The Floyd Rose tremolo system. I remember when I was fixing equipment and doing guitar set ups, I got a lot of Floyd Rose equipped guitars coming in for setups. People seem to either be afraid of dealing with one or just don’t want to. Through my years of playing with these trems and from working on them, I’ve learned a thing or two about them. Hopefully something I tell you is new to you or will help you to understand how these tremolos work.
First, you may ask yourself “Why do I want a Floyd Rose system on a guitar?” Ultimately, that question will be answered by you. But there are a few pros to having one. The first is using it as an effect for your music. You can dive, pull up, do a wobbling type sound, whatever your mind can come up with. Another advantage, and possibly the most well known, is the ability to stay in tune for weeks at a time. I use my guitar for hours every day and it stays in tune about 2 weeks while my Washburn with Grover tuning machines needs a retune after about 3 or 4 days.
The reason Floyd Rose trems and their licensed units work so well is because they are locked down in two places, hence the term double locking moniker they carry. The strings are locked at the bridge and also at the nut. The reason they stay in tune so well is because the strings are locked at a certain length. They can’t change their length when locked down. You can pull on them to raise pitch or loosen them to lower pitch, but the actual length of the string from locked saddle to the nut lock doesn’t change. That’s why they work as they do. On a normal guitar, the strings slide over the nut and bridge and gradually lose their tuning.
However, there are noticeable downsides to a Floyd Rose. Broken strings render a guitar useless when it’s equipped with a Floyd. The reason being is because Floyd Rose trems are very balanced. When one string breaks, that tension is transferred to the remaining strings. They are also susceptible to environmental changes for than a guitar without a locking tremolo. In addition, they take a few extra minutes to set up. Guitar shops will usually charge $15 to $30 more to deal with a Floyd Rose equipped instrument.
Now, there are some differences in these types of units. Generally, the Original Floyd Roses, usually abbreviated OFR, are case hardened steel. The baseplate is one homogenous piece of steel. On licensed units, the baseplate is usually an amalgam of different metals. Some even have different inserts for the knife edges. However, this causes air pockets, quite small though, to form in the metal as it hardens. It’s not as strong or durable as one piece, so often times you find tuning issues down the road with those licensed units. Some exceptions exist, the original Ibanez Edge trem, the Schaller licensed unit, and the Gotoh units are all of good quality.
Now with some basic stuff out of the way, we can get into the fun stuff. Floyd Roses are more complex than your average Fender type tremolo. The reason is simple, it’s because the strings are locked down to the bridge. They become part of it in a sense. So when one string goes flat, the others will go sharp because they are taking the tension of the other string.
Here’s an example of what I’m talking about. A set of .009-.042 strings will exert about 85.2 lbs. of tension on the bridge. So say your high E breaks. That particular string is putting about 13.1 lbs of tension on the bridge. So when that goes, the other strings take the tension it had. That equates to about 2.6 extra pounds of tension on each string. The point is that tension is all on that bridge and will remain there. Stratocaster bridges, if set to float, will also suffer from this. Usually, it’s not as bad as a FR type bridge, but it will still knock you out of tune. I always had 5 springs on my Strats just so I wouldn’t have to worry about it.
Now, here’s how I restring my Floyd Rose guitars. This is how I’ve done it for nearly 14 years now and it’s worked so far. But before I get to that, you should decide now if you want to block the trem off or leave it to float. Blocking the trem makes it more stable, but you can’t pull up on the bar. The real nice thing is that the bridge will stay in it’s playing position even with all strings removed. Eliminating the need for a wedge when changing strings. You can use a wood block, a stack of quarters, or even a 9V battery and quarters (sometimes improvisation extends beyond the fretboard). Whatever is solid and will stay in place.
So let’s say you want to change strings. For now, let’s assume you keep the same gauge. Let’s also assume you don’t need to clean your fretboard or do anything else that would require removal of the bridge. First, you’ll need a wedge. All that does is keep the bridge elevated so you can get to the string lock screws with an allen wrench. If you’ve blocked it, you don’t need to bother, assuming you can get to the locks with it in place. As for what the wedge could be, I used a regular pencil wrapped in either electrical or duct tape and stuck it under one side of the trem, either on the high E or low E side. That always worked for me.
