trying to get a strat tremolo to act like a jazzmaster/jaguar vibrato and failing at it
This is going to be a guitar-nerdy article, but if you're a Strat owner, you'll appreciate this information due to the fact that very few people actually know how to set up a Strat tremolo system correctly.
Three things to get out of the way up front.
First, yes I know Fender incorrectly calls the Stratocaster vibrato system a tremolo system. While they do call the Jazzmaster/Jaguar the proper name of being a vibrato system, on the Strat, Fender always refers to it as tremolo, so that's how I'm going to refer to it in this bloggo.
Second, I hate the modern two-point tremolo system and much prefer the older six-screw, and I'll explain why later as I describe this process.
Third, I don't have photos or video for this bloggo. But if you have a Strat be it Squier or Fender, this should be pretty easy to follow along.
Right. With that said, here we go.
I totally love the way the Jazzmaster vibrato system works. It holds tune very nicely, and I wanted to get my Strat to act the same way.
The end result is that yes, I was able to get a Strat tremolo to act like a Jazzmaster vibrato, but on the Strat it ended up being fairly useless and I had to go back to "decking" the tremolo system again because the guitar kept going out of tune. With a lot of work, I could have achieved stable tuning, and I'll describe that later, but I just didn't feel like putting the work into it.
The two reasons why a Strat tremolo will never be as good as one on a Jazzmaster/Jaguar
I'm stating this now so you know this before I describe the process.
On a Strat, the strings do not roll over anything after the string saddle before the nut. On the Jazz/Jag, the string rolls over a bridge separate from the vibrato, and this is a key component as to why the Jazz/Jag vibrato system works so well. Without that rolling point, the Strat constantly goes out of tune at the nut.
And to note, for proper Jazz/Jag vibrato to work, you are NOT supposed to stiffen the bridge in any way. It is supposed to be loose and rock slightly whenever the Jazz/Jag vibrato is used. All a stiffened bridge does is make strings break faster and makes strings go out of tune just like on a Strat when vibrato is used.
Second, the Strat tremolo arm is just too small. Yeah, I know, this sounds dumb, but that dinky arm a.k.a. "whammy bar" is too short to have any real control for slow bends and bends where you want to do flutter-style tremolo. The significantly larger Jazz/Jag vibrato arm on the other hand gives you much more control over bends. You can even do 1/4-semitone bends with no problem at all, which is basically impossible to do with a Strat tremolo arm because again, it's just too damned short.
First step: Bridge screws (setting up the float part 1)
Okay, so.. getting a Strat to do slow tremolo bends. Not an easy task no matter what kind of Strat it is.
The first step is setting up the bridge screws properly.
Detune all the strings so they're loose, or alternatively do this when all the strings are off.
Take off the back plate, loosen the tremolo claw screws, then take the claw springs out completely and set them aside for now.
Loosen all 6 bridge screws so they're sticking up. You don't have to take them all the way out, but you do have to loosen them quite a bit. You'll understand why in a moment.
Here comes the part where you'll probably get confused, but I'll explain it anyway.
Put your finger under the tremolo block and push up. You don't have to push hard. Just enough so that the bridge is sticking up to the point where it's against the bridge screw heads and can't be pushed any further.
A general rule of thumb is to make your bridge float at a maximum height of 1/8th of an inch. No, you don't have to be precise about it. Just take your best guess.
While pushing on the tremolo block to give it tension, tighten down the outer two bridge screws, as in the screws next to the 1 string and 6 string. When the angle of the bridge is around 1/8th of an inch away from the body, and both outer screws are at the same height as far as you can tell, then tighten down the remaining 4 bridge screws to equal height of the outer screws.
This is the point where I complain about the two-point tremolo system before continuing.
One would think that a two-point would be easier to do this with since there are only two screws instead of six. It's not easier. The screws are much more difficult to turn, requiring a larger tool to do it with, and it is really easy for the screwdriver to slip out and scrrraatttch, you just put a nice big, nasty scratch in your guitar body. This doesn't happen on 6-screw because the screws are smaller, easier to deal with and have a Philips head instead of slotted.
If you ever see a Strat that has a big scratch right next to the bridge, now you know exactly how it happened.
Seriously, Fender... slotted bridge screws? Really? Would it have been that much of an issue to put in nice big Philips head screws there? I guess so.
Right, so you've tightened down all six screws, and now when you push up on the tremolo block, the bridge only raises 1/8th of an inch above the body. The first step is complete.
Second step: Tremolo claw springs and claw screws (setting up the float part 2)
For proper control of the floating bridge, three claw springs are required. Every Squier and Fender comes with 3.
Would 5 make a difference? Not really. The only thing putting 5 springs on does is add in more tension and spring noise. Having 3 is fine.
If you have no idea how you should set up your springs, just put one on either side of the block, and the third one right in the middle.
Now comes the claw screws. For now, you tighten these, but just enough to hold the claw springs so they don't fall out. We'll come back to this later.
Third step: Tune to C#, adjust claw springs again
The reason you tune to C# is because you're going to be tightening the claw springs, which will pitch up all the strings.
Tune up to C#. Don't worry about being in perfect tune because you're about to put all your strings out-of-tune anyway.
Tighten or loosen the claw springs enough so that the bridge floats and doesn't touch the body.
