The double locking tremolo system is probably one of the most loved and hated pieces of guitar hardware. On one side, you have people who swear by them. On the other, people who hate them and say that they aren’t worth the hassle they put up. I’m not here to try to sway you to one side or the other. What I’m going to do is help you understand the double locking system and show you how to deal with it so you don’t run into future problems.
Types of Double Locking Tremolo Systems
One of the more important things to understand is that there are genuine Floyd Rose locking tremolo systems and also licensed units made by third-party manufacturers. To some people, the term “licensed” tends to bring up feelings of sub-par tremolos that won’t hold tune for long or even at all. However, the Ibanez Edge tremolos, the Schaller double locking tremolos, and the Gotoh units are all considered “licensed” (since they have to use the Floyd Rose patents), and they are of sound construction.
On the genuine Floyd Rose systems and some of the better quality licensed units, the base plate for the bridge and the knife edges are all one piece of solid metal. Typically case-hardened steel with either a gold, chrome, or black-powder coating added. The advantage to having a single piece is that the vibration can travel through that metal better and, in turn, give you better sustain. They also hold up better over time because it’s hardened, unlike the cheaper units. Cheaper licensed units use a few different metals inside the base plate with harder metal used for the knife edges. What you have now is something that has a lot of small little holes inside. The only thing I can really think to compare it to is a chocolate bar. If you’ve had an original Hershey’s bar, you may have noticed how it is uniform inside, there are no gaps or anything of that nature. Now compare that to a Hershey’s bar that has air added into it. You see a lot of small little voids inside where the air is. That same process happened when you combine different metals instead of using one solid piece. And while air might make for delicious chocolate, in a tremolo system it means reduced sustain, as well as reliability.
Whether you have an actual Floyd Rose or a licensed unit, one thing that does not change is the physics behind the double locking tremolo. The key to having a successful experience with a double locking tremolo is balance. If the tremolo unit is balanced, it will hold tune and operate exactly as it should. If the tremolo is not balanced, you will have issues with tuning stability. For example, say you switch from a light-gauge set of strings (9’s) to a heavy-gauge set (11’s). The light set will impart about 85 lbs. of total pressure on the bridge; the heavy-gauge set will exert about 118 lbs. of pressure. If we were to leave the tension unbalanced, the heavier set of strings would cause the bridge to rise up off the body of the guitar. It is very likely that that angle will make the guitar difficult to play. The bridge angle can interfere with your picking hand as well as raise the action.
The solution is to ensure that the spring tension is in balance with the string tension. You want the bridge to sit parallel to the body, not angled up or recessed back into the cavity. So, the first thing to must do is decide what strings do you wish to use. If you keep the same gauge and you have already adjusted the bridge, all you’ll have to do is change the strings. But, if you are changing your string gauge, it gets more complicated. So for the sake of conversation, let’s say you will be switching from those 9’s up to a set of 11’s.
Changing String Gauge and Adjustng Tremolo Tension
You first want to find or build a simple wedge. The wedge will be placed under the base plate to hold the string lock screws in such a way that they can be easily accessed. A quick note, those of you with Lo-Pro double locking systems won’t have to worry about a wedge. With those particular units, the lock screws are accessible even with the bridge pulled as far as it will go into the cavity. With the tremolo arm attached, push down on the tremolo bar bar until you can slide your wedge up underneath the base plate of the bridge. I have used a multitude of items as a wedge, from specially cut pieces of hardwood to pencils wrapped in duct or electrical tape, it really boils down to whether or not the item selected is strong enough to hold the position. The pencil wrapped in tape is the easiest one to do and it works quite well. I typically place mine on either end of the bridge, wedging it in diagonally from the strings so that it is not in the way but still in a position where it will hold without sliding out of place.
Once your wedge is secure, take the appropriate sized allen wrench and loosen the nut locks. Be sure to put these in a safe place where they will not be lost. Once your nut locks are off, loosen the strings. This can take a try or two because by loosening one string you increase the pressure on the others. So, when you loosen one string, the tension is displaced from that string onto the remaining strings.
Once you have your strings loosened up, take your string cutter and cut the string at around the 3rd fret. That will give you enough string to grab onto to unwind each one without putting your fingers in a spot where they could be cut. Unwind all your strings at the headstock and throw them away. Your next step is to unlock the strings at the bridge. Take the allen wrench you used for the nut locks (they almost always use the same size) and loosen the string lock screws. Sometimes the blocks will not move back, so you may have to manually push them back.
Now remove the strings and throw them away. Take this opportunity to clean your fretboard, headstock, and bridge while you have the strings off. Now you’re ready to put on the new strings. With most double locking units, you have to cut off the ball ends of the strings. Some of the Ibanez units allow you to keep these on, so removal is not needed with those units. You’ll want to cut the ends off about 2 or so inches up the string. You want to cut above the area where the string is wrapped over near the ball end. If you don’t, you can have uneven pressure from the block in the saddle, which may lead to the string slipping out.
Take each string and push it down into the saddle. You’ll feel it hit the metal at the bottom. Hold it in place until you tighten the string lock screw with your other hand. You want it snug, but not overly tight. Too tight can damage the string, block, or even the screw. Repeat the process of putting the strings in the saddle and tightening the screw for the remainder of the strings.
Once your strings are locked to the bridge, now it’s time to wrap the strings around their respective tuning machine post. I typically wrap the low E and A strings about twice, the D and G strings 3 times, and the B and high E about 4 times. Once you have that done, you can put the tremolo arm back on and pull out your wedge.
Since you already know the heavier 11’s are going to exert more pressure, go ahead and tighten the screws on the tremolo claw. This will increase the spring tension so that it offsets the now increased string tension. You will likely have to do this once or twice more, but there really is no way to be exact until you inspect the bridge angle. Go ahead and start tuning at this point. I strongly advise that you use cross tuning in this situation.
Tip: Cross Tuning
This tuning method raises the bridge more evenly and helps you get in tune faster. What you want to do is tune your 6th string (low E) first, then your 1st string (high E), then your 5th string (A), then your 2nd string (B), then your 3rd string (G), and finally your 4th string (D). You’ll have to repeat this part quite a few times when stretching in a new set of strings. If your bridge is not sitting level, you’ll have to adjust the springs which will lead to more retuning.
Even after you’ve stretched them adequately, I recommend you leave the nut locks off and play for a bit. This helps to stretch the strings more which ensures they will stay in tune when you lock the nut down. Once everything seems solid, go ahead and put your nut locks back on the guitar. Remember, a snug fit is key. But, too much pressure can actually eat into the nut locks and may cause tuning issues down the road.
Finally, check your tuning once again and use the fine tuners to make any final adjustments. After that, you’re done. Your guitar should now be good to go. Now you can enjoy all the perks of a double locking tremolo. And, the next time you need to restring your double locking tremolo, you should be able to breeze right through it.
This article is part of our Sam Ash Customer Columns Series and was written by fellow musician William Lewis. William has been playing the guitar for 14 years and his style leans toward bands like Metallica, Megadeth, Pantera and AC/DC. He lives in Terra Alta, West Virginia and is a teacher and avid writer on guitar topics like this. You can reach him at [email protected]