When most manufacturers produce guitars with Fender-style vibrato tailpieces (Fender traditionally calls them “tremolo” bridges, though they’re technically vibrato units), they set them to “float,” which means the bridge does not rest flat against the guitar top; rather, it sits at a slight angle that allows the pitch to be raised as well as lowered. Adjusting the angle at which the tailpiece floats is simply a matter of adjusting the tension of the springs in the back of the guitar. (Sometimes, there is a cover over the springs that must be removed in order to adjust them.) These springs counterbalance the pull of the guitar’s strings and return the tailpiece to its resting position after you have used it.
To adjust spring tension, turn the two screws in the back of the guitar that secure the “claw” plate, which holds the loop end of the springs. As you turn the screws in or out, you will need to retune the guitar. Go slowly mdash; a turn or so at a time for each screw, retuning after each adjustment. A long-shafted screwdriver (Phillips type is almost universally used here) makes this easier. Be careful not to damage the finish on the back of the guitar with the handle or the shaft of the screwdriver.
Remember that, as you make your adjustments, it’s all a balancing act. The strings pull on the bridge, the springs pull on the vibrato block in the back of the guitar. These two elements fight against each other, with the front edge of the bridge and its two or six mounting screws acting as the fulcrum. Take you time, retune often, and don’t be afraid to fool around with settings; the worst that can happen is that you’ll break a string or have to return the guitar to its earlier setup. (For this reason, it’s wise to make note of the starting points for all the screws and the original angle of the bridge.)
- Fender sets the tailpieces on factory guitars so that the back of the tailpiece is 1/8″-3/16″ off the body. The greater the angle, the more the pitch can be pulled up with the vibrato arm.
- Some players prefer to tighten the tension springs down so that the bridge sits flat against the body. This allows only downward pitch bends, but some players feel it improves resonance and sustain. It also keeps the guitar in tune if a string breaks, since the springs can’t pull the bridge down in response to the reduced string tension (the bridge is already flat against the body and can’t be pulled down further).
- Some players – Eric Clapton being a notable example – prefer to block their vibrato tailpiece with a piece of wood so that it is flat against the top and can’t be used to change the pitch of the strings. Players do this because they feel it creates stable tuning as well as a stable feel. It also provides improved resonance, sustain, and tone.
- If you change string gauges (or sometimes even brands), then you will likely have to adjust the angle of the bridge to compensate for the different string tension.
- If you adjust the angle of the vibrato, then you should double check the guitar’s action and intonation to ensure they have not been affected. If you increase the angle of the bridge, then the action will rise slightly, and the string length will be slightly shorter. Likewise, if you reduce the angle of the bridge, then the action will be slightly lower and the string length slightly longer.
- Fender-style tremolos have room for five springs in the back of the guitar, though most ship from the factory with just three springs installed (which works fine in most cases). If you don’t like the “feel” of the tailpiece, then you can experiment with adding one or two more springs, then adjusting the claw screws to re-balance the tremolo. Some players also change the points on the claw where the spring loops are attached. There are five loops, one for each spring. If the center spring runs to the center claw point, then the outside springs can go either to the two outside points or to the two points adjacent to the center point. There are also five holes in the vibrato block, where the springs are anchored. You can also experiment with moving the springs among these holes; anchoring the springs to different points will cause slight changes in tension and feel. If you use four springs, then typically the center anchor points on the block and the claw are unused – though this isn’t an enforceable law. Experiment to see if moving the springs around works better for you, particularly if you use an “unbalanced” string set (light top/heavy bottom, for example).
- Some sources suggest that tremolo springs wear out with age, though I haven’t known this to be a major issue. If you’re a heavy tremolo user and decide to replace the old springs in your guitar, then be sure to replace all of them at once to maintain stability and even tension – this will help prevent tuning issues.