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Thread: Callahan Trem Blocks...Hyperbole or Effective?

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    Callahan Trem Blocks...Hyperbole or Effective?

    I have heard it both ways about these devices...some claim these aftermarket offerings are far superior to the stock Fender version in terms of overall tone, sustain, & vintage-specific metal content while others say it's utter BS. Probably best to begin here by differentiating the term 'stock'.

    The Callahan seems to get rave reviews when used as a replacement in the MIM Stratocasters. Apparently the MIM version is shaped differently, contains less steel, is lighter & doesn't sound as good as those in an original 1957 Stratocaster. *well gee whiz*

    On the other hand, others have mentioned that a Callahan offers no significant tonal/sustainal improvement in a contemporary American-made Stratocaster as the steel content & design are pretty much the same in both...thus the alleged hype factor.

    So the question is...while they might be considered a viable replacement in a MIM Stratocaster, are they little more than a hood-ornament for the MIA Stratocasters?

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    Noodle of Reality Steve Conner's Avatar
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    As far as I know, a Strat sounds better if the trem block is a bigass heavy lump of steel.

    If you have a Strat with an aluminium or diecast zinc trem block, then it might be worth upgrading to a steel one, because these metals are much lighter than steel.

    I think the American series Strats have a steel block already, though. Mine seems to, but of course Callahan claim that it's made of poor quality cast steel and their cold rolled one is superior. I'd guess hood ornament, and an invisible hood ornament at that, unless their block is actually bigger and heavier.

    But then, I guess with their Delrin bushing system you don't need to worry about losing the little spring.

    And their steel Tune-o-matic bridge is very sexy. I was always suspicious of the zinc ones.
    Last edited by Steve Conner; 04-09-2010 at 01:10 PM.
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    Pickup Maker David Schwab's Avatar
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    Here's some steel trem blocks, including genuine Fender parts, for a lot less than the Callahan.

    Guitar Parts Resource:: Tremolo Blocks

    They have a Titanium block too, for stupid money.
    It would be possible to describe everything scientifically, but it would make no sense; it would be without meaning, as if you described a Beethoven symphony as a variation of wave pressure. Albert Einstein

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    On the other hand, others have mentioned that a Callahan offers no significant tonal/sustainal improvement in a contemporary American-made Stratocaster as the steel content & design are pretty much the same in both...thus the alleged hype factor.
    Fender uses zinc blocks in H1 Strats, cast powdered steel in STD and DLX versions, hot rolled leaded steel in V, CS as well as most artist models. Callaham uses cold rolled steel for all models.

    Build quality is OK for Fender parts, outstanding for their Callaham counterparts - vide for instance the mirror finish on the top plate or the very clever Delrin-sleeved bushing.

    Now what about tone? Well, that's another story.

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    How can you tell what the block is made of? I have 2 early 90s Strats (basically 2 Strat pluses).

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    I have found that simply removing the grey paint off (Where it contacts the plate only) of the reissue Fender tremolos makes a significant difference. Also while I'm at it, I sand the block smooth where it contacts the plate with 220 grit so it makes full contact. No need to buy fancy after market with those particular ones.

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    Pickup Maker David Schwab's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by fyl View Post
    Fender uses zinc blocks in H1 Strats, cast powdered steel in STD and DLX versions, hot rolled leaded steel in V, CS as well as most artist models. Callaham uses cold rolled steel for all models.
    And why would that make a difference? It's an inertia block.

    In this particular application, steel is steel.
    It would be possible to describe everything scientifically, but it would make no sense; it would be without meaning, as if you described a Beethoven symphony as a variation of wave pressure. Albert Einstein

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    fyl
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    How can you tell what the block is made of? I have 2 early 90s Strats (basically 2 Strat pluses).
    Just look at it... Zinc is greyish with an irregular surface, cast powdered steel is usually painted grey, rolled steel is au naturel.

    Strat Plus => cast powdered steel.

