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Guitar Technology

Reviews & Techniques
Published September 2007

TECHNIQUE

Setting Up Stratocaster & Similar Floating Tremolos

Leo Fender's original fulcrum tremolo system comes in for a lot of unfair criticism from some players, who claim that it makes the guitar impossible to keep in tune. While any tremolo-equipped guitar is likely to a be a hint temperamental on the tuning front, most tuning issues associated with the Fender tremolo actually have nothing to do with the tremolo mechanism at all. The problem is that when you use a tremolo arm the whole string is either stretched or relaxed, which means that it slides through the nut and any string 'T's that are fitted. As described in previous issues of Sound On Sound, any friction at these points will cause the string to 'hang up', with the result that it doesn't return correctly to pitch once the arm is released, and badly-cut nut slots that pinch the strings make this far worse. My preferred solution is to use Graphtech nuts and to lubricate the underside of my string 'T's with Big Bends Nut Sauce. I occasionally adopt the belt-and-braces approach of putting Nut Sauce in the slots of a Graphtech low-friction nut. You can also use vaseline, chapstick, powdered graphite or a mixture of graphite and vaseline. Locking machine heads also help, though threading the strings on conventional heads so that the first turn locks back on itself is almost as good. However, we've covered all this in detail before, so this month I'm going to take a closer look at the tremolo mechanism itself.

In Leo Fender's original tremolo design — apparently based on the spring mechanism used in bathroom scales — the springs are accessible via a panel on the rear of the Stratocaster.In Leo Fender's original tremolo design — apparently based on the spring mechanism used in bathroom scales — the springs are accessible via a panel on the rear of the Stratocaster.Fender's original design was apparently based on the spring mechanism used in bathroom scales, with the tremolo bridge free to pivot and held in its neutral position by an equal balance of string tension on one side, and coil springs on the other. In the Stratocaster, the coil springs are located in the rear of the body, under the backplate, and it is essential that these springs don't touch any other parts, such as the woodwork or the backplate itself. Their tension is adjusted by the simple expedient of tightening or slackening the two woodscrews that hold the spring anchor claw to the body, and you'll note that a ground wire is attached to the claw to provide a ground path for the strings, via the springs and bridge assembly.

If you don't want to use the tremolo at all, simply fit all five springs and tighten the claw screws so the tremolo bridge is pulled back hard against the body. This way the springs still contribute to the tone but the tremolo arm can only be used to flatten the pitch, not sharpen it, and even then only if you push very hard. Some players even jam a wooden block in the back of the tremolo cavity so that it can't move at all.

If, on the other hand, you only want to use the tremolo to flatten the pitch, but you want it to be more usable, use two or three springs (depending on your string gauge) and set the spring tension so that when the guitar is tuned to its normal pitch, the tremolo is once again pulled down fast against the body, but not so tight as to make it difficult to move. The advantage of this setup is that you can do double bends without the other strings going flat and the tuning will stay OK if you break a string.

These two options are simple, but if you want to set up the tremolo so that you can push the notes both sharp and flat, the setup is a little more involved. The traditional Fender trem is held to the body using six woodscrews, whereas the modern US Strat uses two posts with V grooves, in which sits the knife-edge of the tremolo. If your instrument uses the woodscrew method, remove all the strings, remove the six screws, then use a small pair of pliers to disengage the springs from the rear of the tremolo block, so that you can lift the tremolo assembly out. Clean the guitar surface around the area where the six screws go, and make sure there are no wood splinters or other obstructions there. Then clean the bottom of the tremolo, smear on a little vaseline as a lubricant beneath the screw holes, and refit the unit (but don't hook the springs back in yet). The woodscrews act as a pivot, so things need to be just loose enough that the tremolo can move far enough in the 'down' position to allow the metal tremolo block to go as far as it can before it hits the woodwork of the tremolo cavity. I tend to adjust all the screws by holding the tremolo arm down, then tightening the screws one at a time until I can just feel them pulling on the tremolo, then I back them off a quarter of a turn. Some guitar techs actually leave the middle four screws out, as the outside two are enough to hold the tremolo but, although this lessens any friction at the pivot point, I've never found it necessary. If you have a two-post trem, then you can skip the previous section and simply check that the knife-edges are clean, undamaged and slightly lubricated with vaseline.

You should also check that the tremolo block that holds the strings doesn't bind on either side of the body cavity. If it does, you may need to ease the fit slightly by sanding away a little of the inside of the cavity using a Dremel power tool (or a similar device). Now you can hook the springs back on. Your next decision is how far up in pitch you want to be able to bend the strings using the trem. If you just want a gentle wobble, then the rear of the bridge plate only needs to be 1/16 of an inch or so above the body, but if you hanker after those Jeff Beck-style harmonics tricks, where you can bend them up by a tone and half, then you'll need to float the rear of the bridge up to 3/16 of an inch off the body. With the bridge tilted up this far, you'll probably need to lower the action by adjusting the bridge saddle-height screws slightly to compensate, but that's easily done. Just make sure that the saddle heights follow the fingerboard radius (most modern Strats have a 9.5-inch radius fingerboard), so that the action is consistent across all six strings. It is normal to have the action higher on the lower strings than the higher ones, but they should still follow the same curve as the fingerboard — you can check this using a home-made cardboard or plastic radius gauge.

