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How to set up your Stratocaster trem

How to set up your Stratocaster floating trem
How to set up your Stratocaster floating trem. From vintage trems to modern locking systems and everything in between

In this step-by-step guide, I will show you the basics of setting up your Strat’s floating tremolo. It will work on most major brands of tremolos. My guitar collection is quite extensive, so it is all based on first-hand experience and should help you set up your guitar’s floating trem system.

How to set up your guitar’s floating tremolo

First, identify the floating bridge on your guitar. This system will work for a Stratocaster and any guitar with that style of bridge, whether vintage or modern.

  • Vintage 6-screw Fender-style
  • PRS floating
  • Modern 2-point Fender
  • Floyd-Rose / Ibanez Edge /Schaller double locking systems

Tremolo or Vibrato?

Even though the effect produced by a floating bridge is called vibrato in musical terms, Mr. Leo Fender used the term tremolo for the bridge on the Stratocaster guitar in 1954, and the confusion has persisted ever since.

Therefore, keeping with tradition, I will use the word ‘trem’ throughout this tutorial.

Fender Vintage Style Trem with 6 screws
Fender Vintage Style Trem with 6 screws

Get the right tools for the job

Using the correct tools for the job is extremely important. Otherwise, there is a huge risk of damaging parts of your guitar’s bridge, which can be expensive to repair or replace.

You will also need a fresh set of strings, as old strings will not provide the required tension and will cause problems while calibrating.

Make sure that your workplace is uncluttered so that you can get the job done properly.

Floyd Rose locking floating trem system
Floyd Rose locking floating trem system

Tools Required

  • Guitar Tuner
  • Adjustment Hex Keys
  • Screwdrivers – correct size for your trem
  • Post It Notes
  • Fresh Set of Guitar Strings
  • Wire Cutters
  • String Winder

Optional Extras

  • Sewing Machine Oil
  • Wooden Cocktail sticks
  • Nut Sauce or guitar nut lubricant 
  • Pencil
  • Fine needle files
  • Brasso
  • Ball of String
  • PTFE/plumber’s tape

Floating Trem Setup

Here is my preferred process to set up two-point floating trem systems on all my guitars, and it works pretty well.

If the trem system uses more than two trem posts (the screws or little metal barrels that keep the bridge in place, see image) like PRS trem systems and vintage Fender-style six-screw bridges, then all six of the screws used to hold the trem in place need to be at the same height. If these are not all at the same height, it will cause issues with your tuning.

Fender’s vintage trem systems aren’t quite as picky but don’t truly float as well as modern trem systems.

When working with a Fender-style 6-screw trem, some people will take out the middle four screws or raise them slightly, effectively converting the 6-point trem into a 2-point trem.

Keep in mind that raising the middle screws can sometimes cause problems, as the baseplate of the bridge can get wedged into an odd position on the screw threads and make the bridge wonky.

Guitar Tremolo working parts
Guitar Tremolo working parts

I’ll break down the process into three parts:

  • Checking for mechanical faults
  • Adjusting intonation
  • Floating the trem

Check your mechanicals

Before changing out your strings, the first thing you will need to do is to look for any mechanical issues. Use your ears and sense of touch to feel for any clunks or notches in your guitar’s trem system.

If a component doesn’t feel smooth to the touch when using the trem, this can be an issue that needs to be addressed before going any further.

Check your trem for any mechanical faults
Check your trem for any mechanical faults

Common Issues

Common mechanical issues are loose tremolo arms, notches on trem posts, or worn blades on the tremolo baseplates. If a trem arm is loose, I often use PTFE, sometimes called plumber’s tape. Just wrap a small amount around the trem arm and re-insert it. This will usually do the trick. Of course, the tremolo arm has to be correct and correspond to the type of bridge installed. For example, you might have trouble using a Floyd Rose arm with a PRS bridge.

With damaged trem posts, you are typically better off buying a new set. Trying to fix them once they’re notched is usually not worth the trouble.

Sorting out worn blades (the part of the baseplate of the bridge on a 2-point trem bridge that makes contact with the trem posts) is a relatively easy fix. You can re-sharpen most trem blades using a good quality needle or a small file to remove any burrs in the metal.

Ibanez Edge locking trem
Ibanez Edge locking trem

New strings

Once you’ve sorted out any mechanical issues, you want to put a fresh set of strings of your chosen gauge on the guitar. They need to be fully stretched in and tuned to pitch.

This all sounds obvious, but if you don’t follow these simple steps, then you are heading down the wrong path and you’re going to have a bad time. Make sure you know what string gauge and tuning you want to use before you start setting up the trim. Otherwise, you will need to set up the trem all over again.

Now, on to the intonation

Now that you have a fresh set of strings, you can go to the next step: adjust your guitar’s intonation for each string. I know a lot of players get a bit stressed out about it, but it’s pretty simple.

The intonation refers to the guitar playing the correct notes across the fretboard. It needs to be adjusted for each string and can be done by moving the bridge saddles either forward or backward.

Here’s how: Tune the lowest open string to pitch and then play it, or, for a more accurate reading, play the 12th fret harmonic (barely touch the string over the 12th fret and pluck it). Now, depress the string at the 12th fret and compare the two pitches. It’s a good idea to use your guitar tuner to check the tuning, as it will provide more accuracy than an untrained ear.

