The Ash Stratocaster. Blocking the tremolo.

So what’s the point of blocking an expensive Callaham tremolo? I’m asking myself the same question – but I’m doing it in such a way so that I can reverse it in time. I want this to be a guitar I can grow into.

The tremolo block is held in place with springs, which sit in the rout on the back of the guitar body. So far, I’ve only temporarily blocked off the tremolo – to stop the plate flapping around. Now I need to install the springs and the special claw which holds them in place. I’ve previously installed a grounding point on the side of the cavity, which will complete the grounding of the tremolo components once the spring plate is installed, and connected.

The spring claw is held in place by two long screws which both run into the mass of the body, towards the neck join. Because of their location, they’re tricky to drill at a shallow enough angle. I sit the claw in position on the bottom of the cavity and mark the screw positions. I then use an aircraft drill bit, which is about a foot long, on the end of an electric hand drill. I protect the edge of the cavity with a piece of thick cardboard which I fold at 90 degrees and tuck into the recess, leaving enough to cover the body of the guitar and protect it from any scuffs from the drill chuck. I can then sight the drill using the edge of the card as support, and using the side edges of the cavity for a guide to alignment. With the two holes drilled, the claw can then be located, and the screws tightened in, about half-way.

I then solder a short length of cloth covered wire to the face of the claw, and then run enough wire around the back of the attaching screws – ending with a soldered joint to a small lug, which screws onto the previously installed grounding point. The first three springs are installed – the way I’ve seen countless Strat players install them. And then it occurs to me. Do I even want a working tremolo right now?

The thing about the Stratocaster tremolo is that it’s a bit of a nightmare to set up. And at my stage of learning to play all over again, I get more than enough expression learning to bend notes with my fingers. The way the tremolo works is that the whole bridge pivots – held one way by the tension of six strings – the other way by the tension of anywhere up to five springs. The guitar strings are obviously tensioned up by the tuners. The tremolo springs are tensioned both by how many springs are put in place and by how much they are stretched by the spring claw attachment. That spring claw can be screwed into the body – which in turn stretches and tensions the springs.

So you can see it’s a bit of a balancing act. You tighten the springs and the tremolo plate pivots and up goes the tension in the strings. Obviously this affects the tuning – that’s how the tremolo works – but getting it into a settled state of equilibrium to start with, is a complicated business. At worst, it’ll make keeping the guitar in tune more complicated than it should be – especially while I’m trying to set everything else up correctly. I’m not saying I don’t want to deal with it at all. I just don’t want to deal with it right now. I want to concentrate and make sure the guitar is built well enough, and can do the simple stuff properly first. Some people like to “hardtail” their guitars from the off. That’s installing a fixed bridge on the body of the guitar. No need for a tremolo block – direct vibration transfer instead from tailplate to body. I have a brand new, expensive, Callaham tremolo. Logic says, “save the Callaham for another job and hardtail this one”, but there’s a way we can put that decision off for a while. A way to use the Callaham. I can block up the tremolo – but in a temporary and reversible way.

Those bits of wood I used to block the tremolo for the test stringing are the key. I fit them into place and check how the tremolo sits. What I want is for the tremolo plate to sit a millimetre or so above the face of the guitar body. With a couple of springs installed, I screw the spring claw up into the body. This exerts the maximum force on the tremolo plate for those two springs, and I’m able to shape the wooden block on the neck side of the tremolo block so that no matter how much the springs pull – the tremolo plate sits in the desired position. With the correct sized block, it doesn’t matter how many springs are installed, or how tight they are stretched – the wood block is held securely in place and with it, the tremolo plate sits just a fraction off the body.

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A second wooden block is shaped and pushed in between the tremolo block and the tail side of the cavity. (You can see how tight the fit is by the little splinter which has been cracked off the obeche block as I’ve tapped it home). The tremolo is now well and truly blocked, and cannot move either way. The guitar is effectively now a hardtail, but with the sonic advantage of having the tremolo block and springs in place, to reverberate. The tremolo block is now in direct contact with wood on both sides, and is therefore able to transmit vibration effectively. Much of the Stratocaster sound comes from the tremolo system, and having the springs in place is an integral part of that sound. This setup also has the benefit of being able to restore full tremolo functionality with the quick and simple removal of the two pieces of wood – both of which are attached, and held in place by friction and spring tension alone.

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