A wooden or plastic wedge can be used to set the float height for the bridge. The tension of the springs keeps it held in position under the rear of the bridge.A wooden or plastic wedge can be used to set the float height for the bridge. The tension of the springs keeps it held in position under the rear of the bridge.One of the simplest ways to set the float height for the bridge is to use a wooden or plastic wedge, temporarily pushed under the rear of the bridge to hold it the desired distance from the body. The tension of the springs will hold it there. Fit new strings, tune the guitar to pitch, then reduce the spring tension by gradually unscrewing the two woodscrews, holding the spring claw in place until the temporary wedge is no longer trapped by the springs. You should now have the tremolo correctly balanced so that, at normal pitch, the bridge floats exactly where you want it. Do a few test bends to ensure you have the desired range and then make any final adjustments to the action that need doing. Of course, the down side of a floating tremolo is that if you break a string mid-song, all five remaining strings go sharp so there's no way you can carry one — you just have to do a quick change to your backup guitar.

Most Fender tremolo arms screw in and they have a tendency to work loose. Some models originally came with a small, stiff coil spring at the bottom of the hole where the arm screws in, but these tend to fall out and get lost. On other models there's no bottom to the hole so you can't fit a spring at all. If your arm cavity is closed at the bottom, buy a new spring from your guitar store but, before fitting it, put a blob of silicone bathroom sealer on the bottom. Once this has dried, force the spring into the hole and the silicone rubber blob will keep it from falling out. Where you can't fit a spring, you can wrap the thread of the arm in PTFE plumber's tape, but this needs to be renewed every few gigs so it is worth keeping a roll in your guitar case.

Here's one final tip. Sometimes you'll hear a slight crackle through your amplifier when you move the tremolo arm, which is due to the poor electrical ground contact made between the tremolo block and the springs. A squirt of contact enhancer, such as Deoxit, on both ends of the springs improves this significantly, and the same product can be used to ease crackly jack sockets too. Paul White

Line 6 Pocket POD

Amp & Effects Modelling Processor

When the POD first came on the scene, we were all taken aback by how many amp-modelling and effect features the manufacturers could cram into such a small box, but the new baby of the range, the Pocket POD, makes the regular model look decidedly bloated. Though it has less editability than its big brothers, the Pocket POD makes up for it in instant gratification, as it comes with over 300 custom presets that you can browse by style, band or song, many created by big-name US guitar players. Though you can use an optional 9V power supply, the Pocket POD is normally battery-powered from four AAA batteries, and because it is little larger than a typical tuner, you could literally put it in your pocket. Plugging in a guitar cable turns it on. By way of applications, you can wig out using headphones, plug it into an amp or PA system for live performance, or feed an MP3 or CD player through its aux input to play along. As if that weren't enough, you can hook the thing up to a Mac or PC using the built-in, camera-style USB port (for control only, not audio) and do some serious tonal editing via the freely downloadable Vyzex software. You also get access to Customtone.com, where you can download over 3000 presets created by guitarists from around the world, all free of charge.

The diminutive Pocket POD is perfect for guitar models on the move but is equally at home in the studio.The diminutive Pocket POD is perfect for guitar models on the move but is equally at home in the studio.The compromise that brings the cost and size down is that relatively little editing can be done directly from the front panel, where the control set has been reduced to a four-way cursor pad, four knobs and two buttons. The four knobs normally control Drive, Effects Level, Delay Level and Channel Level, and you can use the Save button as a shift key to access bass, middle and treble EQ, as well as reverb level. The effect settings are fixed at whatever happen to be in the preset you're editing (reverb is always available in addition to the selected effect), though you can also change the delay time or mod rate where applicable by using the right-hand Tap button. This button also provides access to the tuner — just press and hold and your tuner-sized box becomes a tuner. The Save button accesses 124 user memories, where you can save edited patches.

A one-line display shows the patch names (the backlight stays on for just a few moments to save battery power). The presets are based around 32 amp models, 16 cabinet models and 16 effect types. Most of the big-name classics are emulated, as well as the popular Line 6 specials. As with the larger PODs, the Line 6 AIR modelling technology adds in the mic and room characteristics, and this can be varied using the editing software. All the usual modulation effects, including rotary speaker, are available too, as well as a compressor, delay, and two types of reverb (Hall or Spring), so the sounds that can be achieved are comparable with what you'd expect from something like a POD 2. There's also a noise gate and a wah-wah that can be accessed via MIDI from the connected computer, though you can also set it as a fixed EQ/filter using the editing software, and use it as part of a patch that way.

Using the Vymax editing software, you can build patches from scratch, selecting your own combination of amp, cabinet and effects types, and can adjust any parameters as you wish. You can then name your patch and save any number of custom patches on your computer. Your custom banks can be transferred to the Pocket POD, though you can also manage the patch list and move patches around first if you'd like to see them in different locations. There aren't as many options as with a regular POD, but, other than being mono, the sound quality seems very comparable.

Because of its 'Fisher Price' looks, it would be easy to dismiss the Pocket POD as a bit of a toy, but that would be quite wrong — it is an excellent recording tool that (at £81) costs less than, and out-performs, many plug-in amp emulations (of course, it also avoids platform compatibility issues). Even non-guitar players can use it to create some great keyboard or processed vocal sounds. It is perfect for practice on the move and it's also worth keeping one in your guitar case, so that if your amp breaks down, you can simply plug the Pocket POD into the PA. As with the bigger PODs, the output mode can be set to Direct (for PA or recording) or Amp (for use with guitar amps, or straight power amps connected to open- or closed-back cabinets). This means you can use it in front of pretty much any amp to extend your range of sounds, and there's even a clip on the back that will fix it to your belt or guitar strap to keep it safe. Let's face it, the Pocket POD is so endearingly cute that you just have to have one! Paul White

SUMMARY

POD-quality sounds, albeit with less editability and in mono, from an affordable processor that's around the same size as a bar of soap! Battery power makes the Pocket POD great for practice on the beach or in the garden.

Line 6 +44 (0)1327 302700www.line6.com

Published September 2007