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The Origins of Tremolo

April 30, 2013

by Daniel Brooks

To play a guitar, put your hands on the strings and make a sound. This direct physical contact with the vibrating source of its sound makes the guitar (and all of its fretted, stringed relatives) unique among the many varieties of musical instruments. The sound depends on both hands’ direct manipulation of the strings. Subtle differences in the way a string is fretted, picked, plucked, bent, slurred, slid and muted create defining differences in the sound, the varieties of which are still being discovered. Multiply the sonic fluency of a single string by six, and a whole world of harmonic possibilities unfold. In the hands of a competent and inspired musician, a guitar is a creative tool unlike any other.

But for all of its creative potential, the standard guitar still has its limitations. There is an added dimension of colorful, fluid sounds that exist around and between the precisely fretted notes. Guitarists who seek this creative realm may be able to use their fretting hand to bend a string or two, or even three, but the manipulation of whole chords is out of reach without some kind of mechanical assistance. The tremolo tailpiece was invented for this purpose alone.

Before we dive into the specifics, a little respect for our native language is in order. Tremolo and Vibrato are not interchangeable terms. Tremolo is a rhythmic fluctuation of a note’s volume. Vibrato is a rhythmic fluctuation of a note’s pitch. A guitar’s tremolo system actually creates vibrato, since it can only manipulate the notes’ pitch. Inversely, Tremolo is erroneously referred to as Vibrato when it denotes the pulsing volume effect found on vintage amps and a few dedicated effects pedals. Once you understand what vibrato and tremolo actually are, it is easy to remember the difference. You could think of it this way .  . . Vibrato bends, Tremolo laughs.

By any name, the Whammy Bar has been a part of the guitarist’s world for more than 60 years, emerging right around the same time as the first commercially available electric guitars. The first successful design to be produced in numbers great enough for common use was the Bigsby Vibrato Tailpiece, designed in the late 1940s by Paul A Bigsby for Merle Travis. A guitarist using a Bigsby manipulates a pivoting arm to rotate a cylinder that anchors the string ends. Pushing the arm down, closer to the guitar’s body, shortens all of the strings, reducing their tension and lowering the pitch of any note on every string. When released, a spring beneath the arm returned the device to its “normal” position, restoring the strings’ length, tension, and pitch to their proper tuning, at least in theory. A few modifications had to be introduced, such as a retaining bar to keep the strings’ tension on the bridge for optimum resonance, and roller saddles on the bridge allowing the strings to move without catching, but variations of this original design, allowing use on different guitars, have remained in production ever since.


The Bigsby Vibrato has legions of loyal fans who appreciate its merits. It can be fitted to virtually any guitar without having to reroute the body, it does lend a visual aesthetic and, due to its substantial mass, a slight alteration in tone that many find desirable. But it also has its limitations. The range of motion, and the range of the effect, is somewhat limited to about two or three frets worth of “dive.” Hard use of the effect would usually detune the guitar and the effect only worked to bend the note downwards, not upwards. Pulling up on the arm could cause the return spring to fall out, effectively disabling the guitar. Those who are willing to work within these limitations find a Bigsby Vibrato Tailpiece to be inimitable.


In 1954, Fender introduced the Stratocaster, with the new Synchronized Tremolo. With only one moving part, the arm by which the guitarist uses the effect, the Synchronized Tremolo pivots as a whole unit on the mounting screws that attach it to the guitar’s body. Retaining springs mounted in the cavity on the underside of the body counteract the string tension, and the whole device can be adjusted for a considerable range of up and down string bending action. Individual saddles can be adjusted for string height and intonation, and in the interest of tuning and resonance, some guitarists add the maximum of five retaining springs and adjust the tension on the whole device so that it can only “dive” or rest against the wood of the body in the internal rout.