If the fretted note is flat, make the string shorter by adjusting the bridge saddle towards the neck. If the fretted note is sharp, adjust the saddle back away from the neck. A good trick to remember which way to adjust can be memorised by this phrase: “flat/forward, sharp/back”. When adjusting the saddle, it’s good practice to detune the string. A string tuned to pitch has a lot of tension and you could end up ruining the intonation screw.

Retune the string, then re-check the guitar’s intonation and repeat the process for all six strings.

Lubricate

If your guitar trem system is dusty and dirty, then you should clean it now using a soft cloth and remove any old grease or lubricant that could cause buildups of dirt and residue.

A floating trem is a mechanical system and will require regular cleaning and lubrication. I use sewing machine oil, which you can buy online for very little money. I put a small amount onto any moving parts, to help relieve any friction.

You can also use a product like Big Bends Nut Sauce in the nut slots and string trees which your strings pass over or under. Again, this helps relieve any friction points, which will help with tuning stability. 

Nut Sauce
Nut Sauce

Ghosts in the trem

If you hear any pings when using your trem system, it might be because a string gets caught somewhere in the nut or string trees. You may need to clean, lubricate, or even re-cut your guitar’s nut.

I use a piece of frayed string and a little Brasso to polish the nut slots on my guitars. The Brasso has a tiny amount of abrasive polish, and the string, when unraveled and frayed, acts like a thin string-shaped polishing cloth.

Brasso
Brasso

You can also use pencil lead to lubricate nut slots since it is made out of graphite, which acts as a lubricant for strings.

However, I recommend products like Nut Sauce over the graphite dust from a pencil, as it tends to stay in place and work better. I also have my mixed graphite dust with petroleum jelly (Vaseline) concoction that I apply to the nut slots with a cocktail stick. It works well but can be a little messy!

Balancing your tremolo

Now you’re ready to get floating!

Getting a floating trem to work correctly is all about balance. You are attempting to make the springs in the rear cavity of the guitar counterbalance the tension of the guitar’s strings when they are tuned to pitch.

Balance your trem springs

Adjust  your trem springs to counterbalance the tension of the guitar’s strings

Post It Notes

One challenge is to get the trem height precisely right. In an ideal world, as far as modern 2-point tremolos or PRS-style trem bridges are concerned, your trem baseplate should parallel your guitar’s body. Your trem posts will set the overall height of your trem, and you can then fine-tune it using the bridge saddles (or shims on a Floyd Rose-style locking trem system).

Vintage-style bridges will be at a slight angle, as they are not truly floating. The back is raised 3-6mm, while the front is making contact with the body. Some players prefer these trems to rest flush with the guitar body, others prefer them half-floating, and others still block off the trem entirely.

Adjusting the tension in the springs in the tremolo cavity at the back of the guitar makes all this possible.

Post-It Notes

To set up the height, I use Post-It Notes. You place enough in the gap to keep the back of the trem baseplate in position whilst you tune up your strings.

I use Post It Notes to get my trem height where I want it

A 6-point Fender trem. I use Post-It Notes to get my trem height just so.

Now, string up your guitar with a fresh set of strings

Remember, you must fully stretch out your guitar strings and re-tun until they hold their tuning. This procedure will possibly lift your trem up into the air. If this happens, you will need to screw in the back claw that adjusts the trem springs to counteract the string tension.

You aim for the strings and the trem springs to reach an equilibrium. They should both assert the same amount of tension to hold the trem where you want it. Again, this is why you need to use fresh and fully stretched strings. Older strings won’t hold their tension too well, and all the grime and dust make them unreliable.

If you are unsure how high your bridge should be floating off the body of the guitar, a quick internet search for some online dimensions and specifications on the model of the guitar bridge. That will usually lead you to the manufacturer’s recommended measurements.

You often need to repeat the tuning, string stretching, and spring adjustment a few times to get the perfect balance. This is normal, so expect a few rounds of the process. Guitar strings will stretch and you need to account for this stretching in time that occurs.

Locking Trem
Locking Trem

Locking Trem Systems

With a Floyd Rose or Ibanez Edge-style locking tremolo system, the process is almost the same as above. The key difference is that you must lock the nut down to finish the process. 

Once you do this, you might find that your guitar has gone slightly sharp. This can mean that the tension bar above the locking nut wasn’t low enough, so the strings went up in pitch as you locked the nut.

To avoid this, ensure the tension bar is low enough to keep the strings in place. It is the bar with two screws placed behind the locking nut, and its job is to keep the string tension where you want it.

If your guitar’s tuning is only slightly flat or sharp across all the strings, you can tune the whole guitar by adjusting the spring tension from the string claw in the rear trem cavity. Tighten it to sharpen the strings’ pitch, or loosen it to lower the pitch of them all.

This can occur if the locking trem system isn’t quite balanced and can save you from using your fine tuners on the rear of your locking trem to fix the minor tuning inconsistency.  

Things to watch out for

Many things can cause an issue for guitar trem systems, including changes in temperature, old strings (or bad strings), and worn parts.

Keep your guitar bridge clean, oiled, and free from dust and dirt. Ideally, store your guitar in a case or a gig bag to avoid sudden changes in temperature that can affect your tuning.

As I mentioned, if a part of your guitar bridge has worn out, you must replace it. If it is a vintage guitar, then keep the old worn-out parts. Often, old trem springs can be an issue, and these are cheap and easy to replace, as are new bridge saddles and screws, etc.

I own many guitars and have maintained my trem systems for over 35 years.

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