A tremolo or whammy bar can make a guitar much more expressive but also introduce tuning issues. I like having a tremolo and it is essentual to properly play Lenny or Jeff Beck. However, SRV and Jeff Beck setup their tremolo completely differently to compliment their style of play.
SRV used very heavy strings and tuned a half step down like his idol Jimi. He used the maximum amount of five springs to counter the tension and pull it back into tune. He had exquisite technique and could use the tremolo as a soft detune as in Lenny or deep bends as in Voodoo Chile. When I first started building strats I wanted them to sound like SRV’s guitar and setup the tremolo accordingly. I can’t play a guitar with strings as heavy as Stevie liked so I backed the gauge down to at least a medium gauge and removed one spring . i thought this was a great compromise.
I am also a great admirer of Jeff Beck who is the master of the tremolo in my mind. He can play like he does because of the way he holds the tremolo bar and because the amount of force required to bend the note is very slight. This naturally implies fewer springs and light gauge strings. I’m not sure if additional modifications have been made to the guitar to allow a greater range of tremolo swing but I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that that was the case. The second factor with Jeff Becks guitar is a roller nut. I use an LSR roller nut and it works very well in this application. The roller Nut allows the strings to stretch and then bounce back to the original tension with no stickiness or resistance. This in turn keeps it in tune even when the overall tension induced by the tremolo is relatively less.
Hence, I have learned that there is more than one way to skin the proverbial cat if you will and that tremolo setup is a personal preference.
The setup of the tremolo regardless of the style of play requires that you specify the string gauges you want to use on that guitar, and how you are going to tune it. That information will determine how to set up the tension evenly across the tremelo, choice and number of springs, and the depth of the tensioning screws on each side of the spring tension rake. The tremolo should be flat with play both to raise pitch and lower pitch. Since the tremolo is also a bridge, the leveling of the tremolo will effect the string height on the neck and therefore the playability.
With so many factors involved with the proper setup of a tremolo it’s no wonder that many decide to dispense with them altogether, or have them disabled using wedges in tremolo cavity. It’s also very common to see tremolos incorrectly or poorly setup rendering them less useful or even detrimental to the playing of the instrument.
One final word on tremolos, when you tune expect that it will take multiple passes through the strings to get the tuning correct. it’s simply the nature of the beast, changing one string changes all the others so you need to tune until all strings are equally bearing the load.
I haven’t said anything about Floyd Rose and locking nuts. While these tremolos all suffer from the same issues as any other tremolo. The Floyd Rose setup requires that you get all the natural stretch out of the strings before you lock them down or you’ll constantly be fighting the tuning. There are string stretching tools available to facilitate this process.
I’m sure that string composition has a subtle effect on all this but I haven’t done enough research to speak to that issue. I will have another page on this web site to discuss Strings in general.