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    fyl
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    And why would that make a difference? It's an inertia block.
    Not only, it's also a coupler between the strings and the body.

    In this particular application, steel is steel.
    Alnico is Alnico, huh?

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    Jag
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    I replaced the block on my Road Worn '60's with a Callaham block and it made a noticable difference. The guitar sounds more articulate with better note definition on chords (this is a particular benefit when playing extended chords). The bottom end is warm but tight.

    On my main Strat, '57 RI, I have a Wilkinson VSVG and the block didn't make very much difference. That's no suprise since the Wilkinson already has a steel block.

    With both the Callaham and the Wilkinson, the improvements in design are worth it even without the tonal benefits.
    Last edited by Jag; 04-09-2010 at 07:15 PM.

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    I have a partscaster that I got in a trade. Basically, a MIM body with a Warmoth neck and Texas Special and Pearly Gates pickups. I would not have spent the money on the Calaham parts, but they were on the guitar when I got it. As much as it pains me, this guitar actually sounds better than my 1976 Strat, but I don't know how much I can attribute to the Calaham tremelo block.

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    Pickup Maker David Schwab's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by fyl View Post
    Not only, it's also a coupler between the strings and the body.
    No, it's an inertia block. It makes up for the body having a big honking hole cut in it, and the fact that the bridge is resting on some screws and springs. When you pluck a string the bridge moves. That removes some energy from the strings, and the block helps prevent that. The bridge plate is coupling with the body, and so are the springs. Do you use a cold rolled steel spring claw? That's the other end of the fulcrum.

    Plus there's no real reason to want your bridge coupled to the body. It wont do anything that the body/neck hasn't done already when the note was struck. This isn't an acoustic guitar.

    Alnico is Alnico, huh?
    Poor analogy. The trem block is not a magnet. It's a passive component. We know the differences in alnico mixes and what they do.

    But if you think it matters, please explain how hot rolled, vs. cold rolled, vs, sintered makes a difference in a block of steel that has no other properties to the guitar than mass.
    It would be possible to describe everything scientifically, but it would make no sense; it would be without meaning, as if you described a Beethoven symphony as a variation of wave pressure. Albert Einstein

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    Pickup Maker David Schwab's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Gibsonman63 View Post
    I have a partscaster that I got in a trade. Basically, a MIM body with a Warmoth neck and Texas Special and Pearly Gates pickups. I would not have spent the money on the Calaham parts, but they were on the guitar when I got it. As much as it pains me, this guitar actually sounds better than my 1976 Strat, but I don't know how much I can attribute to the Calaham tremelo block.
    Just switch the block and the guitar and see if it sounds different.
    It would be possible to describe everything scientifically, but it would make no sense; it would be without meaning, as if you described a Beethoven symphony as a variation of wave pressure. Albert Einstein

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    I've worked on and built LOTS of Strats, and I can tell you that the quality, material and engineering of the tailblock makes a BIG difference.

    First of all, GOOD blocks anchor the string ball-ends at the BOTTOM of the block, not up near the plate. If they are anchored up near the plate, it takes the tonal qualities of the block out of the equation.

    Next, the material: die-cast zinc flat-out sucks, period. Worse still are all of the otherwise good-to-excellent budget Strats and knockoffs that employ a trem with a thin, wedge-shaped, lightweight block. Most of these guitars can be brought to life by installing a decent trem with a good block, and a good block is made either from steel or brass.

    BTW- the right saddles help too. The only thing worse than a die-cast block is die-cast saddles. They are just junk, period. For a Strat, bent steel achieves the right "zing".

    Now, to me, Callaham makes the best trems. So does Glendale. However, these ARE pricey. The GOOD news is that Guitar Fetish has VERY nice trems with good blocks, plates and saddles as upgrade replacements for under $50, and I can tell you firsthand that they work WELL and are worth every penny.