After that, tune up all strings to standard E. The bridge may raise a bit when you do this. Or it may not.
What height should the float be when strings are tuned to standard E pitch? This is another answer you'll probably get confused by, but again, I'll explain it.
If you set your maximum possible float to 1/8th-inch, the float should rest at half that height, as in 1/16th-inch.
The reason for this? So you can bend in both directions, either up-pitch or down-pitch.
And the second reason is so you don't put any extra stress on the bridge screws. If you set your float to 1/8-inch and the bridge is floating at 1/8-inch, the bridge screws are literally being pulled, and that's bad. When the float is set to where it's not at maximum height, not only do you get up or down pitching, but the bridge screws don't have any extra stress placed on them.
Fourth step: Test tremolo system
Your strings are up to pitch, the bridge is floating and you're ready to rock at this point.
The first thing you'll notice is that it takes a lot less effort to bend strings with the tremolo bar now; this is normal.
The second thing you'll notice is your strings will probably go out-of-tune instantly, requiring you to re-stretch them a bunch of times until they stop going out-of-tune.
The third thing you'll notice is that if the strings go out-of-tune with a downward pitch of the tremolo, you can usually get them back in tune with a slight upward pitch (as in give a little jerk up on the tremolo bar and that will put the string back in tune... usually).
The pain-in-the-ass part is that you'll find that the tremolo system is either too loose for your playing style, too tight, has too much float, or not enough float.
Loose or tight is an easy fix, just adjust the claw springs.
Too much or too little float on the other hand requires you to detune all the strings and adjust the bridge screw heights - again.
Yeah. Fun, fun, fun.
Fifth step: Adjust your playing style and enjoy the "kinks"
Let's say for the moment you like using a Strat with a floating bridge. Well, you will have to change your playing style.
If you rest your picking hand on the bridge at all, you will have to stop doing that. Why? Because every time you do, the strings will pitch up slightly. You will have to learn not to rest your palm there anymore.
You will also notice that no matter what you do, your strings will make "kink" noises periodically when using the tremolo, especially on the unwound G, B and treble E strings. And no, using "nut sauce" will not cure this problem, nor will better tuners cure it, nor will different nut material, roller nut, etc. No matter what, you're gonna get the kinks and that's just the way it is.
The reason kinks happen is for the same reason I said above. After the string saddle, there is nothing for the strings to roll over. So what happens is that the strings slide in the nut slots at the other end of the neck instead. When you do that, it's kink, kink, kink.
The only way not to get kinking noises is to use the tremolo softly, and also have a very high float. As in greater than 1/8-inch (but not so much that your floating bridge is at some ridiculously high angle).
Not for me it isn't.
If you want a vibrato system that's designed for those great-sounding slow bends, you have to use a Jazzmaster, Jaguar or something with a Bigsby system on it.
However, if you're determined enough, you could get a Strat to keep stable tuning with a floating bridge, but it requires painstaking setup and probably a drastic change in your playing style to make it happen...
...but you still have to deal with that small tremolo arm. Yes, there are places where you can buy a longer one, but that's just a waste of money.
One of the better ways to do slow bends with a floating bridge on a Strat is to not use the tremolo arm at all. Take your picking hand and "palm down" push-push-push style for a slow flutter-style vibrato, or alternatively lightly grab the back of the bridge and pull-pull-pull for the same effect. As to which one would work better for you, that all depends on which you think feels better when you do it.
Things that will legitimately help with tuning stability on a floating Strat bridge
Use the right saddle upgrade
There is no rolling point for the string to travel on after the string saddle, and the only way to get one on a Strat is by using roller saddles. For a floating bridge, this is the best possible upgrade you can get because now the strings finally have something to roll on.
Will they roll as good as they would on a Jazzmaster/Jaguar or Bigsby? Nope. But it's a very good step in the right direction. When the strings roll at the bridge, that means they are sliding less at the nut, and that's where the tuning advantage comes in.
And to note, roller saddles are worthless on Strats where you don't use the tremolo system; they are only for players that do use the tremolo, and often. If you don't use the tremolo on your Strat, don't get roller saddles.
Use a high-mass tremolo block
The bigger block adds extra weight, and that does make the tremolo arm easier to control because there's more resistance.
There is a drawback, however. This does add weight to the guitar, enough to the point where you will notice it because it's a dense hunk of steel. If you feel your Strat is at "just right" weight right now, putting in the high-mass block may force you to switch over to a padded guitar strap to accommodate for the extra weight when playing the guitar standing.
This kind of setup is something Fender traditionally calls a "big block" setup, because yeah, the block is big.
Use a thinner pick
Strats with floating bridges have the tendency for chords to go out-of-tune slightly if you bang the strings too hard no matter what string thickness you use.
You could try different strings. But the easier solution is just to switch to a more flexible pick, so no matter how hard you bang the strings, they won't vibrate so much that they "waver" out-of-tune slightly for heavy-handed chord playing.
Easy solution: Buy a Jazzmaster, Jaguar or a guitar with a Bigsby on it
Even with all the stuff I just mentioned, in the end you need a guitar better suited to slow bends. And the Strat just isn't it. It's a fine guitar, but just doesn't do slow bends without major setup changes and having you significantly change the way you play.
You're better off just getting a Jazz, Jag or a Bigsby-equipped axe.