Project Offset Phase Three - Getting the best from the floating vibrato
It has been a month or so now of getting to know the Squier Vintage Modified Jazzmaster project I've been putting together, and it has very quickly become a firm favourite of mine. Getting any 'new' guitar in your collection is an exciting time, granted, and we do tend to get caught up in it, it's a guitar geek common trait. But something about this humble JM seems to sit so right with me and it is becoming a really great companionship of guitar geek and guitar.
The neck feels superb and it's smooth to play now thanks to treating the back of it to some wire wool and true-oil and dressing the fret ends properly. Although the profile is a little slimmer than what I'm used to, combined with the 9.5" radius board it feels great and comfortable. The KTS Titanium bridge upgrade I carried out has vastly improved enjoy-ability, I can play as hard as I like and the strings stay put in their saddles, it's the little things huh! But I'm mostly enjoying the acoustic resonance now found due to the titanium saddles.
The tension provided by the 11-50 Gts.co strings are just beyond perfect, they transformed the guitar and the playing experience entirely. & finally the improvement to the electronics via the full new harness and McNelly 46/58 pickups means the plugged in tone is sublime.
So, if it's so great, why do I continue to mess with it?! Well, I can kinda justify it so bare with me! As much as I keep trying to use it and enjoy it, the stock Squier vibrato just doesn't cut the mustard. A Wobbly arm in it's socket, which falls out if you lean forward slightly, and has a vague feel whilst in use. Combine all that with sub bar plated metal quality just begs for it to be replaced with something better. There are a few options available, from various Fender items to the premium Mastery Vibrato and the new Descendant Vibrato unit too for example.
I found out that the MIM Fender trem unit utilises a threaded trem arm, that sounds more appealing as it would be like a Strat in that sense where the arm is secure in the bridge. The MIM Trem unit is drastically cheaper than it's USA made counterpart, which leads me to believe the metal/Spring quality can't be as good, although I couldn't find exact specs to confirm this which is to expected from Fender when they want to sell replacement units I suppose. If anyone reading this knows these detail feel free to comment below, I always welcome extra info.
Fender American Vintage Reissue Vibrato Unit
The next step up leads us to the USA made 'AVRI' Trem unit, these were fitted at the Corona, California factory to the American Vintage Reissue models, as well as Custom Shop builds. These feature a firmer spring resulting in a more accurate, reassuring feel during use, which was the detail I was looking for most, and much better quality solid metal construction giving the string anchor point better contact therefor helping improve resonance ever so slightly, every little helps huh.
Excerpt from the original Fender Jazzmaster Manual, discussing the function of the trem lock button.
These also feature the 'trem' lock button, which the stock Squier unit is missing. If you're unfamiliar with the function of the trem lock, or have one on yours and never quite figured out what it actually does. Well correctly adjusted, it was a way of locking out the tremolo so if you break a string during play, it will retain it's tuning and can be restrung. Although when not adjusted correctly it won't actually function at all, which seems quite common. Have a read of the above excerpt from the original Fender Jazzmaster Manual which discusses the trem lock button. There is a great tutorial HERE too on setting up your Floating Trem correctly and effectively, well worth a read!
Fender AVRI Tremolo Unit at the time of writing this article - £108.99
Stay Trem Tremolo Arm Kit
The AVRI trem still utilises a push in arm, which works well, but seeing as it needs to be purchased separately from the unit anyway I actually opted to give the Stay Trem upgrade arm a try. A couple of blog posts ago, you may remember the '77 Jazzmaster feature I did, well that guitar was outfitted with the ST arm and I was really impressed. I liked it's slight curve instead of 'kink' which my existing import arm had, which seemed to sit perfectly where you need it, but more importantly has a more prominent 'pop' into position when attaching, thanks to a locking collet, locking it in to the trem unit. No more arm dropping out! I'm sold.
The Stay Trem arm kit comes with a new arm, with a tip colour of your choice (White, Black or Ivory) and a new arm lock thimble which is a simple swap on the vibrato unit to fit. Instructions come with the 'kit', which is handy if you're not to nifty at tech work, but it truly is very simple to change, a screwdriver and 13mm spanner is all you need.