    Incidentally, if anyone is familiar with the early-80's Fender FreeFlyte trem system, it is a PERFECT example of how NOT to build a trem, and how BAD a poor design can make a guitar sound. It's truly pathetic.
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    Quote Originally Posted by David Schwab View Post
    But if you think it matters, please explain how hot rolled, vs. cold rolled, vs, sintered makes a difference in a block of steel that has no other properties to the guitar than mass.
    Even at that, each of them has a different mass. Beyond that it is part of the resonant structure of spring and bridge. Different materials have different resonant characteristics. If you hit each bridge with a hammer it would make a different sound. The string doesn't hit them that hard but it does excite them and the block affects the string. If this thing were wood, you'd agree that material makes a difference, no.

    Your statement that the block has no other properties than mass is a mechanical version of saying that a capacitor has no inductance.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Ronsonic View Post
    Even at that, each of them has a different mass. Beyond that it is part of the resonant structure of spring and bridge. Different materials have different resonant characteristics. If you hit each bridge with a hammer it would make a different sound. The string doesn't hit them that hard but it does excite them and the block affects the string. If this thing were wood, you'd agree that material makes a difference, no.

    Your statement that the block has no other properties than mass is a mechanical version of saying that a capacitor has no inductance.
    I agree 100%. All metals and their variations, just like wood, have specific resonant properties. In my "other" life, I am a drummer and work closely with some drum and cymbal manufacturers as a consultant. The most popular alloy for cymbalmaking is B20, which is 80% copper and 20% tin. There are a few different processes for alloying, casting and hammering this alloy into cymbals, each one yielding a specific sonic result. Same alloy, different sound, due to the different manufacturing methods.
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    I think tremolo blocks are similar to things like the "Fathead" device intended to increase sustain by adding mass to the headstock. There are circumstances in which they add appreciable benefit of the type claimed, and circumstances where they do diddley squat.

    The tricky part is identifying whether the circumstances that YOU face, on THAT guitar, match the circumstances where the device does what is claimed.

    In the case of tremolo blocks, I think it is worth considering that the impact of any added mass on the sustain of heavier gauge strings might be different than that achieved with thin gauge strings.

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    The initial intent of the trem block was to even out "warble" caused by vibrating strings. The first Strats had no "inertia block". Then it was discovered that the vibration of a given string would affect the others, so mass was add and the block was born, and it was machined out of steel, typical in 1954. The block also increased sustain due to added mass. Reduced sustain is an issue because there is no direct contact between the bridge and body on trem-equipped Strats.

    Moving up to the CBS era, it was found that die-casting these blocks was much cheaper than milling them out of steel.

    If you do an A/B comparison, the IS a difference between brass and steel, and a MAJOR difference between those and die-cast Zamac.

    Newer trem systems e.g. Trem-King overcome the deficiencies of the traditional Strat trem by moving only the tailblock while the bridge remains stationary and in constant contact with the body.
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    Does the callaham's repositioned pivot point on the bridge plate improve tuning stability substantially? How would you guys rate the callaham vs a good 2-point trem in this regard?

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    Quote Originally Posted by jrfrond View Post
    Next, the material: die-cast zinc flat-out sucks, period. Worse still are all of the otherwise good-to-excellent budget Strats and knockoffs that employ a trem with a thin, wedge-shaped, lightweight block. Most of these guitars can be brought to life by installing a decent trem with a good block, and a good block is made either from steel or brass.
    Thus...on a MIM Stratocaster, switching to steel should make a difference.

    Quote Originally Posted by David Schwab View Post
    In this particular application, steel is steel.
    Thus...on a MIA Stratocaster which already has a steel trem block, no big deal or difference. Makes sense to me. Afterall, once the signal is amped, mic'd & run through a PA who could tell (other than maybe Eric Johnson) whether the steel trem block was cold rolled, hot rolled or handbuilt by an ancient Sumarian craftsman.

    Quote Originally Posted by David Schwab View Post
    They have a Titanium block too, for stupid money.
    For the moneyed gearhead who probably spends more time tinkering with a phillips head screwdriver than actually playing the guitar itself.

