Welcome to this, the final installment of this first gearing up column series. In this column I want to address something that I have to deal with daily as a guitar instructor, and almost every time I do a gig. I usually overhear this conversation: "Dude, I've been thinking about getting a new Jackson(Ibanez, Schecter, ESP etc...) It's really sweet with EMG's and a Floyd Rose locking whammy". His buddy then chimes in. "Dude, you don't want a guitar with a Floyd man, they are too much trouble, and totally suck when you want to tune to drop C man". If this conversation sounds familiar, it should as it happens every day at music stores around the U.S. Let me suggest (at great personal risk to myself) that the problem lays not with the Floyd but with you my friend.
In my experience (20+ years) Floyd Rose whammy systems work exactly as they are supposed to work. The problem arises when you ask it to do something it isn't designed to do. What a locking whammy gives you is the ability to dive bomb to your hearts content, bend with extreme prejudice, and do harmonic screams that only dogs can hear, all while staying in tune. As long as you mainly play in one tuning and use the same string gauge most of the time you can't get any better than a Floyd. In fact I always suggest to students that if you are primarily a lead guitarist who makes use of his whammy regularly, you really have no business using anything other than a Floyd Rose. The people who say that Floyds suck in my experience are players who use a different tuning on every song (usually a drop tuning), and rarely if ever take a solo. Sorry folks but a locking tremolo doesn't take too kindly to being asked to change tunings every song. When you see rock stars that play in drop tunings you will notice that they have a different guitar for each tuning. These guitars will most likely stay in that tuning for the whole tour. Getting upset that a locking whammy can't be instantly detuned is like getting mad that your Hummer can't race in the Indy 500. It isn't designed for that!
The problem that is likely causing this confusion is that most guitars with locking whammy systems are set up to float. That is that the pitch of the guitar can be both raised and lowered. The stability of the whammy is set with springs in the guitars back that keep it stable in whatever tuning you have it set up for at the moment. When you detune, what happens is that the tension decreases on the springs causing the whammy to drop into the body cavity. The solution is to take off the guitars back plate and adjust the claw that holds the springs in place so that trem is level with the body and stable. If you want to retune the guitar, the tension changes again, requiring more adjustment. Also be sure to check the truss rod, and intonation when changing tunings or string gauges. One other piece of advice is that when you change strings on a floating trem, either block the bridge so that the whammy cannot fall back into the body, or just change the strings one at a time. That way the tension on the springs in the back will stay more consistent, saving you more adjustments later. So the answer is quite simple, play mostly in one tuning, or have a bunch of guitars each with different tunings. That is unless you like to spend as much time making adjustments to your guitar as you do playing it.
As with so many things related to guitar gear, the key to happiness is to "Know Thyself'. Understand what sort of a player you are and what you are trying to accomplish, and choose gear accordingly. If you love your alternate tunings, and don't keep the same string gauge for more than a week, please get a guitar with a stop tailpiece. And if you do get a Floyd Rose set up to float, remember not to blame it when it can't instantly go to drop C.
Scott Allen is a 1996 graduate of the Musician's Institute, G.I.T. He currently teaches guitar to 65 to 70 students weekly at Northridge Music Center.
His latest CD is entitled "III", featuring his impressively fluid playing, with a style marked by an incendiary sense of phrasing.
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