Look at any Guitar magazine and one thing immediately becomes apparent. Guitar journalists are obsessed with two major models of guitar: the Gibson Les Paul and the Fender Stratocaster. Other styles, including the Gibson SG and Fender Telecaster, come second (or third, or fourth, or fifth ….). In some respects this is understandable. These are the two guitars that set the standard for tone and playability in the early years of electric guitar production.

Yet if there is one complaint that springs to mind more than others it is that a 'Fender-style Tremolo system' (or one of its later competitors, such as the 'Floyd Rose') is hard to set up correctly. Especially when a guitarist changes the strings.

Although at first glance the Fender tremolo is simple, with only a bridge block and a few springs, in reality the system is a complex balancing act between the string action, the string height, the tension desired by the player (and hence the number of springs in use), and the gauge of the strings. It is usually the latter that causes problems. After buying the guitar, players may want to change the strings to their preferred string gauge. Once the way the tremolo system works is understood, so is the reason why changing string gauge will play havoc with your guitar.

The majority of guitar players use either 09-gauge or 10-gauge strings. Assuming that a player who prefers '10s' buys a guitar with '9s', obviously they will change the strings. However, '10s' are thicker than '9s' and so need more force from the springs behind the bridge to get them to the proper tuning. This extra force will pull the 'tremolo' bridge up higher by causing the springs to stretch further. Simple so far?

This is where it begins to get messy. Adjusting the spring tension at the back of the guitar may bring the bridge back to the desired position, but if not then maybe an extra spring needs to be added. But that's not all. The extra tension from the strings will also tend to bend the neck ever so slightly upwards, so there is a good chance that the truss rod will need adjusting to compensate.

Of course, adjusting the truss rod will cause the guitar to go out of tune, so it will need re-tuning. This will cause the tension on the bridge to be altered, meaning that the bridge will change position slightly, so the bridge may need to be readjusted. This readjustment will probably make the guitar go out of tune again, so it will need re-tuning, which means that the bridge may move too much or the neck may bow a little more ….

Changing from '10s' to '9s' is obviously the reverse procedure, with the strings needing less tension to reach pitch and so allowing the neck to bend backwards and the bridge to 'drop'. So all of the above procedures need to be done, but the other way round.

It's a complicated, long-winded process and is one of the reasons why some players don't like the Fender/Floyd Rose tremolo systems. Many players who like the feel and sound of tremolo-equipped guitars but not the tremolo system have been known to 'block' the system: stopping the tremolo from moving and so eliminating the whole process of balancing the tremolo.

However there is one further complication of using a different string gauge. On 'Floyd-Rose' systems this isn't much of an issue because the strings are clamped into place at the nut to maintain tuning: the system is meant to be 'abused'!

Stratocasters (and copies) use standard nuts, and if the nut has been cut to accept '10s' then it may be too loose with the smaller '9s', causing tuning instability. If cut for '9s', the nut may grip the thicker '10s', causing not just tuning problems but also causing the strings to bind when the tremolo is used, resulting in the strings not returning to pitch correctly when the tremolo arm is released.

Obviously, if the new strings are a lot thicker/thinner than the original strings, then the process is a lot more long-winded and the guitar may need to have a new nut, adding to the complexity and cost of a full setup.

All of the above helps to explain why many guitarists refuse to play guitars with any form of tremolo system. But when properly installed and set to the player's desired tension/action, a tremolo-equipped guitar expands the options on a guitar, which is why many players - especially those playing 'heavy metal' - want to have a tremolo guitar.

As with everything concerning guitars, it is a player's individual choice that matters, so if you have a tremolo system on your guitar and want it set up professionally, then you need to know what gauge of strings and the height of the action you want your guitar to have.