The history of vibrato guitar bridges is long and complicated, but the ruler of the roost – at least until 1954 – was Bigsby. They’re still very popular and work efficiently enough within their limits, but they’re probably best suited to archtop guitars. The Bigsby B16 for Telecasters was introduced in 1953, but Leo Fender reckoned he could come up with something a bit more sophisticated for his new Stratocaster model. With help from Freddy Tavares, he nailed it… as usual.
Maybe Fender was trying to distance his design from Paul Bigsby’s by calling his new bridge a ‘tremolo’. It’s a misnomer, because ‘tremolo’ actually describes fluctuations in volume rather than pitch. Consequently, Fender amps have ‘vibrato’ channels when in fact they actually produce a tremolo effect. To avoid confusion we’ll just use the term ‘trem’.
Of course musicians loved Leo’s Stratocaster trem and it had a huge impact on music over the next decade or so, and Jimi Hendrix was the first to really explore its full potential. Behind that potential, however, lie a number of limits. The Strat trem is a mechanical device and, like all mechanical devices, it requires proper maintenance and careful adjustment to function correctly.
Setup information wasn’t readily available in the ’70s and ’80s so many players of that era threw in the towel and simply blocked off their trems, or turned to ‘locking trems’ from the likes of Floyd Rose and Kahler. At this stage the traditional Fender trem’s days seemed to be numbered, but once the novelty of two-octave dive-bombs had worn off, it became apparent that ‘locking trems’ created as many problems as they solved.
When Paul Reed Smith introduced his own trem in the mid-’80s, he was able to apply the lessons he’d learned from years of setting up Stratocasters. His design was surprisingly traditional and it demonstrated that Fender’s original design could be made to work reliably as long as the designer has thorough understanding of friction points, proper nut setup and spring adjustment.
How it works
The fundamental difference between the Bigsby units and Fender’s design is that the Fender bridge ‘floats’. Bigsbys work with fixed bridges and a roller bearing turns to raise or lower string tension – thereby altering pitch. Fender’s method counterbalances string tension with the pull of springs housed in a body cavity. The arm moves the entire bridge and the springs and strings supply the restorative forces needed to bring the bridge back into position.
What could possibly go wrong with such a simple system? Plenty, as it happens – but the problems are often integral to guitars in general rather than specific to trems. Unfortunately trem systems tend to expose issues that might otherwise go unnoticed. The primary cause has to be friction. Anything that impedes the free movement of the strings and the bridge will prevent the trem from returning to a state of equilibrium after use. The PRS trem was successful because it minimised or eliminated friction points wherever possible. You can do the same with your trem when performing routine maintenance.
- Cross head screwdrivers
- Allen key for saddles
- Guitar Tuner
- Wet & dry paper
- Chrome polish
1. Critical But Stable - Tremolo Workshop