Stetsbar Tremolo For Stratocaster: Installation Report
A Critical Look At The Bigger Picture
last update: June 9, 2022

Copyright 2020-2022 by H. Gragger. All Rights Reserved. All information provided herein is destined for educational and D.I.Y. purposes only. Commercial re-sale, distribution or usage of artwork without explicit written permission of the author is strictly prohibited. The original units  with their associated  trade-names are subject to the copyright of the individual copyright owner. The Author is by no means affiliated with any of those companies. References to trade names are made for educational purposes only. By reading the information provided here you agree to the Terms of Use.


Hardware Installation
Neck Adjustment
TOM Bridge
The Other Half Of The Equation
Other Observations


                            with Stetsbar
My Stratocaster
(click image for a bigger image)

is a ca. 1990 model and made in Japan, a true Fender indeed. It is equipped with the ubiquitous tremolo system (and yes, we all know this is a misnomer and itīs actually a vibrato...) that is potentially plagued by the equally ubiquitous problems of not returning to true pitch after activation, particularly after dive bombs.
I will use the term "tremolo" undiscriminating here, since it is customary. I believe it originates from Fender.
I did not dare using it often for exactly that reason. Jimi did it with disastrous side-effects sometimes. So I went looking for a system that promises better and landed with the Stetsbar.
This is a floating bridge tremolo in so far you can stretch the strings and slacken them, starting from a resting position determined by adjustable springs that counteract string-tension.
Telling from the videos,  it appears to be a straightforward swap. The the system should remain stable even if a string breaks.

We will see that the road to success is covered with thorns since they quietly assume ideal conditions.

We will see that many things in sales videos are suggestive. Our mind tends to fill out the gaps and interprets things, that have never been said. Greetings from Hollywood!

Indeed, if I had been able to see the bigger picture beforehand, I may have been not running to the shop so overcredulous, because this system, like any other of the sort, has its own pitfalls and quirks.

After all, having taken care of the other half of the equation, I may have been able to get the existing tremolo system to work acceptably, which may have rendered the purchase redundant to a degree.

However, with a little luck I did get it working well, albeit nowhere near in the postulated short time (read: work load), and I did indeed fall for the trap: no floating tremolo without penalty. I left it blocked for the moment (just slacking action). That all said, it ends up a very nice tool that has its merits. May you profit by the story that enfolded...

As far as my skills as photographer are concerned, excuse the fuzz. Pictures made with flash are unforgiving. The camera sees things you swore were not there. And finally, I do not have to sell anything...
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Hardware Installation

My Stratocaster has a tremolo cavity opening that is too small to accommodate the Stetsbar's back side. The milled oval piece of metal protruding from its underside may have been made slimmer by two millimeters without adverse effects. I had to remove some of the wood with a rasp. Luckily, the wood was only some millimeters thick towards the side away from the neck. Different to the neck oriented side, which is in place material.

                              between Stetsbar mounting flange and pick
(click for a bigger image)
The Stetsbar now mounts flush to the front cheek of the cavity, however this still leaves a 2mm gap towards the pick guard (double arrows).

The original pick guard's cutout fitted snugly onto the original trem's contour, so I have a feeling that the Stetsbar should be those two millimeters further towards the neck. I accordingly expected problems with the intonation setting range of the TOM which thank God did not occur. More on this later.

Besides possibly being a bit too far back, the Stetsbarīs front flange is a little wider than the one of my original (Fender) tremolo, which appears to be a standard because even the aftermarket pick guard was fitting into this pocket exactly. But Dremel tool to the help (single arrow).

Rear cavity: fastening bracket for
                              Stetsbar needs a spacer
The angular fastening bracket that holds the contraption in place from the cavity side, turns out to be some millimeters to high for the wooden shoulder in the compartment. (click for a bigger image)

Mounting it this way  would have resulted in a slanted position relative to the wood. This may not have been of any great concern, but I used a fat washer that was at hand underneath and now it is in parallel. (arrow)

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Neck Adjustment

To compensate for the raised action the neck angle needs to be adjusted accordingly. It requires a slight lift overall plus some slant. It was hard to predict how much, so this was trial and error. Following  the traditional
method one would put anything under the neck that would raise its butt end, but this method has recently been deprecated since it invites all sorts of problems, starting from neck humping to loss of sustain to intrusion of moisture. Nowadays full-sized wooden wedges are favored.
Indeed I used to have sustain problems around the 12th fret. Lo and behold, the neck shim consisted of no more than a piece of questionable material of the right thickness positioned towards the front of the pocket. The resulting cavity was obviously causing the problem. You would not have suspected, since this was the method of choice.
The raw shim that comes with the package could work this way, except it is too small overall for my neck pocket, which again invites trouble (moisture, uneven mount, sustain). Also, their method of shimming (using a fractional neck support) is strongly advised against these days. It felt like bungle and malpractice[1] using it in the lights of that.

