a look inside fender, 1959

December 10, 2012

I forget who told me about this video, but whoever you are, thank you thank you thank you!  What a treasure.

The video is attributed to Forrest White, who was a senior figure in the early Fender story, and Leo’s friend and neighbor. His book is an interesting read.

alleviating vintage tremolo tuning problems

December 4, 2012


A customer’s email prompted today’s post. He’s not the first person who’s mentioned issues with 6-screw tremolos, so I thought I’d write an article and append it one of our other technical docs here.

Fender’s traditional 6-screw floating tremolo is a good bridge, though it has a reputation for not staying in tune. While it’s not realistic to expect this bridge to stay in tune as well as a double-locking unit, such as a Floyd Rose, it certainly can be made to stay in tune fairly well if a few tricks are employed.

By the way, this is a floating tremolo, or was originally designed to be so, though obviously it doesn’t have to be set up this way. The floating aspect has been disputed by some, but Leo Fender’s original patent drawing is clear.

The thing that causes tuning instability is friction. Any friction – whether friction in the strings’ paths, or mechanical friction in the system itself – will negatively affect the trem’s ability to stay in tune. Actually, what you’re really trying to do is to get everything that moves during the trem’s operation to return to the same “resting” position, over and over. The better you can get everything to return to the same position, the better your guitar will stay in tune.

So, what is “everything that moves”?

  1. The tremolo itself
  2. The tuners (possibly)
  3. The strings

The Tremolo
The first thing is to make sure that the tremolo moves freely in the body, with no mechanical restriction. To do this, remove the springs in the back of the guitar. Then loosen the six screws on the front that anchor the trem to the body, until there are visible gaps between the undersides of the screw heads, and the top of the plate. Better yet, make the gap at least 1/16″ or 2mm. Now, slowly and carefully, screw in either one of the outside screws while you watch the rear edge of the plate. As soon as you see the slightest sign of the top plate’s rear edge lifting away from the top of the guitar body, stop, then back the screw off 1/4 turn. Do the same thing with the other outside screw (the four interior screws should still have gaps under their heads).

This is the optimal position for the outside screws. They should not push down on the front edge of the trem at all, but should be so close to the top plate that the plate’s front edge essentially cannot lift away from the body. In this way, the screws won’t cause any binding of the plate, but neither will they allow it to lift away from the guitar. It’s captured, but with free range of motion.

Now, physically move the trem up and down so that you hear it banging between two stops: In the down position, it should be stopped by the underside of the plate hitting the top of the guitar, and in the up position, it should be stopped when the tremolo block hits the rear wall on the inside of the cavity. Between these two stops there should be absolutely no friction that you can discern. The trem should move completely freely between the stops, banging into the wood cleanly at either end of its travel.

Assuming that the trem moves freely, you’ll lower the four interior screws so that the gaps between the undersides of their heads and the top plate is roughly the same as the thickness of your low-E string.

If the trem doesn’t move freely, then figure out what’s causing it to bind and fix it. Could be that the tremolo block is rubbing against the inside of the cavity. Whatever the source of the binding, you have to find it and fix it, or else your trem will never stay in tune.

Now, have a look at your saddles. Saddles should be smooth where the strings pass over them. If they have grooves or ridges in this area, try to smooth them with files or abrasives, or replace them. Smooth, hard saddles will reduce friction and help to alleviate tuning instability.

The Tuners
If your tuners are slipping, then you’ll have tuning instability forever and ever, amen. This stands to reason, right? They need to be tight and right, or they need to be replaced.

Also, good stringing and tuning habits are essential. There are lots of articles on stringing, so we won’t cover that here. We personally don’t buy into the notion that strings need to be locked to the tuner post by bending the loose string end back on itself, whatever others might have to say about it. And of course, this isn’t possible anyway if your tuners are of the Kluson Safe-T-Post style that Fender used on the original guitars, and that they continue to use on the Reissues (these are the tuners with the hole in the center of the post, where the string end is inserted into the hole before winding the string on). But one rule of thumb is to have nice, even wraps of the string down the post. Don’t let the strings wrap up the post, and don’t let the wraps overlap each other haphazardly.

And tune up to pitch, not down to pitch. This is less of an issue with today’s higher-precision machines than it used to be with older tuners, but it’s still good practice. Tuning up to pitch means that you’ve taken the lash out of the gears, so they’re less likely to slip when you tug on the string.

The Strings
And now we get to the heart of the matter. Keep in mind that the strings are physically changing in length as you use the tremolo, getting longer when you pull up and shorter when you push down, so they’re sliding past objects that they’re in contact with, such as saddles, nut slots, and string trees. The goal is to keep contact and friction to a minimum.

