We can safely say that guitar players are some of the most innovative musicians out there. A whole variety of genres developed all thanks to their curious and creative nature. Always ready to improve their skills and push the boundaries, we’ve often seen them exploring new sonic territories and coming up with countless ways to use new products and gadgets that helped them sound unique.
One of the first innovations was the vibrato system, aka the tremolo bridge or the whammy bar. However, as the guitar players’ appetites grew bigger, the system further developed. The next obvious step we’ve seen with a guy like Eddie Van Halen who basically blew everyone away with his virtuosic playing and the innovative approach of combining the playability of Fender Stratocaster guitars with the raw humbucker tone of Gibsons. The next thing you know, there’s a whole new generation of guitar players pushing the limits even further.
Aside from the playability and heavy tones, these Superstrats quickly became equipped with a new weapon – the very innovative Floyd Rose tremolos that opened up a whole new world of possibilities. Here, we will explore how these bridges came to be, how they developed, and how they made an impact on the world of guitar.
Floyd D. Rose
The product traces its roots back in the mid-1970s. Floyd Rose was named after its inventor Floyd D. Rose who was inspired by some of the guitar innovators of the late 1960s and the early 1970s. We all know how ground-breaking Jimi Hendrix‘s playing was, including his use of the whammy bar.
However, back in those days, it was really hard to keep the guitar in tune after aggressive and rapid tremolo arm (ab)use. Conventional methods just weren’t enough, so Floyd first came up with the special brass nut that would keep the strings in place using three small clamps, each holding down two strings. Trying it out on a ’57 Fender Strat, he then came up with the idea to “reinvent” the classic tremolo bridge. By 1977, he began making the earlies versions of what we know as the Floyd Rose tremolo, and eventually patented the whole thing by 1979.
It didn’t take long for guitar masters of the era to get their hands on one of these. Quickly enough, Van Halen adds a Floyd Rose on his famous Frankenstrat guitar and turns the guitar world upside down in the process. Just imagine what it was like to hear “Eruption” back in the late 1970s.
The 1980s were the times of rapid development in guitar-oriented music. It was the decade that gave birth to the shred movement. And almost every shredder had a guitar that was equipped with a Floyd Rose tremolo.
After patenting this invention in 1979, Rose soon made a deal with Kramer guitars. In just a few years, he almost completely overtook all the bridges on the company’s guitar models. However, the Floyd Rose bridges had to be improved as they were no longer made by hand.
How it works and why was it better?
There are many differences compared to the classic tremolo bridges. Although the design and operation are more complex than the standard tremolo bridge (and the restringing might even give you a headache), the advantages helped it make a breakthrough in the market.
The first obvious one was the fact that it kept your strings in tune with the help of a locking nut and the locking saddles on the bridge. After placing the string from the backside of the guitar through the metal block and into the saddle, it is tightened with a special bolt that is adjusted using a hex key. On the nut, we have three metal plates, each holding down two strings. These clamps are also tightened using a hex key.
However, not every system is perfect, so each of the saddles has a fine tuner on it. It won’t actually go up and down too much but will easily help you fine-tune the guitar. This comes in handy after aggressive use of the tremolo bridge. However, the system was so well-made that it could hold the tuning in most of the cases without any need of fine-tuning the strings.
But, in most cases, having a Floyd Rose also requires guitar body alterations. Almost all of these guitars have routed cavities in their bodies, on the backside for the springs and behind the bridge to ensure a two-way operation. While some might think of carving a cavity on your guitar body is a sacrilege, the concept was popularized by Steve Vai and ultimately enabled guitar players to go up in pitch as well. Without much hesitation, we can say that this was quite a surprise for many of the guitar lovers back in the early 1980s.
The classic Fender-style bridge is primitive compared to a Floyd Rose. The string height and intonation on a Floyd Rose are in a way easier to adjust due to the innovative design.
The downside that we can point out here is that it is a bit of a process to restring your guitar. In addition, you can’t really switch to a drop tuning mid-show and the only solution is to have one guitar for each tuning.
It requires some getting used to, both for playing and setting it all up, and it’s usually recommended to those shreddier guitar players out there. That’s why many people still stick with the classic fixed or the traditional tremolo bridges.
How they made an impact
To put it simply – you can shake the whammy bar handle for a while and your guitar would stay in tune. It was not unusual to see guitar players literally holding the guitar by the tremolo arm, moving it up and down for a few seconds or more and continuing on through the song without any of the strings going out of tune.
The feature, of course, opened up the world of possibilities. The whammy bar already had a solid use, which we could hear in the music of the guys like Jeff Beck where the certain parts often resemble slide guitar with the perfect glissando. The Floyd Rose tremolo enabled even more possibilities in this regard, further allowing players to use it as an expressive tool.
And then, there are also dive bombs, excessive and constant bending, aggressive shredding – all without getting out of tune. From tender progressive rock instrumental ballads, all the way to head crushing thrash metal solos, the Floyd Rose found its place in the guitar world and made a huge impact on the development of guitar-oriented genres.
Variations and copies
Over the years, the Floyd Rose design changed, and we got to see various models released. However, the oldest model, the original design, is still in production to this day. There’s also a Floyd Rose II version, although it’s a cheaper version you’ll find on some mid-range guitars. Other versions also include Floyd Rose Pro, Floyd Rose 1000, and the Fender Deluxe Locking Tremolo which was done as a cooperation between Floyd Rose and Fender. The last one comes as an interesting contraption as it also included LSR Roller Nut which reduces friction on the strings during the whammy bar use.
There are also a few copies of the Floyd Rose system, most notable the Kahler bridge conceived by Gary Kahler. However, Kahler was eventually sued for infringement and had to pay about $100 million back in 1994. (Archived source link here https://web.archive.org/web/20131112181029/http://www.plainsite.org/flashlight/case.html?id=1797989) The other licensed variations also include Ibanez Edge system, Ibanez Zero Resistance, and Yamaha Finger Clamp.
Should I get a guitar with a Floyd Rose tremolo?
It all depends on what your goals as a guitar player are. It’s fair to say that the most technically proficient and virtuosic guitarists tend to use a Floyd Rose bridge or any of its copies. But at the same time, you need to bear in mind that you won’t be able to do any sudden drop tunings mid-show and that you’ll be taking way more time to restring your guitar.
Overall, if you’re a professional guitar player, or aiming to be one, then a guitar with an equipped Floyd Rose bridge is something you’d like to have at least one of your guitars. If you’re an old school player, inspired mostly by guitars like classic Les Pauls, SGs, and Fender Telecasters, then you probably won’t have any need for the Floyd Rose system.