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    Quote Originally Posted by overdrive View Post
    Thus...on a MIM Stratocaster, switching to steel should make a difference.


    Thus...on a MIA Stratocaster which already has a steel trem block, no big deal or difference. Makes sense to me. Afterall, once the signal is amped, mic'd & run through a PA who could tell (other than maybe Eric Johnson) whether the steel trem block was cold rolled, hot rolled or handbuilt by an ancient Sumarian craftsman.


    For the moneyed gearhead who probably spends more time tinkering with a phillips head screwdriver than actually playing the guitar itself.
    Newer MIM Strats have a full-sized block. Not sure if it is zinc or steel. However, on the older MIM's with the chintzy Sung Il thin-block trems, it makes quite a bit of difference.

    I personally wouldn't invest the money in a titanium block.
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    The full size block on the newer MIM Standard Strat is zinc.

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    Quote Originally Posted by spud1950 View Post
    The full size block on the newer MIM Standard Strat is zinc.
    I just verified that by taking a look at a new MIM Strat that my son's friend purchased and I am setting up. The full-sized block is a step in the right direction, but I personally like steel or brass, depending on the tone needed. A steel block will brighten a dull guitar, while a brass block makes the mids "sing" and support bass very well, which works nicely if the guitar already has sufficient highs. The MIM's are alder and are NOT generally dull guitars, so I prefer to go with brass on these. Good candidates for steel are poplar and basswood.
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    Pickup Maker David Schwab's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by jrfrond View Post
    First of all, GOOD blocks anchor the string ball-ends at the BOTTOM of the block, not up near the plate. If they are anchored up near the plate, it takes the tonal qualities of the block out of the equation.
    They put the holes near the top to help with keeping the guitar in tune.

    Tell me how that takes the block out of the equation? The block's mass is still connected to the bridge plate, springs, etc.
    It would be possible to describe everything scientifically, but it would make no sense; it would be without meaning, as if you described a Beethoven symphony as a variation of wave pressure. Albert Einstein

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    Pickup Maker David Schwab's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Ronsonic View Post
    Even at that, each of them has a different mass.
    How so? We are talking about a block of steel. The weight of an object is proportional to its mass. If both steel blocks weigh the same, they have the same mass.

    Your statement that the block has no other properties than mass is a mechanical version of saying that a capacitor has no inductance.
    That doesn't even make sense. It's an inertia block. It reduces the warble of the bridge when you pluck a string. That's the mechanical part.

    It has no electrical properties, just as it doesn't have any magnetic properties (from the other poor analogy).

    If you take two blocks, and they both weigh the same, they will sound the same.

    Leo's patent (2741146) states:

    "The Bar 25 ("trem block") is relatively massive, preferably formed of solid material, and the tension springs 28 are preferably quite stiff so that unless the control arm 34 is manually oscillated there is no tendency for the bar 25 or springs 28 to vibrate when the strings are plucked. The mass of bar 25 and stiffness of springs 28, may, however, be maintained at a minimum because of the close coupling of the bridge portions 22 and the fulcrum ridge 15. With this arrangement the entire bridge structure normally acts as a rigid member. Thus, no tremolo effect occurs except at the wilI and direction of the player."
    Last edited by David Schwab; 04-12-2010 at 05:48 AM.
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    Noodle of Reality Steve Conner's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by David Schwab View Post
    If you take two blocks, and they both weigh the same, they will sound the same.
    Will they though? To take John's analogy, imagine a cymbal or snare drum shell made of diecast zinc. It's not going to sound that good.

    Of course maybe the inertia block isn't the same thing as a cymbal or drum shell, and the analogy is invalid. It could be that its resonances and internal damping aren't significant to the guitar tone, and all that matters is its mass. I certainly don't hear much through the amp when I tap my block with a screwdriver through the hole in the back of the guitar, and I somehow doubt a Callahan one would ring like a bell.

