The Origins of Tremolo
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.