From crude bolt-on devices for archtop guitars of the ’30s to the transposing Steinberger TransTrem of the ’80s, the tremolo has become an indispensable part of what we do. Michael Heatley tracks the story of string-stretching…
Whammy bar, wang bar, vibrato arm, tremolo arm – call it what you will, the mechanism to which all these terms refer has been a part of the guitarist’s armoury ever since the 1930s, and was offered as standard on the Fender Stratocaster in 1954.
But while Fender brought the phenomenon to the mass market, it also caused confusion with its advertising, because ‘tremolo’ is an effect commonly used in amplifiers that changes the volume of a note – something you’d do (albeit with difficulty) with the volume control.
The term correctly used to denote slight and rapid change in pitch is ‘vibrato’. Vibrato can be achieved either by moving the string up and down with a fretting finger or, more easily, by a bar or arm accessible to the picking/strumming hand, to loosen or tighten the strings. This ability to vary the pitch of the strings comes at a cost. There will usually be at least one spring involved to ensure the strings return to concert pitch after pressure has been applied on them; this is not an exact science, and tuning problems may well result. The story of the vibrato has been the tale of that long, long battle.
So why on earth, when Fender introduced the Strat in 1954, did they proudly advertise their new product’s vibrato system as a ‘synchronized tremolo system’? Leo alone knows… but they then compounded their error by advertising amplifiers like 1956’s Vibrolux, as offering vibrato when the effect in question was in fact tremolo!
Confused? Hopefully you won’t be after following the history of the guitar-mounted floating bridge and the lever that makes it work. Just remember: whatever else you may read, here or elsewhere, vibrato deals with change in pitch, and tremolo deals with change in volume.
One thing the guitar vibrato has never been seen as, however, is a ‘tone enhancer’. The sustain and tone of a ‘hard tail’ are generally considered to be superior to a floating bridge – so much so that the Floyd Rose systems of the ’80s were derided as ‘tone suckers’. Also, when a string break occurs on a vibrato-equipped guitar, the change in tension on the bridge may have unmusical repercussions. But these are risks any whammy-bar waggler will consider worth running.
Today the name ‘Bigsby’ denotes a certain purpose-built vibrato system. Introduced in the early days of the electric guitar, it is rivalled in notoriety only by the later Floyd Rose, another device more often retrospectively installed than factory-fitted. But Paul Bigsby, the man behind the earlier device, also built guitars. And one in particular, the solidbody he built in 1948 for Merle Travis, may well have been the inspiration for the Strat which arrived soon after. Ironically, it did not feature a vibrato .
Bigsby introduced his take on the vibrato tailpiece for the electric guitar in the late ’40s, but he wasn’t the first. That accolade belongs to the Kauffman Vibrola. If the name seems familiar, it is because Clayton Orr Kauffman, known to all as ‘Doc’, was Leo Fender’s business partner in the K&F company, which they started together in 1945.
Prior to that Kauffman had worked for Rickenbacker, and his Vibrola, patented in 1935, appeared on that company’s Electro Spanish guitars. Epiphone, not yet part of Gibson, offered it on some of their archtops and also sold it as an aftermarket option. One version used on some Rickenbacker six-string electrics used a motor to change string pitch. Unfortunately this attempt to simulate a steel guitar had a fundamental problem: if the motor that moved the tailpiece was switched off at the low or high end of the vibrato cycle, the guitar would be out of tune.
Leo Fender, who’d carried on solo when Doc Kauffman bailed out of K&F in 1946, filed a patent application for his ‘synchronized tremolo’ in 1954, the year the Stratocaster came to market – and, thanks to the Strat’s success, it quickly became the industry standard. Although some players like Robert Cray prefer the ‘hard tail’ version with a fixed bridge, while Eric Clapton disables his with a block of wood, it’s fair to say that vibrato and the Stratocaster go together.
First came the bridge, a solid piece of metal, with six individual saddles. Compared with the rudimentary Telecaster, it meant each string was adjustable for height and length. This pivoted on six screws attaching it to the body. It linked in turn with a solid steel ‘inertia block’ which extended downward to connect with three or five springs mounted horizontally inside the body. The springs counterbalanced the pull of the strings, and the floating bridge that resulted could be set up to allow either downward and upward pitch bends or down-only movement. The majority of modern tremolo systems were inspired by this design. Because bridge and tailpiece moved together, it was significantly more stable and less prone to tuning and intonation issues than its competitors.
Doc Kauffman had not finished yet. A later version of his Vibrola unit was used on Rickenbacker’s Capri line of guitars in the ’50s, but this also had tuning issues, and the fact John Lennon replaced it on his ’58-vintage Rickenbacker 325 with a Bigsby speaks volumes. The later Ac’cent Vibrola had no springs, so it proved to be slightly less troublesome.