The Strat Tremolo has proven to be one of the most popular designs for a vibrato tailpiece ever. With only a couple of variations, namely in the saddle design, and a two point mounting system, it has been a standard feature on millions of Stratocasters ever since its introduction, and it has been copied, in one form or another, by countless guitar makers. Simple, efficient, easy to use, adjustable and virtually indestructible, the Strat Tremolo has been the most common and relied upon device of its kind for nearly sixty years. But, like the Bigsby, it isn’t 100% perfect. Friction between the strings and the nut, and string-end seating in the bridge block invariably cause tuning problems, especially with serious use. Loyal Strat owners learn how to compensate for their guitar’s ideosyncrasies, either musically, by not relying on their tremolo for extreme effects, or mechanically, by knowing how to quickly correct the tuning discrepancies. It has always just been the price you pay for playing a Strat and using the whammy bar.

But by the late 1970s, the advent of new, more extreme forms of music called for a solution to the as-yet-unresolved problem of tremolo units detuning one’s guitar. Guitarist Floyd Rose addressed the practical problems in 1977 with a couple of new, innovative designs. The Floyd Rose Locking Tremolo uses the same pivoting bridge unit as the Strat Tremolo, but with locking saddles that clamp the strings at the bridge, and a locking nut that clamps the strings at the other end of the fretboard. Tune the guitar, lock down the nut, and dive until the strings go slack, and it will still be in tune when it returns to pitch. Pull up on the arm, and it bends the notes as much as an entire fifth, if properly adjusted. The Floyd Rose created a way for some serious guitar antics in the 1980s, inspiring guitarists like Eddie Van Halen, Steve Vai, Joe Satriani and others to set out for musical adventures that simply could not have happened prior to its introduction. The only down sides to the Floyd Rose are its complexity. They tend to be big units that call for substantial rerouting of the guitar’s body, individual bridge saddles cannot be adjusted for fretboard radius, and a lot of parts in fine balance means that a broken string can disable the guitar, and the string is not so easily replaced between sets without tools and adjustments.

Kahler’s pivoting Cam system re-addresses every aspect of the tremolo. Locking string ends allow for a rolling base from which the string tension can be lessened or increased for a full range of effect. Fully adjustable, rolling bridge saddles let you fine tune the bridge, resolving some of the issues found on the otherwise versatile Floyd Rose systems. Like the Floyd Rose, the mass and complexity of the Kahler System can be an issue for some, and the unique feel of a Kahler takes some getting used to. But for those who love them, the Kahler is one of the finer innovations ever to grace a guitar.

There are other tremolo systems, of course. The Fender Jazzmaster Floating Tremolo and the Fender Dynamic Vibrato, or Mustang Trem, Gibson’s Vibrola, and the Mosrite Vibrato, but all are variations of these basic designs. Understand the Bigsby, the Strat Trem, The Floyd Rose, and The Kahler and you’ll have a working knowledge of a valuable feature that can open up a whole new world of expressive possibilities.

Comments

  1. Frank Bello says:

    Thank you for your thorough explanation of tremolos and vibratos.

    posted on April 30, 2013 at 5:11 am
  2. Cricketcc says:

    Great article! Love the distinction between volume & pitch, & the history & development of it.
    As a bass player I’d like to see a bit on how ‘tremolo’ is adapted for bass guitar. There have been just a very few bass players to get into this territory…I think Randy Coven from Long Island N.Y. is one who did use it on bass.

    posted on April 30, 2013 at 5:18 am
  3. Bruce says:

    You forgot to mention the ultimate vibrato…  Steinberger.  Not only is it the most stable in tuning, provides a protection in case of string breakage, and when correctly setup can transpose keys - up OR down.  Granted the dual-end strings are not as common as standard, I think Ned nailed the whole vibrato thing.

