To Trem or Not to Trem

The Kasuga Les Paul copy I used for 10 years doesn’t have a tremolo. My home made guitar had one, salvaged from a long-since-scrapped guitar, but I stopped playing that as soon as I got my Kasuga. So, it’s safe to say, I’m not used to tremolos, and I didn’t really have any feelings towards them. Until I got my Strat.

Stratocaster tremolo

Like most people, the novelty meant that everything sounded like I was sat on the washing machine on spin cycle. And, pretty soon, the novelty wore off. Problems with tuning stability outweighed its minimal use, and the tremolo was soon decked* and forgotten about.

A year later, and I’m listening to some Pink Floyd. I notice David Gilmour’s vibrato, especially on the bent notes. His big bends are famous, and, after a lot of practice, I can do them justice, but vibrato? It occurred to me that he’s using the tremolo with the bends, and it sounds great. So I decide I’m having some of that. But, do I really want to open that can of worms again?

I decide that I’ll attempt a compromise: I’ll keep the springs just tight enough to deck the tremolo, but not tight enough to stop a bit of whammy. That way, I won’t officially float the tremolo.

My first mistake was to remove 2 of the 5 springs from the claw. 3 springs made the tremolo too loose to deck and too easy to lift with a bit of bending. So rather than trying 4 springs, I went straight back to 5, and started loosening the claw. After a surprising amount of loosening, I reached the biting point. The springs were tight enough to keep the tremolo decked with a bit of bending, and slack enough to add a bit of vibrato.

Setup by Steve Robinson

All in all, this was an excellent result, and I will keep the tremolo going for the short term. Tuning stability seems fine, probably helped by the excellent setup done by guitar tech Steve Robinson in Sale, Manchester, early this year, which included a new bone nut and a string tree spacer.

* A decked tremolo is rendered inoperable by tightening the claw, using all 5 springs, until the bridge plate can’t move.


Learning to Ignore Logic

Back in April 2019, I was touring the guitar shops of Manchester. I played a lot of guitars in those visits. One guitar which left an impression early on was a Gibson SGM.

Gibson SGM ad photo

I’d never played an SG, until recently. I was surprised how light it was. This particular SG had a weird automatic electronic tuning system, called Min-eTune, which works by picking up string vibrations through the headstock, and adjusting special machine heads fitted with servo-motors. It was all a bit futuristic, and, frankly, a bit off-putting.

Min-eTune on the Gibson SGM

On top of that, being an “M” variant of the SG (effectively, an SG Junior + Min-eTune), a lot of corners had been cut to bring down price. There was no binding or pick-guard. There was no lacquer. The logo was screen-printed, and the inlays were plastic. The red stain job looked cheap. And the fretboard rosewood was weird and grainy. It just felt a little bit home-made. What’s more, one of the tuning buttons was missing, and two others were cracked. I gave it a good play, had a nice chat with the shop guy, and cautiously returned it to its place in the window. It seemed a lot of money for something with so many negatives.

Melody 12-string acoustic guitar
My old Melody 12-string acoustic. Sadly, no more.

Six months later, I returned to Fab Music guitar shop in Stockport in search of a 12-string acoustic guitar to replace the damaged one I’d sadly had to bin. After trying the one on offer, I asked about the SG. Sure enough, it was still there, being avoided in the window. The shop guy told me he’d given the frets a polish and offered me another play. So, not wanting to be rude, I gladly obliged. It was then that I realised I really liked this guitar, warts and all. So, half an hour later, I walked out of the shop with a 2014 Gibson SGM with shiny frets.

Happy chap with a 2014 Gibson SGM

The guitar was really well set up. The nut was cut perfectly. I had to reverse the Tune-o-matic bridge, because it had been put on backwards. I bought a bag of used eTune machine heads off eBay, and managed to get 6 good ones with what I had. I tried to give the fretboard a makeover with lemon oil, but it was still weird when I’d finished with it. Finally, I bought a matching truss-rod wrench, and dropped the action 10 thousands of an inch, to just-about-perfect.

The Gibson SGM (2014)

The more I play the SG, the more I like it. It might even be my favourite at the moment. It’s a very different animal to the Strat: humbuckers instead of single coils, a mahogany body instead of alder, a 12″ fretboard radius instead of 7.25″, 24 frets instead of 21, a hard tail instead of a tremolo, and of course a 24.75″ scale instead of 25.5″. So, I can justify having both, using the “horses for courses” excuse! Sometimes it helps to be delusional, and ignore logic.


“Anything but a Strat”

My first electric - a home-made guitar

Like most teenagers learning to play guitar and forming a band, I couldn’t afford a really good guitar. So I made my first electric guitar out of plywood, cheap hardware, and parts from a scrapped guitar.