So who was putting the vibrato on the map in the early days of rock? In Britain it was the Shadows’ Hank Marvin. His hand was rarely away from the vibrato arm, and the Shads’ guitar-led instrumentals gave him ample opportunity to employ it. Vibrato was designed to make the guitar ‘speak’, adding expression like a human voice, so this was a match made in guitar heaven.
Marvin’s Stateside counterpart was Duane Eddy, whose fame straddled the Atlantic. His Bigsby-equipped Gretsch 6120 Chet Atkins, bought when he was 17, was his chosen weapon. ‘I got the twang from trying out bass-heavy melodies with thumping vibrato and powerful reverb,’ he said recently – and the twang goes on, as he regularly fronts Richard Hawley’s band on tour.
But there was another American giant of the era in Lonnie Mack, whose 1963 tune Wham! is said to have inspired the term ‘whammy bar’. Stevie Ray Vaughan, who regularly played with him, was a fan: ‘He holds it while he plays and the sound sends chills up your spine.’
As you’d expect, Gibson were not about to watch main rivals Fender run away with the vibrato market. Gibson’s systems were marketed under the name of ‘Vibrola’. SG’s, Firebirds and some Epiphones were the first guitars to emerge with these, their flat base making them unsuitable for mounting on the carved-top Les Paul.
The ‘sideways’ Vibrola of 1963 – which got its name because its tremolo arm moves parallel to the body rather than at right angles to it – was paired with a Tune-o-matic bridge. The pitch-changing mechanism with its piston-like springs was concealed by a cover extending from bridge to strap pin. The Gibson designs did not have the impact or the practicality of the Bigsby and Fender designs, and many guitarists (notably Pete Townshend) removed them, the giveaway being three screw holes in the body.
Not content with giving us the classic ‘synchronized tremolo’, Fender offered several vibrato variants in the following decades. Advertising copy for the ‘floating tremolo’, introduced in 1958 on the Jazzmaster, boasted of its ‘smooth action’, but this was in fact a step backwards. The tremolo arm was attached to a large chrome plate on the front of the body, where the strings were retained by a ‘knife plate’ tailpiece. There was also a slider that could be locked to keep the guitar in tune in case of string breakage.
The floating bridge was, in retrospect, over-engineered, and strings often jumped out of their saddles if played aggressively. The large number of moving parts took its toll on sustain and tone, though surf musicians (and new-wave guitarists when the Jazzmaster and Jaguar came back into vogue in the late ’70s) were more concerned with other matters.
Click here to read about some of Whammy’s finest exponents…
Vibrato in the 1960s
The Fender ‘dynamic vibrato’ was introduced in 1964 on the student-model Fender Mustang. The bridge was integral with the vibrato unit, unlike that of the ‘floating tremolo’, which was mounted separately, the strings controlled by a tailpiece bar to which the vibrato arm was connected in Bigsby fashion. One final Leo Fender design, the vibrato tailpiece, sometimes known as the Fender steel vibrato, appeared on the Bronco in ’67, two years after he sold the company. A cheap, simplified version of the ‘synchronized tremolo’, it found little acceptance.
The ’60s saw Jimi Hendrix, Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour and Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page take the art of vibrato-arm manipulation forward, and all used Fenders to do it. Hendrix was rarely seen without a whammy-equipped Strat, and examples of its (mis)use can be heard on most of his signature tracks.
Gilmour’s whammy bar was fixed only to go down, as he preferred to do up-bends with his fretting fingers. And while Page was most often seen on stage with a Les Paul, he was emphatically Stratted-up for Led Zeppelin III’s Since I’ve Been Loving You. Deep Purple’s Ritchie Blackmore came back from a Stateside tour in the late ’60s raving about the guitarist in the James Cotton Blues Band, whom he’d seen at the Fillmore East. ‘Right after seeing him, I started using the bar. Hendrix inspired me, too.’ So energetic did Blackmore prove after switching from Gibson ES-335 to Strat that he kept snapping bars, but by 1970’s In Rock he was hitting top form.
John Cipollina of late-’60s San Francisco psych merchants Quicksilver Messenger Service was renowned for his Bigsby-fuelled vibrato and customised Gibson SG. He claimed he lacked the strength in his fretting hand to bend strings, so developed his right-hand style to compensate. Deke Leonard of Welsh west coast devotees Man, whose Twang Dynasty book examines guitarists and their technique, takes up the story:‘Most guitarists use vibrato as an occasional effect but Chippo used it on every note, and his melodic flair was always coupled with a dramatic edge. But the most revealing moments came when he picked up an acoustic.