    The only thing I miss is the strings de-tuning in a non symmetrical way when using the vibrato.  The Steinberger can sound a little too perfect.

    posted on April 30, 2013 at 5:18 am
  4. Cricket says:

    I agree Bruce, I have a vintage Steinbeger bass, & met Ned often at his Brooklyn shop back in the day. I also have a Hohner/Steinbeger guitar, I like them both for their many great features. Neither have vibrato tho…I use a Hip Shot on some of my Fenders, but I always wanted to get one of those transposing Steinbegers!

    posted on April 30, 2013 at 5:31 am
  5. Dave says:

    Where does Steinberger fit in?

    posted on April 30, 2013 at 5:40 am
  6. Steve says:

    check out the Trem King bridge, its a hard tail that tremelos as well, and you can drop d tune , or dadgad, or double drop d and the bridge doesnt need any tweaks to do this! it has a ton og killer features>

    posted on April 30, 2013 at 6:08 am
  7. MikeGPDX says:

    @Cricketcc: check out Roscoe Beck. Back when he toured with Steve Morse in the 80s, he had what looked like a P-bass that had a vibrato bridge. I heard that the vibrato only worked on the G-string, but I was never able to confirm that.

    posted on April 30, 2013 at 6:24 am
  8. MikeGPDX says:

    Also missing from the list is my personal favorite: the Schechter floating bridge. That design is the simplest take on the Floyd Rose concept and did not involve cutting the ball ends off of strings and only required an Allen wrench if you use a nut clamp. I have had one on my ‘75 Stratocaster since the early 90s. It stays in tune superbly ever since I swapped out my tuners for Sperzels and got rid of the string trees. One thing I seriously dislike about the Floyd Rose and Kahler designs is that you cannot pick behind the bridge, but you can with the Schechter. I have no idea why they discontinued production of such a superior unit.

    posted on April 30, 2013 at 6:27 am
  9. mcy says:

    No fender offset waist style tremolo? That’s a serious omission – all those surf records depend on that awesome tremolo system!

    The article mentions it as a “variation of a basic design” but compared to a Strat’s trem, it’s a completely different thing. The Jazzmaster/Jaguar tremolo system is routed into the body of a guitar, the ball end of the string is anchored to a plate, which is connected to the tremolo arm. The plate’s resistance can be changed by turning a screw that affects a spring tension. And, the whole system can be disabled very easily, in case a string breaks or you’re not really using the tremolo very often. The bridge on the Jazzmaster/Jaguar is designed to move with the strings as you bend the tremolo arm so that the strings don’t move against the saddles, causing stress to the strings. The range of motion is not quite what you can achieve on a Strat (no dive bombs), but you can change the pitch both up and down in equal amounts. Plus you have all that string length behind the bridge to give you really cool resonant frequencies as you play (okay, this may not desirable for all styles of music).

    http://www.webrocker.de/jaguar/cms/2007/05/12/setup-the-tremolo-system/

    Another great tremolo system is G&L’s dual fulcrum - feels like a cross between the Strat and Jazzmaster tremolo systems. It bends both up and down, and is capable of serious dive bombs.

    posted on April 30, 2013 at 6:27 am
  10. Shtew says:

    Good article for those that don’t know that much about the history of & different VIBROLA types.
    Tho you’ve left out a few that were and are still out there….like the Steinberger Trans-Trem, the Wonderbar, the Les Trem, the Stetsbar, just to name a few.
    And many thanks to the great folks at Fender who screwed up the terminology of TREMOLO & VIBRATO in the first place…putting VIBRATO on amps & TREMOLO in guitars…;-)

    posted on April 30, 2013 at 6:35 am
  11. Funk E says:

    For guitars with tunamatic type posts, the Schaller 4201 vibrato is an interesting alternative to a Bigsby. About the same price and range as an american Bigsby, but requires no mods, screws through the body, etc. Much lower mass and weight. Looks somewhere between a Floyd and a modern strat bridge. ( good, in other words ) Used on some Flaxwood guitar models.
      Of the ones above, I always thought the Kahler worked the best. But some how ( better marketing ? ) the Floyd became the standard dive bomber. The Steinberger is great, but not too usable on anything but a Steinberger.

    posted on April 30, 2013 at 6:40 am
  12. dealee says:

    “The Bigsby Vibrato…does lend a…slight alteration in tone…”

    How would you characterize that alteration?

    posted on April 30, 2013 at 7:05 am
  13. PRS513 says:

    I think the unsung hero, and most underrated device in the category is the Kahler.  I have a Steinberger and it is rock stable (no pun intended), but the Kahler is just as much so, it’s range is quite good, and when I added it (to an SG) the extra mass it added to the guitar did wonders for the tone and sustain.  It’s smoother than the Steinberger (and anything else I own).  Love it!

    posted on April 30, 2013 at 7:10 am
  14. Blackie James says:

    I have owned early made Stratocasters, 50’ & 60’s models and those tremolo systems were horrible and always went out of tune.  I’m not talking dive bombing here as it only took a slight motion on the bar are your were out of tune.  I had a Kahler set up on one of my Les Paul customs and it worked well.  I have been playing the early model of the Fender Jeff Beck Strat for 20 years and I have found it to be the best set up.  The early models have a fat 50’s neck, locking Sperzel tuners, LSR roller nut and five spring trem unit.  I have never had tuning problems and it and it works well for me.  Bigsby’s are touchy and have a different feel and sound.  What ever works for your individual style of playing is what it’s all about.

    posted on April 30, 2013 at 7:16 am
  15. Lance Fowler says:

    I was just thinking about how unusual and innovative a mehanical vibrato unit is - I mean, the only other instrument I can think of that uses one is the trombone!

    posted on April 30, 2013 at 8:37 am
  16. Joe says:

    Would love to hear a piece from Andy about how the hell pro’s dive bomb their standard strats and keep them in tune?!?

    posted on April 30, 2013 at 8:51 am
  17. ProSteel Pickguards says:

    Playing any guitar without a trem and I’m soon missing the added color it adds to phrasing. Set up right I can dive bomb all day, still in tune!! See youtube - Frudua Strat trem setup, and Carl Verheyen: Whammy Bar Setup Secrets.
    Playing my LP is good finger vibrato exercise haha, but I will install a good whammy in the LP. It would have to be made of really good metals to keep anywhere near the sustain it has now, and look cool ...seems a Hipshot Contour is in order.

    posted on April 30, 2013 at 9:24 am
  18. Big Bigsby says:

    RE:Bigsby
    ” Pushing the arm down, closer to the guitar’s body, shortens all of the strings, reducing their tension and lowering the pitch of any note on every string.” 
    I guess I am an idiot, doesn’t reducing tension lengthen the string?

    posted on April 30, 2013 at 10:12 am
  19. Doug Adams says:

    Another good article Andy
    Thank you

    posted on April 30, 2013 at 10:21 am
  20. MadMattyMayhem says:

    I love my Floyd Rose,..,... It has become a part of my signature sound…. I got my first from GC on sunset strip back in the 80’s…. I still shred it up with that bridge…. there is no comparison….

    posted on April 30, 2013 at 11:37 am
  21. Thomas Arthur Nelson says:

    Skyway Tremolo System - biggest improvement on Fender’s Strat-style trem/bridge ever.  Check out henmanguitars.com, for example.

    posted on April 30, 2013 at 2:06 pm
  22. Rick says:

    I have a Bigsby on a 335 and a Kahler on a Lado SG style & love them both. I want to put a Bigsby on my Tele as well. Does anybody have a Bigsby on an acoustic? This would be phenomenal!

    posted on April 30, 2013 at 10:18 pm
  23. wzx says:

    While this means all the usual stuff: grace, forgiveness of sins, salvation, eternal paradise, it also means happiness for the here and now in the mundane form of cash, cars, boats, vacation homes. In Michael Kors Purses  a word, mammon. Exhibit A is the Rev. Joel Osteen, one of the most vocal proponents of the prosperity gospel (though he doesn’t like the term) whose net worth is estimated at $40 million.

    posted on May 18, 2013 at 3:37 pm

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