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Whammy bar question and a little showing off

PostPosted: Tue Nov 07, 2017 10:35 pm
by Adam Krauze
Hey guys, I'm new to the forum, and new to playing guitars too. I started about two months ago after a friend finally convinced me, and can finally play the F-chord without looking at my fingers

To start off, I got the SE312M off goodwill for $70, and I'm thrilled with it. I LOVE the feel of the satin neck, and the short body is a good match for my 5'4" height. It took some work to get it to playable condition though. Made in '89, the body and neck themselves are in almost mint condition, probably kept under someone's bed for decades. Only a few minor dents that can be removed if I ever repaint it. I did have to teach myself how to tune the action, intonation, floating bridge spring tension, truss rod, etc.

The first real issue was when two of the string saddles snapped at the pivot (look at images below). It is essentially impossible to find parts for this bridge, so after temporarily splinting them with some steel pin stock and epoxy, I made new saddles out of 1mm 4130 steel. I have access to a cnc mill, but my design required a tiny cutting kerf, so I had to have a shop water jet cut them for me. I then made a tiny sheet metal break that sat on my vise jaws, and bent them into shape. The photo is of just the test one, the ones on the guitar are much cleaner. All the holes were drilled and tapped prior to heat treating. For heat treatment, I hardened and tempered them to a little softer than what I normally make my knives. I then stuck them into a vibratory tumbler made out of a tupperware container screwed onto a sheet sander, along with ceramic media. This gave me a good surface to solder the saddles closed. At this point I remembered I needed to grind the divots at the top of the triangle that the strings rest in, so I ground each one to the correct height so the strings match the curvature of the neck. Then back into the tumbler for parkerization prep, which is the finish I settled on. After parking, I let them sit in some ATF I had lying around for the parked surface to absorb for corrosion resistance.






Ok, so here's where my question comes in: I'm not up to this point yet, but it bugs me that I don't have a whammy bar (vibrato, tremolo, whatever) to use with it if I ever want to. I called Yamaha, and they have long since lost nearly all information related to this guitar, including part drawings and details. I'm going to go to a guitar shop at some point to see if they have any arms that would fit this, but I'd still like to make one, as I'm sure you guys can understand.

I have to measure it with a caliper, but it seems the hole is 6mm, and there is a small spring clip at the end of the hole, I'm assuming to grip a notch at the end of a whammy bar that pushes in.

1) Does anyone have any opinion on what material the arm should be made out of? It seems most are made out of steel, but I figure something lighter like aluminum would not flop around under its own weight as easily. If it doesn't matter, brass could look interesting. I can't see a way to change the friction at all like the screw collar arms can.

2) Is there any consensus on what the "best" whammy bar attachment system is? As in threaded, push-in with screw collar, the current simple push-in with spring retention, maybe magnetic, etc.? I'll most likely remake the bridge baseplate and block out of a better steel at some point, so I can also incorporate whatever arm I want to.

Thanks in advance!

Re: Whammy bar question and a little showing off

PostPosted: Thu Nov 09, 2017 1:28 pm
by Freeman Keller
Nice work on the saddles. As far as the bar is concerned - it sort of looks like a Floyd arm and collar might work, these are available from lots of suppliers

[Staff - this is a linked image and is OK]

You might also consider replacing your tremolo assembly with a Floyd (or Kahler) - that way parts would be available but of course you seem to be having too much fun building your own.

Re: Whammy bar question and a little showing off

PostPosted: Thu Nov 09, 2017 3:26 pm
by Adam Krauze
You're right about having fun with this :D

I did think about that at first actually, found that the pegs are spaced at 80mm, and couldn't find a single other bridge with pegs spaces like that. Relocating the pegs is easy enough, but then I'd also have to modify the guitar's body to get the hole to match the bridge, at least if I didn't want it looking out of place. And I'd be spending quite a bit more money on a good saddle than it's costing me to build one from scratch. So I decided to go this route.

Here's a bad photo of what I mean when I say "spring clip":


It's at the end of the bridge block hole. I took the photo through the back of the guitar, short of actually taking the bridge out to take a good photo and dealing with tuning again. So to sum up, the hole is smooth and goes through both the base plate and block, with a clip at the end that looks like it's for a notch on the bar.

So at least for the time being, I'll just make an arm out of a cheap piece of round stock, which is where question #1 comes in (asking about the material). Eventually I'll remake the whole bridge, or at least the baseplate and block, at which point I can do whatever I want for the arm, which leads to question #2 (on the best system). I may be able to get access to a lathe, so it doesn't even have to be something that exists yet if anyone has any interesting thoughts. I've been playing around with some ideas, but haven't drawn anything up in CAD yet.

