). If you break a string, suddenly there is less pull from the strings as a whole, and the springs start to “win”. This means the trem will drop into the body cavity (thus lowering the action…) and all of the rest of the strings will go sharp. You’ll find yourself quickly swapping guitars onstage – I’ve done it many times myself – and it’s no fun at all. Especially if your spare is still in its case…
Alternate Tuning / Downtuning
If you like being able to change the tuning of your guitars – perhaps to a fancy open tuning – or even if you just want to be able to set your guitar to Drop D, a trem equipped guitar will cause you major hassles. When you downtune a string, all the rest will go sharp as you upset the balance of the strings vs the springs. This can take ten minutes to sort out, and may need adjustment of the springs in the back of the guitar depending on what tuning you’re aiming for.
Many artists that use drop tunings have a separate guitar for this, as it’s much easier than attempting to retune your guitar mid set. Sure, if you’re playing in your bedroom you will have the time to do it, but it is still absolutely no fun.
Lastly, the more subtle issue of string bending with your fingers. When you bend a string, the floating trem system will cause all the others to go flat. A lot of the time in guitar solos, or parts of a song where you;re bending a string, you’ll only be playing one note at a time so this won’t matter so much. it will mean that you have to bend the string further to get the same effect, as you’re essentially fighting the trem – as you bend sharp you’ll pull the trem forwards, causing the string to go flat… You might have to bend three semitones to get two, if you see what I mean.
The issue really comes to light if you’re doing unison bends. I.e. playing two strings together, and bending the lower string up to the pitch of the higher string. As described above, the lower string will be harder to bend to pitch, and then as you do so the higher string will start to flatten in pitch and they’ll meet somewhere in the middle. Clapton would not be impressed.
Floyd Rose Downsides – A Summary
So there’s a massive list of reasons not to get a guitar with a floating trem. Basically, unless the style of music you play (or want to play) needs a trem, it’s probably going to be more hassle than it’s worth. That’s okay – there are tons of guitars available that have fixed bridges – even from the traditional “heavy metal” brands like Jackson or Ibanez so it’s not like you’re choosing from a drastically limited selection of instruments.
If you’ve already got a guitar with a floating trem system and you’re sick of the hassles, there are also ways to improve matters. You can essentially block the trem up, making it a fixed bridge, or there are gadgets that you can install in the back of the guitar that limit or affect the movement of the trem system, and alleviate some of the issues discussed above. Those, however, are for another blog on another day.