One of the most daunting and potentially expensive things that people learning electric guitar often have to deal with is buying their first electric guitar.
If your dad or your roommate or somebody has a guitar and they’re happy to let you use it, then lucky you. You’ve dodged a bullet man; just keep playing that one until you feel confident about what you want for your own guitar.
But for everyone else, you’ve suddenly got to ask yourself a bewildering array of questions: what with those single coil and humbucking pickups? Which type of pickup do I want or need? And how many pickups? What’s the deal with those guitars with an extra string? And one question you may be wondering about is what on earth are these Floyd Rose tremolos I keep reading about, and do I want one on my guitar?
First, let’s get a bit of background on what we’re talking about here. A “tremolo” bridge is a bridge that has a bar attached which you can press, lift or shake to change the tension on the strings, thus changing the pitch of the note sounded. Strictly speaking, the word tremolo actually refers to changes in volume, not pitch, but some time in the 50s Leo Fender started calling them tremolo bridges and since then the term has stuck.
For decades electric guitar players made do with non-locking tremolos bridges, which for the most part could accomodate gentle dives or flutters without noticeably effecting the guitar’s tuning.
But when dudes like Jimi Hendrix or Eddie Van Halen wanted to do some massive whammy dives, sometimes pressing so far that the strings went slack, they’d find that all of a sudden their guitars had become unbearably out of tune.
If you watch or listen to any of the videos or recordings of Jimi Hendrix playing live, you’ll notice that he had to tune up pretty much at the end of every song, often muttering “Only cowboys stay in tune” – a cryptic remark that might have been a reference to country and western guitarists, whose more restrained guitar playing didn’t involve the wide bends and whammy bar dives that characterised Hendrix’s work.
In the early 80s, this all changed with the introduction of the Floyd Rose tremolo. Named after the inventor, Floyd D Rose, the Floyd Rose locks the string at the nut and at the bridge. This locking stops the string from slipping even during large bends or whammy dives, meaning that the when the bridge returns to a flat position, the string tension will be completely unchanged. This makes for near-perfect tuning stability. Of course, when the nut is locked, the tuners at the headstock are rendered ineffective, so a Floyd Rose tremolo borrows a trick from violin makers by placing fine tuners on the bridge.
So should you get a guitar with a Floyd Rose?
If you are a beginner guitarist, and this is your very first guitar, the answer for almost all of you is a definite NO.
I don’t say this because I don’t like the bridges.. I have three guitars with a Floyd Rose, and I’d go so far to say that they’re my favourite guitars. But I don’t think they’re suitable for a beginner’s first electric guitar.
The first reason I don’t think they’re suitable for a first electric guitar is just the expense. A good quality floyd guitar is not cheap.
There are licensed versions of the Floyd Rose tremolo available, and many of them are high quality bridges. However, the budget models tend not to hold tuning perfectly, which removes the entire point of having a Floyd Rose bridge.
Even testing the bridge out in the store with some large pull-ups and dives isn’t a foolproof method, as a lot of the cheaper floyds work quite well when they’re brand new, but perform poorly after just a bit of age and wear.
For people who want tot is quite possible to buy a great second hand guitar for a bargain, and to upgrade the parts, but this is probably not something to tackle on your very first instrument.
Most people who are buying their first electric guitar do not have a lot of money to spend on it. But even for those of you lucky enough to have a lot of money to spend on guitars, my general advice is to buy something inexpensive for your first one, and to save the rest of your money for later, when you have a better idea of exactly what you want from an electric guitar.
The next reason I think you should avoid a Floyd Rose guitar for your very first electric guitar is because of the learning curve.
Once you are used to using a floyd, basic things like tuning up, changing strings and general maintenance are pretty easy. But when you are brand new to them, it can be a bit of a hassle at first. For someone who is still getting used to having a electric guitar, the extra learning curve involved with a Floyd Rose tremolo is probably best deferred until later.
The last reason I don’t recommend a Floyd Rose guitar for your very first instrument is just that because most beginners will at some stage like to experiment with different tunings on their electric guitar.
Adjusting the tuning on a Floyd Rose guitar is not very straightforward – basically, it requires a whole new setup on the guitar.
Strictly speaking, any guitar should have the neck relief, action and intonation adjusted when the tuning or string guage is adjusted. But most guitars, especially fixed bridge guitars, can be put into an open tuning or a drop tuning with minimal problems.
With a Floyd Rose bridge, the guitar might be basically unplayable. If you want to just try a new tuning for an hour or two to see if you like it, your life will be much easier without a Floyd Rose.
Floyd Rose tremolos are an amazing innovation to the electric guitar, and allow for excellent tuning stability even with the most adventurous playing.
They are an awesome choice for gigging guitarists, because of all the “dead time” on stage they avoid, by making tuning breaks between songs unnecessary. But for your first electric guitar, they are probably an inappropriate choice.