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Perhaps my selection of musicians is biased, but usually when I see a whammy bar used, it's usually with a locking tremolo bridge like a Floyd Rose. Everybody else seems to take the whammy bar out and never touch it again.

What I'm finding is that using the whammy bar on my Strat takes it right out of tune, which means using it in the middle of a song would be problematic. I'm assuming that this issue would not be present (or at least not as pronounced) on a guitar with locking tuners.

So do most players just ignore the fact that they'll finish out of tune? Is my guitar in need of a better setup? Am I just using it wrong overall?

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6 Answers 6

up vote 12 down vote accepted

A key issue in using the whammy bar occurs when strings become slack and therefore change position in the nut. When the whammy bar is returned to neutral, friction at the nut can prevent the strings from returning to their original, natural state, and this can be a large cause of tuning issues.

It is therefore important that the strings can move freely through their 'V's in the nut. There are two key things you can do to help this:

  1. Rubbing graphite, e.g. lead from a very soft pencil, into the V in the nut can help reduce the friction.

  2. Ensure the 'V's are not too narrow for the strings (causing them to become trapped). This is particularly for the wound strings. If they seem to be 'gripping' the strings too much, you could try widening the slots with a small file (caution—at your own risk!) or taking the guitar to a guitar shop for a professional job.

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Scott Henderson talks about it here: youtube.com/watch?v=Sm_VSjadCiU#t=11m15s –  Anonymous Mar 7 '11 at 16:31

The nut material can make a big difference, as can the width of the slots.

Binding can occur because the slots are too tight. As @Bill said, you can use graphite. You can use powered teflon. I have been known to pop the string out of the slot and fold a piece of very fine sand-paper into a V and slide it through the slot once or twice, then retrying the whammy bar. Repeating that eventually gets the nut slot opened enough to avoid binding. BUT, you have to be careful to not make the slot deeper; You only want it a tiny bit wider.

You can replace the nut with various materials, like teflon, which should reduce the problem a lot. See your local guitar tech about that.

You can replace the nut with a roller-nut, which has little rollers under the strings as they cross the nut. Again, your tech is the man to see.

As far as people doing some radical tremolo-bar work, watch the videos of Jeff Beck using his Strat for things like "Somewhere over the Rainbow", from his induction to the hall of fame. He plays entire parts of the melody using only the tremolo. Of course, after the song he might hand it off to his tech, but if he was suffering from out-of-tunedness, it would hit immediately after using the tremolo. So, even on a Strat it's possible to do what you want.

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Beck can do some ridiculous things with his whammy bar, no doubt. But he's also got it set up very unconventionally. At rest, it's set at some crazy angle, so that he can pull it up as much as down. I wonder if that helps keep it in tune. –  Alex Basson Jan 18 '11 at 3:37
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It's set up to be floating, meaning he has a gap on either side of the tremolo block, allowing him to bend up or down. It's nothing unconventional, it's just different than some people set up their guitars. I have two that are set up that way, and one set up with it blocked by string tension so I can only go down. –  Anonymous Jan 18 '11 at 3:39

prior to getting hold of floyd rose bridges, Eddie Van Halen used to wind his strings up the tuning peg rather than down as most of us do to reduce the angle that the string comes back at as it passes over the nut. this was done alongside making sure that the nut slots were loose enough and lubed with graphite as mentioned in other answers. all of these tricks added up to reduce sticking over the nut as much as possible.

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The other thing not yet mentioned, which I have on all my guitars that have floating bridges is a locking nut. This basically locks the strings at the nut so they don't move back and forth across the nut, which removes the problem entirely.

May not be appropriate in looks for a strat, but it works.

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Nobody's mentioned the bridge. For years I struggled with these issues and constantly blamed the nut and then the penny dropped. The G string was actually being pulled sharp over the bridge saddle which also cause the low E to go sharp. My solution is to thread the G string through a piece of the plastic insulation found on electrical wire and make sure it is placed between the string and the bridge saddle. Bingo, no more issues, and I'm pretty aggressive with the whammy, so if it works for me it might just work for you.

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Beyond the tricks mentioned above (to recap, nut lubing with graphite, proper nut slot cutting, winding up not down to reduce the angle), there's one I've seen that sounds good is Carl Verheyen's trick of setting the claw in back to parallel the tension of the strings. He goes into it on Youtube.

I'm a Tele guy, so I don't really know from tremolos, but if it works for you, I'm happy.

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