1976 Kasuga LG-480BS

I was about 16 when I’d saved up for a second hand Kasuga LG-480BS ‘Deluxe’, from Reidy’s in Blackburn. The Kasuga was my main guitar for the next 10 years. But, after the eighties, it’s either hung on a wall hook or sat on a stand in my house.

At the end of my computer musician phase, I decided that I missed the instant feedback of playing an instrument. After a brief stab at learning piano, I decided to have another go at guitar. But, as I was now a ‘grown-up’, perhaps I could make up for the budget limitations of the past?

Richwood TL Thinline

On a whim, in 2012, I stopped at Louandy’s in Colne, which I’d been passing for months, and I walked out 30 minutes later with a used Richwood TL Thinline. It seemed like a good idea at the time, but it eventually started to gather dust, just like the Kasuga.

Boss ME-70 multi-effects box

The following year, I replaced my Boss BE-5 multi-effects box with an ME-70 from Banks in York — a digital processor with a dizzying array of functions, which made my home-made Noisewarp look like a child’s toy.

But it wasn’t until the establishment of Stockport Music in Sheds, in January 2019, that my guitar playing restarted in earnest. And the desire to buy that guitar I always wanted was rekindled.

The Quest to Find the Dream Guitar

But, where to start? I was seriously out of practice, and I’d forgotten most of my repertoire. I was worried that I wouldn’t know a good guitar if it fell on my head. The last time I’d visited a guitar shop, I was overwhelmed and ran away in embarrassment. But, now I was older and less easily shamed, I decided I’d visit all the guitar shops Manchester had to offer, and spend as much or as little as necessary to get a good guitar.

I guessed that I should have a vague idea of what I wanted — although I would be seeking as much advice and information as possible. I envisaged possibly replacing my Les Paul copy with a real one. Maybe an SG would be a reasonable alternative? A Telecaster or Jazzmaster might be the way forward in the Fender world (anything but a Strat, which is only played by guitar heroes). Do I need to be careful about where they are made? Are the Epiphone/Squier versions just as good? What about the new kids on the block? How much do good guitars even cost these days?

2014 Gibson SGM Min-ETune

Being my local guitar shop, I visited Fab Music in Stockport first. The shop guy was very helpful, but the stock at the time was mostly odds and sods, with only a few interesting items. I tried out a quirky Gibson SGM with a missing tuner button, which I liked, and a bastardised Fender Telecaster, which was a good price but slightly disappointing in action.

Sounds Great Music near Cheadle was next. This shop reminded me of Reidy’s, back in the day — walls of lovely shiny guitars, some cheap and some eye-wateringly expensive. I was chaperoned by Danny senior, who couldn’t have been nicer or more helpful. I tried out 8 guitars, including ones I’d never heard of. Surprisingly, I didn’t really like any of the guitars as much as my old Kasuga — even the expensive Les Pauls. I was starting to lose faith in my quest.

Fender 1960 Relic Stratocaster

As I was preparing to leave, we got chatting about the second hand pink Fender Stratocaster in front of me. Danny said that it had created quite a stir in the shop, and lots of people had gushed over it. I joked about my lack of interest in the guitar heroes’ axe of choice, but asked for a quick play anyway, just so I knew what I was missing. I wasn’t prepared — it was like the guitar had been made for me.

Encouraged by this revelation, I now knew that my dream guitar was possible. I had more of an idea what I wanted, and I started a tour of guitar shops (including Marvel Guitars, Live Louder, Dawson’s and PMT) to find it. But, the longer I spent trying out different guitars, the more I realised that the Pink Strat was still top of the heap, and by a wide margin. So, I headed back to Sounds Great for another go…

This time, I had a proper try-out, plugged into a nice amp. As I was noodling around the 15th fret, playing with the pickup switch, I heard the guitar from the start of Shine On You Crazy Diamond come from the cab. Suddenly, I was David Gilmour, and the guitar was Pink, this was too spooky. I bought the guitar.

Guitar-Playing Renaissance

Over the following weeks, I couldn’t walk past the Pink Strat without stopping for a play. Within three months, I was back to the level I was at when I stopped playing 30 years earlier. Some of the guys at Music in Sheds were into 60s British Blues, so I was regularly playing Clapton songs and improvising pentatonic solos. I had revisited all my old Pink Floyd records and learned some of Gilmour’s solos. I even learned how to play Smoke on the Water correctly, from a YouTube video.

It was then that I realised: I had become one of those sad old guitar heroes. Damn the Pink Strat!