A Brief History of Floyd Rose Tremolos

Every time jeweler and guitarist Floyd Rose would aggressively use the trem arm on his guitar, it would go out of tune. This frustrated him.

So he started hand-making and selling his own "locking" trem bridges in 1977. By 1979, he had a patent for the design. And then the guitar bridge with his name on it was everywhere. It would revolutionize the entire industry over the next few years, setting the stage for artists like Eddie Van Halen and Steve Vai to lead the ‘80s pop-metal revolution.

The design addresses the detuning issue by taking the tuning keys out of the equation with a locking-nut, and relegating fine tuning to six micro-tuners mounted above pivoting saddles on the bridge-plate. The saddles were hinged and sprung from below by a six-tabbed saddle-spring, which enabled the micro-tuners to raise and lower the extended string-lock screws. The screws were upgraded to dedicated adjustment lugs in a later design with the strings being locked with saddle-mounted threads.

The design was a global success, prompting supply and licensing deals with heavy hitters like Fender, Washburn, Jackson, Ibanez, Yamaha, BC Rich and anyone else who wanted to cash in on the uber-vibrato craze. Many unlicensed knock-offs also appeared, and some companies chose to “improve” or modify the basic design and release proprietary versions under their own names.

Fender Tremolo Bridge vs. Floyd Rose

The F-style tremolo was reliant on quality, well-fettled tuning keys to stay in tune for regular use. Having the nut set up by a luthier was recommended for guitarists with excessive vibrato fetishes. Rose’s design isolated the strings from the tuners by using a locking-nut. The additional benefits of micro-tuning were an instant hit with guitarists.

Fender trems were mounted directly on the body using six screws that had to be set to precise heights for consistent action. The Floyd pivots on two robust, height-adjustable mounting posts that can easily be corrected with a hex-key.

Strings were passed through a tone block from the rear of the guitar, which meant up to 40mm of excess (read: stretchable) string length inside the block. The ball-ends will sometimes jam inside the tone block, which – in addition to having to push the new string through two holes in the back of the guitar – makes rapid onstage string changes challenging under pressure.

In contrast, the Floyd trem locks the strings in place with a clamp system, shortening the utilized length of the string to the distance between the locking-nut and the saddle clamp. This reduces the variable length of the string during play and over time.

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The F-style itself was fine for the era in which it was conceived, but it was not meant for the excesses demanded by the Metal aficionados of the 1980s and beyond. Floyd Rose built a tough, solid unit with tolerances far exceeding that of the Fender unit – even the pivot-arm was a much heavier design with a torque setting that could be tuned to taste. The bridge-plate was larger and also of heavier gauge steel with precise mounting cutaways to offer a very flexible pivot point to the mounting posts.

Adding more springs to the F-style would increase tension, but that feature was maxed out at five. So if your needs called for more bridge tension, upgraded springs would need to be sourced. Floyd springs are heat treated, tuned length pieces and could be set in later models to bow consistently when the trem was floated. This enabled a rear-ward, string-stretching action unattainable with a Fender trem.

The passive design of the Fender tremolo offered nothing but intonation and string-height adjustment. The Floyd encompassed vibrato action, fine-tuning and string-height adjustment in addition to intonation fixing. The design not only makes for superior controllability during metallic excesses, but also puts personalization into the hands of any guitarist with a hex-key kit.

Floyd Rose’s ground-breaking development inspired a major shift in bridge design and playing style rarely seen from a single piece of guitar hardware. Inevitably, the original was licensed, modified or just plain ripped-off by others wishing to emulate the system’s benefits. So how good are the clones, knock-offs and licensed copies? The following four examples range from dirt cheap to high-end, and all are fitted to working guitars to be examined as mounted.

The Original

Original Floyd Rose

Starting at the beginning, this original is mounted to a 1985 Kramer Baretta. It is black – not chrome – but is otherwise a good example of the “Mark 1.” After 30+ years, it works just fine – the threads are still tight, the saddles move smoothly during tuning, and it returns consistently to neutral position with the strings in tune.

Quality ages well

The finish is good – most examples of this vintage have some patina. The black tremolos sometimes get scuffed and the small parts can suffer from corrosion due to setting and forgetting the saddle locations. Grime can also build up in hard-to-reach areas, making keeping them clean difficult.

