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We’ve already talked about what a locking nut does for a guitar and what kinds of guitars they can be installed on, but if you’ve got one, you might want to know how to tune a guitar with a locking nut.
Tuning a guitar with a locking nut is a more involved process than tuning other guitars. When installing strings you need to stretch and bring them up to tune using the tuners, then lock down the nut. To re-tune you’ll need to either unlock the nut or use fine tuners at the bridge.
Using a guitar with a locking nut and locking tremolo system like a Floyd Rose requires understanding how they’re different from other guitars, especially when stringing or re-stringing the guitar. Let’s look at what all you need to know to keep a guitar with a locking nut in tune.
What Does A Locking Nut Do For A Guitar?
The basic purpose of a locking nut is to clamp the strings firmly in place, so they don’t slide out of place — and thus, out of tune — with vigorous use of the whammy bar.
One of the first inventors of such a system was guitarist Floyd Rose, who launched his double locking tremolo system in the late 1970s.
A Floyd Rose trem or one of its imitators has become the default kind of locking tremolo in the subsequent decades. And while it’s always been a popular choice, the perception of a Floyd Rose style locking tremolo as a tool used only by metal guitarists might mean a lot of people have never used one.
This video gives an idea of why people like them so much.
As you can see, when a Floyd Rose or another kind of locking tremolo is set up properly, then you can truly abuse the tremolo bar and have the guitar return to tune when you’re done. If you’ve ever ended a whammy bar divebomb on, say, a normal Stratocaster and found yourself well out of tune on several strings, you’ll understand how impressive a feat that is.
But a key part of that sentence is when the system is properly set up. If you don’t understand how to get things right in the first place, then you can run into trouble.
How To Install Strings On A Floyd Rose
One of the tricky parts of getting a guitar equipped with a Floyd Rose in tune is getting the strings installed in the first place. That’s because of the design of the tremolo system itself.
In a Floyd Rose trem, the bridge floats away from the body. That allows for a much greater pitch bending range.
In order to keep things in balance, a Floyd Rose uses the tension from the strings to pull the bridge away from the body, while the springs in the tremolo cavity allow the player to move the bridge.
That means string tension is essential to keep the bridge in the right alignment. When installing new strings, the best idea is to change one string at a time.
If you’re installing strings in a Floyd Rose for the first time, or if multiple strings snapped, though, there are some things you need to be aware of and some steps you need to take.
How To Set Up And Balance A Floyd Rose Bridge
Before you go any further, hold your guitar securely in a playing position. When starting any set up, you should always check the truss rod neck relief.
Use a capo at the first fret and hold down the low E string at the body joint. Use an feeler gauge to see how much space is between the bottom of the string and the top of the fret.
This is your neck relief, which is the amount of bow the truss rod has put into the neck to resist string tension. For most guitars it should be between .006″ and .010″. If it’s out of that range, use a wrench to increase or decrease the relief.
With that done, lay the guitar on its back and make sure the neck is supported. There are some steps in the set up process for a Floyd Rose style tremolo that are quite different from other set ups.
As I noted earlier, the bridge on a Floyd Rose style tremolo floats away from the body using string tension to lift it. The problem with that is when you radically change the string tension on one string while the nut is unlocked, the bridge adjusts to a floating position.
That means if you brought one string up in pitch, it would cause the other strings to move down — and the same would happen the other way around. The way to handle this when setting up a Floyd Rose bridge is to use a tremolo block.
The block slides under the bridge and lifts it so it’s level with the body. That allows you to change string tension and adjust the tension of the springs in the body without immediately affecting the bridge.
Go to the back and tighten the spring claws that holds the springs to the bridge. The claws’ position sets how might the bridge tilts — be sure to always move them an even amount or your bridge will not be level from side to side.
Our eventual goal is a perfectly level bridge — matching the position of the tremolo block — but for now, tighten it more than you think you need. We’ll adjust the angle later, and that is easier if the bridge starts titled backward slightly.