Neck shim
Neck with shims. (click for a bigger image)

I made several wedges from 2mm birch veneer I had, ground to a wedge with #40 grinding paper. I wound up needing three of those and after at least 10 neck mounting-unmounting-checking reiterations I got in range. It is not quite foreseeable where your carpentry skills lead you if you do this for the first time...

This alone is a procedure not everybody will be able to do or want to do themselves. Easily a two hour rigmarole.

Pickup to string distance
High strings and Pickups  (click for a bigger image)

While LPīs and similar guitars tend to have the strings high above the body, a Strat is unlike, so some guitar's pickups may not have ample adjustment range for optimum setup. Luckily, my microcoils are forgiving.

The strings' distance to the pick guard is now double of what it used to be. This looks strange and you think it is wrong, but you donīt notice.

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TOM Bridge

A TOM (Tune-O-Matic) bridge is made for Les Pauls and the like. Moving this onto a Stratocaster potentially invites trouble:
  • intonation adjustment range
  • high string break angle
  • fret board radius issues

"(...) it [string break angle] refers to the angles of trajectory that all your strings take across and behind your instrument’s nut and saddles. "
- Stringsdirect: What is string break angle?

Those points have not been addressed in their advertisements / videos which I consider unfair, because they require a lot of attention. This quickly pulverizes the picture of a quick and effortless swap which is being conveyed.

                            adjustment range exhausted
Scale length vs. intonation adjustment range (click for a bigger image)

īs inherently have a shorter scale length than Stratocasters (one reason I do not get on well with LPīs by the way) and thus a potentially smaller
intonation adjustment range needed.

Luckily, it worked out for the string set used (I use a Hendrix type string set, fairly light custom gauge - what else?)

Update: I did run out of adjustment range later. See below.

As you can see, I stretched the envelope to its boundaries (red lines) for several strings and there is not much range left.

Clyde Deluxe Wah modded
String break angle on the rear of the bridge (click for a bigger image)
It is a known problem with badly set up Gibson guitars that the bridge over time sags under too much pressure caused by an excessive break angle behind the bridge. As practical as the top string mounting on the Stetsbar is (compared to the through-body fiddling Fenders need), the ball end cavity on the retainer bar is too low down. The strings have a pretty steep angle down towards the receptacle which inevitably makes most of them contact the bridge rim. This puts double the pressure on the bridge and may invite trouble in the long run. For this reason the stop tailpiece on a LP has been made height-adjustable.

The red line reveals that the thickest string is touching the rim.

"If the stop tail is too low and the strings contact the back of the bridge after going over the saddle, it will basically double the pressure of the strings on the bridge. This will cause the bridge to cave and change its radius, making for a less playable instrument.

Once the damage is done, you will need to replace the bridge."

- Reverb (James M Brill):Tune-o-matic Bridge Troubleshooting,

The receptacle for the ball end might have been positioned somewhat further upwards without detriment. The string's downward angle would have been less steep, pressure on the bridge much lower and the strings would not touch the rim. Maybe leeway for improvement? Are you reading this Eric?

                            look onto reworked bridge
Relieving pressure on the bridge's rim and filing the saddles
(click for a bigger image)

Not mentioned here, this will also create another point of potential string breakage over the sharp edge.
For a stock LP, the answer is obviously to raise the stop bar enough to avoid this situation, but this is not possible here - the stop piece is fixed. I cured this by using my Dremel tool with the small angle-grinder blades to remove some of the rim (green arrows).

Effective, but not nice. It also weakens the structure. You can decide between the devil and the deep blue sea.
Letīs see how long the bridge lasts before it creates problems.
Red arrows show saddle grooves with different depths.

"If your bridge is properly set up, your strings should match your fingerboard radius so that they have a consistent feel across the fingerboard.

When the bridge begins to collapse, the strings in the middle become closer to the fingerboard. Effectively, the action on these strings becomes lower and you might find these middle strings begin to buzz for (seemingly) no reason."

- Haze Guitars (Gerry Hayes): Gibson Bridge Collapse; String Break Angle at the Bridge #1,

Avoiding string buzz - this leads us straight to the next point:

                            view of saddles
Complementing the neck radius on the bridge
(click for a bigger image)

For a well playable guitar the bridge's saddles (and incidentally the nut) have to perfectly complement the fret board radius.