The Stay Trem thimble to the left, with the standard AVRI item to the right.
As with all Stay Trem items, it's simple to fit but very effective, I love John's products and always happy to support others out there doing what they love like we do!
Stay Trem Tremolo arm kit at the time of writing this article - £30
Mastery Tremolo Unit OMV
The Mastery Tremolo Unit. This was developed and designed from the good bits of the AVRI and refined much further by the brains at Mastery. Machined for premium grade Stainless teel, so different to their brass machined bridges, a spring rating matched to the AVRI for the best feel during use. These are incredibly well made, as it has come to expect from a Mastery Product, and certainly has proved to be a viable option for those wishing to upgrade their floating vibrato with a quality, reliable item. Have a read into the full details about the Mastery OMV HERE. You will notice the lack of the Trem Lock function here, so if that's something you like and use a lot, perhaps the Mastery unit isn't for you. But if that's something you never touch, then I do urge you to have a read into the Mastery OMV.
Due to availability in the UK at the time and the slightly retail higher price, I stuck with my choice of an AVRI and Stay Trem arm upgrade this time, which is certainly still a very nice quality upgrade over the stock item. If you're already a fan of the Mastery bridge, then perhaps look into their tremolo unit to match, I'm quite confident you won't be disappointed in doing so.
Mastery OMV Tremolo Unit at the time of writing this article - £170
The Descendant Vibrato
The new kid on the block. The Descendant Vibrato is the brain child of well established, and highly respected luthier, Chris Swope of Swope Guitars. An idea he has been thinking over for nearly ten years, which after a couple of years more specifically diving head first into turning into a product, is finally born.
Chris has spent a long time working on these guitars, building his own instruments and like a lot of us offset guitar fans, been involved in countless discussions with what could help and make the classic design work more efficiently for modern guitarists. The Descendant Vibrato is designed to provide a steeper break angle of the strings behind the bridge which keeps the strings seated firmly in their saddles. Unlike the past solution of the addition of an after market roller bar, the Descendant doesn’t add an extra friction point and it increases the downward pressure at the bridge in a manner that maintains the integrity of Leo’s original design so you still get the full pantheon of overtones that a trapeze style tailpiece provides.
As each guitar is different and each player’s needs are different, the Descendant allows the player to determine the depth that the vibrato is set beneath the top plate. Some players want increased sustain. Others just want the strings to stay in the saddles. Strings are front loaded through a keyhole design. This allows for easy string installation as the ball ends now rest at or below the plane of the body. Also new to the Descendant design is a top adjusting tension screw for the vibrato arm. Accessed through the arm hole in the top plate, you can take your arm out after every gig, adjust it to be free swinging or set to stay where you put it.
*Update as of July 2020, I have since become the UK dealer for Descendant Vibrato and have also now fitted this unit to the Squier VM Jazzmaster project. I've written lots of new articles about it on my blog but for the sake of keeping this old article flowing correctly, I'll leave it at that for now!
Descendant Vibrato price at the time of writing this article - £220
Fitting the AVRI Trem unit has made such a huge difference to the guitar, I honestly couldn't recommend it enough for a true vintage style, quality replacement, especially with the ST arm fitted as well, keeping it locked in place is very handy for me personally. The floating vibrato design is a very unique feel in comparison to a strat vibrato for example, the combination of the single spring and mechanism along with the longer arm gives a great feel and a quality vibratolike this makes the design a joy to use. A vast improvement over the import Squier vibrato that came as stock on this guitar, which was wobbly, clunky and inaccurate. I highly recommend the investment in one of these vibrato units, which the Mastery & Descendant would fall under too as that is a great piece of engineering. Although some would argue it's not noticeable, I personally heard an audible resonance difference switching from the Squier import vibrato unit to the AVRI. The higher grade steel the AVRI is made from certainly helped the strings ring out more, a up tight tone geek thing? Yeah kind of, sure, but I did honestly notice a difference having played this guitar daily now for a month, switching to this unit with the same string set was a definite improvement. This guitar just keeps getting better and better! The AVRI Vibrato with the Stay Trem Vibrato arm kit has transformed it and the firmer arm action makes it a joy to use now.