Without a wang bar he was a blues player, with idiosyncratic twists and turns. But the wang bar transferred the blues into the psychedelic realm, giving him the most individualistic guitar sound on the planet.’
The ’70s saw comparatively little innovation on the vibrato front – but that would change at the end of the decade. The ‘locking trem’ would become a staple of ’80s rock and all its excesses. Eddie Van Halen, the recipient of an early unit from inventor Floyd D Rose in 1979, brought the invention instant recognition. By allowing guitarists to inflict whammy-bar abuse while maintaining tuning, the design combined with amplification advances by the likes of Mesa/Boogie and high-output pickups to shape the decade’s music.
Amateur musician Rose, an accomplished machinist by trade, was inspired to develop his bridge after applying superglue to his Strat’s strings after they were tuned to pitch. His heroes were Blackmore and Hendrix, so when he received a positive reaction from Hendrix imitator Randy Hansen, he knew he was on to something. In 1982, Kramer became the exclusive distributor of his ‘locking tremolo’, its inventor earning a royalty for every unit sold.
A Floyd Rose became an essential feature of a Superstrat – the humbucker-equipped hybrid that was taking an increasing share of the market. Unlike conventional bridges, the Floyd Rose asked the user to cut off the ball end, insert the string in a saddle and clamp it in place. Three pieces of metal similarly held a pair of strings apiece at the nut. The headstock tuners then had no effect, fine adjustments being made via tuners at the rear of the bridge. In 1982, Rose and Kramer engineers came up with a set of fine tuners that allowed tuning without unlocking the top lock.
The main advantage of a ‘locking trem’ was the wide range of pitch change. The area behind the unit was carved away, permitting huge dives or bends. The disadvantages were the proximity of the bridge tuners to the picking hand, and the length of time it took to change strings; backup guitars were obligatory in case of mid-set breaks.
The ’80s saw names like Van Halen, Satriani, Vai, and Hammett take the ‘whammy bar’ to new heights and depths, the so-called ‘dive-bombing’ effect becoming a staple of shredding. Without Floyd Rose this would not have been possible. Even Fender capitulated, their US Contemporary Strat of 1989 featuring a locking vibrato system as well as a humbucker. This was superseded in 1992 by the short-lived Floyd Rose Classic Strat.
But Fender did innovate in their own right when the two-point system featuring flat stainless steel block saddles was introduced in 1986. They claimed increased stability, a smoother action and less friction, the enemy of vibrato bridges since time began, as six screw pivots gave way to two. In 2008 the two-point system was revamped with vintage-style bent steel saddles.
The Kahler Tremolo System, born in 1979, was Floyd Rose’s biggest competitor and shared several design features, but was a cam-based system – the strings attached to a single cylindrical cam inside the bridge housing, like a pedal steel guitar. A patent-infringement judgment went against Gary Kahler, but in 2005 he began making bridges again under license from his former rival.
1984 Steinberger With TransTrem
Headless guitar pioneer Ned Steinberger offered the innovative TransTrem, which kept entire chords in correct pitch during use and let users lock the bridge in six different keys. Jazz-rocker Allan Holdsworth employed this ‘transposing tremolo’ to obtain sounds similar to a synth’s pitchwheel, while in the rock arena Eddie Van Halen used a TransTrem Steinberger GL on his band’s ’86 album 5150.
Other cam-driven designs of the time included the Washburn Wonderbar and Stetsbar. The latter, developed by Eric Stets in the late ’80s, claimed to retro-fit hard tail, Tele and Strat-style guitars without any mods, new screw holes or woodwork routs.
A big part of the vibrato’s efficiency comes from what goes on that the other end of the guitar. PRS recognised this, and ignored the locking nut in favour of a friction-reducing graphite-style nut with locking tuners. The result, in 1984, was an enviably slick action. A similar combination of Wilkinson vibrato with Sperzel locking tuners and friction-reducing nut became popular in the ’90s as the Floyd Rose dipped in popularity.
Click here to read about Bigsby, Bikes and the Whammy Bar.
The vibrato system still has its heroes. Wilco’s Nels Cline and My Bloody Valentine’s Kevin Shields are leading lights in the alt.country and indie-rock fields, while Johnny Marr has recently adopted the Jaguar. Doyle Bramhall II and Derek Trucks are keeping the flame alive in the blues realm. The results of the whammy bar’s arrival 60 years ago have been more than audible in the music that followed. Some may bless it, others may curse it, but that metal rod lurking within reach of the player’s right hand is here to stay.