    To confuse matters further, my (American Standard) Strat came with a 2-point tremolo with two large studs and knife-edge pivots, in place of the old-school 6-screw arrangement. It came set up floating, so you can whammy up a little as well as down, and it stays in tune fine.

    Even with the inertia block, a Strat will warble slightly, and bending one string hard will lower the pitch of the others. It's probably part of the Strat sound.

    I'm looking forward to the depleted uranium trem block and tungsten saddles, for that heavy metal sound
    Last edited by Steve Conner; 04-12-2010 at 11:34 AM.
    "Enzo, I see that you replied parasitic oscillations. Is that a hypothesis? Or is that your amazing metal band I should check out?"

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    One of the things/sounds I wish I could do is that olther-worldly gargle sound Jeff Beck gets by quickly bending and releasing his tremolo arm while playing. Should I assume that the mass of the tremolo block is related to being able to do that (given your comment about supressing "warble")? Or is it purely a function of the springs or something that Mr. Beck has been endowed with and mere mortals are not?

  28. #28
    Noodle of Reality Steve Conner's Avatar
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    I don't think it's a case of quickly pressing and releasing it, so much as giving it a good whack. Or pushing it down and letting your hand slip off the end so that it springs back violently.

    It probably works better on a Floyd Rose, where you can beat on it without knocking it completely out of tune.
    "Enzo, I see that you replied parasitic oscillations. Is that a hypothesis? Or is that your amazing metal band I should check out?"

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    I agree that it can be easy to discount nearly-intangible factors as bunk, or rationalize/derationalize them with convoluted equations and/or fuzzy logic. However, the principles I mentioned can and DO work in practice. Anchoring the strings far into the block, different block materials, different saddle materials, string tension, spring tension, anchor points (2 vs. 6)..... they ALL contribute in combination to affect the final sound of the instrument. Mind you, these differences are usually palpable ACOUSTICALLY, even on solidbody instruments, and there probably isn't a person here that will dispute that acoustic sound in a solidbody instrument translates through pickups. This is why a crappy acoustic-sounding solidbody will ALWAYS be a crappy electric. You can try to polish the turd by installing expensive boutique pickups, but it is still a turd.

    Simple physics dictates that any change in weight or density affects the way an object resonates. Different woods and metal alloys have different densities and therefore affect resonance.
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    I got myself a front row spot to watch his picking hand when he came to town last year, and unfortunately did not come equipped with a high-speed/hi-res camera to do motion-capturing of his thumb action on the arm. I can confirm that it certainly IS a quick press and release, but I find the "boing" achieved perplexing and near impossible to achieve. Part of it is certainly the extra bend in the arm, and what that angle does to both the manner in which one strikes it, the mechanical advantage achieved (or not), and so on. But to the extent that the block is intended to damp unwanted "afterevents" of tremolo-arm use, I'm wondering what the weight of Beck's block is.

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    Noodle of Reality Steve Conner's Avatar
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    Well, people use the word "damp" casually in a way that has nothing to do with its engineering meaning.

    According to the real meaning of the word, adding mass to a vibrating system doesn't damp it, it just lowers its resonant frequency. The potential to oscillate is still there. So I don't see how the block "damps" anything: it certainly doesn't damp the oscillations caused by bashing on the whammy bar, it just sets their frequency.

    Mechanical problems are often solved by electrical analogues, and one possible mapping is inertia to capacitance. Then elasticity (mechanical compliance) becomes inductance, and the thing that engineers call "damping" becomes resistance. And a mass on the end of a spring becomes a RLC circuit.

    You can do it the other way round, inertia to inductance, but damping still ends up as resistance, because it's the only one that dissipates energy. The other two are reactive, they store and release it.

    I would say that a heavy trem block increases the moment of inertia of the bridge assembly, which causes more of an impedance mismatch at the string/bridge interface, stopping energy from coupling out of the strings, and that's how it reduces warbling and increases sustain. It's a mechanical equivalent of a decoupling capacitor in an electric circuit.

