They’re called whammy bars, vibrato arms, wang bars, wiggle sticks, and tremolo systems. They have names like Vibrola, Bigsby, and Floyd. They can be floating, locking, or synchronized. They can be many things to many people, but most guitarists agree that when whammy systems don’t work properly they are a nightmare. That’s why there is a cottage industry of manufacturers designing products to give you all the good stuff and none of the bad when it comes to trems. Here we’re looking at three: the ChordBender, the FloydUpgrades.com Big Block (which isn’t a complete system but an upgrade to a standard Floyd Rose whammy), and the Super-Vee BladeRunner.
Anyone who has ever touched a whammy bar knows that the pitches of the strings do not all change at the same rate (although some do, as seen in this month’s Quick Licks). This is due to the fact that the strings are all of varying thicknesses, causing some to slacken (or tighten, if you uptrem) four times as much as others. The resulting dissonance is either horrible or awesome depending on your taste, but one thing it is not is in tune. Over the years, some manufacturers have attempted to rectify this situation, most notably Steinberger’s TransTrem system. Now there is another player in this game, the aptly named ChordBender. (For a guitar-porn view of the ChordBender, see Opening Shots from the Jan. 2012 issue of GP.) This ingenious collection of cams makes for a trem that will maintain the relative pitches of the strings when you go up or down, so if you play an E chord and then depress the bar a full step, you’ll get a D chord. Yank up a half-step and you’ll get an in-tune F chord. It really works and is pretty mind-blowing. Keeping the bent chords steady takes a little doing, unless you engage the Half-Step Stop—a little lever nestled in the ChordBender’s parts. As you might guess, this lets you move chords exactly a half-step or, if adjusted like our test model, a whole-step. This takes all the fear out of lowering a chord and is a very musical application.
The action on this system is unbelievably smooth, requiring almost no pressure to depress the bar. Removing the back plate reveals only one long spring anchoring things. Players who are used to smacking a Floyd might be surprised at how gentle they can be with the Chord- Bender. An added benefit of this whammy is that there is no sag on the other strings when you do a bend with your fingers, keeping blues- and country-style oblique bends totally in tune—almost unheard of on a trem-equipped guitar. Excellent!
The advanced manual talks you through stuff like string changes and routine maintenance, as well as how you can set it up to “morph” chords—say, from an Am to a Gmaj. This entails rotating the cam wheels in a precise manner and was way beyond my non-techy capabilities. I chose to slyly alter my fingering in mid-gliss to accomplish the same thing.
The easiest way to get the ChordBender is in a Greg Bennett-designed Samick instrument, such as the one reviewed here. The ChordBender can be installed, however, on Strat-style instruments that customers send to the company.
You might think that the ChordBender would make you sound like you’re playing slide, but that wasn’t my experience. It’s best to approach it like a whole new instrument, getting smooth with letting chords melt into each other in rhythm lines and working double- and triplestop glissandi into solos. It won’t really do what a normal whammy will do, but that’s not the point, now is it? It really is its own thing and, in the right hands, it could be a serious game-changer.
FloydUpgrades.com Big Block
As loath as I am to alter anything on my beloved Van Halen replica, a conversation with FloydUpgrades.com’s Adam Reiver made me reconsider. “Try my Big Block,” he said. “You can install it yourself and if you don’t think it dramatically improves your guitar’s tone, just put your original block back in.” Kind of hard to argue with, right? He provides step-by-step installation instructions on his website and, although there are many steps involved, he’s right—we can all do this. I had supertech Gary Brawer perform the install so I could video the process (available at guitarplayer.com), and from start to finish it took less than 15 minutes. I did some recording before the changeover so I could assess what tonal differences there might be. With the Big Block installed, I plugged in and definitely noticed a difference in tone and resonance. My guitar sounded bigger and chunkier, with increased sustain. To my ears, the biggest difference is in the mids, which obviously affects the bass and treble as well. This guitar was always on the bright side and the Big Block seemed to noticeably sweeten the top end. I also perceive added oomph in the lows. In totally unscientific terms, it just gives you “more,” and I think we all know that more is more.
FloydUpgrades.com, or FU if you like, has some serious cred in the whammy world. For starters, Reiver is the guy who came up with the D-Tuner/EVH D-Tuna. Also, the list of badasses who use FU components is too long to fit in this review. The brass Big Block is just one way to upgrade a locking trem (which doesn’t have to be a Floyd—parts for Gotoh, Peavey, Ibanez and others are also available). There are also titanium Big Blocks, titanium saddles, and spring upgrades, as well as parts for non-trem bridges and acoustic guitars. You can even get a fully hot-rodded Floyd with all the upgrades already in it. It’s like a better mousetrap on steroids! Whammy aficionados in general and Floyd players in particular should definitely look into FU.
We reviewed—and dug—the Super-Vee locking system in the October 2007 issue of GP. The BladeRunner is a replacement for a standard Strat-style bridge. Its defining characteristic is the same as on the locking model: Rather than pivot on a knife edge like most trems, the BladeRunner raises and lowers the pitch of the strings by bending a piece of high tensile-strength, tempered steel in the baseplate. It’s totally frictionless and won’t wear out. The review unit came on a Mexican-made Fender Strat and is secured with four screws (the BladeRunner is also available in six-screw or twopost configurations, as well as left-handed). It’s a nice-looking piece of gear and most people won’t even notice that it’s not stock.
The BladeRunner feels great, with a smooth, solid action. You can set the bar as loose or as tight as you like thanks to a cool little bushing screw on the block. And speaking of the block, it’s specially designed for light weight and good tone and, coupled with the aluminum plate and steel saddles, it does indeed deliver a great sound. This Strat sounds bright and full with impressive sustain. The tuning stability is also awesome. Once I stretched the strings, I could dive all the way down (an octave on the A string before the block contacted the body rout) and pull all the way up (a half-step of up-trem on the high E) and a subtle wiggle of the bar brought everything back in tune. Nice!
Despite the fact that the test guitar has only three springs in back, it takes some doing to work the bar. For me, this is a good thing—I prefer a system that I have to fight a little. You can set up the Blade- Runner for whatever feel you desire, but the stiffer action kept me from getting out of control with the bar while still allowing Jeff Beck-style chirps and warbles if I flicked the end of the arm.
The BladeRunner is a great choice for anyone wanting a well-made trem and an absolute no-brainer for anyone with a vintage Strat or other such guitar they don’t want to modify.
Contact ChordBender; chordbender.com
Price $799 in Samick guitar direct or at seven Midwest stores; $649 installed in your guitar
Kudos Amazing engineering. Creates sounds almost no whammy systems can imitate. Very expressive.
Floyd Upgrades.com 42mm Brass Sustain Block
Price $40 direct
Kudos Beautifully machined. Easy to install. Noticeably improves tone and sustain.
Contact Super-Vee; super-vee.com
Price $149 direct
Kudos Well built. Great tone and sustain. Provides excellent whammy action with no modifications.