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Tremolo Bridges And Screw-In Tremolo Arm Installation Difficulties

Often we find that with most of the various models of Fender’s® tremolo bridges that utilize a screw-in tremolo arm is that on occasion the tremolo arm is firm when screwing in, or it will have loose and tight points in its rotation as you install it.  Obviously this entirely relies on the fact that you are installing the correct threaded tremolo arm in the bridge in question. This same issue may also arise when mating a tremolo block to top plate.  The problem lies in how the top plate is aligned with the tremolo block.  Most all of Fender’s® tremolo bridges that utilize a screw-in tremolo arm insert the tremolo arm at an approximate 10 degree back angle (except the 6mm Squier® tremolo arm bridge and some early model MIM Strat's®) where as the pass-through hole in the top plate for the tremolo arm is drilled straight down or perpendicular to the flat surface of the top plate. Also there is a very small amount of miss-alignment of the tremolo arm pass-through hole in the top plate in reference to the tremolo arm threads in the tremolo block and without careful installation of the top plate to the tremolo block a tremolo arm may experience difficulty or tightness when installing.

Below is a photograph a brand new Fender 099-2049-000 vintage Strat tremolo bridge assembly right out of the box and you can clearly see the misalignment of the tremolo arm pass-through hole in the top plate in reference to the screw-in threads in the tremolo block.  This is what causes most of the issues of not being able to install a tremolo arm into a bridge that accepts a screw-in tremolo arm. The edge of the tremolo arm will contact the edge of the top plates pass-through hole not allowing a smooth rotation of the tremolo arm straight down into the threads in the tremolo block causing friction and typically what happens is the person screwing in the tremolo arm will place more leverage on the arm in an attempt to make the tremolo arm screw in, then what happens is the tremolo arm is broke in two right where the threads on the tremolo arm end and meet the smooth shank portion of the tremolo arm.

Before performing any of the adjustment steps below you will want to make sure the tremolo arm you are attempting to screw into your tremolo block is the correct one and will screw into the bare tremolo block all by itself without the top plates pass-through hole causing any interference. Simply screw in the tremolo arm into the tremolo block without the top plate installed, just the bare tremolo block, at this point if it screws in all the way just fine you'll know that it is the alignment of the top plate is causing your interference and tremolo arm insertion problems.  If you are attempting to screw in the tremolo arm into the bare tremolo block and it begins to get firm in its rotation, then STOP, do not go any further, do not attempt to force it to screw in, you will damage your tremolo block or tremolo arm or both. If the tremolo arm does not want to screw into the bare tremolo block then you have something going on with a tremolo arm attachment threading miss-match or damaged threads in either the tremolo block or tremolo arm.

Once you've determined you have the correct tremolo arm for your bridge but encountered a firm insertion of your tremolo arm with the top plate installed a solution to the above described issue is to remove the 6 saddles, loosen the 3 top plate mounting screws, install the tremolo arm all the way until it stops, then position the arm where the tip is facing forward, parallel with the strings as if the bridge was installed, this is all done while the top plate is loose, then re-tighten the 3 top plate mounting screws. What this does is use the tremolo arm as an alignment dowel to prevent the miss-alignment of the top plate and tremolo block from becoming an issue. Typically this will solve this issue and your tremolo arm will now install with no (or much less) friction against the side of the top plate tremolo arm pass-through hole. This is a common knowledge characteristic to all those that build, repair or maintain Strat’s® on a regular basis and to assume your bridge is defective because of this occurrence is simply a lack of understanding of the tolerances and miss-alignments of the components involved. All it takes is 0.001” of intrusion of the tremolo arm pass-through hole in the top plate into the path of the tremolo arm as it is installed is more than enough to cause problems, by adjusting the top plate alignment to remove this 0.001” of intrusion from the tremolo arm pass-through hole in the top plate is all that is needs to entirely resolve the issue.

If you have purchased a replacement tremolo block for your Strat and are retaining your original top plate you may experience this same issue described above, but there is also the remote possibility that you may need to slightly enlarge the tremolo arm pass-through hole in your top plate. Typically this extra step is not needed, but we have seen on occasion where it may be necessary. If you have performed the above described procedure and are still experiencing a tight tremolo arm the only solution is to slightly enlarge the tremolo arm pass-through hole in the top plate. You will need a numbered (1-40) and a lettered (A-Z) drill index sets to perform this procedure the most effectively without over enlarging the hole too much, fractional drill indexes increase in size too much from one drill bit to the next, numbered (1-40) drill indexes increase only 0.001" to 0.007" in size from one drill bit to the next largest and lettered (A-Z) drill indexes increase only 0.004 to 0.008" in size from one drill bit to the next largest. For this procedure the top plate has to be removed from the tremolo block. Clamp the top plate in-between two pieces of wood in a vise to securely hold in in place, do not attempt to perform this by holding the top plate by hand.  First thing to do is put on your safety glasses to prevent eye injury and then determine which size drill bit just fits through the top plates tremolo arm pass-through hole and then select the next drill bit larger which is probably around a #1 (0.228") which will remove just a very small amount of material. One you have enlarged the tremolo arm-pass through hole in your top plate with the next size larger drill bit re-install the tremolo arm in the tremolo block and fasten down the top plate and check for fit. If the tremolo arm is still too tight then remove the top plate and select the next size larger drill bit from what you used previously and enlarge the hole again, slightly larger.  Repeat as necessary, but you should not have to enlarge the tremolo arm pass-through hole in the top plate too much.  When you have enlarged the tremolo arm pass-through hole adequately and if you have a 62 degree countersink bit of about 3/8" in diameter you may want to very gently use it to remove the slight burr from the top and bottom surfaces of the top plate that you created by drilling out the tremolo arm pass-through hole.  Obviously since the top plate is chrome plated by performing this procedure will remove the chrome plating and you may notice a slight copper color around the surface of the top plate once you use the countersink bit as a de-burr tool.


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