    The boing thing is easy, I had an old Yamaha superstrat with a Floyd Rose that would do it all day long. That was the only interesting thing it did, it was a horrible guitar otherwise.
    Last edited by Steve Conner; 04-12-2010 at 04:11 PM. Reason: RLC circuit
    "Enzo, I see that you replied parasitic oscillations. Is that a hypothesis? Or is that your amazing metal band I should check out?"

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    Just for shits and giggles, here is a blurb from the Callaham website:

    "Aftermarket bridges have copied the use of zinc without any thought of how can this be improved. In the 70's when CBS took over Fender they threw out Leo's steel strat bridge and changed to the one piece cast zinc (Mazac) bridge to cut cost. The result was the worst sounding strats produced by Fender. Zinc simple should not be used as a bridge material. Brass has been used because it has "more mass", aluminum because it has "less mass". "Mass" is not the property of the bridge material that matters. But it is easy to measure for those who do not understand vibrations."
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  33. #33
    Noodle of Reality Steve Conner's Avatar
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    Well, I respect your experience with drums, cymbals and so on, but I don't think the trem block is quite the same thing.

    Maybe I buy the idea that a soft metal like Mazak will give worse tone because it has higher internal damping, that is to say, it absorbs the vibrations from the strings internally instead of reflecting them. In other words it behaves like a resistance when it should be a reactance. (Keeping with the electrical analogue, the decoupling cap has high ESR.)

    And I buy into the idea that the more massive the block, the better. The bigger a decoupling cap is, the better it decouples.

    But to me the block just doesn't seem like the right shape of thing for its internal resonances to affect the tone radically. You know what a cowbell sounds like. But imagine what a cowbell would sound like if it were a solid block of whatever metal cowbells are made out of, rather than a thin hollow shell. I think it would make no noise and your drumstick would snap.

    I have a couple of spare guitar pickups lying around. What if I stuck one to the back of my guitar and tried to pick up the vibrations of the trem block? It's steel, so it should work. Would that prove anything?
    "Enzo, I see that you replied parasitic oscillations. Is that a hypothesis? Or is that your amazing metal band I should check out?"

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    When *I* use the term "damp" in this context, I am thinking in terms of something that interferes with the reciprocal retransmission of energy back through the block and into the springs after the arm has been released, as opposed to negligible after-effects of releasing the arm.

    Unless I understood what Beck does incorrectly, somehow a sudden release of a pulled tremolo arm results in the modulation of the bridge/block at audio frequencies, such that the note starts out sounding like it is being modulated at 30-40hz or whatever, and then simmers down. Whenever *I* let go of the tremolo arm, things simply go back to pitch. The "ka-boing" simply never happens....EVER. I'm trying to find out why.

  35. #35
    Old Timer
    Join Date
    Apr 2008
    Location
    Oceanside, NY
    Posts
    1,649
    And I reiterate: It all DOES work in practice, which is where it counts. Some ears are more discerning than others.

    The same principles apply to all vibrating bodies. String energy does flow into the block and gets reflected back into the strings. The alloy of the block DEFINITELY affects the resulting tonality. I used cymbals as an analogy because they are made from specific resonant metal alloys, usually B20 or B8 bronze (80%/20% and 92%/8% copper:tin, respectively). Change the alloy, you change the cymbal. Change any metal alloy or the way it is processed, and the sound changes.

    We all know that with wood, even different parts of the same tree will sound different. Also the way the wood is cut, the relative humidity, etc. affect final tonality. Why is the concept that something similar happens with a metal block so unbelieveable?

    I am somewhat used to this drill though. My older son is a mathematician, and if it can be proven through equations, to him, it doesn't exist. I don't need the math. I have ears!
    John R. Frondelli
    dBm Pro Audio Services, New York, NY

    "Mediocre is the new 'Good' "

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