The original was always a quality product. Floyd Rose was founded on the premise of producing precision tremolos using the best materials. Screws are excellent, and machining is completed to fine tolerances. Springs are tempered, tuned length examples that are still tight despite their age. You’d be hard pressed to find a better flagship to launch and sustain a tremolo manufacturing enterprise than the Floyd Rose.

Gotoh

Our first licensed copy is by Gotoh, a reputable guitar parts manufacturer.

Early ‘90s surface mounted Gotoh LFR

This is an accurate representation of the Floyd with a different bridge-plate shape and saddle design. The cosmetic changes are aesthetically pleasing with hardware quality that is on par with a genuine item. Both mounting and saddle-springs are excellent – no slack is evident during micro-tuning with the adjustment screw withdrawn almost completely.

This model can be used for both forward and rearward action, as the mounting springs return to neutral reliably. I like the look of the saddles – not quite as square and abrupt as the original.

Saddle contours are indicative of a thoughtful design process

The pivot arm is easy to insert and remove, and the torque setting can be tuned to taste. Mounting posts are heavy-duty and an improvement on the Floyd Rose original parts.

Jackson

Our next licensed copy is the Jackson JT580LP, a copy of the Floyd Rose “Pro” series of tremolos. These trems have the string lock screws located on the saddle rather than extending out behind to double as micro-tuning lugs. Dedicated saddle extensions are used for tuning instead.

This Licensed Floyd Rose (or LFR) is a good quality copy, but lacks the inherent precision of the Gotoh. The hardware is good grade, and the saddles are more faithful to the original Floyd design, but the finish suggests “mass production” as opposed to the Gotoh’s self-assured statements of “custom upgrade.”

This style is known as the Lo-pro, note saddle mounted string-lock screws

The Jackson has narrower micro-tuner heads – not as user friendly as the Gotoh’s larger ones – but only slightly less knurled surface area than the original Floyd’s. The action is satisfactory, but the supplied springs are just adequate. The Jackson is better than a Fender-style original, and not the worst LFR out there. There are, however, no innovative features to make this tremolo a stand-out purchase.

Yamaha

Yamaha produced some interesting variations on the Floyd Rose design in order to avoid licensing and make use of their impressive in-house design and manufacturing facilities. The model pictured is fitted to the sublime SE 1212A neck-through design guitar and typifies the innovative approach taken by Yamaha.

Yamaha definitely added some personal touches

String locks are sometimes tricky to use, and this tremolo has ball-end slots to secure the string. This is an elegant solution to an issue which usually requires special strings or inverting the string orientation. It is a marked improvement on the original Floyd Rose.

Other features include an integrated bridge-plate housing with precision mounted pivot posts, saddle blocks fitted to prevent lateral saddle movement and a low-profile two-way action. Micro tuners are solid and the springs match the high standards of the rest of the trem’s hardware. This tremolo is a practical rethink of the Floyd Rose design and stands on its own merits despite its obvious inspiration. It outclasses the basic Jackson and echoes the “custom upgrade” build quality of the Gotoh.

Chinese Imitations

Finally, here’s a $10 cheapie bought online from China specifically for this article.

It may be labeled as “Licensed” and look like the real deal, but that’s where the resemblance ends. The only solid thing about this trem is the bridge-plate, and even there you’ll find a litany of faults:

  • Sub-standard screws and threads, which will strip at the head or snap under moderate pressure

  • Every thread-mating surface is loose and tapped to very low tolerances

  • Knurling rough and poorly finished

  • Three inadequate mounting springs supplied

  • Saddle spring is just as useless, disengaging half-way through the adjustment range

  • Saddle hinges and mounting posts are loose and easily shift position, throwing the guitar out of tune

The value in refitting the bridge-plate with quality items is debatable – it’s probably cheaper to buy a better unit altogether. The $10 was worth it for the review, and the “do not buy” warning for the inexperienced.

A company all their own

The Floyd Rose company does not build guitars, and operates only to produce bridge designs. This dedication to their main focus and craft is evident in the design’s persistence through the decades. Although the hair-metal era has come and gone, their genuine and licensed products can still be found installed as standard on high-end guitars by Ibanez, ESP, Jackson, Gibson Les Paul and even SG guitars in the FRX surface mount model.

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