ViVe La Vibrato!
You want to add a vibrato to your Gibson? are you sure? Okay, if you must. Dave burrluck considers your options…
Back in the day, even pretty big pros had way fewer guitars in their collections than many of today’s weekend warriors. And weren’t things simple, eh? You turned up to your gig with your guitar, amp and maybe a bag of leads and a couple of effects. Today, we all obsess. ‘Hmm, do I need a Strat for this gig, a Tele for that song, or do I need my ES-335, or maybe an ES-175, for those jazzier numbers in the set?’ Before you know it, you’ve got three or more guitars on the back seat of the car – all need to be working and probably restrung, too – and you’re off to a gig that pays peanuts and the ‘stage’ is the corner of a pub, bar… or field.
In an effort to reduce hardware, many of us look to instruments that ‘have it all’. Now, while some of that compromise is easily achieved with humbucking guitars that have single-coil sounds and so on, if you’re using a Les Paul or an ES-style semi or hollowbody and you need a bit of shimmer from a vibrato, it’s another guitar. Or is it?
For some, of course, adding a vibrato to one of those hardtail benchmarks is akin to putting jam, not salt, on your porridge (or vice-versa!), but if it can be done in a totally reversible fashion, why the heck not?
So what are our choices? Pauls (and semis) need a Bigsby, but that leaves us with a couple of holes from the unused stud tailpiece, and while Vibramate’s V7-LP Model Mounting Kit (around £76) means you don’t need to drill any holes, it’s only designed for a USA Bigsby B7 Original Vibrato (from around £161), not the cheaper, and perfectly good, licensed B70. The Stetsbar Stop Tail style (from £169) is another choice; likewise Schaller’s ‘Tremolo Les Paul’ (from around £135), which mounts on the tune-o-matic bridge posts. For serious whammy fans, Floyd Rose’s FRX Top Mount Tremolo (£289 in nickel/chrome; £329 in black) is another. The cheapest option is Duesenberg’s Les Trem II (currently from €87 on their site, though we’ve seen it cheaper elsewhere).
The Stetsbar is popular and it certainly adds its own look – which may or may not suit. Schaller’s version is an unknown, but Schaller’s reputation is built on hardware that works, so you should consider it. But we’ve tested the Duesenberg Les Trem II on the Rivolta Combinata Deluxe Trem and it works, looks pretty retro and, we understand, is easy to fit and completely reversible. We ordered one from Duesenberg’s online store (a couple of months ago for €73) and it arrived in two days. The Rivolta also uses a roller-saddle tune-o-matic, not offered by Duesenberg. No problem, ours – the Roller Nash-4 – came from Axerus (£27).
We’d aimed to fit the new parts to a new Guild Bluesbird, but they ended up on a Guild Newark St Starfire II. The mod is easy. Strings off, mount the new tune-o-matic. Take the stud tailpiece off, mount the new Les Trem II with its supplied studs (it includes both metric and imperial). Restring. Check string height and intonation. Done.
Aesthetics are a personal choice, but on a large thinline semi the Les Trem II’s retro vibe suits the style, certainly in lieu of a Bigsby. Unlike that classy behemoth, however, the Les Trem seems lighter in weight and doesn’t affect the guitar’s balance in any noticeable way. Once the new strings were stretched, tuning was very stable used in Bigsby style, too. Oh, and restringing is a doddle, unlike a Bigsby.
More fundamentally, does it affect the sound? Well, anything you mod will affect the sound – marginally or more fundamentally – but the effect is marginal here and the string ‘feel’ isn’t noticeably changed because the string length from the saddle to anchor is the same. Plus, the pivot is still firmly fixed to the body, even though it lies in the tailpiece bar. It’s smooth in action (if not quite as smooth as a Bigsby), but it has a similar minimal shimmery range. However, we can’t help thinking our previously jazzy hollowbody now sounds more Grestch-y. It does raise the height of the combined bridge assembly, however, and the arm has to be secured with an Allen key. No biggie, but make sure you carry one in its case (and maybe another in your leads bag). It does mean that you can quite precisely set the arm’s position, though.
All in all, the Les Trem II is a firm Mod Squad recommendation.
Les Trem II: easy to fit and reversible, too