You know, I’ve heard it a million times: “Trems don’t stay in tune.” It’s a claim frequently repeated on forums and accepted as gospel among the masses. And these wards of warble, these princes of pitch, bear the brunt of that blame with a practiced stoicism, never asking that the judgement be revisited.
Flatly, the reputation is undeserved––it just isn’t true! When I’m told a guitar won’t hold pitch, the true culprit is almost always something else in the string’s path wreaking havoc on the guitar’s stability. Many players, enthusiasts, and techs don’t seem to realize that literally anything the string touches from tuner to trem can cause the very offenses placed squarely upon the shoulders of the Bigsby, Jazzmaster, Vibrola, and Strat-style vibrato systems, among others.
It’s high time the humble vibrato was vindicated, so I’m going to clue you in to a few key areas of difficulty and how to address them.
As I’ve discussed in my previous article entitled “String Theory,” the first, best preventative maintenance you can perform on a trem-equipped guitar is to make sure you’ve strung the instrument correctly. And by “correctly” I mean clean winds down the post, no overlapping, and it’s vital that you have a healthy amount of winds around the tuning post. Too few and the string won’t be able to grip the post and pitch will constantly drift. Too many, however, and the string can overlap instead of holding tight to the post itself. Check out “String Theory” for more in-depth info and some helpful GIFs as well!
It’s also important to adequately stretch the strings to help them settle in around the tuning post. I like to grip the string between the pickups and gently pull away from the body a few times, listening for a drop in pitch each time. After four or five repetitions, the strings should hold pitch perfectly.
String trees get a lot of flak for being bad for tuning, but much of it is misplaced. Oftentimes, they’re doing far more good than bad up there, increasing downward force on the nut. However, like any part that experiences metal-on-metal friction, they can wear in or become dirty over time, so check in every once in a while to make sure they’re clean and free of sharp edges.
The nut is one of the most important parts of your instrument, and one that is poorly-cut or worn can be the source of a whole host of headaches. Pinging, popping, and unpredictable changes in pitch are all symptoms of a nut in need of renewal.
Ensure that the nut slots are sized appropriately for the gauge of string being used, otherwise they could bind in the slots. Most guitars come with strings gauged .009”-.042” from the factory, but if you decide to step up even a little, the nut slots will have to be widened. If not, the nut will grip the string tightly, causing it to catch any time you bend or turn a tuning key. This is one of the major reasons for tuning problems on most guitars, let alone those with vibratos. It’s best to keep a few files on hand in gauges which correspond to your preferred string set, like the ones offered by Stewart Macdonald.
Nut slots can also become dirty after a lot of play, so it’s worth de-gunking as necessary during a string change. A slightly damp, clean cloth or even a Q-Tip run through the slots will usually do the trick, but in extreme cases it’s beneficial to use something a bit more heavy-duty such as Mitchell’s Abrasive Cord, which is available in a number of widths perfect for each gauge of string and will also smooth out any rough edges.
Just like the nut, you’re going to want to keep the slots clean but it’s also worth having a look at the saddles for wear, particularly grooves left from the winds of a string, which should be smoothed out to prevent the string from catching. In the case of bridges of the Tune-O-Matic style, the saddles often have a lightly roughed-in channel much smaller than the string itself, which can lead to breakage or tuning problems as you use the trem. Enjoy this poorly-drawn diagram of what I mean:
If this is the case, it’s best to file the saddle slot to the proper size. As long as the slot is smooth, you’re golden.
And perhaps the most important tip on this list:
Yes, friends, lubrication. If you haven’t considered that, remember that any point of contact on the string’s path means friction, and friction benefits from a bit of extra slip.
The best lubricant I’ve ever used for guitars is Chap-Stick, believe it or not. For one, it’s conveniently-sized so it fits in every case ever made, but it’s also thick enough to stay put as well as being hydrophobic, so there’s no chance of moisture getting under your strings and corroding them from the inside out. With a toothpick, Q-Tip, or even a bit at the end of a flat head screwdriver, smear a little bit of it in the nut slots, the bridge saddles, and even in the string tree.
Trust me, it works perfectly. I swear by the stuff, and if I’ve set your guitar up then there’s a better-than-good chance you’ve already got Chap Stick on your instrument. Well actually, Burt’s Bees; I’m all about that all-natch balm.