A properly-cut nut will have slots that are wider than the diameters of the strings. If you have a .010″ high-E string, and the high-E slot in the nut is .010″, then you have contact all the way around the bottom half of the string. On the other hand, if the slot in the nut is wider, say .012″, then you only have contact on the bottom of the string:


Less friction is what we want, so make sure that none of the strings are binding in the slots. If you hear a “tink” “tink” when you’re tuning a string, you’ve got friction. Make sure that the slots are wider than the strings, and also, lubricate the nut slots. There are companies out there that market products for this, but we find graphite powder the easiest to apply, and it works great! You can find small tubes of it at Lowes or Home Depot, in the area where they make keys (it’s sold as a lock lubricant, and is very inexpensive). Just put a little in each nut slot, then put the string in the slot, and blow off the excess. Instant slippery-ness!

String trees pose another problem. The reason they’re used at all is that on Fender guitars, the B and high-E strings have a very shallow angle where they pass through the nut. There’s not much downforce over the nut at all, and so the strings ring when played in their open positions. Very light finger pressure on these strings between the nut and the tuner posts will usually be sufficient to dampen this extraneous vibration and stop the ringing, but instead many guitars have a string tree (or two) that put much more downforce on the strings than is needed to stop the ringing, and this is a significant source of friction.

Ultimately you’d like to have string trees that apply only enough downward pressure to stop the ringing, and no more. Tom Anderson used to provide a cool solution with a height-adjustable string tree, with a spring underneath it (don’t know if they still use this design). You could screw it down just enough to stop the ringing, and so it exerted no more force on the string than was necessary, thereby minimizing friction.

On those guitars that come with the string tree screwed right down against the face of the headstock, you can install a spacer (Fender PN 002-0423-000) between the string tree and the headstock. This raises the tree up and substantially lessens the angles where the strings “break” over the nut and underneath the string tree. This will substantially reduce friction.

Further, you can polish the undersides of the tree, removing any burrs or sharp edges, and making the area where the strings contact as smooth as possible. This can be done with files, sandpaper, a Dremel tool with burrs and stones, polishing compound, etc. The smoother the better. Or, there are aftermarket string trees that are designed to alleviate friction, such as those from Graph Tech.

Finally, there are tuners with height-adjustable posts, where you can lower the post heights for the B and high-E strings in an attempt to create the downforce required over the nut, allowing you to get rid of the string trees altogether. Alternately, you can make a wedge that fits between the tuners and the back of the headstock, with the thinner end (.020″ or so) at the low-E tuner, and the thicker end (.100″ or so) at the high-E tuner. This accomplishes the same thing as the adjustable-height tuners. We’ve seen these made of wood, and they were actually available in the mid ’90s from Wilkinson, made of aluminum.

The bottom line: String trees create friction, and less is better. So smooth them; lift them; whatever you can do to create the smallest angles in the string and still stop the ringing. Or, get rid of them entirely.

Do These Things
…and you will alleviate tuning instability to a great degree. These trems can be made to stay in tune much better than their reputation would have you believe.

well, hello again! oh, and the dang postal service…

November 29, 2012

Hi!  Been a l-o-o-o-ng time since I’ve posted, so here goes.  Today’s post will involve some ranting, but is also designed to be informational.

The US Postal Service is such a pain. We’ve had two incidents with Express Mail International within the last few weeks, and I just got off the phone with the USPS regarding one of them.

You generally get what you pay for in life, and there’s a reason that the USPS is cheaper than UPS and FedEx.  And that reason is service, or the lack thereof.  The first incident involved a shipment to a customer in Italy.  A week or so after shipment, he emailed to inform us that it appeared his package was in New Zealand.  Sure enough, it was in New Zealand, and the USPS had to open a case to get it shipped to Italy from there.  The customer received the package in the end, but it took 27 days.  I assumed we’d be able to get the guy’s money back; after all, he paid extra for fast shipping, and an error that was clearly on the shoulders of the USPS (not like they could blame Italian customs or postal authorities on this one) had delayed the delivery for about 3 weeks.

Not only had the USPS done a disservice to our customer, but their mistake had also wasted my time, what with communicating with the customer on several occasions, and also communicating with the USPS about it.  But they declined my offer for them to make it right with the customer (by refunding his postage), saying that Express Mail offers no guaranteed delivery time. The guy from the USPS suggested that he could give me an address where I could mail them an appeal, which I saw as an opportunity to have their mistake cost me even more wasted time and hassle.  I have little confidence that the hour or whatever I would have spent preparing an appeal would have been rewarded by the USPS doing the right thing, by owning the mistake and the cost to make it right with the customer.

And now the latest. We have a package that’s missing, another Express Mail International package, that was delivered to the Post Office 16 days ago.  Unfortunately, the package was not scanned, so we don’t know if it’s in the U.S. or elsewhere.  UPS and FedEx scan packages when they pick up from merchants – we use UPS, and we run an end-of-day report each afternoon, and when the driver scans the bar code on that report, all of the day’s packages appear in the UPS tracking system. The USPS used to not do this, which was very frustrating for us as the USPS website wouldn’t show that they had taken possession of a package, sometimes for days after it was picked up.  Their tracking page would simply say “Electronic Shipping Info Received”, which would leave customers with the impression that we hadn’t actually delivered the package to the USPS, when in fact we had.

