Vintage Tremolo Modifications Part 2


mark-150Hi, welcome back.

Last month, we finished everything off that we need to do to the top plate.

This month, we’ll continue the article on vintage tremolo modifications, and we’ll start with the string saddles, but before we get started I thought we would again go over a little history. (Boring right? Not really if you are into this kind of thing!).

In the early 1950’s when Leo Fender and the boys were designing the Stratocaster they decided it needed a tremolo or vibrato. The need was based on the fact that Paul Bigsby (read up on him as well) was having a lot of success selling his vibrato to other guitar makers, principally Gibson.

There was also a demand, from many of the musicians that provided regular input to Fender, on how to improve their guitars. One of the last things that Leo and his team perfected was the synchronized tremolo that we know today. All accounts and interviews indicate that the Fender team went through a number of designs and failures before settling on their final design.

Fender filled their patent request for the tremolo with the U.S. patent office in August of 1954. It took two years before the patent was granted in 1956.

So, why all this talk about tremolo Patent B.S. you ask? Well it turns out that the original 1950’s style stamped steel string saddles were different in design to the ones that you will find on later model or vintage re-issue tremolos.

Right off, if you look quickly at one of the older steel saddles, you will notice it is stamped with the words FENDER on one side of the string slot, and PAT. PEND. on the other. Whereas, today’s re-issue steel saddles are stamped FENDER on both sides of the string slot.

Another key difference is the length of the string slot itself. The original 50’s design had a longer string slot that finished closer to the raised intonation end of the saddle (where the Allen adjusting screws are). This longer slot allows the string to pass through the saddle without touching the front edge of the slot. Most of today’s newer and reissued short slot saddles will cause the strings to touch the front edge of the slot, and in doing so, create a third contact point or bend in the string. Remember what we talked about last month, we want to get rid of these types of contact points where we can because it leads to string breakage.

Notice the string contact points at the front of the saddle slots.

NOTE: If you’re Axe is equipped with the old style PAT. PEND. Saddles, it’s probably vintage and worth a ton of money (by the way you can give it to me if you want) so DO NOT do any of the mod’s we are talking about here.

If it is a late model or a vintage re-issue unit with FENDER stamped on both sides of the slot, or an after-market unit with nothing on the stamped steel saddles, Read on!!

String saddles

Modifying the string slots on your saddles is a pretty easy modification to do. You can use a high-speed rotary tool like a Dremel with a Tungsten Carbide Cutter or use a tapered 1/8” metal hobby metal file. Remember, always use the recommended safety gear if you use the rotary tool.

Again, always do one saddle at a time and go easy with the rotary tool. First, remove the two Allen screws that are used for height adjustment and remove the screw and spring that are used to attach the saddle to the top plate. Place the saddle into a vise or a pair of vise grips to hold it from moving around. Remember, grinding away at the slot with a rotary tool will make the saddle too hot to hold onto with your bare fingers (unless you “want” FENDER branded on your fingertips). Always hold the saddle along the sides with your vice or vice grips so as not to bend or distort it. Slowly lengthen the slot by 3/32” of an inch (2.3mm) towards the Allen screw end of the saddle. Make sure to keep the width of the new slot the same as the rest of the slot. After lengthening the slot, take some 600 grit sandpaper and polish the inside edges of the lengthened slot. Continue polishing the slot by moving to finer grits, finishing with 2000.

After lengthening the slot, reassemble each saddle with its Allen screws, attachment screw and spring so you don’t mix up the screws with other saddles. Then place the saddle back in order with the others on the hold down tape.

String Saddle before Modification.

Un-Modified vs Modified Saddle slot.


Once the string slots are lengthened, the next thing to do is polish the string groove on the top of the saddle where the string passes over the saddle between the two Allen screws. Again, start with some 600 grit sandpaper and wrap it around the edge of a nail file and work it back and forth through the string groove. Follow the radius of the top of the saddle so you do not create a flat spot. Use increasingly finer grit sandpaper working up to 2000 grit and you are done.

Unit Reassembly and Installation

Start by re-attaching the top plate to the tail piece block using the three Phillips head machine screws. Make sure these three screws are good and tight. There is nothing worse when you are playing than an annoying rattle or buzz because of a loose screw.

Next reinstall the string saddles, but before you do, lay them, one at a time, on a wad of paper towels and soak them repeatedly with a spray lubricant like Jig-A-Loo or WD-40. In between soakings, take an Allen wrench and work the height adjusting screws and the attachment screw in and out to make sure they are free and well lubricated. Don’t worry about the location of the saddles on the top plate, you will adjust them later when you do your intonation.

Next, it’s time to re-install the unit on the body. Install the six hold down screws but don’t screw them all the way down. Remember, the unit is only going to ride on the two outside screws, so start by adjusting them first. With the underside of the top plate lying flat on the top of the guitar, screw the outside two screws in until they just touch the top of the top plate.

Underside of Top Plate flat on the Top of the Body

with the two Outside Screws Installed.