In my case, the fret board radius will be smaller than 7.25 inches. (7.25 is my smallest radius gauge and the neckīs radius was even slightly smaller, but 7.25 will be good enough).

I did not measure the TOMīs radius, but it is much bigger, very likely 12". In any ways, unusable for a Strat if left unmodified.
This gross mismatch would decrease playability by a lot. Guaranteed.

The red markers show that the grooves are all different depth.

Again, I used the Dremel to file down the saddle grooves until the string underside curvature measured at the bridge with the radius gauge approached the desired radius. I was careful to avoid entering filings into the bearings.

The saddles came pre-grooved, so the two middle ones could remain virgin. Consequently, the outer two strings are down lowest, and although being very close to the bridgeīs front rim, they donīt touch it. String excursion is minute at this point. However, they will inevitably contact the rear rim if no material is cut away due to the steep break angle.

"Do I have to slot ’em?"

Yep, you gotta slot ’em!"
- stewmac: Are you supposed to slot T.O.M. bridge saddles? [# I-TS0341]

So yes, you do have to slot them (and by the way, the slots may need rework if you change string gauges...), but they will fit for a Les Paul... and not for a Stratocaster in most instances.

For cutting the grooves commonly known precautions apply to prevent sitar-ing. Again, avoid filings entering the mechanism.
Is this a no-brainer action? Hmmm. You decide.

Manufacturer's claim: string does not move over the saddles due to the linear movement of the arrangement

To my understanding, the string expands over the whole length between its mounting points. Its not that that it were locked at the saddle groove. However I agree that the movement may be much smaller as in the conventional case, plus there is no bending action over the saddles involved due to the contraption's movement in one plane only.

All in all the TOM bridge appears not the best choice for a Fender type guitar, although I concede that mounting Fender saddles onto this arrangement would be a challenge, requiring considerable changes to the design.

June update:

Due to some new findings concerning neck mounting and sustain, I had to touch the neck again and consequently had to re-visit intonation. The first action helped trendously, the second one conjured up a problem.
Since the neck indeed made a small movement towards the body with a creaking noise, this displacement had to be compensated by the intonation screws. Needless to say, I ran out of range on one string.

I found a piece of aluminium sheet 1mm thick which I stuck between the stetsbar's underside flange (that oval piece of solid metal that protrudes into the cavity) and the guitar body where it rests against. This gives just enough additional adjustment range. So much for the touted easy installation.

This once again proves that the TOM is not a good choice for a Stratocaster. LP's are short scale guitars, need fatter strings but less adjustment range.

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The Other Half Of The Equation

It needs to be mentioned, that the whammy bar bridge itself is only half of the equation of a well working vibrato system.
Any part the strings are contacting between the mounting points may introduce friction, first and foremost the nut and the string retainers. Tuners with tons of excess string winding or sloppy string mounting may introduce slippage.

I recommend you inspect the nut grooves (particularly if varying string gauges or if this was never attended to at all). You may find you need to bring the nut grooves in shape to allow for lowest possible friction. There are many articles on the web that show you how to go about and why
[2]. Again, this all may not be everybody's bag oībeans.

Since I needed better tuners for a Telecaster equipped with mediocre tuners anyways, I moved the original Strat tuners onto this guitar and installed brand top lock tuners on the Strat. With these there is no need to have excess string wound around the post, so there will be no slippage to be expected upon stretching and releasing.
In retrospect, they were quite reasonably priced for the quality and I needed them anyways, but quality standard tuners will work well too if you wind your strings properly. There is plenty of information on the web.
My Strat has roller string retainers, which should not be problematic (as compared to the disgraceful piece of bent metal on the Tele that even prevents a humble string bend from returning to pitch).

You see, those things should be taken care of in any instance.

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Other Observations

Tremolo arm
Tremolo arm shape and position
(click for a bigger image)

The tremolo arm is bent in a way  that it will interfere with the volume knob on a Strat. Although the system does not allow full string slacking, there is enough downwards range available for convincing dive bombs - if you happen to hit the right empty space on the pick guard. This will be no problem on, say, a Telecaster, there is no obstruction there.
As I said, I was reluctant to using the original tremolo, let alone dive bombs, so I do not remember the situation with the original arm.
Note the toggle switch arrangement which is a "Super Strat Switching" by Dan Armstrong - very powerful!
A different geometry of the arm may help, but unfortunately the arrangement is stiff and I do not dare bending it.

I have seen some people turn the arm 180° around (so that it sticks out of the guitar's butt end) and lift it up for maximum slack. In fact you can slacken the strings this way even more than in the usual position, since the arm does not obstruct its own motion by hitting the pick guard, unless one of the corners of the hexagonal "screw" shape arm mounting gets in the way. Try it.