Now you’ll want to unlock the nut and put the pieces where you can find them and they won’t be knocked around. After that, loosen the strings via the tuning machines until they are slack enough to where they won’t snap when you unlock the bridge saddles. Remember though, that the other strings will take the tension of the one you just loosened up if you don‘t have a block in there. I start with my high E and work my way down. Unlock the strings and pull them out of the bridge, again, one at a time. I usually wrap my strings into a small circle, keeps them fairly neat and in the garbage can. After you’ve removed the strings, turn all the fine tuners to the middle of their tuning range. This way you aren’t limited in your fine tuning later.
Next, instead of cutting the ball end off, I put the string through the hole in the tuning machine so the ball end is stopped at the machine. Then run the string about an inch or so past the saddle and cut it there. Then push the string down into the saddle until it hit’s the metal at the bottom. With one hand, hold it there while you tighten the locking screw with your other hand. You want it tight, but not overly tight. Usually a last 1/8 turn once it’s fairly snug will be good. Then repeat that process for the other 5 strings (or 6 if you’ve got a 7 string). After your last string is on, pull out the wedge (if you used one)
Once you have that done, you’ll need to stretch your strings. This is crucial, as it will affect your tuning stability if not done. Don’t worry about tuning quite yet. Just get some tension on the strings and give them a good pull around the 12th fret. I usually tune one, do the stretching for it, then do another. Do this a lot, take the extra time. Trust me, it makes the rest easier. Once they’ve been stretched a good bit, I’ll start getting it in tune. Now this takes a bit, you want to cross tune. As in, tune the 6th string, then the 1st string, then the 5th, then the 2nd, then the 3rd, then the 4th. This way, the tension is somewhat evenly applied. Reversing the order doesn’t change how long it takes. I’ve tried every combo, and the cross tuning seems to work the best. Trying to tune from the bottom up is hard because each time you tune a string, it pulls the others out of tune.
By doing it the cross way, you raise the bridge up evenly so the tension is more evenly distributed so the strings won’t go as far out of tune. It still takes time to get it close to tune though. Once you have it pretty close, lock the nut. Again, it doesn’t have to be super tight, snug is good enough. Then use your fine tuners to get it perfectly in tune. Sometimes even after you stretch, you’ll have to take the nut locks off and stretch them more. I usually leave the locking nut off for the rest of the day when I restring. Then the next day, I do a final stretch and lock the nut. It’s usually stable after that.
Once all that is done, you should have a functional Floyd Rose that will stay in tune. Every once in a while, it pays to pull the whole bridge off and clean it. Also, putting some 3 in 1 oil on the knife edges is a good preventative measure to guard against wear. Check your saddle inserts every few changes as well to ensure they aren’t wearing too much. You don’t see this much on OFR trems as much as on licensed units. Another item of note I’ve seen is that the cheap licensed units tend to cause the string to deteriorate to the point were the wrapping comes off the core at the saddle. I’m guessing it has to do with the softer metal wearing out over time. Never saw it with an actual Floyd or Schaller, but I’ve seen it a few times on licensed units. Replacement saddle inserts usually fix this issue.
Now, when you take a guitar like this to a gig, have a backup just in case. Even high end guitars have issues. I used to also carry extra saddle inserts and nut lock parts with me as well. Try to get to the venue early so the guitar can adjust to the new environment it’s in. It’ll settle down after maybe a half hour or so if it’s a lot different than your home. Make sure the nut that holds the bar when it’s in place is tight. You don’t want to lose your trem arm. You also may consider having a friend come along that can change your string for you in case you break one. Most people don’t mind, especially when there are free drinks and $20 thrown in. Plus is nice to have a sort of tech there for you.
Hopefully this clears up some confusion about FR trems. Yes, they can be hard to deal with. Yes they can act up and break strings. But all in all, they are, it properly dealt with and attended to, a very useful tool for a guitarist. If you have any further questions I’m usually around. Feel free to ask. Chances are, if you’ve had it happen, I’ve dealt with it 5 times over.
I'll have a second part to this guide next week. In that guide, I'll go over how to set up a guitar with either a heavier or lighter string gauge, some exercises to show you what potential these types of bridges have, and some other odds and ends bits of information. I wanted to put it all in this, but it's long now. Plus, I've always thought it easier to learn in parts rather than one whole go.