With the tremolo block in place, though, your bridge height shouldn’t change.
Once the claw is adjusted, bring your guitar up to tune.
Remove the tremolo block. You’ll need to use the guitar’s tremolo arm to push the bridge out of the way to remove the block.
When you let go of the trem arm, the bridge should be tilted backward. The strings should also be sharp — this is normal.
The pitch of a string depends on its length, and because of the way a Floyd Rose tremolo bridge works, the position of the bridge relative to the body affects that. In other words, if you tune the guitar with the bridge in one position, it will return to tune, as long as the bridge also returns to that position.
If the bridge angle — and thus, position — changes, then so does the pitch of the string.
If the bridge is tilted backward, go to the spring claws and loosen them slowly, making sure to keep them even. When the bridge is level, your guitar should be close to in tune, and you can make small adjustments with the tuners.
If you have to make more than a tiny adjustment, it’s worth putting the tremolo block back in place, so you don’t alter the pitch of the other strings.
Once you’re in tune you can use an Allen wrench to raise or lower the bridge on the two studs that attach the Floyd Rose system to the body, and that will set the action of the guitar.
How To Tune A Floyd Rose
Another key step in getting a guitar with a Floyd Rose or similar locking tremolo in tune is setting the intonation. The process is similar to that on other guitars, but, again, with some variations because of the way the system works.
- Check the intonation by playing a string open and then comparing the pitch to when fretting the same string at the 12th fret — an octave apart. If the intonation is correct, the notes will match, but if it’s wrong, you need to move the string saddle.
- Loosen the string slightly, to give your string some slack at the saddle. This will cause the other strings to also go out of tune, but if you set up the springs properly, they should return when you tune back up.
- Use an Allen wrench to unlock the saddle. Move the saddle forward if the 12th fret note is flat compared to the open string, and move it backward if the note was sharp.
- Lock the saddle back down and bring the string up to tune, then check the intonation as before.
- Repeat this until all six strings are properly intonated.
When that is done, you can lock down the nut. Now you need to be careful not to use the standard tuners, because doing so could risk breaking a string.
Instead, any adjustment needs to be done with the fine tuners at the bridge.
This video gives an overview of the setup process for a Floyd Rose.
How To Change Strings On A Guitar With A Locking Nut
If all of that seems really involved, it definitely is. So do you have to do that every time you want to put a fresh set of strings on your guitar?
No, of course not, because if you did, no one would use them. The setup is a lot of work, but if you’re careful you won’t need to change the balance of the bridge or the intonation very often.
Instead, you can change strings one at a time. On most locking nuts there are three sets of two strings, with each set having an Allen head screw holding it down.
Here’s how to change strings on a guitar with a locking nut.
- Unlock the appropriate screw and loosen one string from the tuner post
- Unlock the screw holding the string in the saddle at the bride and remove the string
- Cut the ball end off the new string
- Install it in the saddle and lock it into place.
- Pass the string through the nut and into the tuner
- Stretch the string and then bring it up to tune.
- Repeat this with the other string in the pair
- Lock down the screw and move to the next pair of strings
That is also involved, but not nearly as much work as the initial set up work that has to be done.
This video compares the string change process between a locking tremolo and a vintage tremolo like on a Stratocaster.
The level of work involved in setting up a Floyd Rose or other kind of locking tremolo system, as well as the differences in string changes, having to cut off the ball end of the string, and not being able to use the tuners when the nut is locked down all contributed to why they haven’t become as popular as other systems.
But as you saw in one of the videos earlier, there are advantages with a locking trem, especially when it comes to tuning stability.
Whether that’s a worthwhile tradeoff will depend on what you play, but it’s always good to understand how different guitar systems work and why you might be interested in trying them out.
I’ve been a musician, particularly a guitarist, for more than 25 years. I love writing about guitars, gear, recording, music in general and more.