I have also seen a video with Jan Akkerman using the Stetsbar and he obviously has a custom arm on it.

They say the arm stays put in any position you move it, and this is true - more than you would probably expect. There is a rubber o-ring between the screw and the arm which gets compressed. The rubber ring adds some friction and the arm tends to kick back, so it may take several attempts to have the arm where you want it. But a small dab of vaseline (which is explicitly neutral against synthetic rubbers...) on both sides makes this work smoothly. The taming of the screw so to speak.

I always thought it cannot be in the spirit of the inventor to have the whammy bar
dangling off the guitar and have guitarists continuously fetching it.

Floating vs blocked:

The way it is presented suggests that the system is non vulnerable against broken strings or dropped tunings - this is true only if you block the upwards bending action by means of their floating lock screws. Big deal, you can do that with any conventional floating tremolo. E
ven this system uses springs to counterbalance the string torque and there is no center detent of sorts that would warrant immunity against variations in pulling force.

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The secondary adjustment actions mentioned above are always needed get a floating-bridge tremolo working better, in which case you may find you are perfectly happy with what you have.

That said, there is at least two major sources of friction less on the Stetsbar compared on a conventional (vintage) tremolo. Everything on this device is heavy quality and ultra-low friction. Indeed you can do an (almost) dive-bomb without gross de-tuning. The problem is not eliminated entirely (it possibly cannot be with the other imponderabilia) but harnessed. 

Although it is just another iteration of a floating tremolo system where string-pull is counteracted by a set of adjustable springs, the Stetsbarīs adjustment per se is a very precise and straightforward procedure, unlike fumbling around the back compartment with some dubious springs. The set-up of the floating bridge is an iterative process like on any other similar system. Note that re-stringing thus equally can grow into a nightmare until all strings are on pitch, unless you lock the bridge before with the stop screws.

It is thus equally subject to de-tuning issues in case of a string break, different gauges and drop tunings like all others of their kind, unless one direction is blocked. Again, although a being quick and straightforward action, it is not an on-the-fly "performance" action.

The tremolo-bar is comfortable and remains put where you leave it, but gets obstructed by controls on a Stratocaster at least if you are striving for dive-bombs. The "vintage" arm they offer might be different.

String change is much faster than compared to through hole fiddling, and there is no noticeable tone change. In contrary, I feel the sound is beefier, but this may have been caused by an inferior neck shim that was previously used.

Not all Fender guitars are made equal, so installation may not go as smooth and non-invasive as expected.

String gauges are differing, the TOM bridge is not well suited for Fenders, so problems may arise concerning the intonation.
The bridge lives in an awkward, somewhat "non-species-appropriate" condition, there is no adjustable stop tail piece, which puts extra force on the bridge and the strings, which might invite problems on the long run.

The Stetsbar (with all the amendments and workarounds above) works well and looks good in my guitar. However, its installation is not as straightforward as they promise due to "overly simplistic assumptions" that go without mention. 

It is also not free of pitfalls. The Tune-O-Matic bridge demands a certain amount of modification (according to common sense and experience at least) for proper usage and may thus n
ot be the final answer to all prayers. The finicky problems invited by using such a bridge on a Fender are not remotely addressed in the videos. It appears that the solution for Fender type guitars is half-baked. Not surprising to me, the official setup video is performed on a Gibson type guitar, that doesn't require any of this rigmarole...

"It is because of these issues that we generally recommend a guitar tech does the Stetsbar installation. How your guitar reacts with the Stetsbar (or any other tremolo for that matter) will determine what other work is needed to complete the installation. "
- Stetsbar FAQ:

... And those possible problems are not described. I found I allowed myself to get lured you into false assumptions, since I was not familiar with the problems of tremolos in general.

Would I buy it again?
Maybe for a Tele (which mounts directly onto the base plate; note you need a certain base plate mounting style, and their base plate may not be made out of the material you favor), but for a Strat I may certainly look closer into competitorīs designs, which are less expensive too. The advantages are not as clear-cut as the impression I had initially.

All above observations and hands-on experience refer to a unit obtained at the time of writing (2020). Details may have changed meanwhile. Indeed, this is to be hoped...

May this help you to make a confident decision, and may the company feel inspired to eliminate the flaws. Maybe never anybody told them?

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Haze Guitars (Gerry Hayes): Neck Shimming Made Easy,
[2] Paul Hostetter: Nut slots...with principles that apply, as appropriate, to bridge slots as well,

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Update History
  • May 2, 2022: first release
  • Dec. 2020: draft
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