Finally, a year or so ago, our driver was issued a scan tool, and now when he picks up each day, he stands out at his truck and scans all Priority and Express packages, but not First Class Mail. This is progress, and we were thrilled to see the USPS finally step into the 21st century. Unfortunately, when our normal driver is out for vacation or other reasons, we get a pickup from another driver, and they don’t always have a scan tool, so we’re back to the dark ages.  In fact, two weeks ago our driver was off for a week, and two of those days we didn’t even get a pickup, and scrambled at the last minute to get the packages to the Post Office by 5:30. And on one of those two occasions, I personally was met with a hostile attitude by a lady at their dock, as if to say “thanks for waiting until the last possible minute to come rushing in here with a bunch of packages”.

Nice.  Hey, don’t our postage purchases pay her salary?

So anyway, this was the week when the package in question was shipped, and of course, it wasn’t scanned. So when I called the USPS about it, their rep suggested that her records showed the status as “Electronic Shipping Info Received”, indicating that we hadn’t yet delivered the package to them. At which point she found that I had a little bit of an attitude myself. Actually, I tried hard to keep it in check, knowing that berating her for the shortcomings of her compadres was no recipe for satisfaction. But it’s hard not to have an attitude when – upon telling her that it would take me a minute to find some piece of information that she required – she informed me that she was only allowed to hold for one minute due to call volume, after which she would be forced to drop the call.

Not that the USPS has a problem with making me hold for more than a minute, due no doubt to that same call volume.

So what are you going to do? This is why UPS and FedEx cost more than the USPS. You know, they actually have to turn a profit in order to stay in business, while the USPS loses billions of dollars per year. Hey, if you’re willing to lose money year after year, of course you can undercut your competition. But it appears that it’s a little harder to offer lower prices and quality service. Welcome to the real world.

wiring diagrams for ya

December 4, 2011

Have you seen our new wiring diagrams webpage? We think it’s the nicest out there. We’re adding to it regularly, and there is currently a pretty nice collection, and nearly all available as hi-resolution PDFs. There are some instruction manuals at the top for Acme prewired and ToneShaper products, with lots of Strat and Tele diagrams below, as well as diagrams for other guitars.

Our diagrams are two-part: the diagram on the left is an info page that provides the details for that wiring, and the diagram on the right shows you how to wire it. There are some very unique wiring schemes on there, with lots more to come, so keep checking back. We’ll feature one each month in our newsletter.

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happy holidays!

December 4, 2011

And hey, especially if you can wrangle a new guitar out of the deal! Some of you may not need to beg, borrow, or steal; but many of us have live-in financial gatekeepers who don’t…


understand our needs. This is a bummer. But take heart, for we here at Acme will endeavor to make killer guitars available that won’t have you sleeping on the sofa, at least not for too long. Affordable.

We guitar players!

time to give thanks

November 20, 2011

…to Leo Fender and Freddie Tavares for the most beautiful guitar of all time (my opinion), the Stratocaster. The beauty above is available as I write this, it’s the most heavily upgraded hot-rodded guitar we’ve done to date, and it’s a knockout. I have a great job!

les paul toneshaper!

October 22, 2011

Woo-hoo, the Les Paul ToneShaper is here!  Check it out!

blackie. sorta.

July 6, 2011

I always thought Blackie was a cool-looking guitar. So does the rest of the world I guess, and Fender must too, as it appears to have inspired one of the Road Worn Strats. We’ve modded this one though, with cool upgrades, and a subtle color shift with the addition of black pickups and knobs. It’s available now, you can check it out and watch a video of it here.

hard bodies

June 24, 2011

I posted about Mark King once before, but this was the first time I’d seen his products in the flesh. Wow! Pricey, but of super high quality. Really, we tried and tried, but simply didn’t have the photographic skill to capture the beauty of these things. We had to settle for the images above (click for larger ones). But trust us, these are drop-dead gorgeous, you have to see them in the flesh to appreciate how nice they are. Interested parties can contact Mark here.


June 24, 2011

On June 1 I deleted all of the email in my inbox.  Well, I didn’t actually delete it, I just moved it to a folder I optimistically named “email not replied”, thinking that perhaps one day when I get some free time I’ll work my way through the folder and reply to all of the emails.

This isn’t the first time I’ve done this.

I heard an interview on NPR with one of the founders of Twitter, and he said that he does this periodically too, when he gets overwhelmed, and then he’ll email a distribution list of friends and family saying essentially “if you emailed me recently and need a reply, please email me again”. I have to say that I found this story comforting, because I’d been buying into the idea that the reason I can’t stay on top of email is because I’m lame, when in reality there are probably lots of people out there who can’t keep up on email.

So if you’ve emailed and haven’t gotten a reply then I apologize.  I do intend to make a better effort going forward, we know you want answers to your questions. But please don’t take it personally, it just means that we’re overwhelmed.  We’re in the process of training several new people so we can get on top of our projects a little more.


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