Like most things, there is the most commonly travelled path, and then there is the lesser-known way that people don’t use as much. This idea applies to guitarists in many ways too, for example, on the topic of whammy and tremolo bars.
If your guitar has a whammy bar – also called a tremolo/vibrato bar, you may be wondering how tight or lose it should be. It comes down to personal preference for most, however, there are some solid rules of thumb and commonly used guidelines for proper set-up.
Generally speaking, most guitarists like to have their whammy bar tight enough so it doesn’t risk falling out of the bridge or tremolo system, but loose enough that you can grab it and maneuver it whenever you need to without resistance.
As I said though, this is going to come down to the individual. I don’t like to have mine super tight, because then it feels like it’s annoying and hard to get out of the way. But I also don’t like it so that it’s so loose that it’s continuously moving around while I’m playing. It’s worth exploring a bit more so let’s do that now in the sections below.
Why Does The Whammy Bar Keep Falling Out Of My Guitar?
Because they come in different thicknesses and sizes, it’s very possible you’re using a whammy bar/tremolo arm that’s too thin for your guitar’s bridge, which is why it keeps falling out.
One thing that’s worthy of note is how there are imperial and metric-sized tremolo arms. When I first measured the tremolo arm for my guitar, I was annoyed to see that it was 4.75mm, but it turns out this is just the 3/16″ arm.
Originally I thought there were all only 3 sizes, 5mm, 5.5mm, and 6mm, which is why it bugged me. We’ll talk about sizes in a moment.
But I digress. If your whammy bar is not big enough, no worries, because I have a short guide below that’ll show you how to fix it. I’ve got the “proper” way of doing it that I would choose if it were me with the issue, and also a DIY method that others may prefer instead.
How Do You Fix A Loose Whammy Bar?
1) Tighten the Nut/Screw To Hold the Whammy Bar In Place
In case you didn’t know, some tremolo systems and whammy bars actually have a screw, nut, or bolt that you can tighten to adjust how much play is in the bar. On a PRS SE Custom 24, for instance, there is a 1.5mm (1/16″) screw that you can tighten.
What size of wrench you need for this will obviously depend on the manufacturer, but 1/4″ and 1/16″ are fairly common, from what I’ve experienced.
2) Find The Right Whammy/Tremolo Bar For Your Guitar
A) Use A Quality Digital Caliper
To find the proper whammy bar or tremolo arm size for your guitar, get a quality digital caliper to figure out the thickness of the whammy bar you’re currently using. This will give you a frame of reference for whether you need to go thicker or thinner (tighter/looser).
As I said earlier, when I measured the PRS Silver Sky Trem Arm, it measured 4.75mm which is consistent with the USA imperial measurement of 3/16.”
The thickness of the bar itself is perfect for the SE Custom 24 (although maybe a bit snug), but, it’s definitely too long.
The reason why it’s too long is that I bought a tremolo arm for a PRS Silver Sky which has something similar to a Floyd Rose if I’m not mistaken. There are classic vibrato bar systems and then the Floyd Rose style.
A guitar with a Floyd Rose tremolo system requires a longer whammy bar. My mistake was buying a tremolo arm that’s simply too long for the style of tremolo that is on my PRS SE Custom 24. I saw on the package that it was PRS so I just grabbed it (here’s my set-up guide for PRS by the way).
They probably won’t take it back because I took it out of the original packaging and everything, so I’ll just have to take about 1 inch off the whammy bar with a grinder, and then sand the edges around it, that way it fits in nicely without burrs.
B) Do A Google Search And Find The Correct One (Or Email the Manufacturer)
Another way to find the proper whammy bar for your guitar is to simply buy the correct one. You should be able to easily find the proper whammy bar on Amazon, Thomann, or your local music store. My product page has the links.
As far as I can tell, it appears that Amazon has the best selection of whammy bars because they have many different brands and sizes – in millimetres and inches as well.
