Like many of us, one reader is experiencing some vibrato woes. Here’s how we keep ours in check…
QI was reading your piece on the Squier Showmaster [Mod Squad, issue 475] and was amazed that you got the vibrato working properly and staying in tune. I’ve got a Mex Strat and a Gretsch Electromatic with a Bigsby and I can’t get either of them to stay in tune. Any tips gratefully received.
Scott, via email
AI feel your pain, Scott. I’ve just spent the best part of a day trying to get a vibrato on a pretty high-end vintage-style guitar to work only to conclude that, frankly, it doesn’t. You live and learn. We could fill pages on tips and tricks for getting Strat vibratos and Bigsbys to return to pitch in-tune, but in the space I have here there are some ‘golden rules’ that might help.
Always think of the vibrato as a complete system that includes not only the vibrato part but the saddles, or separate bridge, the nut, string trees if you have them and the tuners – more specifically how you attach your strings. If you’re new to the world of guitar maintenance and modding, I’d seriously suggest you get your guitars set up professionally. So long as there are no major issues it won’t cost a fortune. Ask the repair person what they did and what suggestions they might have. Listen and learn.
If the vibrato has been set up correctly, you still need to be a little studious when it comes to restringing. On a standard tuner you can lock the string at the post, and be careful not to have too many winds around the post. Locking tuners certainly help. Always add a little lube to the nut slots; soft pencil lead will help assuming your nut grooves have been properly cut. It’s the same for the saddles.
The major thing is then to properly stretch your strings, including behind the nut ( just bend each string a few times and retune) and any ‘dead’ string behind the saddle as some Bigsbys or Jazzmaster-style vibratos can be treated the same. If you’ve had your guitars set with a certain string gauge and you go up or down in gauge then you may have problems with strings sticking in their nut grooves. With lighter strings, the vibrato will sit flatter on a Strat, for example, which reduces up-bend, and you’ll need to compensate by reducing the spring tension.
How you tune your guitar is also important. Tune your low E first then check the A string. If that’s flat, tune it back to pitch then go back to the E and retune that then check the A again and onto the D, and so on. Every time you need to make an adjustment, go back to the previous strings and retweak them. The reason for this is that most vibratos are simply balanced systems (the string tension against the spring tension): as you raise the pitch of one string the others will go slightly flat.
It’s important to be realistic, too. A standard vintage-style Strat vibrato – and certainly a Bigsby – are really designed for light shimmers, not extreme dive-bombing. Learning to ‘centre’ the vibrato after a bend is important, too. And don’t expect any vibrato guitar (perhaps with the exception of a double-locking type) to stay perfectly in tune for a whole 45-minute set without some minor checking and adjustment.
Also consider how important the vibrato is to your style of playing. I once spent a considerable amount of time getting a troublesome Strat vibrato to stay in pitch only to be told by the player that it was still going out of tune. When I went to see him playing he didn’t use the vibrato at all. It turned out that his tuning problems were coming from him pushing the slightly up-tilted vibrato down, and subsequently raising the pitch, when he palm-muted with his right hand. If you really barely use it, there’s nothing stopping you decking or even blocking your Strat vibrato, and just fold that Bigsby arm back – I’ll guarantee your tuning issues will improve instantly! Seriously, though, good intonation is down to the guitar and the player.