Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Replacing The Wilkinson Bridge On A Tyler Guitar

Back in July 2009 I mentioned getting a Wilkinson WVS 50 II K bridge to replace the original Wilkinson VS100 bridge on my James Tyler Psychedelic Vomit.

And guess what? I'd just got around to swapping out the bridge a couple of weeks ago in time for my Monday night gig, slightly more than six years to the date I bought it.

How's that for procrastination!

The Tyler Psychedelic Vomit had been one of my main gig guitars for a good eight years since 2001 until the corrosion on the original Wilkinson bridge got a little out of hand. Or more precisely, all over my hand. Rather than risk blood poisoning -- the side of my right hand would turn rust brown from playing the guitar for any length of time -- I put the guitar away, telling myself I would install the new bridge soon. Since then, the guitar has been sitting in a corner of my music room on a guitar stand in semi-retirement mode while I flirted with various Fenders, Suhrs, Firebirds and Les Pauls.

The original Wilkinson bent bridge saddles that came with the Tyler are similar to the current Wilkinson/Gotoh VSVG vintage tremelo but with the VS100 two-pivot point baseplate. The original Tyler Psychedelic Vomits came with the VS100 tremelo, with saddles that were solid blocks like the ones on the WVS 50 II K. But around 1999, when I bought this particular guitar, Jim Tyler decided to switch out the saddles with the then-newly available Wilkinson bent saddles while keeping the original VS100 bridge baseplate. Interestingly, this particular bent saddle/VS100 baseplate combination was never made available commercially -- the bent saddles always came with the traditional 6-screw plates.

Tyler Psychedelic Vomit
VS100 bridge with original block saddles on this earlier Tyler Psychedelic Vomit

Theoretically, replacing the original block saddles with the lighter, low-mass bent saddles would give a brighter, vintage, more resonant tone. In practice, I don't think anybody can really hear the difference. To me, it's the baseplate and tremelo block that make any kind of audible difference as far as Strat-style bridges are concerned. And even then, the differences are subtle at best.

Swapping Out The Bridges

Initially I thought of keeping the original Wilkinson VS100 baseplate and simply replacing the bent saddles with the block saddles from the WVS 50. But just from looking at it, I could see that the black screws holding the block saddles to the baseplate were a different size and length.  Anyway, the original baseplate screws securing the bent saddles to the baseplate were seriously corroded as well.

How the heck did this thing get so rusty?

wilkinson bridge
Rust in peace, old friend..

Instead of mucking about any further with baseplates and Imperial versus metric size screws, I decided to just swap out the entire bridge.

I loosened and cut off the old strings before removing the three tremelo springs from the spring claw in the trem cavity. With a little maneuvering around the bridge posts, the old bridge came off, releasing a generous sprinkling of powdered rust everywhere, like a final farewell.

Note to self:  Never, ever, remove rusty guitar hardware in bed. Ever.

Out of curiosity, I unscrewed one of the bridge posts to see if there were metal bushings anchoring the bridge posts to the body and I was happy to see the glimmer of a shiny, like-new brass insert. I could never understand how some bridge manufacturers would choose to use simple wood screws without metal bushings to hold bridge posts that would have to cope with string tension and constant friction during use. That's a lot of stress put on them.

The earlier versions of the original Floyd Rose trem, for example, had wood screws anchored directly to the body. No wonder the more vigorous exponents of the Floyd found themselves having to have their tremelo knife edges professionally filed and resharpened every few months just to stay in tune -- small movements in the wood screws probably caused the knife edges to get chewed out sooner. Like in the case of Steve Vai, who claimed to go through a new Floyd Rose trem every week on his Green Meanie guitar! Ain't nothin' worse than a Floyd that won't return to zero after a dive bomb or stratospheric harmonic up pull.

With one of the original bridge posts out, I tried to see if the bridge posts supplied with the Korean-made WVS 50 II K would fit. I found the WVS 50's posts much larger and if I wanted to use them, I would have to remove the original bushings and drill larger holes in the guitar's body to accomodate the larger bushings.  A major modification, and unnecessary. Not that I would have the skill, tools, or the daring to carry out such a mod on a Tyler guitar!

I cleaned up the slight bit of gunk buildup off the original bridge posts with a toothpick and cotton bud and lubed up the groove where the bridge would contact with the posts with Graphit-All.  As expected, the new Korean Wilkinson bridge worked fine on the US-bridge posts, pivoting nicely once the tremelo springs were reattached.

I tried to see if the original VS100's tremelo arm would fit the slot on the new bridge, and it did. The only thing was that the VS100's trem arm sits unusually high on the WVS 50 bridge -- the tremelo arm slot on the VS100 is about an inch deeper. The tremelo arm that came with the WVS50 is made from a hollowed piece of metal but works just fine.

Imperial Versus Metric - Why, Why, Why?

And this was where I came upon a major problem.

The bridge posts must have moved when I was cleaning them because the guitar's action had become unplayably low for some reason when I put a pack of fresh strings on. I needed to raise the two bridge posts and the metric-sized wrenches I had on hand were either slightly too large or slightly too small. And my old set of 16ths of an inch, US-sized hex wrenches were nowhere to be found.

Since it was a Monday, and I really wanted to play my Tyler that evening, it dawned on me that if I was to loosen the strings, remove the bridge and adjust the bridge posts by hand, I could very possibly raise the action up to where I needed it to be!

So that's exactly what I did.

Fortunately the Tyler came with locking Sperzel tuners so the strings remained firmly attached at the tuner end when the bridge was removed. I managed to turn the bridge posts, bringing them up by just a hair before they refused to turn anymore without a proper tool.

Reattaching the bridge and trem springs, the action was still too low but playable, without fretting out too much on string bends. I deemed the setup gig-worthy but decided to ask my good buddy Keane to see if he happened to have a non-metric set of hex wrenches. He said that he might and would come by my gig that night with a few different sized wrenches.

wilkinson WVS50IIK bridge
Wilkinson WVS50IIK installed

I was a little uncomfortable playing the first set with such a low action on the Tyler, having to watch my bends on certain notes that were most likely to fret out. But thankfully Keane showed up the during the middle of the set and I was able to do a quick adjustment, raising the action up to where the Tyler could wail uninhibitedly once again.

Thanks Keane! Both you and Liverpool rock!

The Verdict

As expected, the WVS 50 II K performed very well, from subtle wiggles to divebombs. Frankly, I could not tell the difference in tone or sustain between this Korean-made bridge and the old US-made VS100. But I did notice that the WVS 50 feels a little more solid when I rest my hand on it and the block saddles feel smoother unlike the bent saddles.

Or maybe it was all that rust on the old VS100.


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