If the top plate starts to rise up in the back end, you have screwed then in too much and need to back them out slightly. It’s a bit like a balancing act, you want the screws to touch the top plate but not put any pressure on it. Once you have the two outside screws adjusted, screw the four center screws in until they are about 3/32” of an inch (2.3mm) above the top plate. They are only there to look pretty and to keep that vintage look. They should not touch the top plate.

Center four screws in place with the 3/32” (2.3mm) gap over the Top Plate.

With the tremolo unit now screwed in place you will need to flip the body over in order to reinstall the springs in the spring cavity. There have always been a ton of questions and debate on how many springs to install, how to adjust the springs, and how much tension you need to put on them. There are hundreds of Blogs, Online Chats, and Web sites that go into a huge amount of detail on this, whether you want a floating or fixed tremolo, so check them out.

As I said in Part 1 of this article I normally recommend fixed or non-floating tremolos to my gigging clients but I will go over both ways to set up the springs here.

NOTE: The set-up dimensions given in the following two sections are based on a string gauge of 9-46 in standard tuning.


Fixed Non-Floating Spring set up

For light gauge strings I normally install 3 tension springs. For medium and heavy gauge strings I typically install four. Both cases will provide sufficient tension to hold the tremolo unit tight to the top of the guitar body. This helps in transferring string vibration to the body and increases guitar sustain. For a three spring set-up I set the springs in a V arrangement. This helps to balance the spring tension. I set the spring claw at 9/16” of an inch (14.2mm) from the edge of the spring cavity to the front edge of the spring claw.

Three Spring V Set-up for lite Gauge Strings.

9/16” of an Inch (14.2mm) from body to the Inside of the Spring Claw.

For a four spring installation, I set the springs in line and set the spring claw at 11/16” of an inch (17.4mm) from the edge of the spring cavity to the front edge of the spring claw.

Four Spring Set-up for Medium / Heavy Gauge Strings.

11/16” of an inch (17.4mm) from body to the inside of the Spring Claw.

Both set-ups will, provide enough spring tension to hold the tremolo unit down firmly on the body, not allow the tremolo to move when you are string bending while playing, and allow for a smooth action when using the tremolo.

Floating Spring set up

For light gauge strings I install 3 tension springs, and for medium and heavy gauge strings, I install four tension springs. The difference between the fixed and floating tremolo set-up is the positioning of the spring claw inside the body cavity. For a three spring set-up, I set the spring claw at 3/4” of an inch (19mm) from the edge of the spring cavity to the front edge of the spring claw. For a four spring set-up, I set the spring claw at 7/8” of an inch (22.2mm) from the edge of the spring cavity to the front edge of the spring claw.

What you need to keep in mind, is you are lowering the spring tension in relationship to the tension that is generated by the strings. When everything is set and your guitar is tuned to pitch, you want the underside of the top plate to lift off the body by 3/32” of an inch (2.3mm). This height will give you a one and one-half note increase in pitch when you lift up on the tremolo arm.

Note: Spring tensions can differ depending on the supplier or the age of the springs. The dimensions given above are a starting point only. You will need to make slight adjustments to the spring tension (i.e. move the spring claw) when you tune your guitar to pitch to get the desired 3/16” dimension.

Raised Top Plate.

3/32” of an inch (2.3mm) from the top of the body to the underside of the Top plate.

If you decide to go with a floating tremolo set-up, you might want to look at installing a tremolo stabilizer like a “Hipshot” or even replacing your stock spring claw with one of the new aftermarket units that are available. They help you to fine tune the spring tension in relationship to the tension generated by the strings. They also do a great job of keeping your Axe in tune after a lot of tremolo usage and keep your other strings in tune while bending on another.

I have recently installed the “Stay Tuned Tremolo Stabilizing Claw” by Van Rosa in a couple of my guitars and am very happy with the results. You can also see a review of this unit in the Gear Review section at Loudguitars. Or visit their web site at:

Lube it all up (Slippery when Wet)

So before you install your new set of strings, we need to lubricate a bunch of points on the tremolo. What you need to do is lube anywhere metal is going to touch metal. Start by adding a bit of guitar lube on the contact points between the top plate and the two screws holding the tremolo in place. Next lube the underside of the twelve height adjusting Allen screw where they contact the top plate. Next, lube up all the contact points where the strings will come in touch the tremolo, the radiused holes on the top plate and the top of the saddles where the string sits in its groove.

Wow this month’s article ended up being a lot longer than I thought it would, (Good thing I didn’t have a couple of beers while writing this it would have stretched on forever…) so I’ll have to do a part three to finish up the rest of the set up stuff for the Vintage Tremolo Modifications series.

Next month, we’ll talk about what changes we will need to do at the Nut, we’ll talk about string angles at the headstock and some final notes on string heights and final adjustments.

So Cheers, Be Good to Each Other and Remember

“The beautiful thing about learning is nobody can take it away from you.”

B.B. King



To read more about Mark click HERE


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