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The Floyd Rose… Past, Present & Future

As many of you know I have been working with and even rejuvenating my love affair with guitars that had their heyday 30 some years ago. I have even threatened to jump the shark by building a replica of the nipple pink Steve Stevens SS1 Hamer. That should come as no surprise to anyone who knows me. Anyway, the whole point, as far as I’m concerned, of the electric guitar in the 1980’s was to provide a vehicle for the wildly popular Floyd Rose double locking Whammy Bar. The innovative design locked the strings and eliminated any variables or pinch points before the bridge saddles or after the nut. This little game changer was critical for staying in tune and grabbing the attention of the really good-looking girls with the biggest… uhhhh, hairdos. Now, it wasn’t always the case. Leo Fender and Paul Bigsby both had great systems for altering the pitch of the strings on an electric guitar as early as the 1950’s. You know them because they are still used today[1]. These early designs were intended to replicate the sounds of pedal steel guitars. Pedal steel guitars are wild apparatuses that are positively brimming with levers, pedals and gizmos to move notes by altering the tension of the string. While numerous, the effect was more mellow than the heavy dive bombing that we became used to in the decade of decadence. The old school guys may not have imagined what was coming 30 years later but staying in tune has always been the name of the game. With the advent of the Floyd Rose system players were free to pitch shift with abandon. Unlike the older designs the more stable locking mechanism allowed for extreme changes in string tension and a repeatable return to zero. This was so revolutionary that every time a guitar magazine does one of those top 10 innovation issues the Floyd Rose is always in the top 5. The American musical landscape was irreversibly altered by Eddie Van Halen’s Stratocaster abusing, wiggle sticking zaniness[2]. To say the 1978 Van Halen 1 album was inspirational is a humongous understatement. Back in the day guitar players ruined plenty of perfectly good guitars with jig saws and spray paint emulating Eddie’s hand made creations[3]. By the time the 1984 album came out everyone knew what gear you needed and if you didn’t have a Floyd Rose on your guitar you just weren’t taking your playing very seriously. Fast forward a few years from the inception and the world was full of low cost licensed copies or imitators trying to cash in. We Americans usually go from the sublime to the ridiculous very quickly and are hell bent on defeating hundreds of hours of research and development with tinkering. I personally love the spirit of adventure but not when it’s only done for looks. With a few exceptions, most of the knock-offs were considerably worse than a standard stop tail bridge but looked cool enough to sell iridescent colored pointy guitars to dudes in Motley Crue T-shirts… ask me how I know. Anyway, this is when the Floyd Rose started to develop a bad name. The price of these copies was right, but the metallurgy was all wrong. Not a big deal if the guitar it was attached to had a wimpy neck with a shitty truss rod designed to last a few months between Christmas morning and the first day of football practice… but a far cry from a professional grade instrument. Floyd Rose has no control over the quality of its licensed copies much less the knock offs. These are all over the board in terms of component specs. Some base plates are high carbon heat treated steel, others are case hardened, or spot hardened and still others are… well, your guess is as good as mine. I hear about people monkeying with parts in an attempt to make the lower quality systems function reliably, but I am convinced this is a fool’s errand, your mileage may vary. The original Floyd Rose is still one of the most successful vibrato systems for the 6 string electric guitar. The pretenders to the throne are still around in some capacity but no matter how good some of them may have been they just never really caught on. With all this acclaim why is it that they are not encountered as often as they used to be? Nothing lasts forever, and the perfect storm of guitar centric rock music slowly faded into obscurity. It wasn’t just the Seattle scene that changed the sounds of FM rock radio either… many guitar players had all but abandoned the flashy whammy bar laden solos by the mid to late 80’s. I know, Hell, I was there. Once you saw how cool and sleazy leather pants, a top hat and a low slung Les Paul looked… all the money you spent on tiger stripe spandex seemed like a complete waste. Not to mention, the stop tail and tune-o-matic sounded sweet and was easier to put strings on too. As far as pain in the ass string changing goes, I often hear how much of a bummer it is to do this on a locking unit. I think this is mountaining a molehill. If you have a few simple tools and a half way clean work space changing strings on a Floyd Rose equipped guitar isn’t terribly tricky. Finally, and this is a bit of a stretch so bear with me here… The success of Paul Reed Smith guitars was responsible for the industry shift away from the Super Strat and ultimately the Floyd Rose. It might be hard to imagine this but PRS wasn’t always the mega huge company it is today. PRS guitars really put the industry on its ear and caused a lot of people to change their perceptions about what an excellent instrument should be. I remember back in the old days marveling at the, now classic, hybrid design and how it was beautifully modern and traditional all at the same time and miles removed from what had been popular. It broke from the industry standard locking trem in favor of the excellent Mann Made units with a slick locking tuner arrangement. I think this was another nail in the coffin for the little whammy bar that could. So where does this leave us? I don’t want to say that I see the Floyd Rose making a comeback because someone would accuse me of saying that it went away. The fact is that the original Floyd Rose is probably as popular as it ever was. However, the buying public has gotten wise to the notion that many of the licensed units don’t cut the mustard… Something the old school guys knew all along. They didn’t dry up and blow away they just kept using the good stuff that has worked the same for the last 40 years. These days the beginner guitars often feature bad examples of the Fender style tremolos or hard tails rather than cheaply made Floyd Rose copies. We have started to make a handful of guitars with the original units. We, and more importantly, our customers have always been elated with the performance… Having the ability to eliminate all the tension on your guitar’s neck might not be as popular today as it once was but the Floyd Rose is still out there making moves.

[1] On a side note; tremolo describes a variation in volume and vibrato a variation in pitch. Leo Fender got it mixed up so often that he effectively changed the phraseology.