The nice thing about Whammy and tremolo arms is they’re dirt cheap, so buying 2 or 3 at a time of different sizes wouldn’t be the worst idea in the world. I would recommend buying a 5mm and 6mm bar, as these appear to be the most common.
So what if you don’t want to spend any money on a new tremolo arm, or maybe your music store is on holiday? If your bar is too loose inside of your tremolo system, a common solution is to use PTFE tape which I’ll show you how to use now.
3) The DIY Way to Fix Your Loose Whammy/Tremolo Bar
One of the most commonly recommended ways of getting a tighter whammy bar is to use PTFE or plumber’s tape and wrap it around the whammy bar several times before inserting it into the whammy bar hole.
The guy in the video below shows you how he does it at the 03:00 mark approximately. Another way that people sometimes claim works is to put Q-tip cotton in the hole of your bridge, but this isn’t a good idea at all for a few reasons.
One reason is that it simply doesn’t work very well. And the second reason is that it’s going to be a nightmare to get all of that cotton out of the tremolo system, which is something the guy in the video also addresses.
I would never, under any circumstances, stick cotton or things like that inside the guitar’s components because it’ll take forever to get out. Just buy the proper bar, to begin with, or use Plumber’s tape to fill in the gaps.
4) Simply Screw In the Whammy Bar/Tremolo Arm Better
It has recently come to attention as well that many vibrato bridges have a screw-in tremolo-arm and whammy bar as well. From what I understand, this is true for certain Fender-style bridges as this forum user points out.
In this case, it’s even more important that you get the right tremolo arm and whammy bar because not all of them come with threads on the end.
5) Ensure You Haven’t Lost the Spring in the Tremolo
It’s not uncommon for certain kinds of tremolo systems to have springs inside them as well. If you can’t get your whammy bar/tremolo arm to fit properly into the guitar, there’s a very good chance that you’ve lost the spring.
I’m not referring to the springs on the back of the guitar either if you’re using a Floyd Rose or another similar tremolo system. I’m referring to the tiny adjustable spring that holds the bar like what the guy showed in his video (at 03:30).
Use the tactics I’ve shown above to get on the right path. Also, there are 3 more things I believe are worth a little more discussion.
3 Things to Know About Whammy and Tremolo Bars
1) Whammy and Tremolo Bars Come in Different Thicknesses
There are a few things you should know about whammy bars when trying to fix your whammy bar woes. As I was saying earlier, the first thing you need to know is that whammy bars come in different thicknesses.
According to Whammy Parts, the most common whammy bar sizes are the 5mm, 5.5mm, 6mm, 3/16″ (4.75m), and 1/4″ (6.35mm) bars.
2) There Are Different Bars for Floyd Rose and Standard Vibrato Bridges
The next thing you need to know is there are different kinds of bars for different tremolo systems, ie, regular vibrato systems and Floyd Rose tremolo systems.
3) Some Whammy Bar/Tremolo Systems Have Adjustable Tensioners
Many Floyd Rose and other styles of bridges have a tool whereby you can adjust how much tension is on the bar itself. This will control how much the bar wiggles around inside the hole of the bridge.
It’s important to note though that not all bridges have this feature, although, many of them certainly do. Because this is the best way of adjusting how the bar fits inside your tremolo system, we’ll discuss it first.
Can A Whammy Bar Break Strings?
Generally speaking, it is possible to break your strings while using a whammy bar or tremolo system, especially if you’re using thicker strings and a tuning higher in pitch than standard tuning (E standard – 440 Hz).
Although, if you’ve set your guitar up properly, you shouldn’t have much of a problem. One common issue people run into at times is having the strings drag on a nut or saddle, which can intensify string breakage which is something this Quora user also pointed out.
Important Things To Note About Whammy Bars
1) There Are Other Tremolo Types
There are many different types of tremolo and vibrato systems out there, including the aforementioned Bigsby. The most common, however, is the Floyd Rose and the hard-tail style like what’s seen on most Strats.
The Bigsby tremolo arms are usually attached to the bridge itself, unlike the others where it’s an entirely separate component that can fall off or be replaced if needed.