Re: Whammy bar question and a little showing off

PostPosted: Thu Nov 09, 2017 3:53 pm
by Mark Wybierala
I wish I had your skills with metal. Here's my two cents. Whammy bars significantly increase the potential for tuning instability. They're kinda cool and make the guitar produce a unique noise but using one tastefully is a skill that comes long after developing a lot of other skills. You could see ten awesome full live performances of great bands with great guitar playing without ever encountering the use of a whammy bar. But I remember when I started learning guitar and I also wanted to play with the whammy bar too so I "get it". The type of trem that I see in your pictures is one that also requires a locking nut for best tuning stability. If there are the components already installed on your neck for a locking nut, you need to make sure you have all of the parts for it and they work. If you don't have a locking nut installed, the tuning stability of your guitar will be mediocre at best. As a beginner player, its hard enough to make chords and have them sound good even if the guitar is in tune. If your whammy bar system compromises your tuning stability your guitar will sound bad even if you're playing it properly. I'm blown away by your metal working ability and if you fully understand ALL of the issues of a whammy bar system, I have faith that you'll probably be able to make it work. But understand, that a lot of budget whammy bar systems just aren't up to the task even when new.

Go to older music stores that have been around for a long time and bring your guitar with you. Some will have a bucket of various old whammy bars -- the good stores are sure to have a collection.
Just use this guitar to learn on and if later you find that you need a whammy bar, buy another guitar with a fully functional system. Personally, if I had your metal skills, I would probably continue your whammy bar challenge just for the challenge of getting it done.

Re: Whammy bar question and a little showing off

PostPosted: Thu Nov 09, 2017 5:19 pm
by Freeman Keller
I'm going to kind of echo what Mark just said. I don't play a lot of electric and absolutely no metal and I wouldn't have the faintest idea what to do with a tremolo. However I do build a few guitars, including electrics, and I get asked to do a lot of setups on electrics. I have been asked to install tremolos on two guitars - one was a Bigsby on a jazz archtop (and the owner really does know how to use it) and the other was a Kahler on a jagstang for a dedicated metal head (and I have no idea if he can use it or not).

However I have been asked to disable trems more times than I can count - block them or deck them or otherwise fix them so the guitar won't go out of tune. I think I deck as many as I "set up". In answer to Mark's comment, you do have a locking nut and they seem to be critical to making a Floyd style trem stay (sort of) in tune. Because you only do the rough tuning with the tuners (duh) Floyd style whammies have those little fine tuner knobs sticking up at the back of the bridge. They work, sort of, and bend, often, and so a popular spare part are replacements.

I'm also an engineer and I think that most implimentations of whammy bars are poorly designed - Fenders being the worse, Floyds better (pivot, fine tuners), and the Kahler is actually a little jewel - you can adjust string spacing, saddle height and intonation easily, tension for any string gauge and block and unblock with a set screw. The saddles are roller and are easily replaced. The are expensive and elegant.

In my humble, a tremolo arm should be easy to put in exactly the position you want it for play, then be easy to "put away" when you don't need it - Bigsbys do this nicely, Fenders don't. For that reason I don't like the screw in rods, but of course they are cheap and thats why Leo did it. They are also easy to remove, which I think is an advantage when you put your guitar in a case. With the Floyd arms I've seen you need access to the back of the bridge to get at that screw.

Bottom line, I think trems are unnecessary and would suggest disabling yours while you learn to play. You can, and should, learn to bend sharp, you just can't dive. If you feel that you really need a whammy then consider upgrading to a modern unit that will fit in your cavity, but has parts available and will stay in tune.

Re: Whammy bar question and a little showing off

PostPosted: Thu Nov 09, 2017 9:38 pm
by Adam Krauze
Thanks for the advice guys, I will keep everything you said in mind as I go forward. Also thanks Mark for the kind words about my working with metal. It's just one of my hobbies. Making things in general is something I know I don't actually know everything about, but all to often end up being an arrogant smart-ass over. I try to keep it in check. Looking at some of the builds on this forum though, I know I've got quite a long way to go before I'm that good at any craft.

I'm actually halfway through building a propane forge for my knife making hobby. Speaking of which, I'm also almost done with a run of kitchen knives for next mother's day. I'm in uni right now for applied physics and mech-e right now, so I can only get to the shop some weekends.

I also don't expect to really need the bar most of the time. To be honest, the main reason I want one is because the hole is there haha. I also think that I like the way it sounds. I've been learning some songs like Eric Clapton's Sunshine of Your Love to practice picking strings, and I found that I really like the way bending strings sounds. I don't know if that would extend to using an arm, but I figure I'll find out.

