I was the kind of kid who always tinkered with gadgets and stuff. When I got something new, I had to take it apart to ¬find out how it worked. So, when I got my ¬first Stratocaster copy I remember being fascinated with the six-screw vintage-style vibrato bridge and I couldn’t wait to tear the damn thing apart and see what was going on.
Musically, I could use it to make rocket noises and whale sounds, but mechanically; I could do all sorts of fascinating things like …make springs shoot across the room by accident. Oops. But then I listened closely to a few of my favourite artists and I realised they were doing something extra with their whammy bars instead of just using it to make wild noises, something I wasn’t able to achieve with my guitar’s bridge, (as it came set up from Santa Claus) they could raise the pitch as well as lower it.
Dudes like Steve Vai, Joe Satriani, Dimebag Darrell, Nuno Bettencourt and Jeff Beck were doing things with the whammy bar that I knew weren’t so easily explained as “they have a locking trem.” Heck, Beck was doing his thing with 2-point Strat trems! So I started experimenting with the screw heights on my bridge, seeing what happened if I lowered or raised them. I jammed those suckers right down to the wood, played the ‘Enter Sandman’ solo and promptly snapped the bar right off. Then, I thought about Beck and his 2-point system, and I did a bunch of digging to figure out why I’d broken the bar (uh, the screws were holding the bridge down so tight it was practically a fixed bridge, moron), and how I could get more travel from the bar, including the coveted upwards direction. I had a feeling I’d get better results if I got the middle four screws out of the way and focused just on the outermost ones. That gave me smoother travel downwards, but I eventually discovered that the secret is in the springs in the back of the guitar, not in the screws holding the bridge down. You need to balance the string tension with the spring tension, pulling the bridge up slightly off the body so it’s sitting at an angle rather than flush. Once you’ve got that nailed down, you can pull up on the bar or push down, and it will return comfortably to the starting pitch.
So how do you get it to _oat in a useful, musical way? The secret is to angle the claw in the back of the guitar so that it’s tighter on the bass side and looser on the treble side - turn the screw further into the body on the bass side of the claw compared to the treble side. When I pull it backwards, I get a minor third – the equivalent of three frets – on the G-string, a whole step (two frets) on the B, and a half-step (one fret) on the high E. Once you’ve got those strings set up to work this way, you can use the bar to create some beautiful pedal steel-like sliding melodies, and you can either use the bar to bend up to specific notes, or you can simply push on the bridge itself with the edge of your hand to get quick rise-and-fall bends, Jeff Beck style.
Another great reason why you should set your bar this way is that you can get those great David Gilmour vocal-like vibrato effects on bent notes. This has a different quality to the same bend/vibrato technique performed with a flush vibrato bridge or by using your fretting hand to generate the vibrato. Think about it: when you hear a singer applying vibrato, they don’t just go up from the note; they go up and down around it.
Whichever way you set up your bridge, it’s important to also make sure the nut, saddles and string trees are properly lubricated so the strings can pass over those contact points without friction. If the string gets snagged at any one spot, that’ll mess with your tuning. The cheapest way to lubricate these points is to use a pencil, although I often use products like Big Bend’s Nut Sauce, which keeps those crucial contact points slippery. It’s also a great source of juvenile comic material in the rehearsal room.
So there isn’t any one thing that gets a Strat trem humming along nicely, but if you get all of these factors working together in harmony you can get an incredible amount of expression and range out of a traditional Strat trem without even having to lock down a nut or rout out a lion's claw.