Interestingly enough, I haven't had a single issue with it staying in tune, It usually takes a week or two before it goes out of tune by 10 cents (according to my phone and tuner) with at least an hour of playing per day. I don't know if this is just because I haven't actually had a bar attached though. I find it very easy to tune within a minute. And setting up the springs to get the bridge parallel to the body was a one time deal. I do have a way to lock the bridge in place by 3d printing a spacer of the right size and shape, but haven't felt the need because the floating bridge just doesn't annoy me at all.

I will take it to a guitar shop sometime soon to sort through their stash of bars and see if anything fits. To be honest, even if I get one and find I share your opinion on the usefulness (or uselessness) of bars, I'll still probably make one just to say I've done it.

So current mentality: My heart is not set on it, I'm strictly screwing around to see what I like, but I'm still going to make one because I just can't not :lol:

Re: Whammy bar question and a little showing off

PostPosted: Thu Nov 09, 2017 11:05 pm
by Freeman Keller
Adam Krauze wrote:
So current mentality: My heart is not set on it, I'm strictly screwing around to see what I like, but I'm still going to make one because I just can't not :lol:

You'll fit right in here.

Re: Whammy bar question and a little showing off

PostPosted: Fri Nov 10, 2017 2:19 am
by Adam Krauze
Haha, thank you.

One of my problems is there are too many things I'm trying to do with my life. I literally have a list of different projects going on, and a longer list of projects I have planned. With the metal working, wood stuff (just finished building a table saw), now learning guitar, and a few others, I'm kept busy. Also, ya know, studying. Far too much calc. I don't know when I'll be able to get to remaking the bridge and making a new bar, but it'll happen at some point. I'll make sure to update here when it happens.

On that note, any opinions on the material to make it out of? Like I said before, I'm leaning toward aluminum for it's weight, but there may be reasons why I can't seem to find anything on aluminum whammy bars on the internet.

Re: Whammy bar question and a little showing off

PostPosted: Fri Nov 10, 2017 1:49 pm
by Freeman Keller
Adam, as I said before, I am far from being an expert on vibrato systems - but if your intent is to try to improve yours then I would suggest looking at the various designs and try to pick the best of each. I think the Fender knife edge system is a cheap but functional, the Floyd Rose tries to address some of the problems and the cam systems like a Kahler are much better. There are people who argue that the material that the string block in a Fender systems is made out of does affect the tone - you'll find replacement blocks made out of brass or other materials that add sustain . I doubt that I could hear it but would a less dense material (Al) maybe dampen some of that sustain?

On the other hand, machining the base plate of something like a Kahler out of aluminum might make sense - it would certainly lighten it. Kahler does make their trems in a variety of different metals - steel, brass, aluminum, and some units use one metal for one part, something else for another. If you really wanted to be cool, how about machining your parts out of Titanium - you would get many of the strength benefits of steel with the lightness of aluminum (not to mention some gee-wiz factor). (I happen to ride a titanium bike and at one time considered building a titanium resonator guitar so I'm a bit smitten by Ti).

While you are thinking about the design of your trem, consider the problems of existing designs. Some of them bind as they go thru their motion - can you reduce or eliminate friction? Should the strings be able to move at the saddle break points, if so, should they be rollers? Are the saddles easy to adjust in both vertical and horizontal directions, do you have enough travel to correctly set both playing action and intonation? How about changing tension if you change string gauges or tunings - personally I think the whole No 2 wood screw/spring/claw assembly is just plain wrong. A really nice feature might be adjustable string spacing.... And going back to your very first question - how about an arm that is easy to remove, stays in the playing position without falling down, yet can be pushed back out of the way when you don't want it. And last, but maybe not least, a way to block the trem so it doesn't move for those of us who don't want it.

I also think the whole idea of a locking nut is just wrong - my guitars have good tuning stability but I'm constantly tweaking the tuning and often using alternate tunings - maybe a roller nut makes more sense. Then of course if we are speaking about nuts, how about incorporating some nut compensation.....

Spend a few minutes looking at the Kahler design - there is a lot of interesting engineering going on here. And keep posting, its always good to see people thinking about these things ... s-6-string ... 00-series/

Re: Whammy bar question and a little showing off

PostPosted: Fri Nov 10, 2017 6:12 pm
by Bill Raymond
I question whether or not aluminum would be desirable; it may be too easy to bend out of shape. I would go with plain steel rod. I prefer a fixed arm vibrato and made a fixed arm for my Bigsby from stainless rod, but it was a real fight to bend. With a fixed position arm, you can have the end right under your little finger where you'd need it to use it properly; the problem with swing away arms is that they're never where you want them when you need them.